Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Charleston, SC

Tuesday, August 4 - Sunday, August 23, 2009
Greetings from Charleston, SC! We left Beaufort on Tuesday morning; we'd planned to be at the fuel dock by 8am, but had problems raising the anchors. We'd done at least five 360s in our nearly 3 weeks in Beaufort, so our secondary anchor rode was wound around our primary anchor chain. Rene spent nearly 30 minutes trying to get the lines separated, and we finally made it to the fuel dock at 8:30am. After filling up on 80 gallons of diesel, 150 gallons of water, and a much-needed pump-out, we finally left the dock in time to catch the 10am Lady's Island Bridge opening. We're on limited instruments thanks to the lightning strike - the electronic chart plotter still provides a "map" of our route, but without GPS or autopilot, the chart plotter doesn't have a clue where the boat is, and Rene does all the steering by hand (the old fashioned way). Currents are against us for the first two hours, giving us a boat speed of 3+ kts (can you tell we need a bottom cleaning?). We finally get a favorable current and do 4-5kts, but get stuck at the entrance to the Ashepoo Coosaw Cutoff. It's almost low tide, and we nearly run aground on a 5' shoal at the entrance. Rene's able to reverse us out of there in time, and we anchor in 10' of water until the tide comes in. Three hours later, we finally feel comfortable enough to try the entrance again. It's still more shallow than the chart indicates, but we make it across the bar. Once inside, we have 10+ feet of water...much better! Thanks to our delay, we don't make it to our planned anchorage at Toogoodoo Creek. We find another spot at Alligator Creek near 7pm, and drop anchor there. It's not protected from wind or waves, but the forecast shows a quiet night and we get lucky. We're back underway at 6:45am to take advantage of high tide (we have some shallow spots for the next 15 miles). The ICW is beautiful, we pass gorgeous plantation-style houses set far back behind the marshes, and get to the anchorage across from the Charleston City Marina by 3pm. The anchorage is busy, but we find a spot between a couple of smaller boats near the bridge. As usual, we end up resetting one of the anchors after the tide changes that night, but it seems to work and we're still in the same spot the following morning. Things are looking better already!

After spending a day on the boat, we go into town on Friday. The city marina is across the channel from our anchorage and has a dinghy dock that we can use for $5/day. Unfortunately, Stacy's bike blew a tire our last day in Beaufort, and Rene's back tire has nearly worn out its own repair job. We're not as mobile as we'd like to be, but King St and the waterfront are within 2 miles of the marina. It's hot, but walkable. We also find a bike shop that can order new tires and inner tubes for the bikes, but it'll be a week before the tires arrive. If we want to explore Charleston over the next week, it'll be on foot or by taxi. We've tried to use the city's bus system, but never quite time it correctly. The two routes that come within a half-mile of the marina only stop once every 30 to 60 minutes, so making connections to other routes can be difficult. Fortunately, taxis are pretty cheap within downtown Charleston - typically under $5 each way from the marina to the historical/tourist area.

Wednesday we play tourist and head to the South Carolina Aquarium. The aquarium is incredible, and has both indoor and open air exhibits representing six South Carolina regions: a Blue Ridge Mountain forest, South Carolina's Piedmont (foothills) region, Carolina's coastal plain, a salt marsh aviary, the Carolina coast, and best of all, the ocean, which includes a 2-story, 385,000-gallon salt water tank. The Great Ocean Tank has 700 different species of fish, including a huge moray eel, puffer fish, six sharks, a 280-pound loggerhead sea turtle, and many of the usual suspects that we see when we scuba dive. Speaking of diving, we got to watch two divers enter the tank, give some information on the various species of fish, and feed the fish. There are nearly 100 volunteer divers who take part in the feedings, and they patch into a PA system inside their masks when they're underwater. The children at the aquarium loved it, as did we big kids! The aquarium also has a new exhibit, "Penguin Planet", which houses 4 of the cute little guys in their own climate-controlled (60 degrees) environment. If you're ever in Charleston, we'd highly recommend a visit to the aquarium. You can get more information at their website at

After the aquarium, we catch a water taxi to Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum. Patriot's Point is across the harbor from the aquarium, and is home to the aircraft carrier "USS Yorktown", the diesel-powered submarine "USS Clamagore", the destroyer "USS Laffey", and the Coast Guard cutter "USS Ingham"; as well as a Vietnam support base exhibit and a Cold War submarine memorial. We have a fantastic time viewing the crew quarters, engine room, and other areas in the aircraft carrier, and even get to wander along the flight deck checking out all of the airplanes that are included in the exhibit. We also do a quick walk-through of the submarine, although we get the impression that there must have been a height restriction of 5'6'' for crewmembers. The sub is definitely not for the claustrophobic! Unfortunately the destroyer and USCG cutter are closed to the public; it turns out that both ships are being removed from Patriots Point next week. The destroyer is going into dry dock, and the cutter will be relocated to a museum in Florida.

We get a surprise on Friday morning when Stacy goes to make coffee. Flip the LPG solenoid switch to "on", turn the stove dial to "light", push the "ignite" button, and...NOTHING. We're officially out of propane. What? No caffeine this morning?? Aaarrrggghhh!! To be fair, we've figured that we were overdue for a tank refill. After all, our last fill was in Marathon back in May, and we use propane daily. That said, the tanks are connected to yet another gauge that has never worked properly. Like our diesel fuel gauge, the propane gauge tells you that there's plenty of fuel...right until the time that you run out and the needle switches to empty. Not knowing whether a bus or taxi would welcome propane tanks on board, we strap the tanks onto Rene's bike and walk to the U-haul store that - you guessed it - also fills propane tanks. Rene bikes down the street to the bicycle shop (no tires yet) while Stacy gets the tanks filled. Then it's a hot trek back to the marina.

Talk about a productive weekend! Saturday we dinghy over to California Dreaming, the restaurant on the far side of the bridge from our anchorage. While we plan to have lunch there, we also have an ulterior motive: we can leave our dinghy at their boat dock while we eat and make a quick taxi run to West Marine and the UPS store. We've had a few things shipped to Charleston, and we really need to pick them up before we leave next week! The cabbie is a little surprised to drop us back at the same restaurant where he picked us up, but we're sure he's seen stranger things... Back on the boat, it's like Christmas morning. So many packages to open! The best one...our new ice maker! A huge thanks to Chris & Robin (the ex-Watergate folks we met in Beaufort) for introducing us to the EdgeStar portable ice maker. This thing makes a tray of ice in 6-10 minutes. Some of our friends have recessed/mounted ice makers on their boats, but we never thought we'd have one since we don't have the wall or cupboard space. The EdgeStar is a little bigger than a bread maker, and plugs into any 110-volt outlet. Now we'll always have plenty of ice for our rum drinks, gin & tonics, and foo-foo blender drinks. And yes, we already have a cordless blender, so let the margaritas begin! Have we talked you into visiting us yet? :-) What can we say...the little luxuries really get us excited. "We make ICE!" (Is this what the cavemen felt like when they created fire?) And if you think we're goofy over the ice maker, just wait until we get a water maker...

Plantation Tours
Sunday morning we're up bright and early. We have to get to the marina by 8am to catch our shuttle out to the Ashley River Road plantations. Quick note: if you're ever in Charleston and don't feel like renting a car, there's a shuttle for $20pp that will take you from the Visitor's Center downtown out to Drayton House, Middleton Place, and Magnolia Plantation & Gardens. The shuttle leaves downtown at 8:45am, gets to the first of the three plantations (Drayton Hall) just after 9am, and picks people up from each of the plantations starting at 2pm. You really only have time to do two plantations, but we've read that they'll come get you later in the day for an extra fee. In the middle of summer, 5 hours outside is plenty!

Drayton Hall
We start our day in Drayton Hall, the oldest preserved plantation home in the US. John Drayton bought the 350-acre plantation in 1738 and began construction on the Georgian-Palladian home (Georgian in the front, Palladian in the back - very unique). John Drayton was one of the wealthiest men of his time, and owned over 50 properties and 75,000 acres of land across the Carolinas and south to Brunswick, GA. Being the third son, he wouldn't inherit the family estate, Magnolia (which, by the way, can be visited just a few miles down the road). Drayton built Drayton Hall to be his own grand estate, and years later he also bought Magnolia from his nephew.

The house and grounds of Drayton Hall have certainly witnessed their share of history. During the American Revolution, troops from both the British and Continental Armies camped on the grounds at one time or another. The British army used Drayton Hall as a field headquarters for the British commander in 1780, and several thousand troops encamped on the grounds. That summer, the house became the headquarters of another British general, Charles Cornwallis. Two years later, the American armies moved in; ultimately, Charleston was saved and peace was restored, but at Drayton Hall, the fields, ornamental gardens, and many of its buildings would have to be rebuilt.

The Civil War saw much of the same, as Confederate soldiers camped on the grounds of Drayton Hall. After Charleston's surrender, Union armies destroyed many of the plantations along Ashley River Road, and Drayton Hall was one of just three plantation houses on the Ashley River to survive the Civil War. Legend has it that John Drayton hung yellow flags around the house and grounds, indicating that the house was a smallpox hospital. Soldiers who were burning everything in their wake saw the flags and stayed away.

Later generations of Draytons used the plantation for weekend and summer visits to the country. The last descendant to use the home was Charlotta Drayton. She would tell people she was going "camping" when she stayed at Drayton Hall, whose only modern conveniences were a wood-burning stove and an icebox that was later replaced by a refrigerator (powered by an extension cord plugged in at the caretaker’s cottage). After Charlotta's death, the estate was left to her two nephews; her will stipulated that no modernization or major changes would be made to the house. The nephews decided they couldn't keep up with the costs of maintaining the home, and decided to sell it soon after. Thank goodness they turned down the developer's offer to make the plantation a golf course! Instead, they sold the house and grounds to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who has owned it since 1974.

Today, the unrestored home is completely devoid of furniture, which really allows visitors to appreciate the architecture and little touches inside. From the front veranda, we enter the home into the great hall. The hall, and much of the rest of the house, has only been painted three times in nearly 300 years; the current wall paint is over 130 years old, so visitors are cautioned against touching or leaning against the walls. The plaster work (ceilings, accents, etc.) in the great hall and subsequent rooms is so intricate and really beautiful. As symmetry was extremely important to the home designs of the time, we often walk into a room, only to see another doorway - bricked up, this time - where a false door once stood. In one room, you can still see the markings where seven generations of Draytons have measured the height of their children on a door frame. This tradition continues today, when the Drayton family has their annual get-together each Thanksgiving at the house.

The guides obviously love what they do, and by the end of the tour everyone agrees that the decision to restore the house rather than preserve it was the better option. If you ever get to the area, we'd highly recommend a visit.

Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
Our shuttle picks us up at Drayton Hall at 11am and takes us a mile down the road to the family's original plantation, Magnolia. Founded in 1676, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens (all 600 acres) is home to the oldest public gardens in America. The house itself was destroyed by fire during the Civil War, and has been rebuilt for tours. The grounds were originally used for growing rice, but were flooded with sea water during the Civil War. In an effort to keep the estate and share the beauty of the gardens, Magnolia Plantation began opening its doors to visitors in 1870.

The plantation includes its famous gardens, the main house, a nature tram, a boat tour, an Audubon swamp walking tour, a petting zoo, and slave cabins. After paying the base entrance fee (gardens, nature trails, & petting zoo), all other activities (tram, boat, swamp, etc.) require additional fees. It actually works well (albeit pricey), so you can do as much or as little as you want to. Given our time constraints, we start with the nature train that will take us around the perimeter of the property to see the plantation’s wetlands, lakes, forests, and marshes. We're enjoying ourselves before we even see our first animal - temperatures are nearly 10 degrees cooler under the tree canopy, and we get a great breeze from the moving tram! Over the next half hour, we spot two 9' alligators, turtles, egrets, herons, turkeys, and a beautiful red hawk.

After a quick lunch at the cafe, we stop by the petting zoo to see the goats, deer, chickens, fox, bunnies, and beautiful peacocks. One of the peacocks apparently likes guests, and hops on the fence to have his picture taken. Next thing we know, he's jumped to the ground and is walking among the cafe tables looking for crumbs. Please don't feed the animals! Next up is the plantation's famous gardens. Spring is probably the best time to visit to see everything in bloom, but the walk is still lovely as you go past trees, along the Ashley river, and cross bridges over mirrored lakes.

Since we have a 2pm pick-up, we don't have time to walk through the Audubon Swamp Garden. It's supposed to be a fantastic walk, and is the best place to take pictures of alligators, turtles, and birds up close in their natural habitat. It takes 1-2 hours to really do it right, so give yourselves plenty of time if you ever get there.

Downtown Historic Home Tours
As if we haven't see enough historic homes, Monday we head to Charleston's historic district to see the "urban plantations". While there are many homes in downtown Charleston that are open for tours, we select three based on TripAdvisor reviews and our own expected tolerance levels. Thanks to our plantation tour yesterday, we better understand the difference between historic preservation and restoration. Preservation efforts try to maintain the house in its current state, allowing for updates to insure visitors' safety (e.g. reinforcing floors, ceilings, or banisters that are no longer stable). Restoration tries to bring the house back to its former glory - in terms of colors, fabrics, furniture, paintings, etc. - and tends to be much costlier than preservation alone. Of the three homes we've selected, we find that one has been preserved, one is still undergoing a massive restoration project, and one is still owned and inhabited by the family. In the last case, the owner lives on the third floor, and visitors can see the family treasures - antiques, historic documents, family portraits, etc. - throughout the first and second floors. We're also happy to report that we've finally mastered Charleston's public transportation (at least the downtown shuttles), so off we go...

Aiken-Rhett House, c. 1820
We start with the Aiken-Rhett house, which has been preserved rather than restored. As the website says, "the Aiken-Rhett House stands alone as the most intact townhouse complex showcasing urban life in antebellum Charleston." William Aiken, Jr. was a wealthy merchant and governor of South Carolina. He and his wife traveled throughout Europe and purchased a considerable amount of fine art and furnishings, many of which can still be seen in the house today. In fact, the governor's descendants continued to live at the house until 1975, closing off various rooms and their contents over the years. Consequently, the house has survived virtually unchanged since the 1850s. And what a fantastic tour format: you get an MP-3 player loaded with an audio tour to wander at your own pace, and there are docents throughout the house to answer any questions you may have. The tour starts in the slave quarters, which includes the kitchen/warming room and upstairs bedrooms. Next you head into the courtyard to view the gorgeous old magnolia trees, the carriage house (which still contains the family's two carriages), the horse stable, and two privies (bathrooms). In the main house, the family rooms still contain actual family heirlooms, and old photos let you compare what you're seeing now to the home's appearance a century ago.

Edmondston-Alston House, c. 1825
After catching a DASH trolley to Charleston's high battery, we arrive at the Edmonston-Alston house. It's the oldest mansion along the battery, and is still owned and occupied by an Alston heir. Edmonston-Alston is a lovely house, with beautiful family heirlooms and original family furnishings, a massive piazza (i.e. balcony) to capture the sea breezes, and a breathtaking view of Charleston Harbor and Ft. Sumter. (Legend has it that the first shots fired on Fort Sumter from confederate controlled Fort Johnson could be seen from the home's piazza.)

The house was originally built by a wealthy merchant, Charles Edmondston, who later found himself in a financial bind and sold it to a rice planter, Charles Alston, in 1838. The Alstons were later joined to the Middleton family by marriage, and visitors are reminded that Edmonston-Alston is the sister property of Middleton Place Plantation (the Middleton and Alston family heirs own both properties). If you're interested in seeing both properties, you can purchase a combination ticket at a reduced rate.

As we walk through the home, we're a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of artifacts - a letter of secession, a pardon of Alston by President Andrew Johnson for his participation in the war, countless pieces of family silver, china, furniture including a gorgeous writing/compartment desk, over 2000 books in the library, and a number of first edition Audubon prints and sketches. This definitely feels like more of a showplace than a home.

Nathaniel Russell House, c. 1808
We take a quick walk from the Edmonston-Alston House to the Nathaniel Russell House on Meeting Street. This home has undergone an extensive (years-long) restoration process, and the results are spectacular. Like the Aiken-Rhett House, the Nathaniel Russell House is owned by the historic society. Researchers have worked over the past few years to determine and replicate each room's original paint colors and gold accents, the restoration of plasterwork and carved mantelpieces (involving the removal of 22 layers of paint), and the refurbishment of the home's signature piece - a free-flying, curved, 3-story staircase. etc. The home has 9 rooms, including 3 oval rooms, 3 rectangular rooms, and 3 square rooms (that symmetry thing again). While the home doesn't have many original family heirlooms, it has been tastefully decorated with hundreds of period pieces (furniture, china, silver, portraits, etc.) donated from around the country. The restoration of the Russell House is ongoing, and we've been told that eventually they will add carpets, draperies, and such. We've read that if you only make it to one home tour, this is the one to do. We completely agree!

Before we leave, we learn that hundreds of private homes are available for viewing during the Spring & Fall. The Fall tours start in late-September and go on for 6 weeks. The Preservation Society needs 700 additional volunteers so that they can have a volunteer in each of the rooms on the tour. If you're ever in Charleston during the private home tours, we hear it's an event not to be missed.

Time to head south...
Well, it's just about time to start heading south again. We've been in Charleston for two weeks now, and we have to be in Fernandina Beach, FL the first week of September to catch our flight to Seattle for a visit with Stacy's family. Our cockpit enclosure repairs have been finished - gotta love same-day pick-up and delivery service! We were really trying to get back to Beaufort by Friday (Aug. 21st) for a new friend's birthday party at our favorite pub, but it doesn't look like we'll make it. Raymarine still has our course computer (aka the navigation system "brain"), and they require two weeks from the time the part is received to actually look at it (any repairs then require additional time). Given our Fernandina Beach/early-September deadline, we've given up the idea of having the nav computer shipped back to us here. That said, we're not taking any chances by rushing ourselves, either.

We've also been waiting for our new bike tires, and they finally arrive on Wednesday. Rene puts them on our bikes Thursday morning, and we head to Jestine's Kitchen for lunch. If you've ever been to Charleston, you've heard of Jestine's. It's only been open since the 1990s, but all of the recipes are from a woman who helped raise the owner. It's down-home southern cooking at its finest, with all of the grease, butter, fat, sugar, and other "bad" stuff that comes with it. After starting with their signature cornbread (served with butter slices drizzled with honey), Rene gets the Thursday special - sausage gumbo - and Stacy orders the meatloaf (it comes in a 4oz and 8oz portion, with two sides). Both are outstanding, and we're too stuffed to try any of their desserts. (Fortunately, they have a bakery a few doors down, so Stacy stops by that to pick up a few things the following day. If you ever make it to Jestine's, you've gotta try their Coca-Cola cake!)

We've decided that we really are leaving this weekend. The canvas is done, the bike tires are fixed, the lifeline netting is up, and the boat project bins are stored back in the lazarette. Saturday we make a final ride into town, where we take a few pictures around town and bike down to the south end to take another look at the Battery, along with Tradd Street and its famous cobblestoned "Rainbow Row". Rainbow Row, near Tradd and East Bay, is a cluster of homes built in the mid-1700s; they were renovated in the 1930s and 1940s, and are painted shades of pink, blue, yellow, etc. The entire south end ("South of Broad") is a collection of gorgeous old homes, and it's well worth the trip just to enjoy the architecture. After the bike tour, we stop off at Tommy Condon's for lunch, followed by a last provisioning run at Harris Teeter's. We drop everything back at the boat, and Rene makes a final run to the dinghy dock to retrieve the bikes and fill our water jugs. After raising and securing the dinghy on the davits, the boat is ready for tomorrow's journey.

We've had a great time in Charleston, and have managed to make it productive as well. A few boat projects:
  • we finally installed the lifeline netting (and got sunburned in the process)
  • propane tanks were refilled
  • the interior wood got a much-needed cleaning
  • cockpit canvas repair is done (and the guy even added UV-protective strips to increase the life of the zippers)
  • boat waterline cleaning (things are growing again in the ICW)
We should also offer our apologies to the history buffs out there: we didn't tour Ft. Sumpter. We know its historic importance, but have seen a few forts on the trip already. We'll be back in Charleston next near, and promise to go see it then!

Notable restaurants, bars, etc.
As always, we managed to find some great spots to eat, drink, and be merry...
  • California Dreaming: we love this place, especially because it has its own boat dock! The restaurant is located across the channel from the city marina on the far side of the bridge. Our dinghy ride to California Dreaming is even shorter than the dinghy ride to the marina, AND they have great sandwiches and entrees. What more can a cruiser need?
  • Tommy Condon's: this is an Irish pub located in downtown Charleston. We only had a beer and an appetizer, but have heard good things about the rest of the menu. We can certainly recommend it as a good spot to enjoy some air conditioning and an ale.
  • Southend Brewery & Smokehouse: Amazing! Located on E. Bay at Queen, the restaurant has its own copper casks displayed behind huge windows in the center of the 3-story building. The food is phenomenal, and portions are huge. (The beer's good, too.) We started with a roasted elephant garlic appetizer (pictured above) that came with homemade flatbread, tomato chutney, and a huge wedge of brie. We ate enough that we could've gone home after finishing the appetizer, but we had our hearts set on the BBQ meatloaf with Gouda mac & cheese, and the garlic-crusted pork loin with apple bourbon sauce. Yummy!
  • Mellow Mushroom: some of the best pizza we've had since leaving TX. Their flavors remind us of California Pizza Kitchen (e.g. Thai, BBQ chicken, Caesar, etc.), and their crust is phenomenal.
  • Salty Mike's: a waterfront bar that you pass as you leave the dinghy dock; the crowd varies between college kids and boaters.
  • Bocci's: an Italian restaurant next door to Tommy Condon's. Stacy had the baked spaghetti special with chicken, spinach, red peppers, onions, & spicy rose sauce baked under mozzarella cheese. Rene had scallops with sun dried tomatoes and artichokes, in a Gorgonzola-rosemary-infused alfredo sauce. We started with a bruschetta duo appetizer - half with pancetta & cheese, half with tomato-basil relish.
Shoving Off
Ahhh, Charleston...the city that won't let us go...literally! We get up Sunday morning to make our departure, hoping to leave the anchorage by 9am or so. Up at 8am, Rene goes to raise the secondary anchor thinking we'll have an easy go of raising the primary anchor when we're ready to catch slack tide through Elliott's Cut. As he begins to raise the secondary anchor, a mental warning bell goes off: there's tension on both anchors - not a normal situation given the winds (none) and current (incoming). With a few more turns of the anchor windlass, we soon see the problem. Our primary anchor chain and secondary anchor rode have managed to wrap themselves around a massive piece of debris (debris that used to be on the river floor but is now hanging below our bow). It looks like the grill of an old Studebaker, and must weigh at least 50 pounds! Between the two anchors, there are well over a dozen wraps around this piece of metal, along with a mess of sea grass, mud, and cloth rags. Rene drops the dinghy back into the water and heads to the bow to try to untangle the anchors. He fights with the mess of metal for 90 minutes; every time he gets one wrap loose, 25,000 lbs of boat put more tension on the anchor lines. He's finally able to free the anchors shortly before 10am, and we're off... Next stop, an overnight anchorage followed by Beaufort, SC.

The pictures for this blog chapter:

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