Wanderlust in Charleston

Exploring the Road less Traveled

BY Fritts Causby

The Ashley and
Cooper rivers converge at Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
The Ashley and Cooper rivers converge at Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

The road trip is as American as apple pie, blue jeans and cheeseburgers. And with concerns about the pandemic still making air travel a risky proposition for many people, it is more important than ever.

But who wants to spend all their free time in the car?

Sure, some will say that it is more about the journey than the destination, but for those who would prefer to spend the weekend exploring the outdoors, getting some fresh air, or just relaxing on the deck of a waterfront restaurant instead of driving, it’s worthwhile to break out the map and target some fun areas that are easy to reach.

In the past, driving to Charleston from Wilmington could be a wrenching, brake-crunching experience, an endeavor that could easily consume the better part of a day. But since the completion of the bypass around Myrtle Beach, the drive is mostly composed of four-lane roads and can be done in about three-and-a-half hours — in the off-season, anyway.

On the Way

Located around 45 miles outside the city, the Awendaw Passage (Palmetto Trail) is a perfect place to pull the bikes off the car, go for a run, or just stretch the legs and enjoy sweeping views of a pristine saltwater marsh.

The trail winds along the creek for which it is named and is easy to ride for beginners, at least in the starting portion. Experienced bikers will find more of a challenge as the trail moves deeper into the woods, as it gets more ‘rooty’ and technical.

With several long wooden bridges traversing the marsh and lots of speed available on the pine straw and packed sand, it is a worthwhile place to stop the car and spend a few hours.

Where to Stay

Of course, the downtown area is full of boutique hotels, historic B&Bs, vacation rentals and all the famous brands. For a more relaxing stay outside of the hustle and bustle, the West Ashley area is very convenient. It’s a short distance away from the historic downtown waterfront, art galleries and restaurants, and there are a variety of reasonably priced hotels in the area with free parking — a sharp contrast to the historic district.

The fact that West Ashley is reachable from Wilmington without having to drive through the city is an added bonus for anyone who likes to avoid stop-and-go traffic. The strategic location also allows for visiting Folly Beach, Edisto Beach or Beaufort without crossing the city.

Eat, Drink & Unwind

Downtown Charleston is home to many fine dining options, art galleries, rooftop bars, museums and shops. If in search of a more laid-back experience, however, California Dreaming should be on the list. The large restaurant has ample parking, floor-to-ceiling glass and multiple terraces that showcase views of the Ashley River.

The commercial district in West Ashley is equally enjoyable. The area has multiple restaurants, shops, bars and breweries within walking distance of each other.

A visit to nearby Folly Beach is worth it for the vibrant, West Coast-style downtown area and its many shops, eateries and nightlife options.

Hiking & Biking

The West Ashley Greenway is a scenic, 8-mile track that is mostly paved and easy to ride. Located a short distance from most area hotels, it cuts through the back of a few neighborhoods before opening onto an exposed gravel path with gorgeous, long-range views of the marsh, making it feel like it’s in the middle of the country.

Trail literature states that mountain bikes are a must, but a cruiser with big tires would be OK, and certainly more comfortable. Reading about the trek from the north end of Folly to view the Morris Island lighthouse is also a little misleading, as an approximately 40-minute hike to check out a Civil War-era lighthouse that is only accessible by boat does not sound all that appealing on an initial review. Experiencing it firsthand is a different story altogether — proof that it is sometimes a good idea to begin a journey with low expectations.

Next Time

Surfing in South Carolina is also something that should be approached with low expectations. Folly is home to a number of great setups, with lots of jetties to break up the swells on the north end — a famous area among surfers known as The Washout — but it’s likely that favorite surfboard could spend the entire vacation in the car.

A trip to the Charleston skate park should be a priority for those who are thirsting for a board-sport experience. With more than 32,000 square feet, it is the largest skate park in South Carolina. There also is a DIY-park under I-26 that was built entirely by local board-riders, an homage to Washington Street in San Diego that blurs the lines between art and sport.

If that were not enough, Charleston is home to a music scene that was thriving before the pandemic — something that is sorely missed by everyone with an appreciation for hearing their favorite band in person.

The Charleston area has a lot to offer for a quick vacation, and the wintertime could be the perfect season for an introduction to the city. Seasonal temperatures are often comfortable, especially when biking alongside a saltwater marsh in the sun, walking a cobblestone street protected from the wind by historic mansions, or dining on a rooftop under a gas heater and watching the sunset.

Also, bugs and fellow tourists are much less prevalent than in the warmer months.

Whether exploring the sites that have made the city famous or searching for a break from the everyday routine, a weekend jaunt to Charleston is a great way to spend some downtime.

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