Charleston, By Night and Day
Sunday, August 1, 2004
Loose sand is hissing across the beach in 25 mph winds as my shaggy, blond kiteboarding instructor squints up at the 65-square-foot kite that he is inching upwind -- barely -- by hanging his entire weight off its steering bar.
"Man, this thing's really juiced!" says Yani, arms extended like a kid on a jungle gym. Then he glances sideways at me. "Just a cautionary note."
Note taken. I am into the first hour of a kiteboarding lesson on Sullivans Island, a barrier island just east of Charleston, S.C. It is the windiest day in two weeks, and I have begun to understand that an enormous kite can not only rocket you across the water on a board -- that's kiteboarding -- but can also "chunk you like a rock," as Yani's boss had put it.
Such activities are hard for most people to learn, but in me, Yani has a unique challenge: an out-of-shape graduate student who has never surfed, who had never flown anything more than a kiddie kite until two days earlier and who -- let's be honest -- is nursing a bit of a hangover.
The night before, my reasoning had seemed flawless:
My lesson would not begin until late afternoon, leaving plenty of time to recover from a night out.
There were five bars. There were more beers. Thirteen hours later, it is safe to say that I am not in peak physical condition. Nonetheless, I am dutifully following Yani into the surf, pretending that I am not nervous when the strength of the wind prompts him to exclaim, simply, "Good Lord!"
Later, I told Yani that I interpreted this last statement as a prayer. "I'm glad you caught that," he said, grinning. "It was sort of a prayer."
As a tourist destination, Charleston's main selling point is its antebellum ambiance: gaslights on old storefronts, horse-and-carriage tours clomping past churches and graveyards, and enormous mansions catching the sea breeze off Charleston Harbor.
The city does indeed have all those things. But it also has beaches, wind and a bevy of surprisingly hip bars and clubs patronized by college students, yuppies, artists and surf rats. In short, you can come to Charleston to sightsee and eat fine food, or you can come to Charleston to play.
I had the latter option in mind during a recent visit, aiming to spend my days outdoors and my nights reacquainting myself with the night spots of the city where I once lived. The nightlife I knew I could handle. The rest I wasn't so sure about.
As befits a city surrounded by ocean, marshes and swamps, the best outdoor activities in Charleston involve water. I spent my first days there in a kayak, paddling the intracoastal waterway to a barrier island and navigating a blackwater stream crisscrossed by alligators. When I declined friends' subsequent offers to take me surfing and sailing, it wasn't because I didn't know how to do either -- though that was true -- but rather because I'd fixated on something newer and flashier: kiteboarding.