Nothing kicks off a gourmet travel adventure quite like checking in via the kitchen, which is exactly what happened when we arrived at Zero George, an elegant boutique hotel in downtown Charleston, South Carolina's capital of cuisine. Dating back to 1804, the hotel has 16 chic bedrooms scattered across three traditional residences, gracefully framed by old-fashioned, Southern, white-wooden porches, and a brick carriage house in which we found the reception, alongside a state-of-the-art open kitchen where the executive chef Vinson Petrillo and his team were hard at work preparing the dinner.
Founded by English settlers in 1670, the Holy City – as it is known due to its founding principles of religious freedom – grew from a colonial seaport to a wealthy urban centre by the mid-18th century, but Charleston as a serious restaurant destination is a fairly recent phenomenon. Key to that reputation is Husk, a venue in a converted, Victorian-era home that has been hailed for reinventing Southern cooking and which has one rule: "If it doesn't come from the South, it's not coming through the door". The Southern fried chicken skins and cornbread served with a bacon crumble certainly deserve their rave reviews.
Zero George is the perfect base from which to explore the culinary delights that Charleston has to offer, and because the city's Lowcountry cuisine – a mix of English, French, Mediterranean, Caribbean and West African influences – can be somewhat filling, we were glad to make use of the hotel's complimentary bicycles to get around. Dinner the next evening was a short ride away down picturesque streets lined with palm-trees and pastel-painted townhouses to the Restoration, a hotel with a glorious rooftop pool that is situated just off Charleston's main avenue, King Street. Here, we feasted on cheeseburger sliders, hushpuppies (deep-fried cornbread balls) and a tasty heirloom tomato salad, as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Over the days that followed, we discovered that eating well comes in a number of guises in Charleston, from Leon's Oyster Shop housed in a converted garage, known and loved for its oysters and fried chicken, to the sassy hipster joint Spero. The latter serves up a daily-changing menu with some of the most inventive small plates I have had the pleasure to sample, including yellow-fin-tuna tartare served atop a crispy corn tortilla with harissa and parsley-shallot salad, and cornbread with burnt-honey miso butter.
But the foodie pinnacle of our trip was back at Zero George, this time seated around the cooking island of chef Vinson's kitchen as part of a class of six attending the hotel's cooking school. With a glass of crisp white wine in hand, we watched a culinary master at work, explaining his techniques and stressing the importance of local ingredients, while conjuring up a mouthwatering glazed lamb belly with roasted peach, preserved cherry and oats.
The best strategy to avoiding rolling home from your trip a dress size bigger is to tag on a few extra nights at the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, 21 miles away from the city, on the coast. A beautifully appointed hotel with 225 rooms, it has the feel of a grand seaside mansion with lofty ceilings and an imposing staircase in the lobby. It is the ideal retreat to redress the balance, if you can resist the resort's three restaurants, that is, not to mention the snack shop, Beaches and Cream, where the sea-salt ice-cream is to die for.
Besides golf, the coaches at the Roy Barth Tennis Club lured us off our sunloungers to improve our backhands, and we also worked up a sweat on a long bike ride along the beach, passing spectacular private mansions to our left and with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean to our right. After this burst of strenuous activity we felt we had earned a slightly unconventional menu of sushi and steak in the Ocean Room Lounge at the hotel. For pudding, we polished off a tarte tatin and a cheese plate, perfectly complemented by a side of salted rye crackers, and went up to bed with full bellies and hearts. South Carolina certainly had treated, and fed, us well.