Charleston is a beautiful and interesting city, full of history, culture, and great food and beer, and we look forward to a return visit… but without our tin can home so we can stay in town! As is the case with campgrounds in most larger cities, our home base was just too far from the parts of Charlestown we wanted to explore, and all the time spent driving (and finding parking) or being driven up and down the highway was a real downer. We made the decision to avoid Airstreaming to bigger cities for a while, let’s see how that sticks!
Because we waited too long to book a campsite, we had to split our stay in Charleston across two campgrounds. One was delightful; the other, not so much.
The Campground at James Island County Park
James Island County Park, about twenty minutes south of downtown Charleston, is enormous and beautiful, and has a clean, quiet campground with winding lanes and leafy campsites. We were able to exit the Airstream and in three steps be on a running trail, part of a network winding around the park for a few miles through woods, meadows, play areas, and past small lakes and a tidal river with a fishing dock. Outside the park, restaurants and even a brewery are nearby on James Island, and it’s a short drive to the shops and cafes in the happening West Ashley neighborhood of Charleston. We loved staying there.
Alas, we could only stay at James Island for two nights. For the remainder of our stay in Charleston, we reserved a site at the KOA in Mt Pleasant, about the same distance from downtown as James Island County Park, and just outside Mt Pleasant, which has some cool areas when you escape the traffic and strip malls of Rt 17. We arrived at the nice-looking campground, in a big hurry because our basketball team had a tournament game on TV in a half hour, to find that we were actually booked at the OTHER Charleston KOA in Ladson. WARNING TO THE REST OF YOU: There are two Charleston KOAs! They both have “Charleston KOA” in the name! Make sure you reserve where you think you’re reserving–and you should reserve at the Mt Pleasant KOA, not Ladson! We were NOT impressed with the Ladson KOA. Our campsite was fine–after we refused to take the extremely narrow “upgraded pull-through” they tried to give us and got the more private back-in we’d reserved–but there was no fire pit, and the sewer pipe was so tall it was unusable (and all the other sites we checked had the same problem), and when we dumped at the dump station on our way out, we had to back out because of the terrible road design. As J aptly put it, “it seems like the owner of this campground has never actually camped at a campground.” Ladson is farther from downtown, so we racked up some hefty Uber bills while there. The one saving grace of the Ladson KOA was a couple great running options nearby, which I’ll tell you more about below.
Charleston has gorgeous architecture, and we (as we usually do to get familiar with a city) did our initial exploration following a walking architecture tour, through quieter neighborhoods to the south and east of the chain stores of King Street near Market Street, past the historic riverfront mansions along the Battery Promenade, and into Battery Park at the end of the peninsula. Later, we followed part of the Charleston Gallery Walk and popped into several galleries; we especially enjoyed the Lions + Tigers + Bears exhibit (now closed; click hotel link for current exhibition info) at the Vendue Hotel (and then headed upstairs to the rooftop bar for a cocktail).
We really enjoyed the Fort Sumter tour: saw dolphins and container ships on the boat ride and got a fascinating history lesson at the fort. I recommend buying tickets in advance on the website.
I like trees. Do you like trees? J was not especially excited to see a really old tree, so I took a solo drive to see the 400-plus-year-old Angel Oak Tree on John’s Island, not far from our campground on James Island. I’m not sure I’d recommend it unless you really like trees–I loved seeing it up close, but thought J made the right decision to skip it.
We were very busy and visited eight breweries in Charleston: Charles Towne Fermentory, Palmetto Brewery, Tradesman Brewing, Revelry Brewing Co, Cooper River Brewing Co, Lo-Fi Brewing, Freehouse Brewing, and Ghost Monkey Brewery. Below are my notes, with better info from J to come soon, if I can talk him into it.
- Charles Towne Fermentory: Really good hoppy beers; we enjoyed the hoppy blond and IPA. Tasted the sours, which had good flavor, but we didn’t want to commit to a full pour. They don’t do flights. The food, cooked by guest chefs and served from a window in the taproom, changes daily, and we thought one of our dishes was delicious, while the other was bland. Overall, a really cool place.
- Palmetto Brewery: Good IPAs, especially the double, which I could only have a couple sips of because I was driving!
- Tradesman Brewing: Tiny (but expanding soon to a new location in North Charleston), convenient to the James Island campground, and with super friendly staff and owners who gave us a million local recommendations for everything from seafood to cocktails to where to take Bugsy hiking.
- Revelry Brewing: We enjoyed the good beer (we both liked the pale ale better than the IPA–which is normal for me, but not for J) and laid-back scene at Revelry.
- Cooper River Brewing: The terrible musician admitted he was drunk… and that sort of took away from our beer drinking experience.
- Lo-Fi Brewing: My favorite brewery logo so far, and they also have a picture of Patrick Swayze on display! And a very entertaining website: move your mouse around the home page to make pretty art. How’s that for a beer review?
- Freehouse Brewing: Nice big outdoor area by the river… except for the biting gnats. We three moved inside and enjoyed a flight of slighly sour, farmhouse-inspired beers, along with one IPA.
- Ghost Monkey Brewery: The Army of Dankness IPA was the best IPA we had on this trip. The taproom was busy and family-friendly, with free cupcakes for a band’s CD release party, thanks!
To sum up, our top 3 breweries in Charleston were:
- Ghost Monkey
- Charles Towne Fermentory
And I should note our most disappointing brewery was Westbrook. We’d heard and read good things and Ubered over on our last evening in town but the tasting room closes at SIX on Saturdays!!!! What is that?
We also had a beer with a waterfront view on the deck at Fleet Landing. The bar and restaurant area were packed, but we were lucky (?) to visit on a chilly evening and were able to find a seat outside to watch the kooky sea birds and DOLPHINS!!!!
Cocktail-wise, we went for atmosphere, following recommendations from the New York Times:
- I love a rooftop bar, so we went to the Rooftop at the Vendue Hotel. Be sure to go up to the very top to see the view (we didn’t realize there was a second level of roof at first), mostly of surrounding rooftops. Don’t expect spectacular scenery, but the cocktails were tasty and the after work people-watching was fun.
- We also love a cozy dark-paneled whiskey bar, so we stopped by the Thoroughbred Club at the Belmond Charleston Place Hotel for a nightcap and live jazz. It was kind of cheesy, but romantic, and the beverages and bar snacks hit the spot.
We were in Charlestown for St Patrick’s Day, which is HUGE there, but because we are crowd-averse we stayed home that night! Lame or smart?
We had two top-notch dinners downtown, at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant and FIG. The service and seafood at Hank’s were both stellar, in a huge but still classy dining room. FIG is more intimate, with a creative focus on local ingredients. We arrived without a reservation (no reservations were available while we were in town–reserve early!) and waited in line in the hopes of nabbing seats at the small bar when the restaurant opened. A couple–two grown-up people–cut ahead of us in line when the doors opened and they were the last two people seated at the bar. Can you believe that?? The staff took pity on us when the line-cutters wouldn’t even make eye contact to acknowledge their sin, and gave us a table on the floor. What a fabulous experience, after the part with the rude couple.
The morning I visited the Angel Oak Tree, I grabbed bagels from Bagel Nation on the way home. Yes, it’s in a strip mall in a random neighborhood, but the bagels were wonderful!
Shem Creek is an area of waterfront restaurants and bars across the river from Charleston in Mount Pleasant, and when we visited on the day after St Patrick’s Day, the party was still going on. We had an early dinner on the deck at Tavern and Table; the fish tacos were fantastic and the oysters were good, but we were surprised that they weren’t local. The dance music from the bar next door was obnoxious, but I imagine on a normal day it’s a more peaceful experience watching the boats on the creek.
I can’t believe I’m going to say it, but after our initial thrill at finding a White Duck Taco Shop not far from our James Island campground, we had such a meh experience there we swore we wouldn’t go again when next in Asheville (spoiler: we went in Asheville, and it was awesome). The beer selection was sad, the tacos were bland… but the dessert was yummy, so it wasn’t all bad.
And on the north side of town, after our frustrating search for the Charleston KOA, we needed to find a sports bar ASAP to watch a UVA NCAA tournament game. We ended up at the bar at the Summerville branch of Carolina Ale House, drinking good beer from a wide selection, staring at a big TV, but eating average food in a very chain restaurant-feeling space.
While we didn’t do anything as exciting as running over the Cooper River Bridge, we ran in some lovely places. Charleston has wonderful county parks, and we ran in two: James Island County Park, home of our sweet first campground, and North Charleston Wannamaker County Park, just a few minutes from campground #2. Both have miles of paved and soft-surface trails, and playgrounds and fields for more creative workouts.
Also close to the KOA is a flat run with few road crossings along the Sawmill Branch Multi-Use Trail. You can tailor the out-and-back to your preferred distance, but watch out for alligators in the canal! (We didn’t see any.) On a weekday morning in March the trail was lightly used.
Runner’s World has more suggestions, some of which sound glorious, but I think you’re nuts if you try to run in downtown Charleston. Maybe early in the morning before all the people are out.