Food is a major tour concern, but it usually isn’t what your clients rave about back home. South Carolina can change that.
Throughout the Palmetto state, opportunities abound to learn how certain crops are cultivated, why coastal environments thrive, why chefs became chefs, and how to enjoy food and immediately walk off the calories. Here are five examples.
Savor the Flavors of Charleston Tour
Charleston, where boosters claim the Ashley and Cooper rivers merge to form the Atlantic Ocean, offers more restaurants and tasting experiences than you can shake a stick at.
How can you deal with so many choices? One way is eating and walking with Bulldog Tours on its Savor the Flavors of Charleston stroll. This 2.5-hour walking/eating/learning experience features three restaurants and two food-oriented specialty shops — and provides some exercise. It covers about 1.25 miles near the Charleston City Market.
“It deliberately adds up to a whole meal — if not more,” said Zach Ford, director of sales, noting that city-certified guides describe how Charleston’s food scene fits into South Carolina’s storied culinary history.
Tour restaurants vary. Among possible stops is Handy and Hot, a Vivian Howard restaurant. Howard is famous from “Somewhere South” and “A Chef’s Life” on public television. Enjoy a bacon, egg and pimento cheese biscuit from the chef, who also is a best-selling cookbook author.
Another prospect is Poogan’s Smokehouse, with the slow-smoked meats Southerners love. This stop offers a slider trio (pulled pork, pulled chicken and smoked sausage) with three sauce choices, plus collard greens and cornbread. Get a taste of the sea at the Oyster House (shrimp and grits, she-crab soup and hushpuppies), and save room for fried chicken, deviled eggs and banana pudding at Rudy Royale.
The Charleston locaton of the popular Spice and Tea Exchange offers items such as a Gullah Geechee spice blend — and just for this tour, a pimento cheese sample called among the best in the city.
Sweets wrap up the tour at the cafe of third-generation French chocolatier and pastry maker Christophe Paume. The tour provides a hand-painted chocolate truffle and a macaron.
Charleston Tea Garden
Iced tea may be “the house wine of the South,” but only one place in the South produces the leaves brewed for that thirst-quenching beverage. That’s the Charleston Tea Garden on Wadmalaw Island about 25 miles from Charleston.
Colonists brought tea bushes (Camellia sinensis) to South Carolina in the late 1700s, but commercial production failed for 150 years. Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville was successful from 1888-1915, but that ended when the owner died.
The effort emerged from the soil again in 1963, when William Barclay Hall repurposed a 127-acre sweet potato farm using plants from Summerville. His research led to his American Classic tea, the first ever made only with American-grown tea.
In 2003, Hall partnered with the Bigelow Tea Company, which had decades of experience in specialized teas. Wadmalaw Island, connected by bridge to the mainland, became a destination for tea connoisseurs, or at least the tea curious.
A 90-minute visit includes a narrated trolley tour through approximately 70 acres of cultivated tea plants, plus a factory tour and time at a tea bar to taste as much hot or cold tea as you like. You can extend your visit with a pre-ordered box lunch enjoyed at picnic tables beneath shady live oak trees or under the shelter of a big front porch.
Charleston Tea Garden produces nine varieties of tea, including Charleston Breakfast, American Classic and Earl Grey. The most popular is Peachy Peach, although Rockville Raspberry has plenty of fans. A quick-selling tea is called First Flush, made only with the first cutting of new leaves each spring.
An impossible-to-refuse photo opportunity is with Waddy, the human-sized metal frog perched on a front porch bench and holding a Charleston Tea Garden mug.
South Carolina Chef Ambassador
Erica McCier enjoyed life as a visual arts teacher and never imagined becoming a chef and restaurant owner. That was until kidney disease, the boredom of dialysis, a successful kidney transplant and uncounted hours watching the Food Network showed her a different path.
She went to culinary school, learned how to cater private events, experimented with a pop-up restaurant and eventually took the plunge.
The result is Indigenous Underground, a fine-dining experience unexpected in tiny Abbeville (population 5,000). It’s in South Carolina’s Old 96 District, about 85 miles west of Columbia and 45 miles south of Greenville.
It also resulted in McCier’s becoming one of three 2023 South Carolina Chef Ambassadors. That program spotlights top-notch chefs who promote the state’s agricultural products and foodways.
It also enhances their presentation skills, which McCier proves with programs for travel groups. She can deliver a cooking demonstration or construct special wine and beer dinner pairings at Indigenous Underground (56 seats, black tablecloths, black walls and very bright local art).
“My recipes reflect the foods I grew up with. My grandfather was a farmer, so I know this food,” she said, noting that she wants at least 70% of her ingredients to come from Certified South Carolina farmers.
She translates those ingredients into beautifully presented dishes worthy of a big-city restaurant. Her calling card is a Soul Roll, an Asian/Southern spring roll with seasoned collard greens, black-eyed peas and a special chili sauce. Her bourbon molasses lamb chop is an impressive entree.
The first recipe she developed for Indigenous Underground remains a favorite. Check out her black-eyed pea gumbo (andouille sausage, chicken and grilled shrimp in a light tomato roux). Think of it as traditional South Carolina with a Chef McCier twist.
Georgia is the peach state, right? Well, no. A single South Carolina farm produces more peaches than the entire state of Georgia.
Titan Farms has 6,000 acres and 1 million peach trees covering 15 square miles at Ridge Spring. Visiting provides a glimpse at its massive operation and sweetens the experience with peach ice cream and other peachy treats. Although huge, Titan Farms remains a family operation.
“We’re not your traditional family farm, but we’re my family farm,” said Lori Anne Carr. She and her husband, Chalmers, are the hands-on owners of this spread near I-20 between Columbia and Aiken.
Visits begin by learning about the fuzzy fruit with so many uses and a world-encircling history. Chinese cultivated peaches 3,000 years ago, and their popularity spread west to Russia, Persia, Greece and Europe. Spanish colonists brought them to North America.
Peaches’ popularity helped Titan Farms become the East Coast’s largest producer. There is a “sideline” operation with 1,000 acres of broccoli and 600 acres of bell peppers, both with two crops a year.
Growing peaches is complex — far beyond planting trees and waiting. Titan Farms uses a web-based irrigation system, radio signals, weather stations and soil moisture probes to determine precise water and fertilizer application.
While cultivation is interesting, nutrition is, too. Takeaways include learning that a 60-calorie medium peach has no fat or cholesterol and delivers vitamins A and C, mostly in the skin.
After the presentation, Lori Anne Carr or another staffer will narrate an eight-mile drive to Titan Farms’ primary public facility — Sara’s Fresh Market at Trenton.
Here’s where you can savor homemade peach ice cream and load up on jellies, jams, dressings, sauces, peach bread, peach fritters and peach salsa. You get the idea. Bonuses are arrays of Titan Farms bell peppers and broccoli, plus watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes and more from other local growers.
Enjoying fresh seafood is fundamental to a South Carolina tour, so carry that experience to its roots with a two-hour trip at Murrells Inlet near Myrtle Beach aboard the aptly named Explorer, an 80-passenger pontoon boat.
Captain and onboard naturalist Howie Strickland offers a two-hour eco-tour of the only saltwater estuary on the East Coast. He bills it as a birdwatching eco-tour to see bald eagles, herons, pelicans, oystercatchers and snowy egrets, but much of the focus is on and under the water.
“Think of the estuary as a giant marine nursery,” Strickland said.
Strickland proves the estuary’s vibrancy two ways. Early in the trip, he puts out a crab trap for later retrieval and then pulls a small dredge on the bottom. What the dredge collects goes into a touch tank for passenger to observe.
The “catch” often is a mix of sea spiders, seahorses, sea urchins and small crabs, which allows Strickland to talk about the ecosystem’s diversity and discuss the food chain that eventually leads to a healthy home for flounder, spots, red drum, black drum and Spanish mackerel.
Watching shorebirds quietly stalk their tiny prey next to the marsh grass or seeing a pelican dive on a bigger morsel, reinforces Strickland’s narrative.
A tour treat is when 54-foot-long Explorer eases into an isolated beach. Passengers unload for a beach walk and opportunities to collect banded tulips, heart cockles, whelks and other shells.
Back at the dock, several group-friendly restaurants that feature seafood aplenty are within walking distance. Among them are the Claw House, Drunken Jack’s and the Dead Dog Saloon.
“Count on fresh fish,” Strickland said. “I call it a ‘boat to throat’ experience.”