Friday, March 30, 2012

Springtime in Charleston

Though I am Georgian through and through, I admit Charleston's beauty in springtime is stiff competition for our dear city of Savannah.  Wandering the streets of the peninsula city, spring's vibrant colors and delightful scents accost us at every turn.  Of course, this spring has been pristine all over the South. Seeing azaleas in full glory always excites this southern girl, but I actually gasp as we walk by a tree dripping with three shades of cherry blossoms over a massive azalea bush abloom with lavender flowers.  Now, I don't know which combination I like better: cherry trees and azalea bushes or live oaks and palmettos.  The great thing about "the Holy City" in springtime is I don't have to choose.

For years, there has been a very lady-like fight going on between the sister-cities of Savannah and Charleston with each claiming to be the epitome of southern grace and charm.  Growing up, my parents took us kids to Savannah each April to witness spring "as God intended," according to my mother.  Savannah always welcomed us North Georgia folk as the sort of poor relations they must endure once a year.  I didn't care; I was just happy to claim Savannah as part of my heritage.  I impressed my teachers in school answering the history questions, Who founded the Georgia Colony? (James Oglethorpe) In what year? (1733) What indian chief befriended him? (Chief Tomochichi), faster than a Savannahian could pour you a drink, as a point of pride.  Since buying a vacation rental in South Carolina, I admit I snubbed Charleston out of loyalty to Savannah.  Not once in five years have we visited Charleston.

However, I am proud to say that I, like a fine wine, have matured this year and have already enjoyed Charleston's vistas three times and can't wait to return.

Our first family field trip to Charleston was purely for educational purposes so I had a good excuse for traversing into enemy territory.  We went to see where the Civil War began: Fort Sumter.  If you'd missed that earlier post, please read about it here.   Suffice it to say, we enjoyed that first brief visit.

On our second family field trip, we decided to learn the city by walking and eating.  Parking our car on the street near the College of Charleston campus, we walked over to King Street for window shopping while we acclimated.  I felt like we were in an outdoor mall.  The street offered the major brands like Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Tommy Bahama, and smaller, local varieties for gourmet honey and women's clothing.  Crossing over one street landed us on Meeting Street. Here, our stomaches spotted Hyman's Seafood famous for its po'boy sandwiches and she-crab soup.  We also passed a renown home-cooking spot called Jestine's.  But we were saving those for another day...

Strolling through the historic City Market, which spans four blocks from Meeting Street to E. Bay Street, proved educational and fun.  Built on land donated by Charles Pinckney in 1788 for the express purpose of a public market, the City Market has been in constant operation (through hurricanes and wars) since 1807.  Throughout its history, the market has offered everything from fine jewelry to fresh fish.  Today, ladies demonstrating sweetgrass basket weaving, potters hocking their handmade wares, and tasting booths set up with samples of southern delicacies introduced us to new products.  Our favorite find was dried okra chips which tasted like fried okra in a bag, but less greasy.

Our walking tour continued down East Bay Street passing the Old Exchange Building and Rainbow Row.  The beauty of these buildings paled beside the glory of the spring blossoms.  With our children's dogs barking and stomaches growling, we turned on Broad Street and returned to the car.  We would save the Battery for another day.

We ended our visit with lupper at Martha Lou's Kitchen.  Located about a mile north of Historic Charleston, Martha Lou's serves southern soul food at its best.  We discovered the tiny shack on an episode of Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods America.  Turns out Martha Lou's Kitchen is Sean Brock's (head chef at Husk and McCrady's - both award winning restaurants) favorite restaurant.  Instead of spending hundreds at either of those critically acclaimed locations, we decided to spend just a few bucks at the source of his inspiration.  We were not disappointed.  Dining on huge chicken breasts fried to order, long simmered lima beans with ham, and melt in your mouth collard greens, our whole family ate in blissful silence, pausing only to wash it all down with church-lady sweet tea.  We had the privilege to meet the quiet, but proud Martha Lou who at age 81 is still frying the chicken herself.  She shared stories of her life raising eight kids and cooking for thousands over thirty years in the restaurant business.  Though our hearts may be less healthy after our meal, our soul has never been better fed.

Bless your hearts, Charleston ladies, for opening our eyes, hearts and minds to your beauty.  Hope to see y'all again real soon!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Frugal Living

Once upon a time, there lived a woman who could buy everything she needed and some of the stuff she wanted.  She shopped for new clothes for her husband and kids (and even herself if the "right size" fit.) She drank light (to get the "right size" to fit) caramel macchiatos at Starbuck's while searching for the perfect book at Barnes and Noble. She dined in the finest restaurants with waiters who brought her anything she requested and then cleaned up when she was finished.  She drove her own Volvo SUV and frequently downloaded songs on iTunes for her and her children's musical enjoyment while traveling from ballet to baseball, from PTA to ponies.  Life was good in the magical world of paychecks.

When the paychecks ended so did the fairytale.  Sabbatical life has reintroduced me to my dark, frugal side, much to my family's chagrin.  We have ventured through the looking glass and are definitely not in Kansas anymore.  (How many more cliches can I use in one post?  Keep count and I'll send you a coupon for $2 off Folger's coffee since that's all I drink now.)

Thanks, Kelly!
Here are just a few money saving changes we have made this year:

  • Who needs new clothes when you aren't going to work and your kids are being home schooled?  Approximate savings: $3000
  • Forgo the salon and have a friend cut your kids' hair.  Kelly's expertise was a godsend because I was planning to take a whack at it myself.  Approximate savings: $20 x 3 = $60 or $100 in hats and child size wigs. (Kelly, we'll need you back down for a return visit in 6-8 weeks.)
  • Gone are the daily trips to Starbuck's since I switched to Folger's at pennies a cup.  Approximate savings: $3 x 365 = $1095  (No way I spent over a thousand dollars a year on coffee!  Maybe it was just twice a week... but if I add the times I pulled through a window for a Diet Dr. Pepper... Yikes!)
  • With Starbuck's went Barnes and Noble, so we have embraced the local library system and are infinitely richer for it.  Approximate savings: $15/book x 40 books a year (very conservative estimate) = $600
  • We only dine out extravagantly when we are traveling.  Now a trip to the value menu at Wendy's is a treat.  Approximate savings: $3000 - $50 in change spent cleaning the car (Sadly, no waiters will clean up after you in your car.)
Let's pause a minute.  Did we really spend as much in restaurants as we did on clothes?  Probably why the "right size" didn't fit most of the time. Oh, well, back to the list...

  • Sold is the beloved Volvo for a travel fund increase of $14,000.  This also saved us gassing up a second car for a second person on the road at the same time.  We have "carpooled or not gone" all year.  (Does this mean we're a green family?)
  • An iTunes download is now a goody that each person must pay for themselves.  This has taught the kids that if they want a song, they better like it enough to pay a dollar for it.
  • A final, HUGE savings has been not having kids in every extracurricular or "extra currency needed" activity.  Approximate savings: Dance for two girls = $200/month x 10 months = $2000, Fall and Spring Baseball for one boy = $600, Piano lessons = $88/month x 12 = $1056, Cello lessons = $80 x 12 = $960, and Horseback Riding lessons = $220/month x 10 = $2200. 
Holy Cow!  Kids are expensive!

This year of no paychecks has also taught me how to save on things we couldn't cut out altogether.  I shopped more carefully, even clipping coupons, because I have had time to do so.  Back in the paycheck days, I "ran in" the grocery store.  I shopped for our immediate needs only.  We were so busy we had little time to plan.  This year has reminded me that haste makes waste (Another cliche for those counting) and the expense of traveling with three kids left no room for wasting money.

Here are my two most important money saving travel tips:

One of the benefits of family membership

  • Plan, Plan, Plan.  Take the time.  Seriously.  Shopping around is not overrated.  A little work on the web before we leave on a trip has saved us hundreds of dollars.  For example, I have booked cheaper hotel rooms, flights, etc. searching sites like Priceline, Kayak, Fare Compare, etc.  Also, search your travel destination for freebies.  Many cities have free special events if you are in the know. Wink, wink.  Nudge, nudge.  If you have a membership in your hometown, look for reciprocal museums, zoos and aquariums for free or reduced entry.  We are members at Fernbank Museum and Zoo Atlanta and all five of us got in free to the Ben Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and reduced entry to the Monterrey Aquarium.

    Local Lupper in Charleston
  • Introduce your family to new words: Brunch and Lupper.  This two-meal-a-day concept saved us tons of time and money while traveling.  Basically, this is how it works: Wake and snack* in the room (granola bar, fruit, crackers.)  Sightsee.  Around 11-12 noon have a meal.  It's great to go to a place that serves breakfast all day then the kids don't remember if they had breakfast or lunch.  Sightsee.  Have snack*, if needed.  Around 4-5 have lupper.  Splurge on the city's specialty.  Think global, but eat local.  Talk and enjoy.  The kids won't remember if it was lunch or supper just that it was different...special.  Sightsee; then, back to the room for a light bedtime snack*.   
 *Bring your own snacks.

No new American Girl dolls,
 so Emma has to settle for a makeover.

For the woman in my fairytale, frugal living would be a major bummer.   She would hate the restrictions on her spending and feel it a sacrifice to donate time to researching and planning.  Of course, I'd have to tell her for each so called hardship, there are rewards, tenfold.  Life in paycheck land was great (honestly, I miss the shopping the most), but life in sabbatical land ain't so bad... with a little bit of work.  Ironic, huh?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Harold's Country Club

We had wanted to go to Harold's Country Club since September.  While leaving Beaufort County on our east coast trip, we got lost - not a good start for embarking on a 3500-mile journey.  It was seven in the morning, and somehow, we had ended up on a back road in Yemassee, South Carolina needing ice and directions.  We pulled into the only establishment for miles.  From the outside, Harold's looked like a vacant, old country store with dried up gas pumps out front and antique grocery signs hanging on the sides, but it had an ice cooler and an open light by the door, so we pulled in.

I checked my iPhone again still hoping for a signal.  Yes, we had counted on technology for guidance, but in the backwoods of Carolina, just an hour on the road, it had already let us down.  Cussing at the nonexistent GPS and the road, in general, Greg slammed the door as he headed in for a bag of ice and the location of I95.

With my stomach growling for something more than the bananas and granola bars in the bag beside me, I hopped out after Greg.  As I rounded the family truckster, he was exiting the building with an enormous smile on his face (too big for someone who had been letting a few choice words fly just seconds earlier.)

"Did you get directions?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied still grinning while pulling a bag of ice out of the cooler.
"Did they have any biscuits?" I asked walking toward their front door.
"No, but they have draft beer, if you want one."  I stopped and stared at him, clearly thinking this was an odd offer.

As we returned to the car (No,  I did not want a beer at 7 a.m.), Greg explained that Harold's Country Club was not a store; it was a bar, pool and dance hall with a restaurant that serves steak on Saturday nights and, apparently, has regulars that come in early on a Friday morning because when Greg walked in the door, the bar lady didn't bat an eye.  She grabbed a fresh glass and readied it under a tap asking, "What can I get you?"

As we pulled out -heading in the right direction- for a family field trip of a lifetime, all my husband could say was, "I can't wait till we get back.  We've gotta go there!"  Greg was intrigued.  That's how finding a kindred place is... you know you're going to like it even before you've been there.

Five months later, we officially went to Harold's Country Club for steaks, dancing and just hanging out.  Our friends, Bill and Kelly, had (finally) come to visit for the weekend and we thought:  Who better to share this hole in the wall treasure with than them?   They like steak.  They like dancing.  They like country.  Win-Win-Win.

Our first clue that Harold's would be a different experience was the 7 a.m. beer offering.  Our second clue was making reservations.  The website emphatically stated, "Reservations are for steaks, not tables."  Now, I was intrigued.  Were we to eat standing up?  I was also worried.  I knew I'd have a hard time cutting steak in my lap, but how do I attempt it standing up?  Maybe Greg and I could work out some arrangement: I'll cut your steak if you cut mine...

When I called and made reservations, I probably should have asked about the seating plan of the restaurant, but it was so loud and I wasn't prepared to answer how each person wanted their steak.  Asking the lady to hold while I hollered up the steps, "How do you want your steak?" seemed to be pushing it already, so I didn't question how I would cut my steak while standing.  Luckily, it all made sense when we got there.

Here's a brief description of our evening at Harold's Country Club:

We pulled up and quickly realized you park wherever and enter through the front door near the old gas pumps.

As we entered, the huge bar was on the right and the dance floor and pool hall on the left.  Coolers lined the wall beside the bar where I think you self-served if you just wanted a coke.  Straight back was a hallway which led to the kitchen and dining hall.  Since we had reserved STEAKs, we stopped at the cash register and paid ($18 each- great deal for all you get!) and they handed each of us a Chinet plate and silverware.  Next, we entered the kitchen where incredibly nice ladies that I swear went to my grandma's church asked us, "How did you order your steak?"  I responded, "Medium rare, please, " and they plopped a perfectly cooked to order ribeye steak on my Chinet and told me to grab a baked potato wrapped in foil on my way out.

Heading into the dining room, I understood why you reserve a steak and not a table.  Most of the tables were school cafeteria long with nice floral tablecloths and groups of folks sitting scattered all around.  There were four or five private tables in the room.  We headed to an empty one of these in the back, dropped off our steak plates, and returned for salad, grilled onions, steak sauce, rolls and sweet tea.  Seated and ready to dig in, we smiled and said in unison, "Good Call, Greg!" (Well, Greg didn't say the Greg part, but you get the idea.)

After enjoying the delicious dinner and fine conversation with old friends, we ventured into the bar/dance area.  Kelly and I were hoping for pressing our husbands into service with Karaoke, but the microphones were down so we had to settle for a little dancing and a lot of people watching.

As with all our travels this year, this proved extremely educational.  For example, we learned that Steve Earle's Copperhead Road has a line dance to it now.  Even the guys got up to stomp in time with the bass drum and mandolin.  We also realized that Harold's is THE cool place to go for girls' night out.  A group of ladies had even rented a stretch limo to bring them all the way from Hilton Head Island.  People watching confirmed that some things never change.  Twenty-something guys still love to play pool and twenty-something girls still stand around and watch them.  The only difference from my younger days was that the guys playing and the girls watching all had tattoos.

Harold's Country Club is a hidden treasure in the middle of nowhere.  Our finding it proved to me that there are no mistakes in life. It is a wonderful thing when you realize you found something special because you were lost.

Big Thank You to our Tattoo-less Friends for enjoying Harold's as much as we did!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Fripp Island

Fripp Island Sunrise
I fell in love with Fripp Island before I knew its name or existence.  Pat Conroy's descriptions of the low country resonated in my heart, calling my soul out to play:  

"I have heard it said that an inoculation to the sights and smells of the Carolina lowcountry is an almost irreversible antidote to the charms of other landscapes, other alien geographies. You can be moved profoundly by other vistas, by other oceans, by soaring mountain ranges, but you can never be seduced. You can even forsake the lowcountry, renounce it for other climates, but you can never completely escape the sensuous, semitropical pull of Charleston and her marshes.” 

This year's travels have proven his words true.  Time and again, we saw breathtaking beauty all around America, but none so glorious as a low country sunset.  
Fripp Island Sunset

And so, always, we return to Fripp.

Located nineteen miles southwest of Historic Beaufort, two hours from Charleston and just one hour from Savannah, Fripp Island is a private, gated community offering everything a person needs -or wants- in just 6 square miles.  Whatever image of Fripp you're looking for, you'll find it.  

Clam digging on Fripp
If you're searching for the low country of The Prince of Tides, it's here.  Home to Pat Conroy and his wife, author Cassandra King, Fripp Island's luscious low country landscape holds redemptive powers and inspires novels.  But if you're like me, you may be content with bike rides, long walks, and meditative moments sitting on a dock as the lapping of the water lulls you to sleep just as the sheepshead strikes your bait.  If you're more adventurous, Fripp gives liberty to try new passions like crabbing, clamming and shrimping, all of which boil up nicely in a fresh frogmore stew.
Fripp Island Blue Crabs

Frogmore Stew topped with crabs

If you're searching for pirate's gold like early Fripp resident Blackbeard's treasure, the booty may not be buried here (feel free to look), but the white sand beaches beg for pirate play.  So dig, drink, relax and be merry.  Like the t-shirt says, you can't sit on the beach and drink rum all day unless you start first thing in the morning. Of course, you don't have to drink to live the pirate life.  Pirates play golf and tennis.  Pirates swim, kayak, and play basketball.  If Camp Fripp has taught us anything, it's that pirates are unpredictable and abhor stereotypes.   Play and fun for pirates come in many forms. 
Pirate Tennis, Anyone?

If you are looking to lose yourself in pristine nature, Fripp Island has that, too.  From the wind sweeping through the live oaks dripping with spanish moss to the marshland habitat teaming with minnows and shrimp, snowy egrets and blue herons, from the dunes and tide pools on the beach to the reeds and sweetgrass of the inlets, this sea island abounds with life.  We could not have picked a better place to home school our children this year.  Every breath and glance outside is a science lesson.

Though we will be returning to our home in Georgia in three months, I know Fripp is now our home, too.  We have laughed and loved here; we have grown and changed here. And we've learned  some important life lessons here.  

A few of my favorites are:
  • Giving kids some freedom helps them to grow confident and strong.
  • Children are like the tides: they may rush out to the wide open, but return, eventually, to parental Terra Firma.
  • Breathing salt air frees the mind and feeds the soul. 
What are your favorite island lessons?(Please share in comments.)

Check Out My Fripp Island...