CHARLESTON, S.C., July 20, 2011 — Forget about Minnesota nice. It’s got nothing on Charleston nice. Here, even the fronds of the ubiquitous palmettos seem to wave at you.
Generally when I visit beautifully, architecturally rich and history-drenched towns, I like to stay in small places that are testament to history. But this time, I broke free of my self-imposed constraints and stayed at Charleston Place, a luxurious 450-room hotel owned by Orient-Express that straddles the two main shopping streets, Meeting and King.
Shopping in Charleston isn’t for amateurs. Yes, there are chains like J. Crew and Brookstone, but they are interspersed with local boutiques, galleries, and antiques shops.
Serious Southern shoppers, men dressed in seersucker and women crowned with wide-brimmed straw hats, all with tell-tale Southern drawls, took to the streets for what had to be the most determined shopping I’d ever seen. (And I’m from New York; a city known for it’s experienced shoppers. The difference largely seems to be that up north we covet deals; in Charleston they seemed to covet quality).
It’s no accident that Charleston Place is in the heart of the shopping district. The Shops at Charleston Place were actually part of the catalyst for the rejuvenation of this part of town twenty years ago. They’re a smart blend of the practical (I scored a copy of Susan Casey’s summer blockbuster The Wave, the book I’d been hunting for since the airport, at the Border’s downstairs) and the aspirational (I wasn’t alone in ogling the Louis Vuitton bags in the window across the way).
The lobby of Charleston Place is vast and busy. Many tourists stop in just to get a look at the 12-foot chandelier, which is the size of a Volkswagen Bug. They also shoot photos of the sweeping Georgian-style staircase that dominates the lobby.
In another place, this sort of over-the-top luxury might put you off. But Charleston Place is as warm and comfortable as a stay in any low country down-home bed and breakfast only with every amenity you can imagine from concierge to room service to an award-winning restaurant, the Charleston Grill.
All the rooms are updated with soothing cool colors and wood armoires and plush bathrobes. (Standard rates start at $235.) Our room was quiet and pretty and had an unimpeded view of the billowy sail-like trusses of the Ravenel Bridge, which spans the Cooper River, connecting Charleston with Mount Pleasant.
I highly recommend booking a room in The Club, a private concierge level located on the top two floors of the hotel. While the rooms are similar to those below them, the amenities are not. (Rates on these floors start at $355.)
Springing for the Club means that you have a quiet spot where food, drink, newspapers and magazines are provided throughout the day.
Early morning coffee in The Club means there’s no need to stagger downstairs half asleep for your daybreak joe. Breakfast isn’t just a continental affair; there are warm dishes like mini Monte Cristos.
Wine hour begins at 11 a.m. and continues throughout the day with a rotating set of treats emerging from the kitchen, so no matter what time you step in you’ll have something tempting awaiting you from chesses to tortes, pate to smoked salmon.
A full bar with top shelf liquor is also included in the price. It was especially nice to come back to the hotel after a long day exploring Charleston and settle in for an afternoon cocktail.
Plus, The Club gives you access to a concierge dedicated solely to guests on these two levels, who can help guide and tailor your excursions to your interests.
Spa at Charleston Place
The spa is situated at the helm of a lovely saltwater pool that features a retractable glass ceiling and plenty of lounge space, indoors and out. Despite the hotel’s busy, central location, the pool and spa are an oasis where guests can turn when they need to decompress and cool off from the sultry city.
For my husband, who in 24 hours found his way there four times, the pool was such a magnet that he nearly missed our anniversary dinner.
As for me, like any recent convert, as a newly minted exercise fanatic I am addicted to working out, thinking about working out, and talking to everyone who will put up with me about working out. I was pleased to find a small, but well-stocked fitness room containing treadmill, bikes, and free weights, located discreetly to the side of the pool and a few steps from the spa.
Ah, the spa. Spa rooms are simple and calming. Sweet renderings of birds and clouds are painted on the ceilings above the treatment beds. But what makes this spa so special is the people. From the college students at the reception desk to the housekeeping staff who keep the locker room stocked with everything from plush towels to razors to the aestheticians, the staff is warm and welcoming.
The friendly vibe is instilled by the gregarious spa director Annette Sandford-Lopez, who came to Charleston by way of New York. She’s designed a rich menu of treatments that includes the basics like Swedish massage and pedicures, and also features creative offerings that aren’t so fantastical that you’d be afraid to try them. There are treatments like Magnolia Moment, a nod to the city’s beloved magnolia trees, which involves a body scrub followed by magnolia and mud body mask and the Moroccan Oil Scalp and Neck Treatment that you won’t see on just any spa menu.
I had the I Will Reflect facial ($125 for about 50 minutes), which is endorsed by the Medical University of South Carolina since it provides basic melanoma screening and preventative education. Since the spa is located in heavily sunned spot in the world, Sandford-Lopez wanted to do something about the alarming number of skin cancers.
“At the spa, we are often the first people to see someone’s skin up-close. They way be here more than they are at their doctor, so we worked with the University of South Carolina to help train our massage therapists and aestheticians how to recognize a suspicious growth or spot,” she explains.
OK, I’ll admit that I was a bit put off when a card with photos of actual melanoma spots was placed before me. Did I really come to the spa to worry about skin cancer? Wasn’t I there just to relax and be pampered? Well, my concerns were quickly quieted by my aesthetician Ally, who was smart and soothing.
Although I flinched when she pulled out the blue light to examine my face for age spots, sun damage and skin cancer, Ally walked me through it, talking in her gentle singsong voice about the importance of sunscreen. While she didn’t find any suspicious spots on my face or neck that day, she was able to impart some basic information about what to look for on other parts of my body (which, by the way, later led me to make and an overdue appointment with my dermatologist back home).
Once the skin cancer screening was done, I sunk into a relaxing facial tailored to my dry skin. While skin creams and masks soaked into my face, Ally massaged my neck, feet and hands.
After the facial was over, I had noticeable softer skin, a definite glow and, perhaps most importantly, emerged smarter about sun damage than I’d ever been.
My visit to Charleston was short and my time at Charleston Place limited, but this was one of those trips where the minute I got home I started plotting my return. Until then I have vowed to keep a little Charleston nice alive up north.
An inveterate traveler, Andrea Poe writes frequently about travel for national and international publications. She is the editor of Life’s Online. You can email Andrea at andcpoe at gmail dot com or follow her travel notes as andpoe on Twitter.
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