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Cruising From Charleston
The Antebellum Belle

by Linda Coffman

Fall 2010: If all southern cities were invited to a cotillion, Charleston, South Carolina would be the belle of the ball. Known for gracious hospitality, there could be no more fitting port on the southeastern coast to offer year-round cruise service by Carnival Cruise Lines. Ideally situated within walking distance of Charleston’s downtown restaurants, attractions, and shopping, the city’s Union Pier is poised to double its cruise ship activity in 2010 with sixty-nine vessel calls; 16 visiting as a port of call and 53 homeport embarkations.

While Union Pier terminal itself is Spartan, with no shops or services, it is adequate to quickly process passengers set to embark on Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Fantasy. Currently, the gangway isn’t high enough for passengers to walk directly onto the ship and boarding is through a lower deck; however, a new gangway is in the works, as is a new terminal. Plans are in motion to convert an existing structure in the port to provide a more attractive facility and eliminate the traffic challenges of the terminal’s current location. No timeline for completion has been announced.

Getting There
Internationally known as a beautiful city with a colorful history Charleston is proud to have been named one of the top two tourist destinations in the United States in 2009. Located on a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers on the coast of South Carolina, it is easily accessible by car and within a day’s drive of major population centers in the southeast (Atlanta, GA, 318 miles; Chattanooga, TN, 435 miles; Charlotte, NC, 209 miles; Raleigh, NC, 279 miles; Richmond, VA, 426 miles) and beyond (Cincinnati, OH, 624 miles). The eastern terminus of I-26 in Charleston connects with I-20, I-85, I-40, I-77 and I-95 from the north. US Highway 17, the coastal north-south route, runs through Charleston and connects with I-95 from the south.

Five airlines currently serve the Charleston International Airport (843-767-7009), with popular low-cost carrier Southwest Airline adding service early in 2011. Transportation from airport to cruise pier is available either by shared shuttle ($12 per person), taxi (approximately $27), or transfers through Carnival Cruise Lines (one way $29.99, round trip $59.98, per person). The twelve mile drive takes about twenty minutes.

Amtrak (800-872-7245) operates two trains a day through the Charleston terminal, which is located in North Charleston near the airport. Transportation from the train station to the cruise pier is limited to taxi service (approximately $27.00-$29.00).

Private vehicles are directed to the checked luggage drop off point in the port and covered on-site parking ($15.00 per day). After parking, passengers and their carry-ons are taken by shuttle to the terminal building. Complimentary parking is provided for vehicles displaying a valid handicap placard or license plate with proper identification.

Passengers arriving in Charleston early on the morning of their cruise will find numerous options to pass the time before checking in. For those with a car, metered parking and parking garages are available downtown close to the Old City Market on Market Street between Meeting and East Bay Streets. Dating to 1841, it’s a montage of small shops and stalls selling everything from souvenirs to produce and antiques. It’s also where visitors will find Gullah ladies weaving and selling the handmade sweetgrass baskets (pictured here) for which they are famous.

Nearby restaurants on South Market Street range from the chain quality Bubba Gump Shrimp Company to the perennial local favorite, A. W. Shuck’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar. A bit further to walk, but certainly worth the trouble, is Jestine’s Kitchen on Meeting Street where authentic southern home cooking is accompanied by Jestine’s “Table Wine”—sweetened tea.

To explore Charleston the old fashioned way, an hour-long carriage ride ($20 adults, $12 children) from the Market area through the historic district is an entertaining and educational introduction to the city.

Visitors should watch the time during the morning and early afternoon as the parking line and check in process can take an hour or more depending upon the time of arrival at the port entrance. While Union Pier is located at the foot of Market Street and easily walkable, foot traffic into and out of the terminal is highly discouraged due to security concerns and passengers arriving by shuttle or taxi may find it difficult to exit the area once they arrive. At cruise end, a limited number of taxis await outside the cruise terminal.

Where to Stay
Accommodations run the gamut from boutique hotels, The Restoration on King (877-221-7202) and King Charles Inn, affiliated with Best Western (866-546-4700), to historic inns, Planters Inn (800-845-8082) and French Quarter Inn (866-812-1900). Popular with budget minded clients, are pre-cruise packages with valuable additions such as special rates, free parking for the duration of the cruise, and hotel to pier transportation (www.charlestoncruisepackages.com). While most packages are offered by nationally recognized chain hotels, some are conveniently located in the downtown historic district or within short driving distance.

Dine Like A Local
With two culinary schools and a passion for good cooking, Charleston is home to dozens of world-class restaurants. Skip the chain eateries, and take the advice of anyone who’s dined there, to order whatever the daily Mediterranean-style special is at Sermet’s Corner on King Street. Seafood reigns supreme in Charleston kitchens and Hank’s Seafood Restaurant at the corner of Church and Hayne Streets receives high marks for their traditional and low-country favorites. For a special night out, Charlestonians choose innovative regional cuisine at the city’s award-winning Peninsula Grill, located in the historic Planters Inn.

Exploring Charleston
Visitors will want to spend at least a few days either pre- or post-cruise to immerse themselves in historic Charleston and the surrounding area. One of Charleston’s iconic attractions is visible from the city’s riverside Battery—Fort Sumter, where the opening shots of the Civil War were fired. Accessible only by water, tours to the fort depart from Liberty Square at Aquarium Wharf in downtown Charleston, and from Patriots Point Maritime Museum, across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant. The tours include an hour ashore at Fort Sumter ($16 adults, $10 children, www.spiritlinecruises.com).

The city itself is a time capsule almost untouched since the Civil War. Despite natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, Charleston’s public and private architectural treasures have survived through rigorous efforts of preservationists. Several of the city’s mansions and gardens are open to the public and provide a glimpse into the life of wealthy Charlestonians in the Revolutionary War and antebellum periods. Admission for most is about $10.00, but some combination tickets are offered. Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting Street) with its free-flying staircase is one of America’s most important Federal period homes; Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth Street) and its original outbuildings, including slaves’ quarters, is virtually unaltered since 1858; one of the first houses built on the Battery, Edmondston-Alston House (21 East Battery) offers incredible views of Charleston Harbor; known as “Charleston’s Revolutionary War House” and dating to 1772, the Georgian-style Heyward-Washington House (87 Church Street) was owned by Thomas Heyward, Jr., patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence and was visited by George Washington.

Along the Ashley River Road (Highway 61) north of Charleston, plantations that once provided wealth and prosperity to the region now offer house and garden tours. Middleton Place features America’s oldest landscaped gardens; Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is unique in that the plantation is home to the eleventh generation of its Drayton family owners and includes a “swamp garden” refuge for water birds, turtles, and alligators; Drayton Hall, preserved but not restored, represents the oldest example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the American South. While the plantations are only minutes apart, plan to spend a couple hours at each. Guided tours average $15-$25 and tours that include transportation from downtown Charleston are available.

For naval history buffs, a water taxi operates hourly ($5 one way, $8 round trip) between Charleston Maritime Center, located a half block from Aquarium Wharf, and Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum ($16 adults, $9 children) where the main attraction is the USS Yorktown, the tenth aircraft carrier to serve in the United States Navy and a star of the film “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

After exploring below decks, visitors to the bridge and flight deck are rewarded with an expansive view of Charleston Harbor and a desire to return and see even more.

More Information

Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau, 843-853-8000

Port of Charleston, 843-958-8298

Cruise Diva's Charleston Blog:


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