At this moment, my voice is both scratchy and muffled, and my nose is in disarray. My eyes are red and my car has transitioned from a brilliant silver to a fluorescent yellow. The weather may be fluctuating between cold and relatively pleasant, turning my closet into a bouquet of both Barbour and chino, wool and cotton, but this is nonetheless triumphant news: spring is just around the corner! Winter in the South, though still a season of wonder and majesty, doesn’t have that spark that our Northern friends get to experience. Unless one is in the mountains, ice and snow are things of legend, elements of tall tales passed down through the ages. Snowfall in the South is a rare event, evidenced by our drivers as soon as the white powder falls from the sky. Even at the mere mention of a chance of snow, otherwise sane people head out in droves to stock up on essentials. Stores run out of bread and gas stations face long lines. And that’s even if snow isn’t guaranteed; you can only imagine what happens when the stuff actually accumulates. In an instant, a light dusting of snow can cripple a Southern town. Roads are “treacherous,” communities are “stranded,” and stores are places of “refuge.” Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a wee bit, but I’m not terribly far off. Otherwise, winter in the South is a season of bare trees, golden marshes, coats, concerts, social functions, and that’s about it. No picturesque scenes of houses amidst fields of snow. No children at play with saucers and toboggans. Not even a snowman. In short, winter is not the South’s best time of year.
But things change as soon as spring starts to show up.
The trees begin to abandon their sickly states in favor of color, the sun begins to grace us with its presence for a few more hours, and the chilly air gives way to a pleasant wafting of heat. Note that I said pleasant; the unpleasant variety comes later. The air, though infused with pesky pollen, takes on the beautiful perfume of blossoming flowers, notably Tea Olive Tree and Confederate Jasmine. In the way winter creates a scene of wonder up North, spring creates a scene of enchantment down South.
In a subconscious effort to reflect nature’s awakening, people also go through a change. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize a change in mood as soon as spring begins to show signs of its arrival. People are friendlier when the weather gets warmer, and with our famous manners and already-friendly disposition, Southerners display this phenomenon perfectly. We also begin to bring brighter colors into our wardrobes. Earth tones give way to pastels, burgundy is retired in favor of pink, and the mighty fabrics of madras and seersucker banish corduroy and tweed to the recesses of our closets.
Springtime, though complete hell for my sinuses, is my favorite time of year. After months of cold, short, and barren days, life begins to take on a playful and cheerful quality, and that just makes me beyond happy. Because of this, it is of many peoples’ opinions that spring is the best time of the year to visit Charleston.
And they are very right in saying so, especially for these reasons: Festivals, Shopping, Attractions, and Atmosphere.
The Gate at 14 George Street
Wintertime is no doubt the height of Charleston’s social season, but springtime is where Charleston shines as a cultural hub. Between the months of February and June, the Holy City is abuzz with festivals. The big contenders are world-famous expressions of Charleston’s charm and culture: the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, Charleston Fashion Week, and Spoleto Festival USA.
- The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (known as “SEWE” or the “Wildlife Expo”) is the largest event of its kind in the United States. Lasting a total of three days in February, SEWE is a city-wide celebration of wildlife and nature, showcasing the best of natural art, food, conservation, education, and retailers. It is a mix of both city and rural cultures, with both black tie galas and bird dog demonstrations. Many events require ticket purchases, but there are also many free events to see during the festival, many being in hotels and on Marion Square. Essentially, SEWE is like Garden & Gun “come to life.”
- The BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, an annual event from 28 February to 3 March, is a showcasing of Charleston’s cuisine and culture, with events ranging from demonstrations to book signings, from competitions to lectures, and from wine walks to restaurant booths. The Wine + Food Festival is not as open as SEWE, with every event requiring a ticket, save for one or two tents. In all, the Wine + Food Festival is a great way to experience Charleston’s cuisine in one big celebration.
- Charleston Fashion Week is a relative newcomer to the “festival” scene, with this being its sixth year. In this short time, Charleston Fashion Week has become one of the nation’s premier fashion weeks, putting Charleston on the map as a hotbed of fashionable people, designers, and products. Charleston Fashion Week is a five-night event from 19-23 March, and during this time, some of the East Coast’s newest and brightest designers come to the Holy City to show off their talent. In addition to the runway shows, there are competitions, after-parties, and other celebrations of fashion.
- The Spoleto Festival USA is Charleston’s flagship cultural celebration, as well as our biggest annual event. Begun with the insight of Gian Carlo Menotti, Spoleto Festival USA was formed as the American counterpart to the arts festival of Spoleto, Italy. After scouting the United States for the perfect combination of theatres, churches, and charm that matched that of Spoleto, Charleston was chosen as the ideal city, and how right they were. Since then, Spoleto Festival USA has become the nation’s premier performing arts festival. During the course of 17 days, the Holy City is flooded with musical, dramatic, and dance performances. Churches are transformed into concert halls, and concert halls are elevated to temples of art. Bear with me: I’m about to deliver my “arts sermon.” South Carolina’s culture is vastly dominated by sports, with arts receiving very little support or recognition. Charleston is the exception to this trend. Arts are one of the major focuses of Charleston’s culture. Our schools are nationally known for our performing arts (Wando High School being a very good example), and our city arguably has more art displays than sports banners. Don’t get me wrong: I love sports, but the arts are my first love, and I am very thankful that my hometown embraces the arts in such an enthusiastic way. Is it the first focus of Charleston, or even the most funded aspect of Charleston’s culture? No (make that a “heck no!”), but it ranks higher than it would in any other city in South Carolina. This is why Spoleto Festival USA is so special to the Holy City: it is a celebration of the arts in a city that embraces such an expression.
Springtime Thrift Shop Finds
Charleston is a great place for shopping. With King Street being one of the nation’s best shopping streets, downtown is often the focus of Charleston’s shopping scene. And that is very understandable. WIth a mix of national retailers and boutique shops, King Street has something for everyone. Some big names - Ben Silver, M. Dumas & Sons, Birlant’s, Croghan’s, Grady Ervin & Co. - are the landmarks of King Street. Some are newcomers and some are longtime fixtures, but they all provide world-class shopping experiences for the Holy City’s guests and locals alike.
Aside from King Street, the suburbs have many treasures that would otherwise go unnoticed. Our thrift shops are indeed diamonds in the rough, offering selections from the biggest names in fashion for a fraction of the price. I can’t tell you how many Gucci suits I have seen for less than $500. Gucci, Oscar de la Renta, Brooks Brothers, Giorgio Armani, Christian Dior, Etienne Agnier, Burberry, Barbour, Ben Silver: every time I walk in a thrift shop, I’m bound to come across at least one of these labels. Truly, Charleston is a thrift shop treasure-trove.
But why is this special for spring; isn’t this available year-round?
Well, yes and no. Yes, you will find these offerings year-round, but spring is especially unique. Go into these stores in early spring, and you will find the best deals and newest trends for both the spring and summer seasons. You can rack up on all sorts of things: madras sport coats, real Nantucket Reds, white bucks, and rows upon rows of seersucker and linen suits. The racks are not bland, but rather a palette of pastels. This, my friends, is a beautiful sight, and only in springtime can you find these deals.
The Azaleas of Magnolia Plantation
We’re obviously famous for the beach and ocean, but the middle of summer can be a bit unbearable. This makes trips to inland attractions downright miserable. For example, standing in Drayton Hall during a breezeless summer day is the very definition of torture. Read my lips: No. Air. Conditioning. Winter is the opposite problem: you freeze to death if you want to see anything outside. Spring is the perfect happy-medium. The plantations are decorated with blossoms, the beaches are a temperate haven, and the peninsula is an oasis. Go ahead and take a stroll; you won’t have to worry about sweating profusely, for in the summertime, you cannot avoid sweating like a whore in a churchhouse. Tennis, golf, and other outdoor activities are fair game during the spring; however, I would hold off on swimming until late spring. The water is still cool until the real heat sets in.
Blossoms on Meeting Street
Festivals are grand times, shopping for a bargain is exciting, and attractions are a lot of fun, but they are just one part of Charleston’s springtime charm. Like yin and yang, salt and pepper, or, dare I say, the Captain and Tenille: the activities of springtime go hand-in-hand with the atmosphere of springtime.
Think about it: wintertime is barren and dead, summertime is nothing but green, and we don’t have the deciduous displays of fall. But springtime makes up for all of these shortcomings. The world become a palette of color, bursting forth from once brown and skeletal branches. The plants begin to match the buildings of Charleston, a splendid pairing of Caribbean-inspired shades and native mainstays. The air is once again fragrant with the perfect balance of Charleston’s scents. Summertime is overpowered with the smell of pluff mud and salty air, and wintertime is, well, not terribly fragrant aside from smoke and spices. But springtime is the sweet spot: a perfect mixture of earthy, briny, and floral notes.
All around, it is just a beautiful time of year, and what better place than Charleston to witness this beauty?
No matter the time of year, Charleston is a great place to visit, but springtime is the epitome of Charleston’s activities and charm. Come down for Spoleto Festival USA and then head across the river to Magnolia Plantation. Or maybe you’d rather venture into Mt. Pleasant for a deal on some Gucci saddle-bit loafers. Whatever your motives or itinerary, plan your trip to Charleston during her season of enchantment, beauty, and frivolity.
To Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Civility,
A Charlestonian Bon Vivant
(Aside from my own photograph in the “Shopping” section, I claim no ownership of these images. Click on the photographs to be routed to their original sources.)