Charleston is charming

As I was heading into downtown Charleston, I was greeted by a pounding rainstorm that was occurring under the watchful gaze of the sun. I was to never see this type of liquid sunshine during my week stay here. What did remain was the humidity, but it didn't matter. The charm of this coastal paradise offset the weather's behavior.

It has been quite a while since I visited downtown Charleston. My last visit was in early 1994 when I stayed at the Ansonborough Inn on Hassell Street for a two-week assignment covering events at the Citadel. That was not a bad gig. I stayed in a spacious room with all of the amenities. A Harris Teeter grocery store was next door so that I could cook up a feast in my room. When I didn't want to slave over a stove, I had the chance to dine on some of the best seafood in the country at places like Hyman's. I raved about Charleston's epicurean delights for years to come. Little did I realize that Charleston would build upon its strengths.

When I pulled onto Hassell Street after a 12 year absence, I was amazed at its changes. The Ansonborough went through a major renovation. The Harris Teeter is still there, but an amazing amount of first-rate shops and restaurants festoons all off these quaint streets – some are even in cobblestone. With my family in tow, we had to check out the best in Charleston dining.

On my first night, I visited the Oak Steakhouse. Executive Chef Brett McKee, who is a local legend in this city, proudly toured us around his digs. The bold, bald and bespectacled McKee has built quite a steakhouse. "I tore out the ceiling and opened this place up," McKee said, pointing towards the massive front windows of the restaurant. "Here, let's go up to the third floor." McKee was like a kid in a candy store as he showed the top floor of the restaurant where regulars can store their wines in small lockers. Since the restaurant was once a bank, its main wine collection is in a vault. "See if you can pull this door," McKee challenged my daughter. With all of her might, my child did her best to move this massive cover to the vault. When the well-toned McKee assisted her, she suddenly felt strong. When it came time for dinner, we were pampered in this fine restaurant. I had to admit that it can be a challenge to take kids into such a nice restaurant. With children of his own, McKee understood that our daughter would probably not order up their Veal Osso Buco or the Mint Pesto Encrusted Rack of Lamb. Instead, Caitlin dined on a bowl of pasta. As for myself, since this is dubbed an "Italian Steakhouse," I had to try the 7oz Filet Mignon with a one pound baked potato. Caitlin joked that the potato was slightly larger than her. We topped the meal off with Brett's Mother's Cheesecake. Just the name of it was irresistible.

After our excellent meal at the Oak Restaurant, we retired to our room at the Wentworth Mansion on where else? Wentworth Street. This AAA rated Five Diamond property showers you in style and class. Handsome architecture on its exteriors, high interior ceilings, detailed woodwork and hand-carved marble fireplaces are some of the features of this exquisite structure that is chock full of history. When we awoke in our massive, comfortable room, we came down to what I think is one of the heartiest breakfasts I ever had. We felt right at home as the staff eagerly helped us with our bagels, waffles and fruits.

Charleston's fish tank

After breakfast at the Wentworth, we stocked up on water to head out and explore Charleston. Our first point of interest was the South Carolina Aquarium. After realizing that it was a bit too far to walk, we went on a search for a CARTA bus. When we scouted out a stop in front of an Episcopalian church, we learned that Charleston's public transportation is was not exactly reliable -- especially on a Sunday. A church worker and her visiting relatives picked us up and drove us to the aquarium. Even though it is far smaller than our aquarium in Atlanta, the South Carolina Aquarium is far easier to tour due to its simple design and lighter crowds.

All of that CARTA-chasing and fish-watching made us hungry. We headed over to Tristan restaurant for lunch. Using our CARTA cards for the city's trolley, we headed over to this cute eatery tucked away next to the French Quarter Inn on South Market Street. When we arrived, we were ushered into their inviting dining room and provided with a menu with an array of options. As I dined on their Jumbo Crab Cake, I was treated to an afternoon of live jazz.

We walked off our Tristan meal at the outdoor market just outside its doors. Whether it is shopping for hats or jewelry, this market seems to have everything. If you are ever in need of a gift idea, this is the place to be.

Somehow we found our way back to the Wentworth Mansion on foot. We filled up once again when they brought out wine, cheese and fruit in their parlor room. Would there be any room for a late dinner? Of course! We were in Charleston.

Our last meal in the city was at High Cotton restaurant. Since it was a late dinner, we decided to drive its East Bay Street location. Parking was not a problem since there is a nearby garage. If you are lucky, you might find a space on the street.

The walk to High Cotton was worth it. Designed in a Low Country/antebellum motif, this restaurant features pine floors and fans with wide blades. We were pampered from the moment we were seated. Featured soups and salads include a mouth-watering Lobster Bisque and their unique Caesar Salad. Tuna Carpaccio, Buttermilk Fried Oysters and a foie gras dish are just some of the appetizers that they offer. When it came time for the entrees, we weren't sure if we had room left. My wife went for the small serving of the Carolina Trout and I indulged in the 14 ounce Ribeye with sampling of its many sauces including Bernaise and Truffle Blue Cheese.

Before we finished our entrees, our gracious waiter reminded us if we wanted to order a souffle, we ought to do it as soon as possible. That bit of planning worked because the dessert was out of this world. At the conclusion of the meal, we had to bring home a bottle of their excellent sparkling water which we later learned was imported from Quebec.

As we left the Wentworth Mansion, I couldn't help but feel a bit of longing for New Orleans. Charleston is similar to the Crescent City in so many ways. That might explain why Charleston is doing brisk business since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

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