Undiminished by wars or hurricanes, Charleston continues to radiate gentility. Its hospitable residents still tend to dress up, maintaining the streets’ air of elegance, even in the face of increasing tourist crowds. And although the city has a dark side to its history — most of its grand mansions were built, one way or another, by enslaved African-Americans — Charleston doesn’t shy away from this aspect of its heritage.
Charleston has long drawn Civil War buffs — Fort Sumter is a 30-minute ferry ride from Liberty Square — but more recently, it has blossomed into a major culinary destination, as well. Like New Orleans, Charleston is surrounded by brackish wetlands that yield a bounty of fresh seafood, and also like New Orleans, Charleston served as a major port where people from Europe and Africa influenced one another’s cuisines. The Lowcountry recipes that followed made use of readily available ingredients such as shrimp, oysters and rice, combining them in ostensibly simple but immensely satisfying dishes. In fact, many people we encountered had journeyed to Charleston for the food alone.
Even the most single-minded gourmands can’t help but admire the architecture of this preservation-minded city. Numerous hotels have taken advantage of the many exquisite townhouses, and one of my longtime favorites is Wentworth Mansion, a 21-room inn set in a late 19th-century brick residence just outside the busiest part of town. I quite enjoy this tucked-away location, off the tourist circuit but within walking distance of the center. In quieter periods, staying at the heart of things can be more appealing, but in high season, when the market area is often overrun with cruise ship passengers, this tranquil setting is a welcome escape.
Wentworth Mansion presents an array of well- preserved Victorian details, including stained glass, polychrome tiled floors, oak wainscoting, Morris- style wallpaper and high ceilings embellished with intricate plasterwork. The cozy main lounge, with its marble fireplace and comfy furnishings, is the perfect place to settle in with a book, though we more frequently gravitated to the sunny enclosed porch next door, where wine and hors d’oeuvres appeared each evening. Up the central staircase (or elevator), our Mansion Suite had a firm king bed, fine wood floors, heavy velvet drapes, a gas fireplace and charming details such as fancifully decorated brass door hinges. A small sitting room led to the bath, with art deco-style tile, a shower and a Jacuzzi.
Having unpacked, we crossed the street and dined at Wentworth Mansion’s small and very popular restaurant, Circa 1886. Although our two waiters didn’t seem to be in communication, asking twice about wine and twice about dessert, the food was both ambitious and delicious. A light broccoli pâté tasted much better than it sounds, and I especially enjoyed my well-balanced main course of savory chicken rolled with nutty Carolina Gold rice (a cherished local heirloom variety). Just after we returned to the room, a bellman knocked on the door, surprising us with a chilled bottle of sparkling wine. We sipped it by firelight.
Wentworth Mansion, Rating 92 Mansion Room, $480; Mansion Suite $570. 149 Wentworth Street. Tel. (843) 853-1886.
Those who prefer to be in the center of town will find it no compromise to stay instead at the 64-room Planters Inn, located across the street from the historic but touristy City Market. The inn’s two buildings, a 19th-century warehouse and a contemporary structure trimmed by broad loggias, flank a quiet courtyard. Inside, the lobby and adjacent lounge contain Oriental rugs, antique furniture and gilt-framed oil portraits, though the effect is spoiled somewhat by the heating/cooling units mounted in the ceiling.
We had chosen a spacious Governor’s Suite in the historic building. It was extremely comfortable in almost every respect, but lacked some of the patina of our accommodations at Wentworth Mansion, being decorated with a mix of furniture from Baker’s Historic Charleston collection, plus incidental pieces of chinoiserie. We loved having two full baths, but it seemed odd that they both had shower/tub combinations. Downstairs, the renowned Peninsula Grill still serves classic cuisine. My “Lobster Three Ways” had a splendid broth, though the tempura overwhelmed the meat inside, and the unadorned lobster was a touch overcooked. But I couldn’t quibble with the memorably tender and flavorful double-cut rack of lamb, or with the decadent 12-layer coconut cake, the restaurant’s signature dessert.
Planters Inn, Rating 92 Plantation King, $399; Governor's Suite, $589. 112 North Market Street. Tel. (843) 722-2345.
Alas, the 19-room John Rutledge House Inn, once Charleston’s premier bed-and-breakfast, has not aged as well as Wentworth Mansion or Planters Inn. My suite had the extravagant period details I remembered, but we experienced an array of problems during our stay. Most notably, the housekeeping was especially poor and the bath had not been properly cleaned.
John Rutledge House Inn, Rating 83 Deluxe Room, $339; Grand Suite, $409. 116 Broad Street. Tel. (843) 723-7999.
Nor does Charleston’s newest boutique hotel offer any competition for the city’s classics. Some travel publications have expressed great enthusiasm for Zero George Street, an 18-room inn comprised of several historic buildings around a shady brick courtyard. And indeed, owners Dean and Lynn Andrews, who also own the scenic Pippin Hill vineyards in Virginia, have completed a striking restoration. The well-chosen furnishings and décor wouldn’t be out of place in a chic Provençal bastide.
Problems far outweighed the fine interior design work, however. Our grandly titled Harbor Suite turned out to be more of a deluxe room with a dressing area. The gleaming white bath looked lovely, but the shower stall had no shelf space, and the temperature of the water was either hot or cold. And the promise of a “private outdoor sitting area with views of Charleston harbor” was a wild exaggeration. In fact, we shared the porch with another room, or really anyone who cared to walk upstairs and open the door to it. And while we could technically see a sliver of the harbor in the distance, a red metal roof occupied most of the view. But what irked me most was being awakened one night by the loud traffic noise from busy East Bay Street, and another night by music from the room across the hall. Over the road, a giant performing arts center is noisily under construction. In short, although this hotel may look splendid in magazine spreads, it is a poor value and cannot be recommended.
Zero George Street, Rating 82 Harbor Suite, $409; Garden Suite, $439. 0 George Street. Tel. (843) 817-7900.
Unexpectedly, we had a much more agreeable experience in The Restoration on King, a 16-suite property decorated in a contemporary style. Although the hotel is self-consciously hip — we were greeted with “Hey, welcome to the ROK” — its staff proved consistently friendly and helpful. Specifically, they rushed to our suite when the alarm clock in the locked second bedroom went off. And when we returned too late to take advantage of the cookies set out in the lobby each evening, they thoughtfully brought a plate of them to our kitchen.
Because it had a full kitchen, our suite resembled an apartment more than a hotel room, and indeed, The Restoration on King was originally a residential development. Its debut coincided with the real estate crash, and it became a hotel in 2010. Done in a fashionable color scheme of white, beige and brown, accented by an occasional splash of turquoise, our suite came with exposed-brick accent walls, wood floors, and granite counters in the kitchen. Some guests actually cook; one couple we chatted with during the daily wine and cheese reception in the lobby had prepared dinner for themselves with produce from the Saturday farmers market on Marion Square. We left our kitchen mostly undisturbed, however, along with our private terrace, which had an unobstructed view of a telephone pole. Our bedroom had plenty of light from its French doors, but the second bedroom had no windows. The attractive slate-tile bath offered a large shower stall but no tub. Despite a walk-in closet and generous storage space, the accommodations didn’t always feel truly luxurious. But the can-do attitude of its staff, a central location and the sheer size of the suites mean that The Restoration on King is at least worthy of consideration.
THE RESTORATION ON KING, Rating 89 One-Bedroom Suite, $329; Two-Bedroom Suite with Patio, $529. 75 Wentworth Street. Tel. (843) 518-5100.