Photography by Jonathan Cooper
Lowcountry, High Life
The secret’s out on Charleston, but maybe you didn’t know that the best way to see the town is from the water. What it’s like to cruise the Carolina Lowcountry onboard a Palm Beach 52.
America has three great metropolises: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—maybe San Francisco if you’re feeling generous. Then it’s got cities of international renown, the ones whose sparkle spans oceans; your Miamis, and Vegases. But there is a third type of City You Need To See. These fill niches. Many of them retain a small-town vibe while also offering the culture and character that all top urban residencies demand. Austin, Texas, is a fine example, though for my money, Charleston, South Carolina, may be the very best.
Charleston, if you haven’t heard, has been enjoying a renaissance over the past decade or so. Readers of Conde Nast Traveler have voted it the best city in the U.S. four years running, while nearby Kiawah Island—one in a string of barrier islands that festoon the coast—was voted best island in the country, and the second best in the world, in the magazine’s 2014 poll.
It’s lofty praise, no doubt, but well earned. There are many aspects of this city of 127,999 people that make it appealing. The climate for one. Winter is gentle and yields to an early spring, which melts into a steamy and languid summer. The College of Charleston has a healthy influence on Historic Downtown, and lends the city a necessary vibrance. Music and comedy clubs nestle in the alleyways, and yes, there is a Herculean bar scene that tends to skew frat, but once those frat boys grow up, they often stay put. And hence, there is also a plethora of higher-end drinking establishments like The Rarebit and Prohibition that serve up interesting microbrews and finely balanced cocktails, without a toga or beer bong in sight.
The people here are generally friendly, imbued as they are with that certain southern gentility, a mix of easygoing amiability and manners so ingrained they feel innate. And for the moment at least, the localism that has crept it’s way into other 21st century boom cities—Austin for example, where locals will thank you for visiting and in the next breath tell you not to move there—doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong foothold yet, at least in my experience.
Architecture is another major attraction. OK, I understand that maybe not all of you will be coming into town fresh off finishing a biography of I.M. Pei and raring to get your Corinthian and Doric rocks off. But, the buildings here really are worth seeing, and give the town an understated elegance and air of festivity that many U.S. cities, with their wide, empty streets and monolithic skyscrapers, lack. The ornate ironwork, the bright colors—inherited from the Caribbean trading days—Georgian, Victorian, and Greek Revivalist styles all collude to make Charleston one of the most striking architectural cities in the country. Walking the streets here feels like walking through a living, breathing museum. I mean that as a compliment.
Lastly, Charleston is known for its food. Many say it’s the best eating city in the country. And that’s for a lot of reasons. Two major ones of course, are that it sits squarely at the intersection of soul food and the Atlantic Ocean—two nearly unbeatable sources of culinary inspiration. And no five-star chef understands the advantages of Charleston’s geography better than the Gullahs—also known as Sea Island Creoles—descendants of slaves whose culture still pervades the southeastern U.S. coast. One-pot dishes, rice, offal, and deep-fried deliciousness are all standard fare.
The local ingredients and flavors here have attracted chefs from around the country. Sean Brock’s Husk is perhaps the most fabled of the Charleston eateries, though Mike Lata’s FIG has become a legitimate rival. I ate at the latter, devouring the most tender beef tartare I’ve ever had, before taking a swing and a miss on the triggerfish as an entrée. I kicked myself for weeks for somehow screwing up my order. (When I go back, and I will go back, I’ll have the lamb.) I made up for my misstep later in my trip when I visited another fabled restaurant, Toast. I knew immediately when I walked into the laidback breakfast joint that I liked it. The stereo was blaring a song by The Hold Steady, a Brooklyn band with strong Springsteen influences that I can’t recall hearing anywhere but my own iTunes, and a concert or five. I sat down at the bar and ordered the staple bacon, egg, and cheese on a buttered biscuit. I also ordered a coffee, and when the server asked expectantly if that was all I’d be having, I noticed the guy to my right was drinking a beer and the guy to my left was nursing a Long Island iced tea. It was 9:30 a.m. in a place where hangovers come to die.
Oh yes, one more thing you might be interested in in Charleston: the water. I had come to town to help deliver the Palm Beach 52 to an owner on Spring Island; about a five-hour poke south by boat. The 52 was docked in the harbor, which was a short cab ride from my downtown hotel. She is, as every Palm Beach I’ve seen before her, actually beautiful. CEO Mark Richards and his team have absolutely nailed the art of reconciling occasionally boxy-looking Downeast lines with a modern sleekness that simply speaks to my aesthetic sense.
The fit and finish aboard is about as good as it gets. The joinery in particular is nearly seamless, and each drawer and cabinet closes with a soft but reassuring ka-chunk. It’s a quality Palm Beach is known for—along with a penchant for customization. The attention to detail on the boats is directly traceable back to Richards, who is a bit of a savant when it comes to that sort of thing. Legendarily, when workers are hired to build boats in Palm Beach’s factory, they are first given a personal vaccuum to keep their space clean, and then handed their ID card that lets them in the building. All the tools at the factory are numbered, and if each one is not back in its proper place or otherwise accounted for at close of business each day, suffice to say, the last employee to handle the tool will need to explain why.
There are a few aspects of the 52’s layout that set her apart. For one, her cockpit is a bit larger relative to the rest of the boat than her predecessors—that has obvious advantages. A tender that’ll no doubt see a lot of use in the swampy Lowcountry waters [see “Getting the Most out of Charleston” ] stows neatly in a garage, and launches using a simple pulley system. Lastly, her teak-planked side decks are exceptionally wide. They lead to the bow, where sturdy bowrails keep everybody ably contained as they handle the lines and rode. And that’s a good thing, because the owners of this 52—really good people—are not exactly old salts. In fact, they’re first-time owners.
I’ll give you a tick to let that sink in.
That’s 57 feet of LOA and 1,200 horses to a couple who has never owned so much as a dinghy. It caught me by surprise, too. But hey, life’s short, and judging from what I’ve gleaned about the owner, he’s certainly earned the right to spend his fledgling retirement however he wants. He is looking for his next challenge, and I do think he’s found it. Though I have faith that with the seasoned team at Palm Beach helping him, he’ll soon be an able cruiser. Godspeed, there.
As we pushed off from our slip in Charleston, a dense morning fog covered the harbor. It was totally silent except for the soft purr of the straight-shaft Cummins at just past idle (Volvo Penta configurations, including pods, are also available). The water, mirror still, reflected back the milky fog, swallowing the horizon in all directions. Occasionally a lone sailboat would become visible for a moment, frozen on its mooring, and then vanish. It’s easy to see why ghost stories in this city are rampant. Between the Gullah superstitions, the Spanish moss, and a dark history of slavery, war, and piracy, Charleston has plenty of ammo for the occult. And when the fog rolls in like that, and the land and sea turn into a blank wash of nothingness, it leaves your imagination with nothing to do but fill in the spaces.
We pushed down the ICW past mansions with docks stretching far into the river, a necessity here. Beaufort County, where we were headed, loses as much as 65 percent of its land, by some estimates, with the tidal shift, as the mudflats and oyster beds slink off to their watery respites. In the Lowcountry, even the land itself is a ghost.
We pushed into the Atlantic for the home stretch of our delivery, and that’s where I took the helm for a spell. A game, 3-foot chop slapped at the Palm Beach’s Corecell-cored hull, hand-laid with vinylester resin, but made her neither shiver nor groan. And her warped, strake-less bottom, with a fine entry and nearly flat after sections that afford the boat a meager 2 feet 10 inches of draft, pushed easily through the waves and dense fog, conveying a welcome sense of security in conditions that were less than ideal. The wake behind us was so slight as to be nearly imperceptible, a testament to an exceptionally streamlined hull that grabs no water. Truly, it was so small it sometimes looked like a trick of the eye, and just moments after we had ghosted over a patch of water, it was as if we had never been there at all.
We pulled into the owner’s home at Spring Island in the early afternoon during an unusual cold snap, when the temperatures dipped into the low 40s and a light rain intermittently attempted to ruin the arrival. A long dock led to a yard overhung with live oaks trailing Spanish moss, the ancient trees bowing and contorting in an eerie greeting. The oaks, a staple of the Carolina Lowcountry, shade the whole island, and are equal parts gorgeous and ominous.
Spring Island is a lush, coastal island that has been owned by both the wealthiest man in America (one George Edwards, owner of Sea Island Cotton in the 1850s) and Elisha Walker Jr., a banker and member of the Walker-Bush clan. Today it serves as a semi-pastoral, gated retreat for those fortunate enough to have property here. The island features stocked freshwater ponds and loads of redfish in the saltwater flats that surround it. Among other amenities, it’s also got a giant fitness facility, a communal farm complete with a lone Shetland pony, access to quail-hunting grounds, and an 18-hole golf course designed in part by Arnold Palmer—who the owner of my test boat affectionately refers to as “Arnie.”
It’s a truly exquisite place, and enduringly peaceful. One thing I won’t forget is seeing those tidal ebbs and flows in action. When I woke up the first morning there, the dock leading to the boat stretched out over bare oyster fields that littered the drying muck. By early afternoon as a crowd gathered for the boat’s christening, a pod of dolphin frolicked over the exact same spot.
The christening was a happy one. It felt like half the island showed up for the occasion, wrapped up in their warmest clothes as the temperature remained raw. But the owner and his wife stood proudly on the bow of the boat before them, and the wife, with one good swing, sent the champagne exploding into the salty air amidst a chorus of cheers. The couple, both beaming, cheered back in turn, and walked hand in hand back to the party. And for that day, life in the Lowcountry was very, very good.
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NOTEWORTHY OPTIONS: Complete teak fit-out package (windowframes, doorframes, toe rails, etc.), $120,000; Cummins joystick docking system, no charge; all else standard.
Generator: 1/9-kW Fischer Panda, Warranty: 5-years all inclusive
Conditions During Boat Test
Air temperature: 48°F; humidity: 80%; seas: 3'
Load During Boat Test
533 gal. fuel, 80 gal. water, 4 persons, 1,000 lb. gear.
Test Boat Specifications
- Test Engine: 2/600-hp Cummins QSC8.3s
- Transmission/Ratio: Twin Disc, 2.04:1
- Props: 30" Teignbridge Cfoil 5-blades
- Price as Tested: Upon request
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.