We wake up early and set out for Charleston, which means we’re skipping one of my favorite cities, Savannah. It’s a pity, but I’ve spent plenty of time there in the past, and how many charming, historic Southern towns can you handle in a day or two after all? So it’s coffee with my cousin and off we go.
But first we need breakfast, and my son has picked out the Metro Diner in Jacksonville (motto: too much food is just right), where I take the “12 inch challenge”, and I foolishly chow down on a platter-size pancake, which is no doubt deposited directly onto my waist without further processing, but I figure needing to bump up my pants size is a small price to pay for buckwheat cakes in the morning, especially when served with a smile by a bright eyed pretty young thing. Jonathan has French toast, and yes, I try that also, since I am on a crash weight gain program, and they’re tasty as well. We have to get on the road too soon, but if you’re ever in the San Jose’ area of Jacksonville, visit the Metro Diner for breakfast. It’s the best $20 (with tip) you can spend before noon, as far as I’m concerned.
We cross the state line into Georgia, where we buy gas because the state taxes are so much lower. Still, we pay $3.55 a gallon. Ouch! Heading north up the low country of Georgia and South Carolina, you can enjoy the expansive views of one savannah after another from the Interstate bridges, and it’s a beautiful sight to see the marshy plain extending to the horizon, surrounded on both sides by sawgrass and palmetto trees, and bisected by a meandering river, like a scene out of prehistory, save for the occasional rusting hulks of shrimp boats, a tribute to a dying industry, tied up at forlorn docks along the banks. But you can also see the homes of the nouveau riche dotting the swampy shore, where vacationers maintain an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city by escaping to the tranquility of the river, cocooned in air conditioned comfort and insulated from the noise of motor boats by triple pane high-E glass.
Charleston is a quaint old port city dating from the late 17th century. At one time, it was the 4th largest city in America and handled 40% of the European trade. Many of the scions of the city’s founders (who descend from French Huguenots and Scottish Highlanders) still live there and take great pains to preserve the traditions of the past.
Fortunately for us, one of those traditions is food, and we’re hungry by the time we are to begin a walking tour of the city’s restaurants. There are over 300 of them here, so a good way to spend a year would be to visit one a day, but we’ve only time for 4.
First we must find parking, though, which is a little harder than locating a Republican at a NAACP meeting. We wonder aimlessly down narrow cobblestone streets and alleys in the French Quarter looking for a spot and spend way too much time trying to parallel park in a ridiculously small space, which would have been nice if it had worked, because it was free, but we wound up just wasting our time and eventually decided it wasn’t a good idea to simply nudge a Lexus out of our way just to make room for us. So we wound up paying $8 to park 4 blocks away and made our way to the rendezvous point in weather that would be comfortable for a Gila Monster or a Lowland Gorilla, but not for any human beings outside of Sub Saharan Africa. I hope that there isn’t a dress code, because I am dressed American Tourist Casual, which means shorts, T shirt, and flip flops, and no, I don’t care if that doesn’t go over well “on the continent”.
We meet our guide Greg and an extended family from Georgia and North Carolina and proceed up the street, trying to keep to the shade as much as possible, because at these temperatures spontaneous combustion is a real concern, while Greg points out interesting sights through the waves of heat. “That’s the old fire tower, active until the 1950’s”, “There’s the armory, oldest building in the city”, “There are graves in that cemetery dating from 1680”, and so on. As usual with these tours, soon your head is swimming with facts and figures and all you want to do is eat, which we do soon enough at an incredible eatery called Husk.
Husk has the best cornbread in America (cooked in bacon fat…isn’t everything better with bacon?) and the best grits I’ve ever tasted. Oh, and they make one hell of a Bloody Mary (served with okra) as well! Other than that, I didn’t like a thing about the place, except for the great service, the charming old home the restaurant is in, or the fact that it only uses foods sourced in the South or from their own heirloom vegetable garden. And did I mention the cornbread?
Husk is the high point of our dining experience, but suffice it to say that Charleston can lay claim to being among one of the great culinary cities in America, and has the additional bonus of being in the South and having some wonderful old buildings and a very colonial atmosphere. Rather than try to make comparisons, I will simply say it is a city that deserves way more than the one day I have to give it (on this trip, although I’ve been there before), and I would have loved to have visited Ft. Sumter and the HL Hunley…we end up our dining tour at an ice cream shop, Belgian Gelato, which is perfect considering the weather, and I enjoy a pistachio gelato that rivals anything I ate on lake Lugano, and my son proclaims his chocolate praline ice cream to be the best he’s ever had. Before we say goodbye to the city, we walk past a beautiful water fountain to the end of the city pier, where we can view the USS Yorktown (aircraft carrier), Ft Sumter, and a high-speed tour boat plying the clear blue waters of the bay. We are standing under a masthead that has the Stars and Stripes as well as the Star and Palmetto tree state flag of South Carolina, the most recognized state symbol in the country after Texas. I feel good about our visit, and would gladly come back again.
Jonathan has decided that we’ve had way too much fun so far on the trip so he’s set us up to camp outside at a KOA Kampground. I don’t know who ever thought it was a cute idea to misspell words, and hating it’s a pet peeve of mine (why Kwik mart? Tastee Freeze, Burger Delite, etc? Did everyone miss their 3rd grade grammar class?). But the place seems nice enough, and is outfitted with showers, a kitchen, a dining hall, and lakefront campsites that are actually quite lovely, and it even has WiFi. But. But camping south of the Mason-Dixon line in the summer is a bad idea, something my Eagle Scout son should have known, and a point that is driven home quite clearly as we erect our tent in the sauna our little swamp on the water has become, and spend the evening sweating in our vinyl shelter while enjoying the exotic perfume “Eau de Raid” which surrounds our tent like a cloud, a necessary evil considering that the Kampground is also an Ant Farm. I want to jump in the tiny pool, but it has become a little…cloudy due to the hordes of kids who have been relieving themselves there all day. I decide to lie awake all night, sweating, but finally drift off to the gentle buzzing of mosquitoes.