Thursday, August 30, 2012

Modern Meets Southern Vernacular at The Inn at Middleton Place

 Charleston Is Not All Porches and Palaces
Strangely enough, for two Nomads who grew up in the South, we had never been to Charleston when we decided to celebrate our thirty ninth year of wedded bliss in one of the epicenters of traditional, southern revival architecture. Or more precisely, about fifteen miles from said epicenter at a fifty five room boutique hotel in the bucolic low country along the famed Ashely River. The Inn at Middleton Place, while located in the 6,500 acre former rice plantation, is certainly not of the estate which boasts America's oldest landscaped gardens. In fact, you can see none of the plantation proper from anywhere on the grounds of the Middleton. Instead, the architect designed Middleton to stand on its on as a modern response to vernacular southern architecture. And stand it does.  The Inn is the modern architectural equivalent of the Bas Luhrman variation on Romeo and Juliet. True to the spirit of a place, yet accomplishing that spirit with a completely new design motif.

Much has been written about the importance of this unique property as a seminal work of architecture and its response to the southern vernacular most associated with locales such as Charleston  and Savannah. Like all good design, it has a distinctive, timeless quality. According to the architect, the conceptual idea of the hotel was that of a southern ruin. As you approach the massive, unadorned, vine covered, concrete/stucco walls you come to the conclusion that this place has, indeed, been here for centuries. And since you arrive on a long winding dirt road (there is not a single square foot of asphalt or concrete), the experience of discovering a secret place is much intensified. I remember, as a kid, walking in the woods near my grandparents' farm and happening on an old brick chimney or stone wall covered in kudzu and finding it such a compelling place of discovery. The Middleton Inn evokes that same kind of emotion when you arrive at this unlikely collection of modern buildings at the end of the proverbial road less taken. And once you are there and see the ancient Ashley River meandering between the Middleton bluff and the low country marshes in the distance, you realize that you are not in your grandfather's Charleston anymore.

This Place Is Not For The Canopy Bed Crowd

From my perspective, the explosion of the typical B&B, with chintz curtains, club footed tubs and overwrought canopy beds has hindered the development of unique small inns and boutique hotels in the United States. Almost all small, cutting edge hotels are located on the coasts and usually in large urban areas. And they usually cost a fortune. The Post Ranch Inn in California is $1,200 a night! The Middleton is even more compelling as a small, modern hotel when you consider its price. With our discount, we paid $170 per night for a river view through a floor to ceiling wall of glass. In the world of boutique hotels, that is an All American Steal. So, in the interest of full disclosure, if you do not like clean, minimalist design that is devoid of the classic "southern" aesthetic, the Middleton is not for you. If, however, you like design which incorporates crisp detailing, natural materials and unadorned surfaces that become one with their surroundings,  then The Middleton will fulfill your every wish as a true Modern Nomad.

Upon arrival at registration, the very professional staff checked us in effortlessly and explained the inn's numerous attributes and available activities. After going through the main gate and down the  old curving dirt road, we arrived at our room - No. 333. I recommend requesting a room in either Building 3 or 4. They are newer than the main building and they are in the woods and very private. And make certain you reserve a river view. After settling in with our luggage, the first thing I noticed was the smell. The accent wall behind the bed is butt jointed cedar. In addition to the obvious clean aesthetic this renders, it also creates an always fresh smell to the space. The fireplace wall, the other walls and the vaulted ceiling of the mammoth bathroom are unadorned, simple concrete with a natural stucco finish.  This adds further to the minimalist, natural aesthetic. The warm materials and simple design play a supporting role for the main event. You view the famed Ashley River through a wall of glass from end to end and floor to ceiling. Adding to the enjoyment and the utility of the space, the glass wall is covered with folding wood shutters, allowing you to close off the bottom glass for complete privacy, while leaving the upper glass open for viewing nature at its best. The furnishings in the room include classic modern wood chairs, a small writing desk and a bed to die for.

And then there is the bathroom. First, it is huge. With a massive wooden sliding door, the bathroom features a  vaulted ceiling, slate floors, exquisitely detailed wood shelving and the largest tub and shower I have ever seen in any hotel. This is all highlighted by a sandblasted curved glass block window wall. This combination of elements makes for a true sanctuary of peace and tranquility. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, if the hotel would update its bathroom fixtures, install better sliding door hardware and do some minor maintenance on some of the exterior wood, the room and the building in general would rate a 10+ on the Nomad Architect's scale of excellence. As it is, these items are so minor, that the room and the place still gets a 9.999 on my list. Having said that, as you settle in to this unique place, it does what all great design does. It becomes natural to your experience of the room, the architecture and the unique environment of this mesmerizing low country of marshes and the slow moving river.  I highly recommend staying at least three nights at The Middleton. Your arrival day is usually taken up with the inevitable "settling in" at any place. And with all there is to see and do at The Middleton and Charleston, you owe it to yourself to stay more than just the weekend.
Thoreau and Olmsted Would Love This Place

The poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau would have marveled at the natural beauty of the marshes, the river and the unencumbered vistas found in this bucolic area of South Carolina. Likewise, Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of Central Park, would have been smitten with the vision and realization of the grand landscape design of Middleton Place. As we ventured out to explore the former rice plantation and the nationally known gardens, we became utterly enchanted with the beauty and elegance of the plantation proper. Of course, as you would expect, water is everywhere. And its not just that water is everywhere. The integration of landscaping, water features and the establishment of intimate places and long vistas is visually stunning. And when you realize that all of this design and manipulation of land and water was accomplished without any of the modern land moving equipment or technology available today, it makes it all the more compelling. Prepare to walk at least a couple of miles to see the entirety of the plantation, its historic structures and gardens. The next day, we rented bikes from the main lodge, and enjoyed nature at its most silent and finest along the many bike paths that have been carved out of this simple, mesmerizing low land. The only evidence that man was ever there was the rutted bike path and the occasional old wood bird watching stand or crumbling fence.
And If You Are Going To Eat In Charleston You Need To Take Long Walks and Bike Rides!
Like New Orleans and Savannah, Charleston is a place where it is virtually impossible to get a bad meal, as long as you stay local. The following summary of the places we ate and why you should add them to your Nomad's List of Places To Eat, is provided for your culinary planning and pleasure.
Day One
Arriving in Charleston around 1:00 PM we pulled up to the Cru Cafe, a small, intimate bistro  in a  typical old southern house in downtown Charleston. We took our seats on the wraparound porch, sat back and enjoyed the day, the food and each other. Where else but Charleston can you get an absolutely fresh and delicious Fried Oyster Wrap and a Shrimp BLT?  After lunch, we found a Harris & Teeter Grocery and picked up some crackers, cheese and fruit. After a late check in, we decided to relax, eat our munchies with a good pinot noir and get acquainted with the place. A great way to end the first day on any trip. 
Day Two
After rising early, we headed over to The Lake House, one of the many outbuildings run by the inn, for a delicious breakfast of a Dirty Crab Omelet, Eggs, Bacon, Biscuits and Charleston Stone Ground Yellow Grits. Oh Baby!! After the roughly two mile walk to see the plantation, we headed into town and planted ourselves at the  Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar. I had the Marinated Tomatoes + Hearts of Palm, Fresh Goat Cheese and Fried Shrimp. My bride had a Shrimp Po Boy. Outstanding on all accounts. With reservations for our late dinner, we savored a culinary Coup De Gras at The Middleton Place Restaurant. With a very clean, minimalist design added to one of the old houses on the estate, the ambiance was perfect and the meal was, in the humble opinion of this Nomad, five star beginning to end. Starting with She Crab Soup and ending with a melt-in-your mouth main course of Filet Mignon and Potatoes,  with a wine and mushroom reduction, accompanied by an excellent cabernet. The Middleton Place Restaurant is truly one of the most romantic places with amazing food and service you will ever encounter.
And what about desert you say? After our lunch at Amen we decided to check out a place that I had found on the web that specialized in bakery items. Official Nomad Architect Culinary Alert!!!  If you ever go to Charleston you cannot leave without going to this place - The Saffron Bakery Cafe. To quote the dapper Turkish founder, when I said there was so much to  choose from - He responded in an elegant Turkish accent - "It's paradise". And a foodie's paradise it is.  After purchasing more than we could ever eat, we left with a plethora of delights for breakfast and dessert for the remainder of the trip. After returning to the room after dinner, we enjoyed a cream cheese strawberry shortcake that was pure sin!
Day Three
To get ready for our bike ride, we rose early and dove into some almond croissants and other goodies from Saffron, while enjoying the view from our room. After the bike ride, we headed over to the lodge and ordered up a quick ham and cheese panini, prepared by another friendly staffer, Michael. After hanging out and enjoying the grounds of the inn for the afternoon, we headed into town for a romantic dinner at Trattoria Lucca, one of the most lauded eateries in Charleston. The salad alone was worth the visit. Hearts of Romaine with the most delicate Lemon Vinaigrette and Fresh Shaved Parmesan.  Susie had the Veal. I had a duck/pork pasta. This place is a keeper.
Day Four
Well - day four -  we had to leave.  But, as they say - Not so fast my friend!! Dead battery. But not to worry. Within minutes of calling the front desk, two young staff, Bryan and Corey, jumped us off and we headed to checkout, where two  exceptionally smart and gracious young ladies, Erika and Kathryn, assisted with our checkout and application of a coupon I had found on the web. I cannot say enough about the staff at The Middleton. Unassuming and utterly professional, they are 10+ in my book.
As we reluctantly left The Middleton, we headed to Pooogan's Porch in Charleston for, what else, Shrimp and Grits. In a word - HEAVEN!! Susie had the Fried Boneless Chicken Breast, Collards, Mashed Potatoes and Biscuits. To paraphrase southern author and poet James Dickey  - All cultures are judged by the originality of their cookery. After shrimp and grits at Poogan's Porch, you really do understand just how amazing southern cuisine truly is.
As we pulled onto I-95 for the inevitable slow trip home, I thought how blessed I was to be able to enjoy the delights of a great place like the Middleton with my one and only of thirty nine years. As my long betrothed pondered - What will we do next year? I said, like the Nomad I am - Just hang on - I got a plan!

From The Low Country, 
D.L. Stafford

Travel Quote of The Week - “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” ~ Susan Sontag

Video Artist of The Week - Jack Johnson - Former surfer and acoustic rocker brings us some great lyrics with a laid back vocal style that just makes you smile.The tune  Better Together makes you smile when you think about the one you love.


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