Charleston’s biggest springtime extravaganza, Spoleto Festival USA, turns the city into a cultural mecca for 17 glorious days. From May 28 through June 13, world-class performances of opera, jazz and theater, orchestral, chamber and contemporary music will range from a Noël Coward play, "Present Laughter," by Ireland's Gate Theatre to "Giselle" with ballerina Nina Ananiashvili and the Tbilisi-based National Ballet of Georgia, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and Die Roten Punkte, an irreverant late-night punk-rock duo.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti founded the festival in Charleston in 1977, as a companion to the renowned international music and theater festival in Italy. A grand success, it has spawned an offshoot, the fringe Piccolo Spoleto which showcases the best regional artists, writers and performers in the Southeast. Dozens of the city’s historic venues—streets, courtyards, theaters, parks, churches – come alive as dazzling stage sets for the region’s top creative talents.
Those who miss the festival will still enjoy Charleston’s vibrant cultural scene year-round. Catch a performance by Charleston Stage Company, whose world premiere of "Gershwin at Folly" tells the genesis of Porgy and Bess, a story set in the heart of the city. South Carolina’s largest professional theatre company is in residence at the Historic Dock Street Theatre, the first building constructed for theatrical productions in America in 1735. The theatre reopened this year following a $19 million renovation.
The tiny improv troupe The Have-Nots! turns audience feedback into zany and hilarious comedy at Theatre 99, a 99-seat playhouse with an in-house bar and bohemian flavor. The Have Nots! and Theatre 99 have been honored over the past decade as Best Local Theatre Company and Best Non-Spoleto Play or Performance.
Restaurants and clubs feature jazz, Afro-Cuban, sultry torch singers, piano bars, disco, rock and much more. For a genteel Southern belle, Charleston nightlife swings.
The city’s dining scene is every bit as interesting as its arts and nightlife. Charleston’s distinctive Lowcountry cuisine blends local ingredients such as Carolina Gold rice, grits and she-crab soup with influences from abroad. Anson serves Lowcountry specialties like cashew-crusted grouper in an elegant romantic setting, while Jestine’s Kitchen dishes its collard greens and shrimp and grits in a tiny homey history-rich place. The breakfast buffet at the Swamp Fox Restaurant at the historic Francis Marion Hotel is ample and affordable, with an impressive array of Lowcountry dishes.
Line up with the crowds at Hyman’s Seafood Company for fresh, well-priced seafood served in an old Charleston warehouse, or let a soupçon of Paris elevate your mood at 39 Rue de Jean, a stylish brasserie whose mouthwatering steak, pomme frites, mussels and onion soup have drawn raves since its 2001 opening.
For pastries, Mediterranean dishes and ample sandwiches such as chicken salad on a homemade croissant, stop at Saffron Cafe & Bakery, an artisan-style bakery and café. It's a perfect refueling stop en route to Liberty Square on Charleston’s waterfront, where thought-provoking quotes on plaques make a walk through the park enlightening.
Here at Liberty Square you can visit the South Carolina Aquarium, and catch a ferry boat from the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center to the fort on which the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Or grab a latte and lovely food at Caviar and Bananas, a gourmet market and cafe patronized by students from neighboring College of Charleston, the oldest educational institution south of Virginia.
Major airlines serve Charleston from SFO via Atlanta and other gateways. Southwest announced plans to begin Charleston service within the next 12 months.
Story © Carol Canter, 2010
Photos © Carol Canter