Move aside, Gotham, and make way for Charleston, South Carolina! When did I ever think I'd say that? But apparently, according to the results of the latest (2012) Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, the top U.S. destination city is Charleston! (For the record, the Big Apple comes in fifth!) “I've been all over the world and Charleston is the most beautiful city I've ever seen,” remarked Emmy Award-winning comedy writer and Charlestonian, Stephen Colbert, as he accepted the 2011 award on behalf of the city. For the record, 2011 was the first year that Charleston took first place, but it has been in the top-ten roster since 1993, when it was ranked sixth. And in Travel+ Leisure's top Cities in the US and Canada, it was ranked fourth.
Homes decorated for Christmas in Charleston
And I would have to concur that Charleston belongs in the firmament: After a visit this winter, for the Christmastime festivities, I came away enchanted. The parks are tranquil; the waterside battery provides a lovely walkway; the architecture of the antebellum homes is picturesque; the tasty low country cuisine will seduce you...and on and on. Yes, this is a pleasant, beautiful, and livable city. Steeped in history, awash with culture, and with both sophisticated and charming country-style shopping, it's a terrific destination.
And if you're taken by Charleston's charms, you'll be all the more taken with the simultaneous glamour and coziness of the Charleston Place Hotel (above), located in the heart of the gorgeous historic district. Consistently ranked among the best hotels in the world by the readers of both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines, the Charleston Place Hotel evokes the feeling of a grand, 17th-century residence, from its lavish suites to the Italian-marble lobby with its signature Georgian Open Arm staircase, to its 12-foot-tall crystal chandelier. At Christmastime, the main lobby was bedecked with a half-dozen major, decorated evergreens and a massive train set, choo-chooing around a toy village. (And don't think it's too soon to get those reservations in the computer for next December! The city is a sheer delight for the holidays, and on December 8th, it will host its 17th Annual Christmas Light Parade and Tree-Lighting. More than 100 floats will inch their way down Coleman Boulevard as the Mount Pleasant Christmas Light Parade sets sail to the delight of thousands of residents and visitors. So lock in your visit now!)
You'll be blown away by the gracious staff of the hotel, as well. Dedicated to indulging its guests with the friendliest and finest of Southern hospitality, the employees have served a cavalcade of princes, politicians, and pedestrian folks like me—and all get the royal treatment, because that is the only way they know how to do it! (When I left a jumble of hair clips, barrettes, and ponytail holders on the vanity, the housekeeper caringly arranged them just-so, on top of a lovely linen serviette. And it doesn't hurt that the in-room toiletries /amenities are from the upmarket Gilchrist and Soames.) Snag a room on one of the two concierge-level floors, and you'll enjoy even more special treatment: nearly all-day snacking in the guest lounge includes complimentary continental breakfast, afternoon tea, evening cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and after dinner cordials and desserts. (And the bar is always stocked with ever-flowing iced tea and lemonade—very Southern—and those hard-to-resist benne wafers.)
The Spa at Charleston Place is a must-visit stop during your stay. Facials, pedicures, manicures, a full range of exotic body scrubs and wraps, hot stone therapy and aromatherapy, Swedish, deep tissue, reflexology, and sports massages are all available. After a little pampering, you can lounge by the infinity-edge, salt-water swimming pool with its retractable glass roof above, which guarantees the best weather, rain or shine. The spa also features a fully-equipped gym and professional trainers are on hand to provide instruction, as well as to lead classes in aerobics, body sculpting, yoga, and even power walking through the historic district.
You may well want to know where that gym is, after you've dined in the destination Charleston Grill restaurant. Recognized as one of the best restaurants in the nation, the Charleston Grill is the recipient of the coveted Mobil Four-Star, the AAA Four-Diamond, and the Distinguished Restaurants of North America designations. Contemporary Southern cuisine from executive chef Michelle Weaver features fresh local produce, seafood, and game, with a menu divided into four tasting sensations: Southern, Pure, Lush, and Cosmopolitan. Mix and match sweet and savory, or spicy and mild. For Sunday brunch, I went to the hotel's Palmetto Cafe, adjacent to the lush gardens and fountain, and a perfect spot for leisurely dining.
You won't want to lollygag too long, however, at the table, since there is so much history steeped into this city, and as they say, it's not for nothing that it is the number-one destination among sophisticated travelers. I found visiting the historic homes one of the most enjoyable and educational pastimes, and would heartily recommend a few: the Joseph Manigault House (Charleston’s Huguenot House); the Heyward-Washington House (Charleston's Revolutionary War house); the Aiken-Rhett House (the city's most intact antebellum complex); the Nathaniel Russell House (a grand Federal townhouse); the Edmondston-Alston House (with a commanding harbor view). Drayton Hall, the oldest unrestored plantation house in America, a short ride outside town, is also worth a look-see, and the in-town Charleston Museum is definitely worth a half-day; I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the costumes, quilts, and other textiles there.
Charleston's famous Rainbow Houses
The sprawling historic Charleston City Market, which is right across the street from the hotel, encompasses three open air sheds—more like airplane hangars, really—and one enclosed great hall, which, together, house more than 140 merchants, including 20 locally owned micro boutiques; it was here that I managed to be separated (quite handily) from my souvenir-shopping money—so many beautiful low country souvenirs to buy! And I did! And, yes, benne wafers, for sure, came home with me! If your visit is between April 13 and December 21 of this year, then the local Farmers' Market will be open, as well, and it is a short walk from the hotel; here you'll find more souvenirs, local handicrafts, and plenty to eat, including the famous crepes.
For planning your day's activities, the hotel concierge will be invaluable, and if you're in need during the day of rerouting your sightseeing, then visit the local Visitors' Center at 375 Meeting Street, where you can also purchase a Heritage Pass that will allow you entrance into nine attractions.
For hotel bookings: 800-383-2335; charlestonplace.com