Heading south on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in early fall, we expect warmer weather at each destination. After all, the plan for our one-year virtual cruise of the East Coast is to stay ahead of cold temperatures all the way to Florida. But Mother Nature rarely cooperates, and we find ourselves reaching for our winter jackets when leaving Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, in mid-October. Surely it’s much warmer in Charleston, South Carolina, our next scheduled major stop.
This unseasonably cool weather is not discouraging those in small, open boats from fishing for flounder and speckled trout along the sandy stretches of Masonboro and Myrtle Grove sounds. The air may be chilly, but the water is warm and offers plenty of action. The ICW is straight and narrow here, and it’s important to stay in the middle of the marked channel. Temporary buoys, some of which are not on the charts, mark the shoal areas where our route crosses side creeks and small inlets. In some places we’ve discovered that the deeper channels no longer follow the ICW’s magenta line on our chart, so we pay special attention to the visuals in front of us and use our chart as a more general reference.
Mouse over the chart to see our recommendations for Charleston.
My wife and I have fond memories of visiting Southport, North Carolina, years ago, and we stop here for lunch, tying up at the nicely updated Southport Marina. Walking by the Adkins-Ruark House, where Robert Ruark, author of The Old Man and the Boy, lived, makes me want to reread his wonderful book. Anyone who grew up under the influence of a strong but kind grandfather will love this story. Southport is a quiet, friendly town, which invariably leads many visitors to consider retiring here. Its picturesque streets lined with live oaks and historic homes have been the scene of several television shows and movies, including Dawson’s Creek and Crimes of the Heart.
With 120 miles still to go to Charleston, it’s time for an overnight stop at Harbourgate Resort & Marina, just 10 miles north of Myrtle Beach. We grab a casual dinner at the on-premises restaurant and plan for an early departure the next day. Morning fog causes us a slight delay, but it also provides dramatic scenery along the way. We consider running outside as we near Georgetown, but because of a stiff wind and opposing tide in the Winyah Bay Inlet, we stay inside, running all the way to Charleston in nine hours.
As we exit the narrow ICW channel at the western tip of Sullivan’s Island (MM462), the wide-open but very busy Charleston Harbor greets us with a forest of navigation marks and a maze of moving freighters, small ships, tour boats and yachts of all kinds and sizes. We pick up the South Channel Range and find our way to the Ashley River. The Harborage at Ashley Marina, located just past the large Charleston City Marina and beyond a 56-foot fixed bridge, has transient space on the outside of its face dock. Squeezing in between two luxurious 100-plus-footers results in some white knuckles as the 2-knot river current takes control for a few heart-stopping seconds. Twin engines and an aggressive use of our boat’s throttles save us from an embarrassing (and expensive) landing.
The marina’s courtesy car has already left, so we take a short taxi ride to the center of town, which is packed on a Saturday night with a mixed crowd of locals, tourists and cruise-ship passengers. Charleston is a Southern gem, offering restaurants, shops and entertainment for everyone. Featured as the quintessential Southern town by national magazines including Travel + Leisure and Southern Living, it was voted “Top City in the United States” by Condé Nast Traveler magazine.
Since we are getting a late start, we’re lucky to find two open seats at the bar at Halls Chophouse, where we find that the food and service definitely live up to their rave reviews. We decide to go the full monty and order the famous bread pudding for dessert. To compensate for this sinful indulgence, we take a leisurely stroll back to the marina hoping to burn off a few calories.
The next morning we follow the 12 million previous visitors who have taken a tour of Fort Sumter, accessible by private boat or passenger ferry. We elect to take the 9:30 a.m. ferry from Liberty Square on Concord Street, enjoying our carefree half-hour harbor cruise out to the Fort Sumter National Monument. Built after the War of 1812, Fort Sumter is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. It was occupied by a Union garrison with limited supplies and ammunition, and its commander surrendered to Confederate forces the next day. The on-site tour takes just an hour, including time in the museum. This is a must-see attraction for history buffs.
After our return to town and a brief walk around The Battery, a waterfront promenade famous for its beautiful antebellum homes, we grab a quick lunch and then take a one-hour carriage tour of the Charleston residential district. Operated by Palmetto Carriage Works, our carriage has a guide who is both informative and good-natured as he points out key historic homes, mansions, gardens, churches and parks along our 30-block route. We learn a lot, even though we had walked these streets on previous trips.
Our last trip to Charleston was during midsummer, and by chance we had arrived during the last two days of its annual Piccolo Spoleto Festival, a spectacular 17-day celebration of the performing and visual arts. Hundreds of events including art exhibits, musical performances (classical, jazz, choral, bluegrass and more), dance, theater, children’s activities and film showings are held throughout the city’s many theaters, museums, churches, schools and outdoor parks. The 2014 festival will be from May 23 through June 8, so we will try to plan our return trip to coincide with these dates.
Another summer activity we’ll try to make is a home game of Minor League Baseball’s Charleston RiverDogs, played in beautiful Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, which is within walking distance of the Harborage. This Class A team is an affiliate of the New York Yankees, and we’ve enjoyed the low-key, relaxed atmosphere of these minor league games during past trips to Charleston.
All in all, Charleston is a beautiful Southern city highlighted by its historic antebellum architecture and waterfront scenes. Add the elements of its renowned seafood cuisine and nationally recognized cultural events, and you have an exciting place to visit. But above all, Charleston’s friendly, charming people are the main reason why so many consider it to be America’s favorite city.
We’ve enjoyed our few days here, but the cool temperatures are telling us to continue moving south. Join us at yachtingmagazine.com/virtualcruise as we head to Key West, Florida, with stops in Beaufort, South Carolina; Savannah and Cumberland Island, Georgia; and Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine, Florida. The ICW route gets a bit tricky during this stretch, and we’ll point out some of the most challenging, and rewarding, sections.