A Town for All Seasons
Even when the wind blows cold, Charleston can melt a 14-year-old's resistance

By Natalie Wexler
Sunday, September 22, 2002

Planning a family vacation has never, to put it mildly, been one of my favorite activities. It was bad enough when the kids were toddlers, but now that they--and my husband--are able to articulate their desires, pet peeves and nonnegotiable demands, trying to please all parties is a task worthy of Colin Powell. I start each seasonal bout of planning with upturned brow and shining eyes, certain that this time I'll come up with the Platonic ideal of a vacation spot: a pleasant and somewhat exotic setting where the four of us are able to achieve a communal harmony that generally eludes us in more familiar surroundings, such as our house. But usually I end up with my head on my desk, surrounded by guidebooks I have hurled to the floor in frustration.

Take last winter. My 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, was determined to go skiing. All of her friends already knew how to ski, she complained, with a fifth-grader's acute consciousness of the privileges accorded her peers and denied her, and it just wasn't fair that her family never went skiing. Of course, there was always a chance that Sophie would take one look at a snow-covered mountain and get--so to speak--cold feet (I'm not even going to go into what happened at the Eiffel Tower the previous summer). And my husband and I basically view skiing as an invitation to suicide.

Besides, temperatures were well into the sixties all over the East Coast in November, meaning that the only sure way of encountering snow was to fly somewhere. And in the wake of September 11 my husband, Jim, had announced that he had no intention of getting on a plane. Plus, we don't celebrate Christmas, and Jim--although in other respects far from curmudgeonly--has an aversion to holiday hoopla: He declared that he wasn't going anyplace where Christmas was going to be a big deal. This, of course, rendered most of the Western Hemisphere off-limits.

But then Jim remarked that he wouldn't mind driving south somewhere. Suddenly I knew where I wanted to go: Charleston, S.C., a city I had been yearning to visit for years, ever since a job involving historical research had plunged me into the late 18th century, when Charleston was in its heyday. It could work: I couldn't guarantee Jim an absence of Christmas paraphernalia, but at least we could avoid most of it by spending Christmas Day on the road. Obviously, skiing wouldn't be on the agenda, but temperatures in Charleston were hitting 80: If there was one thing that would distract Sophie from her skiing idee fixe, it was swimming. And the exoticism requirement of my Platonic ideal could be more than satisfied: The South is

arguably the most culturally distinctive region of the country, and I was the only member of the family who'd ever been there. Surely it was time the others got a taste of the place's unique charm. I began to imagine, dreamily, walking the same cobblestones that had been trod by the great names of Charleston's rich history--Rutledges, Moultries, Pinckneys, Izards--and exploring those grand old 18th-century houses, still lovingly preserved.

Then my 14-year-old son, Sam--whose existence occasionally slips my mind--emerged briefly from his techno-lair in the basement. "I don't care where we go," he said with a shrug, "but I really don't like looking at old houses."

Okay. Fine. It could still work. Wasn't Charleston close to a string of beach-and-golf resorts? Couldn't we stay in one of those, appeasing Sam with tennis and Sophie with swimming (none of us plays golf), and then coaxing them out for brief forays into Charleston, where we could expose them to old houses in manageable doses?

I settled on a resort called Wild Dunes--largely because it was on the northern side of Charleston and would be a few minutes closer to D.C. With a nine-hour road trip ahead of us, every mile would count. And the reservation clerk assured me that swimming was more than possible: While none of the resort's 22 pools was indoors, two of them were heated. Even if the temperature reverted to its usual high of 60 in December, we (or Sophie, at least) could still take a dip.

The trip down was drearier than I'd expected, thanks to the monotony of I-95 and the apparent seriousness with which the South celebrates Christmas. Far from being bombarded with holiday cheer, we couldn't even find an open McDonald's. By dinnertime we had long since exhausted our emergency supply of peanut butter and jelly and were in need of some serious nourishment. We drove hopefully into South of the Border, an imitation-Mexican extravaganza just inside the South Carolina line that attempts to whip travelers into a frenzy of anticipation with a series of increasingly hysterical road signs. Whatever its attractions on a normal day, on Christmas night it was grim: a few dazed and unsavory-looking customers waiting without enthusiasm for fast-food burritos. What kind of people come to a place like this on Christmas, I found myself wondering? Of course, there we were, but we had an excuse: Judaism. The rest of the crowd looked like they'd been booted from the family table and had the door triple-locked behind them.

Sophie, charmed by the kitschy gift shops, was in favor of staying, but we decided to venture back across the state line to see what North Carolina might have to offer. There, glowing with good cheer and holiday tinsel, stood a Waffle House--as familiar a sight as kudzu in the South. The customers appeared actually to have chosen to spend their holiday watching a short-order cook sling waffles (I later discovered that going to the Waffle House on Christmas is something of a Southern tradition). Even Jim's aversion to yuletide merriment seemed to waver in the face of the waitress's unexpected warmth. Ah, the power of Southern hospitality.

Wild Dunes itself--a vast domain of beach houses, townhouses and mid-rise apartment buildings on the Isle of Palms, across the harbor from Charleston--was freezing and largely deserted when at last we got there. The unseasonable warmth had just given way to record-breaking cold, with highs around 50. Construction workers seemed to outnumber guests by 3 to 1, and much of the building that housed our condo was covered in scaffolding. If it wasn't exactly a ghost town, it was close. (Some of the few other people we encountered looked strangely familiar; they turned out to be Sam's former Little League coach and his family--neighbors of ours in D.C.--who happened to be staying in the condo next door.)

It soon became clear, though, that there were advantages to a beach resort off-season. Our brochure informed us that we were entitled to two hours of tennis court time per day, but when we stopped by the tennis shop to make a reservation, the young man behind the counter, wearing a Citadel sweat shirt, merely shrugged. "I'd be very surprised if we were full today," he said, surveying the 17 pristine Har-Tru courts, all of them empty. If we'd had any interest in golf, I imagine a tee time would have been ours for the asking. And the two steaming heated pools, which Sophie was eyeing longingly, were also deserted. Of course, there was a reason for that: When I asked a desk clerk at the resort's hotel whether people actually swam in this weather, she deadpanned, "Sure--crazy people."

Sophie pleaded with me to jump in with her nonetheless, but fortunately a tether-ball set up next to one of the pools sidetracked her and ended up keeping both kids occupied for what seemed like hours.

Best of all was the beach itself, stretching golden and unpeopled beneath our balcony and picture window. Come summer the sand would undoubtedly be obscured by bodies and beach towels, but on the day after Christmas only the occasional jogger or frolicking dog and its owner passed by, leaving barely a footprint. Between our condo building and the beach was a short stretch of the dunes for which the resort is named. They looked less wild than caged--protected by fencing and walkways, and posted with signs warning against even touching them--but they were beautiful nonetheless, with their tall grasses waving in the wind.

I hadn't come here just to look at waving beach grass; if we were going to be able to see old houses only in small doses, we'd better get started. Back in D.C., I had determined that a walking tour was the way to go, and now I called one of the many Charleston tour companies and made a reservation. The kids were dismayed at the length of the tour--Two hours! came the groans--but Jim and I stood firm: This was our version of vacation fun.

Fortunately for the kids, the trip into Charleston, which we had been told would take no more than 20 minutes, took 30, and we arrived too late. After a moment of disappointment, I hit upon what turned out to be, if I say so myself, a brilliant idea: a horse-drawn carriage tour. Not that it took a genius to come up with this; even in December, the Charleston streets are clogged with tourist-filled carriages, driven by guides simultaneously holding the reins and delivering their spiels. We hadn't even reached the central departure point for carriage tours, near the open-air Old City Market, when we were politely accosted by a young woman who wanted to know if we were interested in taking one.

We soon found ourselves the only passengers in a roomy carriage, equipped with blankets to fend off the chill. The kids were, if not openly enthusiastic, at least not resistant: This tour would last only an hour, no walking was required, and the horse was cute. So was the ingratiating young man who would be our guide. Our first stop was a small booth where, in a lottery system, each carriage is assigned to one of four sections of the city. Luck was with us: We were allotted the area south of Broad Street, which I knew to contain many of the city's older, 18th-century buildings.

I had been prepared to more or less force the kids to suffer through this tour for my sake, but the guide's patter kept all of us entertained. When we arrived at the imposing intersection of Broad and Meeting streets--the so-called "Four Corners of the Law," marked by buildings representing the laws of the nation (the post office), state (Charleston County Courthouse), city (city hall) and church (St. Michael's Episcopal, completed in 1761)--the guide quoted some local wag's epigram: Here a man can park his car and put money in the meter, meet a pretty girl, marry her, send a letter home announcing his marriage, go pay his taxes, and then get divorced when his wife finds out he doesn't make as much money as she thought he did--all without running out of time on the meter. Sam immediately committed the story to memory and was able to repeat it on demand during the remainder of the trip.

As the guide told us about Charleston architecture (the side porches called "piazzas," pronounced with a Southern drawl) and personalities (the wealthy childless man who built a special room after his annual ice cream party for orphans was rained out, to ensure it would never happen again), I gazed in awe at the exquisite houses and gardens we were passing

at just the right leisurely pace. I had known Charleston was beautiful, but I still hadn't been prepared for this. No wonder, as our guide had mentioned, affluent outsiders were snapping up these gems, driving real estate prices into the stratosphere.

As if to underscore that point, as our carriage rounded a corner I spotted a bumper sticker that read, "Happiness Is . . . a Yankee-Free Charleston."

"Oh, they don't mean folks like you," our guide said, chuckling. "They mean the ones who come here and stay."

Maybe. But what about that toilet

paper we spotted later in a store window that displayed a portrait of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman on each sheet, along with the words "Still Wiping Up the South"? Still, if Charlestonians have some lingering ambivalence about their city becoming a mecca for Northern tourists, perhaps that shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, Fort Sumter is looming right out there in the harbor. And maybe that insularity is what has enabled the South to retain its geographical distinctiveness. If the region simply welcomed outsiders with open arms, wouldn't it run the risk of losing the exotic quality that drew me here in the first place?

After a brief foray into the souvenir and candy shops bordering the Old City Market, the kids had had enough of old buildings and Southern culture. They wanted back to the resort. Jim and I knew better than to push our luck, compromise being the name of the family vacation game. So, despite the frigid

temperature, we headed back for tennis (not bad, once the wind died down and we'd worked up just a bit of a sweat) and bike-riding, for which the flat terrain was ideal. Sophie, ever hopeful, once again proposed a dip in the pool, but this time Jim and I managed to distract her with a novel idea: riding bikes on the beach. Our condo neighbors from back home had recommended it.

I was skeptical at first, but once we got past the soft sand near the dunes and onto the more tightly packed stretch bordering the water, the bikes skimmed smoothly along. Yes, we were bundled into our winter jackets, but there was no need for that bane of modern bike-riding, helmets. If you hit a soft patch and fell over, as happened once or twice, you barely felt it. The wind propelled us as though we were sailboats on the ocean itself, making our progress nearly effortless--until, that is, we turned to go back, at which point that same friendly wind began fighting us tooth and nail. Still, with the waves lapping at our tires, the sea air flooding our lungs, the sun sinking pink and golden into the horizon, and the virtually empty beach stretching ahead of us for what seemed like miles, it was the most exhilarating bike ride I'd ever experienced.

And the most surreal. I suddenly had a flash of us as others might see us from afar: a string of slightly absurd but somehow heroic figures, battling the raging elements on our flimsy, wobbly two-wheelers.

"I feel like I'm in a Fellini movie," I yelled to Jim over the pounding waves.

But I wasn't ready to completely abandon the idea of old houses. The next morning we cajoled the kids into agreeing to one--just one!--house tour in Charleston. Left to my own devices, I would have chosen something like the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House, with its "flying" spiral staircase, or at least taken a peek inside the 1763 John Rutledge House, now an inn. It was from that ornate house, on December 26, 1795--206 years before, almost to the day--that Rutledge had set out to drown himself in Charleston's harbor, apparently despondent over the Senate's recent rejection of his nomination as chief justice of the United States; he was fished out, over his strenuous objections, by some slaves who happened to spot him.

But our carriage-tour guide had pointed out the Victorian-era Calhoun Mansion, describing it as opulent and over-the-top, by restrained Charleston standards. Jim thought that if any old house would appeal to the kids, it would be this one, and I knew he was right. Sure enough, although they may have missed the finer points of the Sevres porcelain and Aubusson tapestries, the kids voiced no complaints as another ingratiating guide led us through the eye-popping dining room, its table set for an elaborate banquet, and the rose-colored music room, with its soaring skylight. The story of the house's renovation--rescued by a local lawyer from the brink of demolition--was full of human interest, too. We were tempted when the guide told us the house was for sale, fully furnished. But portraits of the current owner and his family were painted on the ceiling of the foyer, which seemed a bit tacky. Not to mention that bumper sticker from the day before. And the price, $13 million.

The trip had been, frankly, more of a success than I'd expected. Maybe we hadn't achieved communal vacation bliss, but each of us had been fairly gracious about accommodating the others' desires. Nevertheless, something was lacking. It seemed to me we still hadn't gotten a sense of the South's essence, that flavor that sets it apart from everyplace else. Not the New South, or the faux Old South, but the real, unadorned, unself-conscious South. The closest we'd come, apart from the Waffle House, was a quick stop at a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, from which we'd emerged with some local delicacies (sesame-flavored benne wafers and a can of boiled peanuts) and a Piggly Wiggly-logo potholder, drinking glass and baseball cap. So, in a last-ditch attempt to find some authenticity, we decided to eschew the homogeneity of I-95 and take lesser roads for the trip back to D.C. This would lead us through Myrtle Beach, S.C., which sounded promising in the atmosphere department: I discovered in my guidebook that it is, among other things, "the minigolf capital of the world."

Sure enough, as we drove along the main drag, miniature golf fantasy environments loomed around us, basically falling into four general categories: pirates, dinosaurs, tropical islands and jungles, with a number of crossover themes as well. Suddenly, that familial harmony I'd been yearning for descended upon us. As one being, without the need for discussion or negotiation, all four of us knew what we needed to do: engage in a round of what was obviously the favorite local pastime. The only question was where. Passing up the course with the erupting volcano, we settled on the towering Mt. Atlanticus, converted from an old high-rise department store. By the time we'd traveled the largely vertical course up to the 18th hole, we had a sweeping pano-rama of the deserted beach town, including a strip of the ocean at its edge.

And was it sufficiently exotic, authentically Southern? Well, consider the incident that occurred when we first arrived. The wizened, gnomelike man who took our money asked us where we were from, apparently following some standard procedure. When we told him, he spent a long, puzzled minute or two trying to find Washington, D.C., on his preprinted list. Finally he gave up and proceeded to enter our home town as a write-in--for what seemed to be the very first time. If it wasn't quite the equivalent of Scott setting foot on Antarctica, it at least gave us the feeling that we'd come a long way from home.

I know better than to think that Myrtle Beach was a turning point of some kind: We can't spend every vacation playing miniature golf nonstop (at least the adults can't), and undoubtedly there will be several more years of the kind of give-and-take, you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours negotiation that characterized the greater part of our Southern tour. I'm reminded of one of the houses our guide pointed out on our carriage ride: the left half done in straight-lined, geometric Greek Revival style, the right half graceful, curvy Italian Renaissance. Apparently the husband and wife couldn't agree, so they built one house with a split personality. Maybe the end result didn't entirely please anyone, but each of them got something he or she wanted. And, through the fine art of compromise, the family managed to keep itself together.

Getting There

The fastest and least picturesque route is I-95 and then I-26; it takes a little more than nine hours. A detour to Myrtle Beach will add about three hours, not counting miniature golf time.

Where to Stay: Winter rates at Wild Dunes (800-845-8880) begin Nov. 1 and range from $109 for a hotel room to $640 for a six-bedroom house, per night. Other Charleston-area resorts are Kiawah Island (800-654-2924) and Seabrook (800-845-2475).

Where to Eat: Great restaurants abound in Charleston. We sampled the local cuisine at Magnolias (843-722-9200) and, in nearby Mt. Pleasant, Slightly Up the Creek (843-884-5005).

For Information: Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Box 975, Charleston, S.C. 29402; 843-853-8000.

Natalie Wexler is a Washington writer.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company