GOLF '98: Charleston, of Course

Washington Post | Sunday, April 5, 1998

Never in all my city-born-and-bred days did I think I'd be associated in any form with the clean, manicured, country club sport of golf. The closest contact I had with the game was glancing at best. Each summer of my childhood was spent in a small beach resort town, and my best friend was a little girl whose father was a farmer who lived next to the local golf course. After he sold his potato farm, he'd make a little extra cash by mowing the golf course. That, in its entirety, was my awareness of the game of golf.

But then, as Charlotte Bronte would say, Reader, I met and married Him. Scott was a fine, upstanding fellow -- eyes of blue, principles of gold -- but there was this one thing. He played golf. And not just a little. He lived for golf. It was his ruling passion. When we'd go on trips, he'd turn his eyes to gaze at an expanse of green off to the left or right, entirely unnoticed by me. "Just look at that course," he'd murmur appreciatively. His whole family was this way -- they planned vacations around golf, bought condos in Florida based on their proximity to golf. The lingo that stumped me -- "the back nine," "the front nine," "the wood," "the putter" -- they'd learned in kindergarten.

Since I relished the odd Saturday or Sunday afternoon to myself, Weekend Golf was no problem. The glitch came in the matter of the Golf Vacation. It was fine with me if he wanted to go off with the boys for a few days -- I had no problem being a Golf Widow. What I didn't want to be was a Golf Spouse. Most resorts are hermetically sealed against the outer world and manicured beyond reason, having little of the urban grottiness that makes a place interesting (after all, you hardly think of Paris and golf in the same sentence). I enjoyed a few forays into Golfland -- the R&R was welcome. But we soon realized that the appeal of this sort of vacation was, for me, limited.

We went in search of areas that had both great golf and, not too far away, great something else. We quickly settled on Charleston, S.C. I'd heard it was a beautiful city, with an amazing variety of architectural styles. It also had a fascinating and complicated history both as one of the most sophisticated cities of the pre-Civil War South and as its slave-trading capital. Scott leapt at the chance to play Kiawah Island -- which, at 20 miles distance, was no short hop. But he pronounced it doable. We toyed with staying on the island itself, but knew I'd be far too lazy to move. I'd end up having one of those hermetic vacations, relaxing and reading and never rousing myself to go into Charleston. Whereas the thought of the verdant greens would impel him into the rental car.

So we set off, arriving late on the Friday night of a holiday weekend. Our hotel, the Mills House, was a beautiful old pile from the outside. But once inside, the fact that it was now run by a chain was evident in its characterlessness. This, in Charleston, is unforgivable. In the morning, we ate a not-very-satisfying breakfast from the Mills's buffet. I tortured myself by reading in my guidebooks about all the luscious offerings at the many B&Bs around town -- homemade coffeecake, country sausage, shrimp and grits. It soon became apparent that shrimp and grits was one of the culinary bywords of Charleston -- in one form or another, they were on almost every menu.

Scott set off for the journey to Kiawah. I thought of taking an introductory walking tour, but I didn't have enough time. A friend had set me up with a native Charlestonian and I was to have an early lunch with her. So I missed out on the Antiques and Art tour, the Gullah tour, the Churches & Graveyards tour, the Murders & Mysteries tour, the Civil War Walk and the Historic Homes Walk. All by my lonesome, unescorted and unguided, I set off down Meeting Street, a central artery of the historic part of the city, in a direction I hoped led to the water.

I was smitten almost instantly. The houses were built right up onto the street, but had a luxuriant, relaxed air that the row house neighborhoods of Washington or New York lack. One alluring and mysterious feature were the porches -- although some were attached to the fronts of houses, many more were at the side. These side porches are called "piazzas," which only increased the town's vaguely foreign, sophisticated tinge. Before I headed south, one Washingtonian had charged me with finding out from whence the architectural tradition of the piazza came. She said she'd seen similar porches in the Caribbean and thought the style might have something to do with Charleston's tragic history as a slave-importing center. The next day, when we went on a tour of the bayfront Edmondston-Alston House, I asked our gentlemanly guide about the porches. He simply shrugged and said, in a languorous drawl, that Charlestonians liked a little privacy, and if they were going to sit outside, they were certainly not going to do it in full view of the street. Nothing about slave-traders stopping off in the Caribbean.

I walked along the Battery, the promenade fronting Charleston Bay, and before long, it curved and turned into East Bay Street. I found my lunch place, the Blossom Cafe, and my meal there helped get my Charleston stay off to an auspicious start. It's the newer, more casual offshoot of Magnolia's, one of the city's best restaurants. Though I never did make it to the parent, I ended up having two meals at the Blossom Cafe during my brief time in the city. The menu is inventive, with pastas, sandwiches and entrees that make liberal use of fresh local ingredients. The Charlestonian was gracious and knowledgeable about her home town, scribbling down addresses and warning me that the weekend was a tourist triple-header -- it not only was Presidents' Day and Valentine's Day but also something called Wildlife Weekend.

After lunch, I'd walked no more than a few yards from the restaurant when I stumbled into Atlantic Books, which turned out to be an undreamt-of treasure. I did that rare thing -- I completely and truly lost track of time. I found a volume of letters by Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who in the 18th century helped pioneer indigo production. Then I found a life of the abolitionist and women's rights crusader Angelina Grimke, who along with her older sister Sarah eventually fled Charleston and the slavery-driven society they detested. Next it was a social history of black Charlestonians that covered the years 1822-85. There was Charleston architecture, there was the Civil War, there were battered old books and used books in good shape. But best of all was a new book: "Slaves in the Family," by Edward Ball.

This turned out to be a meticulous excavation by the author of his family's slaveholding past. The Ball plantations had centered on Charleston, and it was to Charleston that Ed Ball returned to begin his research. When I read that he had stayed in a decaying old house at Meeting and Tradd streets, I felt a thrill -- I'd passed the corner that very morning. From then on, Ball's thick volume became that great vacation treat -- the book that becomes the subtext to your trip. I read it in the hotel in the mornings after Scott had left for that day's golf; I pored over it at night, long after he'd passed out from windburn-induced exhaustion.

Eventually, I tore myself away from the bookshop and meandered down to the lovely park by the waterfront, wandered down the sadly named Vendue Range (in French, vendre means "to sell"), climbed to the third-floor roofdeck of a bar-restaurant called the Library at Vendue and took in a beautiful, wind-buffeted view. I wandered down to the old market, which I'd been warned was a parody of a tourist trap. It proved to be just that, but the famous sweetgrass basket weavers were there with their goods. The black women of the Low Country, as the area around the city is called, are famous for the intricate baskets they weave, in every shape and size. The only one I liked was a huge flat one on which I could envision stacking the Sunday papers, but it was $150 and I couldn't figure out how I'd get the handsome thing on the plane, so I passed on it.

I had one more stop to make before I could call it a day. Aside from all the good eating Charleston has to offer, it's a haven for foodies for another reason as well -- Hoppin' John's, a cookbook store par excellence. I found it tucked away on a back street not far from the market. The shop not only stocked a wonderful selection of newsletters and every cookbook under the sun, from the most basic to the faddiest, but in an adjoining room was a nice array of cookware and a line of pickles and jams. I bought an exquisite tiny blue bowl -- a steal at $4 or so -- from, of all places, Japan. To feel a little more supportive of local endeavors, I also took home a jar of scuppernong jelly and ordered some of Hoppin' John's own custom-ground grits (so popular, they were sold out and had to be back-ordered). On my way out, I noticed an intriguing schedule of cooking classes, many of them taught by chefs from restaurants around the city; I vowed to return.

That night, Scott was ecstatic. He regaled me with tales of the beauty of the ocean-side course he'd played that day at Kiawah. But before long, I had to remind him, once again, that telling me such stories was akin to my telling him of the wonders of Hoppin' John's. Which I tried to do over dinner at the one place we found an available table. It was a sweet little restaurant called the Pinckney Cafe that the bookstore saleswoman had recommended. Nothing to compare with the Blossom Cafe, but homey and just fine.

The next day, he went off to Wild Dunes, the other course on his agenda, and I blissfully meandered through the hear-a-pin-drop quiet of Charleston's Sunday streets. This is a city that takes the Lord's day seriously. I tried to find a house that bore some relation to the Grimke sisters, but had no luck. On a section of King Street down by the harbor, I found houses with great piazzas, interesting windows and intriguing roof lines. I began to develop a neckache from craning my head upward.

The day was extremely windy, so Scott came back from Wild Dunes early, and joined me for lunch at a place on East Bay Street called SNOB -- Slightly North of Broad. At last, shrimp and grits, which were heavenly. I don't know if all versions of the dish are this good, but now that I'm the proud possessor of my very own bag of grits, I'm prepared to begin trying to duplicate.

I had to admit that I was more than a little glad the golfer was back. I'd happily have continued on my own, but the night before I'd discovered one of the rather serious downsides to his-and-her vacations. Since he'd seen nothing of the city during the day, by the time evening rolled around, he was eager to get to know Charleston. After dinner, he was raring to do some exploring, while my poor feet were throbbing. If only he hadn't taken a cart, we might have been on equal ground.

But the problem really comes when you see something you know the other person would just love, something you really want to experience with him or her. It's hardest when it's not a sight-with-a-capital-S -- you can't bring someone back to witness a moment. So the sweeping view from the top of that restaurant on Vendue Range, the opinionated owner of Atlantic Books who interrogated customers as they presented their purchases at the register, the gulls lined up in a row on their pillars down on the Battery -- all my memory and mine alone, not to be shared.

If I hadn't been so taken with Charleston, perhaps this wouldn't have bothered me. Maybe, just maybe, when we go back -- and I'm sure we will -- I'll try to make the case for a few golf-less days.

Information: Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (1-800-868-8118, http:// www.charlestoncvb.com). Dining spots include the Blossom Cafe (171 East Bay St.) and Slightly North of Broad (192 East Bay St.). Shops include Atlantic Books (191 East Bay St.) and Hoppin' John's (30 Pinckney St.).

Anne Glusker, a content developer for washingtonpost.com, last wrote for Travel on New York timeouts.

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