May/June 2019Exploring CharlestonBy Beth Mason, Photos by Marion Mason

The Holy City offers pocket-friendly adventures on land and water, if you know the path to follow.

Drive, fly or sail, however you decide to get there, there is much to do in Charleston, and there are many ways to see the city. But before you head out, sit back, prop up your feet and enjoy the moment with some ice-cold sweet tea.

My wonderful sister lives in Summerville, so that location is usually my jumping-off point for exploring Charleston and surrounding areas. Of course, there are numerous hotels in the area if you don’t have a relative to stay with or don’t want to take advantage of one of the many charming bed and breakfast opportunities.

The Charleston Visitor Reception and Transportation Center at 375 Meeting Street is my first stop. It proves beneficial whether you are new to the area or a local. Here you will find the Downtown Area Shuttle System or DASH. A shuttle leaves about every fifteen minutes to take you to the heart of downtown. This is great on many levels since you can easily hit all the tourist destinations and take a short walk to many neat places off the beaten path. The shuttle is free, air conditioned and wheelchair accessible. The visitors center offers great parking in a protected garage with elevator access, all for just $11. Best of all, I did not have to fight traffic, take a wrong turn on a one-way street, or become stressed looking for parking.

Once we take the shuttle downtown, we walk one block to the wharf and meet with Captain Paul M. Deaton III (Chip) at 10 Wharfside Street to tour the coastal city by boat. Captain Deaton and Captain Scott M. Connelley run the Charleston Water Taxi, which is a hidden treasure offering an affordable, $12 all-day pass. Contact them at (843) 330-2989 or just purchase tickets at the aquarium wharf. The boat makes continuous four-mile looping routes throughout the day to popular destinations such as Patriots Point, the South Carolina Aquarium and Charleston’s Waterfront Park. You can usually spot bottlenose dolphins, brown pelicans and laughing gulls, although on this trip we just enjoy the harbor breeze. Just taking the taxi across the harbor to Mt. Pleasant is an exciting adventure for this would-be pirate.

As we cruise around Charleston’s historic waters via the water taxi, I notice several worthwhile destinations. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ Marine Center is nestled along the coast of James Island at Fort Johnson and is easily accessible by car via the James Island connector. Historic Fort Sumter can be viewed from the water taxi, and the architectural design of the Arthur Ravenel bridge, which connects the mainland to Mt. Pleasant, is a marvel to behold.

I like to save money where I can and splurge on special adventures. Well, I consider the South Carolina Aquarium one of those splurge destinations, and that is our next stop. Once docked, we step off the water taxi and walk about a block to the aquarium. Since I purchased tickets at the visitor center, I saved a few bucks for lunch and snacks.

During our tour of the aquarium, our small group was able to take a behind-the-scenes tour, and we got to see water filtration and feeding operations. We learned a lot about the grand ocean tank as we snuck by the oversized water filters and bunched up along the catwalk above the huge tank. We saw a feeding frenzy of fish gulping down their daily meal. A massive nurse shark was fed separately along the tank wall with a training tool. Interesting note is that the marine residents are regularly well fed and do not feel the urge to eat their neighbors.

Later, after exploring the touch tank, various exhibits, the saltmarsh aviary, and enjoying the harbor view, we head back to Summerville to recharge.

The next day we reroute our destination and head to James Island via car. The James Island connector gives us breathtaking views of the Intracoastal Waterway. As a word of warning, take a restroom or snack break before heading over to James Island. Once on the island, we see that Folly Road, the island’s main drag, is always busy, regardless of the season.

Our destination is the SCDNR’s Marine Resources Center located at the end of Fort Johnson Road. The Fort Johnson Marine Center houses the agency’s Marine Division, and the historic Marshlands House is on the National Register. Since I had planned my trip during the weekday and normal business hours, the gate was open to explore the grounds. Gazing across the water toward the downtown peninsula, we see a spectacular view of Charleston’s historic battery, which many tourists miss out on. Also, we enjoy seeing wildlife galore. Bottlenose dolphins and sea birds are in abundance here at the point. At low tide, I can see the hard work that the SCDNR staff and volunteers put into constructing oyster reefs to naturally combat erosion and increase fish habitat. The addition of a walking trail allows us to venture through a maritime forest to explore native species, but my mind never drifts far from the unique historical significance of this area.

If this sparks an interest in exploring the area in more depth, there is an event that you should attend. Every two years in October, the Fort Johnson Marine Center hosts a family-friendly open house during which you can tour a marine research vessel, talk to marine biologists and participate in various nature-related activities for young and old, alike. To learn about planned events, go to dnr.sc.gov or call (843) 953-9300.

Now that I am on James Island, Folly Beach calls to me. Folly Beach Pier is located smack-dab at the end of Folly Road. The pier provides public parking for a fee, as space allows, or street parking when available. There is a long, tiered ramp for wheelchair access for those who want to avoid the steps. Public restrooms are located near the gift and fishing tackle shop. It is important to stay hydrated while exploring, so load up on beverages from the shop. There is also a nice restaurant at the pier entrance. Pier space is not an issue as the pier is twenty-four feet wide and extends more than 1,045 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. One can casually stroll the pier for great views of the beach and to see what’s biting, or you can purchase an all-day fishing permit for a nominal fee. For more details visit www.follybeach.com/pier/.

I enjoy fishing from the pier although I usually watch seasoned anglers reel in the more common species: small sharks, flounder, whiting and croaker. The main beach at Folly is great, but if you are up to walking through loose sand (no wheelchair access here), head to the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve located at the northeastern end of Folly Island. Here are a few things to remember: wear shoes (the sand is hot in the summer), bring water and apply sunscreen liberally. Walk the quarter-mile paved road (this place used to be a U.S. Coast Guard station) to the inlet and hang a left. The beach wraps around for a great view of the Morris Island Lighthouse. Along the way, look for dolphins in the Atlantic, or shells and other sea critters in tidal pools surrounding the stone groins.

For me, a great plus for this beach access point is fresh, running water. After a sandy walk, just under the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve sign where you begin the road walk is a welcome water spigot. When you leave the beach behind, you can rinse the sand off your toes and comfortably begin your next journey.

By this point, we are pleasantly exhausted and ready for a nice shower and comfy bed. Have I mentioned my sister in Summerville? So, it’s back to her house. When not in a rush, I like to return to Summerville via Ashley River Road, which is a National Scenic Byway. Along this road you’ll pass close to and under massive live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, which is another reminder that you are in the cherished Lowcountry. This leg of my Charleston trip puts me near three beautiful and historic plantations: Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Drayton Hall Plantation and Middleton Place Plantation.

If you need something to do with the little ones (kids or grandkids), look up the Annual Ladybug Release at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens at www.magnoliaplantation.com. In the summer of 2018, 200,000 ladybugs were released in the gardens to help control other small, more harmful insects such as aphids and scale insects. Although you must pay for admission, the grounds are crawling with nature displays and interactive activities. I call this a “twofer,” when children have both fun and learn how they can help protect our natural environment.

After a refreshing, restorative sleep at my awesome sister’s home, we head out for another favorite way to enjoy the water. Owning a boat is great, but it is not necessary to enjoy Charleston via the water. One can go out on a charter boat. Captain Brandon at charlestonsilverfox.com is the gatekeeper of my next adventure, and he is eager to accommodate. Captain Brandon, “Silverfox,” shares his enthusiasm of South Carolina’s coast with others, and I know we are in excellent hands.

For this leg of my Charleston adventure, I choose a six-hour boat excursion, which takes us up to twenty miles offshore. If you enjoy saltwater fishing, this is well worth the time and money. Captain Brandon takes us to his secret fishing holes, provides all necessary bait and equipment and is well versed in catch limits and size restrictions. While taking something special home for dinner is tasty, catch and release is equally rewarding.

But fishing is just one option. Captain Brandon also offers various tours, including dolphin watching and eco-touring. After a day on the water in the sun and wind, this pirate is ready to return to her “home away from home.” My thirst for adventure has been quenched for a few days.

The SCDNR Marine Division will host its annual open house event on October 19, 2019.

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