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Getaway to Charleston offers gracious city, sandy shores
0531Beach-Garden
Traditional Charleston architecture includes side porches strategically placed to catch the east-west breezes that blew in off the water. Many of the homes throughout the city's historic neighborhoods also include lush gardens filling out the long, narrow lots. - photo by Kristen Morales

Grab a bite

You can't stay in Charleston without enjoying a great meal.

Fig
The chef here just won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast.
Address: 232 Meeting St., Charleston
Contact: 843-805-5900

Hominy Grill
The chef here won the James Beard Award last year.
Address: 207 Rutledge Ave., Charleston
Contact: 843-937-0930

39 Rue de Jean
French restaurant with great burgers.
Address: 39 John St., Charleston
Contact: 843-722-8881

Martha Lou's
Soul food with terrific fried chicken, pork chops and lima beans. The place isn't much; you're definitely going for the food.
Address: 1068 Morrison Drive, Charleston
Contact: 843-577-9583

The most ironic of duels recently took place just a few hours from here.

The stately tiff was between two cities - Savannah and Charleston, S.C. - over which was more mannerly. And, in true Southern genteel fashion, Charleston ceded the title to Savannah after more than a decade of holding the crown.

But that's OK; visitors to Charleston won't miss the title as they take in the many museums, tapas bars and waterside strolls, all within a reasonable walking distance and close to parking and a well-equipped visitors center, too.

Granted, many families are trimming back on their summer vacation this year, opting to stay closer to home or not leave at all. So consider this a plug for making a drive of a few hours over to the coast, to a town where you can easily stroll down a crowded shopping street and, in about 30 minutes, be at a pristine sandy beach, ready to take on the waves.

Charleston is a fun city to walk, and once you get a handle on where the grid of streets will take you, you realize nothing in the downtown core is very far. The original city, which stood behind a wall when first built as a British colony, has the same streets and is easy to walk. Outside of that, the tightly packed neighborhoods make for good faux house hunting. And within a few blocks, you're right smack in the middle of the shopping district again.

As far as history goes, Charleston has a lot going for it. For starters, by the time the Revolutionary War came around, it was the fourth largest city in the New World. Heck, the citizens there even had their own tea party when the colonists in Boston had the idea.

Built right on a harbor, the biggest problem for Charleston in its early years were pirates - Blackbeard, in particular, who was known for taking a match to his scruffy beard so he appeared shrouded in a puff of smoke - and, of course, a couple of wars.

The Revolutionary War did a number on the city, and following the Civil War, as the bombarded city tried to rebuild, it was plagued with massive fires and even an earthquake.

But the citizens soldiered on.

In the 1930s, some Charleston residents realized if they didn't do something, the narrow homes with side porches would disappear to development. So they created the country's first historic district, and today the city is pieced together by these districts, displayed proudly on street signs. The result of the preservation efforts also mean you can walk past wooden homes built in the 1700s, old merchants' homes now painted yellows, blues and pinks, and stories about ghosts and lost loves still roam the restored homes.

Charleston is more than history, though. There's lots of art - the "museum mile" runs down Meeting Street, the heart of the city - and if you go in June, you can catch the Spoleto festival and Piccolo Spoleto, a massive arts festival inspired by the original Spoleto festival in Italy. Each night - even on a Monday - you can find theater, concerts, poetry and art shows happening around the city.

Then, there's the beach.

Yes, Savannah has Tybee Island. But there's something about Savannah that keeps you within the city limits; it coaxes you in with the promise of shady, tree-lined streets and keeps you there after you've had something to eat.

Charleston, on the other hand, will let you slide down the road to Folly Beach, a quick 25-minute drive on the only road you can take. And the city will welcome you back for a late dinner after you've walked in the sand a bit.

Granted, Folly Beach isn't for one-nighters; it's primarily a beach rental community, with a mishmash of beachy homes lining the streets.

And what hotels are there are very pricey (nothing's less than $150 a night, even on a Monday). But since Folly Beach is so convenient, it's easy to pack a picnic, take a drive and park near public beach access.

If you hit the traffic lights right, you'll be back in time for a late meal in less than 20 minutes.

And that's the underlying beauty of Charleston. It's welcoming without littering you with brochures, and it's inviting without being cloyingly sweet. It has the beckon of the beach, but unless you're ready for a full week's commitment of a rental, it's OK to come back into town after soaking your toes in the salt water.

And, if your wallet is feeling the pinch, it can be done in a weekend trip, with your splurge going to a hotel during the Spoleto festival.

So, what are you waiting for?

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