By Matt Lee & Ted Lee
More than perhaps any other month, Charleston wears January with elegant composure. Besides the occasional balmy day (a sweater and scarf will do most of the time), there's a pleasant surprise—the city's sexiest flora of the year. After the New Year's revelry has quieted, camellias burst into full, floppy bloom, splashing pinks, blood reds, and porcelain whites against the evergreen backdrop of live oaks and palmettos. The camellias, an easy peep into Charleston's front yards and formal gardens (especially Washington Park, adjacent to City Hall), have no fragrance, which is where the winter-blooming daphne, tea olive, ginger lily, and breath-of-spring come in. The air in January is perfectly clear and transmissive, so the scent of woodsmoke from upriver plantations occasionally wafts into town—a reminder that this month is ideal for outdoor "pig pickings" (barbecues) and oyster roasts. On the odd chance that a puddle freezes over, content yourself by exploring the antiques joints clustered on upper King Street, the latest exhibition at the South Carolina Aquarium (843/720-1990), or the inner workings of the Nathaniel Russell House (843/724-8481), a historic museum. Without the usual spring and fall hordes, a tour through an antebellum mansion can leave you with that illicit tingle of ownership.
The Citadel's loud and proud dress parade performed every Friday at the college's gingerbread fort-like campus (www.citadel.edu).
The Dish: Finding Southern Classics
SHRIMP AND GRITS: The Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Ave.; 843/937-0930; $33 for two) rendition of this low-country dish is pitch-perfect: smoky and slightly tangy. FRIED CHICKEN: Bertha's Kitchen (2332 Meeting Street Rd.; 843/554-6519; $12 for two) has one of the best Southern lunch plates around, mastering the crisp crust/moist flesh paradox. PULLED PORK: The smoked barbecued pork shoulder at Po Pigs' Bo-B-Q (2410 Hwy. 174, Edisto Island; 843/869-9003; $15 for two), served with your choice of four sauces (one in each Carolina style), is worth the 40-minute drive. COCONUT CREME PIE: At Jestine's Kitchen (251 Meeting St.; 843/722-7224; $8 for two), it's light and silky, with a flaky crust—the way Southerners have made it for a century.
WHERE TO STAY
Charleston Place Hotel A grand hotel with a full-service spa. Doubles from $469; 130 Market St.; 800/611-5545 or 843/722-4900; www.charlestonplacehotel.com
Andrew Pinckney Inn The terrace of this bed-and-breakfast—housed in an 18th-century stable—offers views of the Market District and the French Quarter. Doubles from $79, with breakfast; 40 Pinckney St.; 800/505-8983 or 843/937-8800; www.andrewpinckneyinn.com
Market Pavilion Hotel Charleston's newest luxury hotel, in the busy Market District, provides every amenity, including unlimited high-speed Internet access and cordless phones, so you can stay connected—even at the rooftop pool and bar. Doubles from $299; 225 E. Bay St.; 877/440-2250 or 843/723-0500; www.marketpavilion.com
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
39 Rue de Jean A Belle Époque restaurant that has emerged as the nightspot for young, well-heeled Charlestonians. The oyster platter and mussels steamed in beer are superb. Dinner for two $50; 39 John St.; 843/722-8881
Cru Café A tiny lunch and dinner spot in a Market District house by the old horse stables. Try chef John Zucker's triple-decker shrimp BLT or cornmeal-crusted grouper. Dinner for two $55; 18 Pinckney St.; 843/534-2434
Pavilion Bar On a warm January night, head to the Pavilion's roof deck for a drink and a wonderful view of the city. Market Pavilion Hotel; 225 E. Bay St.; 843/723-0500