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What to See in SC

Oct. 30, 2008
Or, more prosaically, what to see in South Carolina and Southern California

Or, more prosaically, what to see in South Carolina and Southern California……

Below, stories that take you beyond the cities of Charleston and San Diego to the coastal towns and inland villages that offer true getaways. What the two coasts have in common: reasonably warm winters and an abundance of great activities.

South Carolina's Lowcountry

In South Carolina people say that Santa uses sunscreen and Rudolph needs a visor. This is especially true in Charleston, where December temperatures range between 41 and 62 degrees. The city itself regularly ranks among the top travel destinations in the United States, and the surrounding area is filled with historic plantations, restful retreats and golf courses galore.

We flew into the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in the northwest corner of the state, mainly because we were able to get an attractive airfare. We'd planned to go immediately to the coast but instead lingered in Greenville. The once-small town has done itself proud, with a tree-shaded downtown filled with galleries and some of the best food we've had in a city of only 60,000. (Note: Try the Lazy Goat for lunch, Soby's for dinner.) We spent over a day there before heading southeast to Lowcountry, where our real vacation began.

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Charleston's charm
A general overview:
To speak of Charleston's charm sounds corny. The words are so perfectly alliterative that they sound like an advertisement, yet they're also perfectly true. The city — at least the part of it that tourists see — has a Southern sort of magic. The homes include stately mansions with columns and porticos, smaller buildings decorated with ornate ironwork, and attached houses in pastel hues with wide shutters and varied rooflines. Horse-drawn carriages pull awed tourists down the streets, and craftsmen and women sit in the marketplace weaving traditional sweetgrass baskets. You can enjoy yourself simply by strolling the streets, but there are definitely other, in many cases lesser-known, things to do in Charleston.What you'll love:
  • Seeing Charleston through the eyes of Alphonso Brown, owner and operator of Gullah Tours. (The Gullah are the descendents of West Africans, who were brought to the Lowcountry to work the plantations.) Brown, who is a superb storyteller, gives folks a social, cultural, historical and architectural tour of the city, touching on the legacy of renowned blacksmith Philip Simmons and even providing the inside scoop on the real Porgy and Bess.
  • Lunching at Hyman's Seafood. Despite all the hype — and there's plenty of it — Hyman's is the real deal. Go there to sample Lowcountry favorites: she crab soup, fried green tomatoes, lump crabcakes, shrimp and grits. A nameplate by each place setting honors a past customer. Mel Gibson had once eaten at our table, as had Alan Dershewitz — presumably not at the same time.
  • Dining at the Oak Steakhouse. If you only eat red meat once a year, this is the place to do it. Steaks are superbly seasoned, divinely tender. In addition, owner and Chef Brett McKee, who was raised in New York, serves cheesecake according to his mother's recipe. It's to die-for, even if you think you don't like cheesecake.
  • Sleeping in a hayloft. Make no mistake, the hayloft at 21 East Battery is no ordinary hayloft. It's part of the historic Edmonston-Alston mansion, built in 1825. It once housed the buggies, horses and hay for the mansion's owners but has recently been transformed into an extremely classy accommodation. For those who prefer sleeping in the former home of slaves, instead of horses, the mansion's slave quarters have been refurbished into equally innovative lodgings.Plantations on the outskirts
    A general overview:
    How can Yankees visit the South without touring a plantation? They can't — or at least, they shouldn't. Plantations, generally defined as "large farms that were dependent on slaves for labor," were essential to the economy of the Antebellum South, and as such a visit is essential to an understanding of the region. Fortunately, Charleston has four within easy driving distance.
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    What you'll love:
  • Learning history at Boone Hall. The 730-acre plantation was first a land grant from King Charles II, then a cattle supply station for the troops during the Revolutionary War, and later a brick production site for the South during the Civil War. Now it's regularly used by film and television producers for location shots.
  • Strolling the gardens at Magnolia Plantation. The mansion at Magnolia is lovely, but it's the gardens that overwhelm. There's a Biblical Garden, a Herb Garden, a Romantic Garden and — best of all — a swamp garden where visitors can stroll boardwalks and, if they're lucky, spot one of the plantation's 200-plus alligators.
  • Visiting Middleton Place. A former rice plantation established in the 1700s, the Gardens at Middleton are more manicured and symmetrical than those at nearby Magnolia. Beauty, we learned, comes in many forms in the South. A retreat to the east
    A general overview:
    Palm Key Nature Getaway is all about relaxing and getting in touch with your inner self. Located among the marshlands of Knowles Island, Palm Key is about as far away from civilization as you can get by driving only 90 minutes from Charleston.
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    What you'll love:
  • Enjoying simple but comfortable accommodations that range from one- to five-bedroom cottages — perfect for an individual retreat or an extended family reunion.
  • Partaking in one of the cultural or wellness programs that are frequently offered.
  • Hiking, kayaking and birding, with or without a guide.
  • Playing board games, roasting marshmallows, telling stories.
  • Taking a side trip to the South Carolina Artisans Center. Located 30 minutes away in Walterboro, the center showcases the work of more than 200 artists. From the blue bottle tree out front, which, according to African myths, will keep away the evil spirits, to the metal sculptures of Bob Doster, winner of the Governor's Award for the Arts, the Center is filled with work that ranges from whimsical to traditional, useful to decorative.
  • Viewing the ruins of Old Sheldon Church. This takes only a few minute, but those few minutes crystallizes the history of the South. The old church was built in 1745, destroyed during the Revolutionary War, rebuilt in 1826, only to be destroyed again during the Civil War.Islands to the south
    A general overview:
    A different type of retreat awaits on the islands south of Charleston, specifically Kiawah and Hilton Head. These well-known vacation spots offer pampered luxury along with fine golf, dining and shopping.
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    What you'll love:
  • Staying at the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, an AAA five-diamond hotel. Luxury is standard at this hotel that has garnered awards from virtually everybody in the industry, including Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report, Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure.
  • Or, staying at the Crown Plaza Beach Resort on Hilton Head, an AAA four-diamond resort, where the atmosphere is comfortably casual and the view from the upper floors stupendous.
  • Golfing at some of the country's top courses. Kiawah Island boasts five, including its Ocean Course, which has hosted the Ryder Cup and Senior PGA Championship and Turtle Point, which was designed by Jack Nicklaus. Hilton Head has more than 20.
  • Playing tennis on some of Kiawah's 23 clay and five hard courts or on Hilton Head's 300-plus courts
  • Soaking up the sun. Hilton Head Island has 12 miles of beach. Due to a quirk of geography, Kiawah Island is one of the only places where you can stand on the beach and see the sun set over the Atlantic. Yes, that's right — over the Atlantic.
  • Visiting Bluffton. If you absolutely must tear yourself away from the sand, surf and turf, Bluffton — less than 1/2 hour east of Hilton Head's beaches — is a delightful town with lovely Antebellum homes, an historic Old Town and an abundance of galleries and antique shops. As the old song goes, "Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning." Or, we'd add, in the afternoon or evening.

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    Southern California's Coast

    San Diego is an easy city to like. Weather that borders on idyllic, a near-tropical lushness, and roads that wind gently up hills and down canyons. Still — despite the wonders of Balboa Park's museums and the charm of the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy — after three days we were ready to explore the outskirts. We went south to Coronado, east to Escondido, and finally turned to explore the quaint towns and fine resorts of the area known as San Diego North.

    Coronado to the south
    A general overview:
    Coronado is just a bridge-away from San Diego proper but a world away in ambiance. Although the town, which has just over 25,000 people, is charming with an abundance of restaurants and a terrific bookstore, the real reason for visiting is the Hotel del Coronado, a grand dame of a hotel that dates back to 1888.
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    What you'll love:
  • Taking a tour of the magnificent hotel, which is a National Historic Landmark. Tours are led by docents of the Coronado Historical Association and take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Reservations advisable.
  • Simply absorbing the atmosphere and communing with the greats who have stayed there. "Some Like it Hot" was filmed at Hotel del Coronado, and aside from the three stars of that film — Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon — a long list of other luminaries have graced its grounds: Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, 'Hopalong' Cassidy and most twentieth-century US presidents.
  • Strolling the beaches, especially at sunset.
  • Renting a bike and pedaling along the 15 miles of dedicated bike paths. (The paths are also perfect for jogging.)
  • Reading newspapers from around the world. The Hotel del Coronado offers more than 250, from Argentina's La Razon to Turkey's Hurriyet. Escondido to the east
    A general overview:
    Escondido is a good base for exploring the Temecula Valley and Southern California Wine Country. It has the trappings of a big city but is still small-town navigable. What you'll love:
  • Going on safari at San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, where animals roam land designed to replicate the plains of Africa and Asia.
  • Dining at El Bizcocho restaurant, which Zagat rates as tops for the San Diego area. Save room for the chocolate lava cake; it's worth every calorie.
  • Enjoying a spa in one of the outdoor treatment rooms at Rancho Bernardo Inn.
  • Visiting Queen Califia's Magical Circle in Kit Carson Park. The Circle, which contains works by the internationally renowned French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, speaks to the child in all of us.
  • Touring the wineries in nearby Temecula Valley. On the way, you'll see groves of citrus trees, a smattering of horse ranches and enough antique stores to satisfy the most ardent collector. Plan to be a Thornton Winery in time for lunch at their Champagne Café, and don't forget to take home a bottle of almond champagne from Wilson Creek Vineyard.
  • And, if you're in the area February 14-22, 2009, watching as Lance Armstrong crosses the finish line after competing in the 2009 Amgen Tour of California, a Tour de France-style cycling event. La Jolla, Solano Beach, Encinitas and Carlsbad to the north
    A general overview:
    A series of small towns hug the coast north of San Diego. They range from distinctly upscale to quasi-funky, but all offer visitors plenty of sun, sand and surf.
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    What you'll love:
  • Settling in with the kids at La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, a private club that rents spare rooms to non-members. The mini-apartments with kitchen and living room sit right on the beach and, while there are swankier accommodations to be sure, there are none more comfortable for families.
  • Staying at West Inn and Suites, a classy boutique hotel in Carlsbad that ranks with the best. It isn't on the beach and there isn't a golf course, but it's a first-class act. The owners have thought of everything, from cookies and milk at night to fully-adjustable desk chairs.
  • Shopping. For tony jewelry stores and galleries, plan to spend time in La Jolla. For the best in home decor, wander the arty stores in Solana Beach's Cedros Avenue Design District. For quirky, organic and green, shop the area along Historic Route 101 in Encinitas. And for premium outlets, (the likes of Crate and Barrel, Rockport and Polo) go to Carlsbad. Stop first at the Visitors Center where you'll get a coupon entitling you to a discount at most of the outlet stores.
  • Breakfasting at Pipes Café in Cardiff (just south of Encinitas). It's so popular that they go through 1,800 eggs a day.
  • Smelling the flowers at the Carlsbad Ranch where, especially in the spring, 50 acres of flowers will make you believe you're in a magical place. And that, after all, is what Southern California is all about.
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    Photos by Irv Green, DDS; Story by Andrea Gross.
    In addition to travel writing, Irv and Andrea have founded LEGACY PROSE™, a company that helps people pass on their stories and values to their children and grandchildren.