Ready for spring? When the flowers start to bud and the trees begin to bloom, few places outshine South Carolina's romantic Lowcountry. In these final weeks of winter, now's a great time to plan a spring spring getaway to Charleston, the region's star city and one of the South's most appealing destinations. Here are 10 things do to as soon as you get off the plane.
1. Check out the art scene. Charleston is known for its historic charm, but it also boasts a vibrant contemporary arts scene well worth exploring. Start with a visit to the College of Charleston's Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art located in an attractive new space on Calhoun Street.
2. Try the shrimp and grits. If you eat one thing on your next visit to Charleston, it should be that famous Lowcountry dish, shrimp, and grits. Simple to make, impossible to master, try the rendition at Anson, a Charleston classic where the grits are housemade (grown and produced, yes) and topped with not only juicy shrimp but bacon and roasted tomatoes, too.
3. Shop differently. Charleston remains remarkably independent from the outside world; it may be a small city, but it manages to sustain a healthy number of unique shops, particularly as you move north and away from the touristy bits of the historic center. Start a crawl of Upper King Street -- perhaps the best shopping strip in town, even in trying times likes these -- with a visit to Blue Bicycle Books (www.bluebicyclebooks.com); make sure to check out new shops coming in on nearby Cannon Street. Take a breather just a block off King at St. Phillip Street's chic Hope & Union (www.hopeandunioncoffee.com), the city's best coffee bar, not to mention one of its most beautiful café spaces.
4. Hit the beach. Charleston's got the harbor, but just minutes away, the charming village of Sullivan's Island has the ocean. Springtime isn't sunbathing time -- not in this part of the world, anyway -- but it's definitely a great time to hike along the beach, or explore the mostly residential island on foot. Follow up with a stop at Poe's (www.poestavern.com), the town's coolest pub, for beers and burgers.
5. Get the full treatment. In recent times, Charleston's gone high-end, attracting wealthy travelers from around the globe. This means really luxurious (and really pricey) hotels like the Charleston Place, which feels more like an urban resort with multiple restaurants, shopping, and a spa. Even if you don't stay over, book a massage; spa guests gain access to the hotel's health club, which features a saltwater pool under a retractable roof.
6. Drink up. The best thing about the city's restaurant-of-the-moment, Husk (www.huskrestaurant.com), isn't the restaurant at all. The real action is right across the alley, in a renovated brick building, where you'll find the Bar at Husk. Squeeze your way in -- it gets crowded -- and ask to see a cocktail menu, filled with Southern classics, including the Sazerac. Just a few blocks away, the more laidback, speakeasy-ish Gin Joint (www.theginjoint.com) makes for a sophisticated second stop, with more classic drinks and house-cured meats for nibbling.
7. Tee off. A short drive from Charleston, Kiawah Island is one of the country's top golf resorts, featuring five championship courses in privileged oceanfront locations, all centered around one of the East Coast's most luxurious resort hotels, The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island. Any links lover should at least glimpse what life is like on the island or budget a couple of days of serious play.
8. Take a long walk. One of the best things about Charleston is how long you can spend there without ever needing your car. The core of the city -- south of the Route 17 highway -- is compact, safe, and walkable. Start your exploration with a morning on foot in the prettiest part of town, the prized South of Broad neighborhood. This area has an embarrassment of beautiful residential architecture and offers expansive harbor views from along the breezy Battery. (For best results, read the Pat Conroy novel, South of Broad, before visiting.)
9. Dine fine. Charleston loves to eat and has several high-end restaurants. But if you're looking to cut through the hype and just want to go to where the food is best and most consistent, head directly to FIG (www.eatatfig.com). The name is an acronym: Food Is Good. Simple? Yes. So is the restaurant itself, with a fun, neighborhood bistro feel that welcomes more locals than tourists on some nights. The food -- smart, carefully thought out and sourced New American -- is equally accessible, too. You really can't go wrong here.
10. Explore the Lowcountry. Coming to Charleston and not getting out into the quieter parts of the Lowcountry is like coming to New York City and not seeing Central Park. You can skip it, but you'd be missing out, big time. At least once during your stay, hop in the car and head out into the wilds; a great destination is bucolic Beaufort, one of South Carolina's most perfectly formed and preserved old towns. You might just find yourself wishing you'd planned a vacation here instead.
Find Airfarewatchdog's latest list of cheap fares into Charleston here.
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