You Always Want What You Don’t Have
Hilton Head & Charleston, S.C.
Low Country, High Seas
Charleston’s Historic District sits on a peninsula; to the east is Patriot’s Point and Mount Pleasant, to the west is Folly Beach and the modern suburbs of Charleston. The next day we went to nearby Patriot’s Point on the east side of the bay. There is a Naval Museum made up of several World War II-era warships and a Coast Guard cutter. I was eager to go see the aircraft carrier Yorktown and submarine Clamagore. Admission is $12.50 for adults, so we decided to eat cheap that day.
First on the agenda was the submarine. It was commissioned in 1945, too late in the war to see any action, and it remained in service till 1975. It was fascinating to explore. As I expected, it was very narrow inside, but much longer than it looked from the outside. It’s amazing how little space is devoted to living quarters, and that is shared among the crew. I tried to picture what it would be like to sleep beneath a live torpedo (yes, that’s where some of the bunks were!), but decided to mentally prefer the luxurious comfort of sharing a cabin the size of a bathroom stall with five other guys. The majority of the sub was nothing but working machinery. The abundance of electrical power and wiring seemed disturbingly exposed to the presumably very damp environment of life beneath the waves. I resolved to watch U-571 and Das Boot again.
The Yorktown was even more impressive. The flight deck seemed to stretch on forever, until I tried to picture planes taking off and landing on the flight deck. Then it seemed impossibly tiny. It still could easily take all day to explore, though. There are five tours marked out, though I could only find the markers for four of them. They focus on the flight deck and bridge, daily life at sea, the mechanics involved in a ship that size and the medical and dental aspects of caring for the crew. There are also numerous memorials for those who died in battle and ships that were sunk. You won’t be able to miss the diorama after diorama of shipboard life, sea battles and model ships and planes everywhere. All the high seas drama and emotion notwithstanding, one of the most discombobulating experiences was rounding a corner to see a diorama of a life-size mannequin dentist doing something probably painful to a mannequin crewman.
There is an assortment of planes on-board the Yorktown on the flight and hangar decks, and aviation buffs will love to check those out. I found it pretty cool to stand at the wheel in the pilothouse, though I can’t imagine how they steered the ship, since you can barely see out of the tiny portholes in the steel walls. It was a fascinating experience, and I resolved to watch Top Gun again.
After leaving Patriot’s Point we drove back into Charleston and explored East Bay Street. There is an old cotton exchange, an imposing building that looks like a bank. Nearby is Market Street that, true to its name, has an open-air market selling “Low Country” souvenirs. “Low Country” is a term that is bantered about by everyone, and I took it to refer to the general region of southeast South Carolina. I was curious about the origins and determined to find out why this term was used. Even more perplexing was the “Gullah.” This referred to the “indigenous black people” as Anne’s mom had put it, as well as their lifestyle. Apparently, these were the freed slaves after the Civil War. I wasn’t sure where the term itself came from (Gullah’d people? Free men of Gullah? Who knows?), but I believe it has to do with the odd African- and Caribbean-influenced local English.
Apparently the Low Country is famous for a certain type of basket that we saw being sold everywhere. They’re woven from grass and pinestraw, and a single small basket can take up to two days to weave! The necessary care is reflected in their price, as the same small basket, about the size of two cupped hands, costs about twenty-five bucks!
Nighttime in Charleston proved to be very enjoyable, no doubt facilitated by the proximity of our hotel to everything. East Bay Street at night is a bustling thoroughfare with lots of pretty cool pubs, restaurants and bars. Music pours out into the street, and nicely-dressed college students mingle and flow from one to the other. Adjoining East Bay Street is Vendue Range. For some reason, about half of the establishments on this expensive little street are puzzlingly all named the “Vendue Inn” regardless of whether they are an upscale bar, upscale restaurant or upscale hotel, though one daring innovator is named “The Inn at Vendue.” There is also the Griffon Bar, recommended by locals as a great place to hang out at night. This stands out from the half-dozen or so Vendue Inns as the token bar for your average joe. People in jeans mill around the wooden bar and listen to garage band music while sipping on their beers and whiskey. This was the place I most gravitated to. A couple of appealing places were also located up and down Market Street, opposite the market itself.
As a native of New Orleans, I expect to be disappointed by the food everywhere else. Which is why I was so astounded by Charleston. We could not find a bad meal. Just up the street from the hotel was Jestine’s, a restaurant specializing in Gullah creations (also known as “soul food” everywhere else). From the homemade pickles to the mashed potatoes and gravy and fried fish, everything was great! Another cool place to go was Yo Burrito, just up Wentworth Street. My wife and I stuffed our faces on awesome tacos and burritos for less than $10. And they have about six different homemade salsas you can help yourself to. Populated mostly by students from the nearby university, Yo Burrito is a perfect place for some cheap eats!
We also managed to find some good n’ cheap dried fruit, trail mix and assorted yummy things at the Vegetable Market on East Bay Street. It’s right next door to a supermarket where we got some wine. I also found a tiny little corkscrew for $1.39. The finger-sized corkscrew was about my favorite find in Charleston! My wife took the opportunity to point how easily amused I am.