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In September, Charleston was rated the #1 favorite U.S. city to visit by a Travel + Leisure survey, a title the city has claimed for 10 consecutive years. It was also rated as America’s favorite small city and even the best place to propose. It’s clear Charleston is a great town to indulge in all your senses all year long—from the holidays through summer and fall. Most people don’t realize it, but you can visit both historic downtown Charleston and also soak in the beach only 30 minutes away.
So Much to Sea
Wild Dunes Resort, part of the Destinations by Hyatt Collection, covers a large acreage on the barrier island of Isle of Palms including the northern tip, about a half hour from downtown Charleston. The property features two inns, rental and residential homes and condos, two golf courses, a tennis center (rated #3 in the world) and cruiser bike rentals, all part of the relaxed coastal vibe. Other amenities of Wild Dunes Resort are the pickleball course (a big trend!) and hiking and biking trails.
Wild Dunes Resort encompasses the Residences at Sweetgrass, condo units that were built around 2007, 200 to 400 vacation rental homes, the Boardwalk Inn and Sweetgrass Inn. Both of the inns are the maximum five and a half stories that Isle of Palms will allow. The Lowe family purchased the land around 1990 and began developing it into the retreat that it is today. The Harbor golf course is known for being built into its natural surroundings with the highlight being the intercoastal section around holes 16 and 17. The other course, Links, is one of the original Tom Fazio designs, which makes it a prized play for any golfer.
Sweetgrass Inn opened its doors on March 26, 2021, with 193 rooms. At this east coast resort, spring and summer are definitely high seasons. Guests enjoy the wide-open private beach (just across the boardwalk) in addition to the amenities mentioned above. Guests should make a point to book a spa service at the Sweetgrass Spa on the bottom floor. Highlights include a relaxing massage and the outdoor patio, which features cold and hot plunge pools.
The Boardwalk Inn is a classic coastal-style boutique hotel where you can tuck yourself in quietly. As opposed to Sweetgrass Inn, which is more modern, with the interior styling of the Boardwalk Inn features bathroom barn doors and extended sliding-glass doors leading onto the patio, making it both trendy and action-filled.
Dining at the Dunes
Coastal Provisions is a laid-back cafe in the lobby of the Boardwalk Inn. The café features local purveyors and local ingredients, and the fish is sustainably sourced. The upscale menu features butterbean hummus for lunch, crab hush puppies served with a remoulade and marcona almonds with a honey drizzle, burrata salad, gnocchi and pistachio seared lamb. Your tummy will be full of so many Southern greats! Pair the hearty goodness with a bold cabernet wine and finish off with a sweet dessert. Coastal Provisions also offers breakfast, from a traditional choice of eggs, sausage and biscuit—with grits, of course—to a list of sweet options.
Hudson‘s Market, located in the plaza, is open for breakfast (breakfast burritos and gourmet coffees) and any grocery needs you might have (wine, beer, crackers, desserts). Connecting both of the inns, the plaza is filled with shops, restaurants, including a woodfired pizza kitchen, and an art gallery that spotlights local artists.
Laughing Gull, a poolside cafe, offers grub-hub food like wood-fired pizzas, juicy burgers and fries paired with local draft beer. Perfect for enjoying lunch amid the beautiful weather the area is known for with a view of the waterscape.
Wild Dunes Resort has some very special holiday traditions. The day after Thanksgiving, there is a holiday festival and their famous golf cart parade, just outside the plaza. At Christmas, celebrate with Seaside Cinemas outdoors. You and your family can enjoy classic Christmas movies and refreshments and feel comfortable in your own outdoor “safety square.” Another Wild Dunes Resort tradition is Stories on the Stoop with Santa, when Santa goes to homes and reads a story on the porch.
The culinary program offers the popular “dinner delivered” program where families can order meals if they’re staying at home.
There is a great contrast between spending days near the beach and coming into historic Charleston. The Emeline hotel sits in the heart of the bustling city, but not very far from the water, near the famous City Market and dozens of restaurants and bars. The proximity to the water allows tourists to see the famous pineapple fountain and walk all the way down to The Battery, which is at the southern tip of the peninsula.
Emeline is the muse for the residential feel of the hotel. She is the epitome of a Southern hostess and wants you to feel like you’re in her living room (not a lobby). When you walk in the door, you’ll be greeted by the signature scent and a welcome cocktail, typically a Planters Punch. Within the living room, you’ll find a functional record player with a full collection of vinyl. The hotel worked hard to source locally for everything from the light fixtures and the custom circular staircase near guest check-in, to the locally roasted Second State Coffee, featured at Clerks coffee shop. Built in the 1850s, the Charleston hotel still utilizes the original front door, which has been preserved.
Near check-in, an open boutique called Keep sells local wares authentic to the Emeline, such as the locally crafted pottery soap dishes found in the guest bathrooms.
The Emeline is part of a collection of hotels called Makeready, which also features the Adolphus in Dallas. They opened their doors in July 2020, right after the height of the pandemic. This dog-friendly property features 212 guest rooms. Of those, 128 are suites. Each suite includes a separate bedroom, large bathroom and large living space with a fold-out couch, a four-person table and kitchen bar with a small refrigerator.
Eating at Emeline
Emeline’s restaurant, Frannie & the Fox, is a hit with the locals! With a European atmosphere and boasts both indoor and outdoor sections (the outdoor courtyard features a large fireplace) and a vintage collection of furniture, guests are enticed to stay a while!
Enjoy the Frannie breakfast sandwich, a nice warm biscuit filled with layered scrambled eggs, ham and cheese. The perfect way to start your day.
Frannie & the Fox also offers a take-away menu in the evenings where you can pick up a dinner of meatballs, woodfired pizzas, rigatoni pasta and other comfort foods to enjoy in your suite.
On the opposite side of Frannie’s fireplace is a general outdoor courtyard, very common in Charleston. There are 15 rooms called Masonnettes on the first floor that open onto the courtyard. A popular option during the pandemic.
Visitors can also rent a Mini Cooper to get around town. Make reservations at the front desk in advance for a set period of time. Use that time to venture outside the main part of the city so you can see things like the Angel oak tree or Magnolia Plantation.
Doing, Dining and Drinking
GetYourGuide’s Historic Downtown Tour by horse-drawn carriage, departing from The Old South Carriage Company, just across a parking lot from The Emeline, is a popular tourist attraction. While riding around, you’ll learn things like:
- Historic Charleston fills 98 square blocks, referred to as the low country.
- There are 189 churches, earning it the title “the holiest city.”
- It is the #4 U.S. city for drinking.
- There have been five “great fires” (fires that destroyed 100 or more buildings).
- The popular building style of the homes, referred to as “singles,” originated from the use of airflow in the hot Charleston summers.
- Live oak trees abound around historic Charleston, with their route systems underneath the sidewalks and the roads. Be careful walking, or you’ll find yourself doing “the Charleston shuffle.”
The Citrus Club, so named for its citrus-inspired cocktails, is a lux rooftop bar on top of the Dewberry Hotel that offers 360-degree views of the city and is said to be the highest rooftop in Charleston. Enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine with a menu that features crab dip, edamame hummus and other appetizers.
Little Palm, the bar on the second story of the Ryder Hotel, gives visitors a ’60s beach vibe. Next to the small pool, there’s a popular indoor space. Sit in an old-school diner booth and enjoy grilled shrimp or sweet corn hash. This is a very happening area to people watch and partake in a cocktail, draft beer or glass of vino.
Charleston Harbor Fish House overlooks the historic Patriots Point Harbor, next to Naval & Maritime Museum. You’ll be able to see the USS Yorktown and USS Clamagore right outside the restaurant’s window. This is where you want to go for traditional Southern fare paired with a cold local beer. The perfect afternoon of waterfront relaxation.
Marika Flatt, Outstanding Austin Communicator 2021, is the travel editor of Texas Lifestyle Magazine. She has had Charleston on her bucket list for two decades and finally visited! She can be seen on TV shows across Texas, offering travel tips, in addition to her long-running “Weekend Trip Tip” on NPR’s Texas Standard.