Charleston: A Jolly Dis­cov­ery

Come for the tra­di­tion, but fall in love with the Holy City’s never-end­ing sur­prises

Southern Living (USA) - - Travel & Culture - BY TRACEY MINKIN

CHRIST­MAS IN Charleston, South Carolina, is like one big Ad­vent cal­en­dar.

This hol­i­day epiphany first ar­rives while I watch Bri­anna Berry craft a drink called Smoke & Mir­rors, a cock­tail of cold-brew cof­fee, tequila, chile and spiced pear liqueurs, black wal­nut bit­ters, and an Earl Grey sim­ple syrup made from tea grown on a South Carolina bar­rier is­land. She sets a thick stick of cin­na­mon burn­ing and caps a snifter over it, set­ting loose that clas­sic hol­i­day scent into the empty ves­sel and then fill­ing it with the dark, spicy blend of spir­its.

I’m hav­ing lunch in the city’s quiet West­side neigh­bor­hood at a cozy restau­rant called Harold’s Cabin, tuck­ing into a plate of wild boar meat­loaf and a groan­ing board of roasted mush­rooms, beets, and win­ter squash, not to men­tion this cock­tail. The win­ter sun beam­ing through broad plate glass win­dows lights up the art­dot­ted plank walls. It’s as cheery in here as the in­te­ri­ors of minia­ture log cab­ins that glow along the hill­sides of train sets. It’s noth­ing like I imag­ined Christ­mas in Charleston to be, but it’s ex­actly what Christ­mas in Charleston turns out to be.

And that’s where the idea of an Ad­vent cal­en­dar comes in. Charleston is so fa­mous, so his­toric, so clas­sic, that the prom­ise of the hol­i­days here is like an ide­al­ized scene on the fa­cade of a card­board Ad­vent cal­en­dar. I dis­cover that scene while wan­der­ing the streets of the lower penin­sula: wreaths dot­ting grand doors, gar­lands of mag­no­lia and pine drap­ing wrought iron fences, trees wink­ing from be­tween plan­ta­tion shut­ters. The pal­met­tos that line King Street—the city’s grand pa­rade of stores, restau­rants, and bars—are wrapped in twin­kling lights, while the shop win­dows sing with fes­tive hol­i­day dis­plays. In the poin­set­ti­aand Christ­mas tree-be­decked lobby of the Bel­mond Charleston Place ho­tel, a model train makes the slow trek through its own dreamy win­ter land­scape, per­form­ing its care­ful loops for the throngs of chil­dren and their par­ents who visit the dis­play ev­ery year as a spe­cial hol­i­day ri­tual.

But it’s dur­ing lunch at Harold’s that I pry open the first lit­tle per­fo­rated door on my cal­en­dar and de­light at the sur­prise within. I keep pry­ing and peer­ing. Lured by the opulence of the win­dow dis­plays at Croghan’s Jewel Box (where many Charleston fam­i­lies se­lect a keep­sake or­na­ment ev­ery year), I re­al­ize that the near-life-size Santa Claus fig­ure in the win­dow is done up in a white top hat and a red vel­vet suit—more dance hall than North Pole—and he’s flanked by two rein­deer in bustiers and short, flouncy skirts—more Moulin Rouge than The Night Be­fore Christ­mas. It’s saucy and fun. I stand trans­fixed on the busy side­walk, watch­ing the rein­deer twirl with their knees hoisted high in a per­pet­ual can­can.

I wan­der next into a bou­tique called Worth­while, where I dis­cover table­top trees decked with or­na­ments crafted in the high-gloss style of Ger­man glass fig­u­ral de­signs of the 1950s—pinecones, acorns, clus­ters of grapes—but these are ir­rev­er­ent and con­tem­po­rary in their sub­ject mat­ter: slices of pizza, grape­fruit halves, mar­tini glasses. In other shops they might be pre­dictable and even kitschy, but these are el­e­vated and gor­geous. Be­low, a for­est of bot­tle brush trees, just a few inches tall and in the col­ors of PEZ candies, cre­ates a crazy blan­ket of bristly de­light. I love clas­sic Charleston, but I love this side of the city even more.

More Ad­vents, more finds. I be­come a habitué of the lobby of my own ho­tel, The Dew­berry, a con­verted mid-cen­tury Fed­eral of­fice build­ing with a de­sign so con­trary to the Ge­or­gian ar­chi­tec­tural glo­ries that dom­i­nate lo­cally—I feel like I’m hav­ing an aes­thetic af­fair of sorts. I sip a glass of the ho­tel chef’s mother’s recipe for boozy eggnog while I ogle the vin­tage Scan­di­na­vian fur­ni­ture all around me. I ven­ture out again to eat, drink, and be merry: I sip a Hawaii-wor­thy mai tai at South Seas Oa­sis, a tiny tiki lounge that’s hid­den down a cob­ble­stone al­ley. I pol­ish off a plate of pulled pork, spare ribs, and mac and cheese at Rod­ney Scott’s BBQ’s out­door pic­nic ta­bles—an act with no hol­i­day ties but one that should be on ev­ery­one’s wish list. I pick up bot­tles of small-batch sorghum whiskey and botan­i­cal gin (Merry Christ­mas to me!) from High Wire Dis­till­ing Co., a bou­tique dis­tillery and tast­ing room on the up­per reaches of King Street. And one sweetly quiet night, I spend hours in the cozy cor­ner

of chef Jill Mathias’ Chez Nous, a Euro­pean con­sort to the rus­tic Harold’s, tak­ing my time with veal crudo, hand­made pas­tas, and a fi­gand-but­ter­scotch budino, all the while ad­mir­ing the care with which the nightly menu has been hand­writ­ten on card stock.

As a long week­end winds to a close, I wish I could stay here for the en­tire month of De­cem­ber—I’d catch the Hol­i­day Pa­rade of Boats in Charleston Har­bor and drive through the 3-mile in­can­des­cent riot that is the Hol­i­day Fes­ti­val of Lights in James Is­land.

I’d join the high-spir­ited pro­gres­sive din­ners at the sto­ried Circa 1886 and Went­worth Man­sion and tour ev­ery his­toric home. I’d groove with the lo­cals who fill the Charleston Mu­sic Hall for the an­nual Hol­i­day Swing jazz con­cert and mar­vel at Ann Cald­well & the Mag­no­lia Singers at the Spir­i­tu­als at Dray­ton Hall per­for­mances.

And I’d sit rapt in the hard pews of The Citadel’s Sum­mer­all Chapel— hav­ing been es­corted to my seat by a fresh-shaved cadet in uni­form—feel­ing the brass and reeds of The Citadel Reg­i­men­tal Band and Pipes wash over me in hymns and tra­di­tional songs of the sea­son. And I’d won­der, af­ter the con­cert, what lit­tle door

I’d pry open next.

Sea­sonal Spe­cial­tiesLeft to right: Craft cock­tails at Harold’s Cabin; the hol­i­day win­dow dis­play at Croghan’s Jewel Box; up­dated or­na­mentsat Worth­while

Win­ter Won­ders From top: The Dew­berry ho­tel’s lobby, aglow with vin­tage mid-cen­tury mod­ern fur­ni­ture as well as re­pro­duc­tion pieces;the ho­tel’s ir­re­sistible eggnog

Sweet Dis­cov­er­ies Clock­wise from left: The rus­ticre­fine­ment of Chez Nous restau­rant; chef Jill Mathiasof Chez Nous; op­u­lent con­fec­tions at Christophe Ar­ti­san Cho­co­latier-Pâtissier

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