I recently stayed at the historic Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. If you’re cruising out of Charleston, you may want to stay over in the city the night before your cruise. This hotel is located on King Street, in the heart of Charleston’s historic district, and just a little over a half-mile to the cruise port.
In addition to being in a prime location near the cruise port and lots of amazing restaurants and boutiques, the Francis Marion is also known for being the most haunted hotel in Charleston. In fact, it’s often listed as one of the most haunted hotels in the United States.
Find out what I thought of my stay at the Francis Marion, and whether or not I experienced any ghostly goings-on.
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History of the Francis Marion Hotel
The Francis Marion Hotel, named after the Revolutionary War hero, was built in 1924. At that time, it was the grandest hotel in the Carolinas, as well as the largest. Today, the twelve-story hotel is still one of the tallest buildings in Charleston.
Despite undergoing major restorations in the mid-1950s and again in 1996, the Francis Marion still retains much of its period charm. The 1990s work was funded by a $12 million National Trust for Historic Preservation award.
Their 235 guest rooms include 10 Francis Marion Suites and 7 Penthouse Suites. In addition to guest accommodations, the Francis Marion also features a restaurant, The Swamp Fox, Francis Marion’s nickname earned due to his wartime cunning and stealth tactics in the difficult terrain of the area.
Even if you’re not a war history buff, you might remember the 2000 Mel Gibson film The Patriot? That movie was fictional and (very) historically inaccurate, but the story of its protagonist was loosely based on Francis Marion’s life.
You can’t beat the location in Charleston
Situated at the corner of King and Calhoun streets, the Francis Marion is in a perfect location to walk to the best of what Charleston’s historic district has to offer. Right across the street is Marion Park, which often hosts festivals and farmer’s markets. For those unable or unwilling to do a lot of walking, the free DASH trolley also has a stop just across Calhoun Street.
You won’t have any trouble finding restaurants and bars for all budgets close by. Shopping on Middle King Street’s fashion district is right there as well, with dozens of shops ranging from a bargain-basement-priced overstock clothing boutique to high-end designers and everything in between.
To soak up the history of the city, head a little farther down to the area around the Charleston City Market. From there you’ll find tour operators offering horse-drawn carriage tours of the district, and even historic ghost tours by candlelight.
Did the Francis Marion Hotel’s staff make the grade?
From the doormen to the front desk employees to the housekeeping staff, every hotel employee that we encountered during our stay was pleasant and courteous. We were made to feel very welcome by everyone we met with their friendly smiles and greetings.
We did have a slight issue with a restaurant staff member, which I’ll get to in a moment. However, all of the staff in the hotel itself were lovely.
The lobby: elegant with period details
The Francis Marion Hotel’s lobby is decorated in classic Southern style with large crystal chandeliers, heavy draperies, and neoclassical details. Despite the addition of some midcentury-inspired furnishings, the overall atmosphere is elegant and traditional. The lobby is a half-flight of stairs up from the hotel’s entrance on busy King Street, a design decision no doubt made to seclude it from the bustle of the street below.
What did I think of the hotel room?
We stayed in a Traditional Room on the third floor. Our room wasn’t huge, but it was definitely spacious, and we didn’t feel at all cramped. The room was clean, but oddly smelled of the sort of heavy floral perfume I remember elderly ladies wearing forty years ago.
Our room included a newer television (with cable and HBO), a coffee maker, mini-fridge with complimentary water, and a magnifying makeup mirror. Seating was ample, with an upholstered armchair, a desk chair, and an additional padded backless chair under the coffee station. The free WiFi was reasonably fast, and we didn’t experience any connection issues.
We had one average size closet, but some of the rooms have walk-in closets or two small closets.
The bathroom isn’t exactly spacious
The bathroom was teeny-tiny, which we didn’t mind. However, it is a common complaint I had noticed when researching the hotel prior to choosing it. Several guests also mentioned that some rooms have two unconnected small bathrooms, but ours had just one.
The bathroom had been modernized, with a small granite vanity top (stocked with Gilchrist & Soames toiletries), marble tile on the floor and walls, and a rainfall showerhead. The petite tankless commode and tub appeared to be vintage. The toilet is very low, so some may find it difficult to use.
If you require lots of space in the bathroom, you probably will be unhappy with the small size. If you’re used to tiny cruise ship bathrooms like we are, I’m sure it won’t bother you at all!
Our two-poster bed was very comfortable, although I wasn’t a fan of the flat, lumpy pillows. I was happy to see the triple-sheeting though, because hotel bedspreads are icky!
If we ever return to the Francis Marion, we’ll definitely book a room on a higher floor. The late-night noise from busy King Street three floors below made it difficult to fall asleep. Plus, some higher-level rooms have a view of Charleston Harbor.
Dining at The Swamp Fox Restaurant
We had peeked into the hotel’s restaurant, The Swamp Fox, before checking in, and Mr. SBC commented that it looked like it could be a nice option for our dinner that evening.
Known for using locally-sourced ingredients to create classic Southern cuisine, the Swamp Fox is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They offer a nightly prix-fixe Farmer’s Market Dinner, which changes monthly, in addition to the regular menu. The restaurant features live piano music Thursday through Saturday.
When we arrived in our room, we noticed a flyer entitling us to a complimentary bottle of wine with the purchase of two entrées at the restaurant. I love both free things and wine, so that sealed the deal for me!
The service was inconsistent
We usually eat dinner late, so we always double-check restaurant closing times. We don’t want to annoy the staff by turning up when the kitchen is about to close. Our initial plan had been to go to our room first to freshen up and retrieve our wine coupon before dinner. Having so much fun sightseeing that we lost track of time, we didn’t get back to the hotel until about an hour before The Swamp Fox closed.
Worried that we were cutting it too close, we decided to go in and ask the hostess if we needed to present the flyer, or if we could just show our room key for the deal. She was very pleasant, and assured us that we didn’t need to show anything – our knowing that the deal existed was good enough for them. She advised us to just let our server know, and they would honor it.
When our server arrived at the table to take our drink orders, I let her know about the flyer and what the hostess had told us. She flat-out refused to honor the promotion without the physical copy. She made no effort to communicate with the hostess about the situation (and the hostess also hadn’t made an effort to communicate with her).
Mr. SBC offered to head up to the room to retrieve the flyer, which took about ten minutes out of our dining experience.
Our server seemed very inexperienced, and after the coupon incident was vaguely pleasant but impersonal.
Our meal at the Swamp Fox Restaurant
The bottle of house chardonnay arrived, and the server offered me the chance to try the first sip, as Mr. SBC was still on his mission to retrieve the valuable piece of paper. My first impression of that tiny taste was that the wine seemed odd, but I didn’t think much of it. I don’t usually drink chardonnay, but we could only choose between that and the house cabernet. I was planning on ordering seafood so chardonnay it was.
After a few more sips, I determined that this was by far the worst wine I’ve ever tasted, and it wasn’t because I don’t prefer chardonnay. If something is truly terrible, I have no problem sending it back or asking for something different. Since this was free, I didn’t feel like I could say anything – like that old adage, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” I wasn’t going to complain about my free wine. But I also wasn’t going to drink it.
Mr. SBC returned from his mission, and I asked him to try the wine. He agreed that it was horrible. Did you ever re-cork an unfinished bottle and then forget about it for a while, like for weeks? Although I watched our server open the bottle, that distinct flavor of oxidation was overwhelming. We decided to just stick with water for the rest of our meal.
When in Charleston, try the she-crab soup
We each had ordered she-crab soup ($5 for a cup, $7 for a bowl) to start, and that arrived next. The Francis Marion has been serving she-crab soup at the hotel since 1924, so I was especially looking forward to trying it.
If you’ve never heard of she-crab soup, it’s a cream-based soup with fresh crabmeat and sherry. The addition of crab roe gives it a savory flavor, in addition to giving the soup more body.
She-crab soup was invented in Charleston in the early 1900s, by the then-mayor’s butler. Asked to make a fancier dish to serve while President Taft was visiting for dinner, he added crab roe to a traditional Scottish recipe. It became a hit, and is now popular throughout coastal South Carolina and Georgia.
I’ve only had this specialty a few times, but this recipe stood out from the others I’ve tried. The sherry flavor wasn’t overwhelming, and there was a bit more lump crab than other versions I’ve tasted.
If you visit The Swamp Fox, we both wholeheartedly recommend you try this classic Charleston starter.
Main courses at the Swamp Fox
For our main course, I ordered the Low Country Bouillabaisse ($25.00) and Mr. SBC chose the Crispy Pork Belly ($26.00). My bouillabaisse arrived, with shrimp, scallops, lots of Littleneck clams in their shells and fingerling potatoes. The saffron broth featured melted leeks.
I wasn’t surprised at being given a spoon and not a shellfish fork. I’m a shellfish fanatic, and I’ve noticed that not every restaurant provides one these days. However, I was very surprised to not have a receptacle to discard my clam shells. I asked our server for one, and although she looked noticeably baffled by my request, promptly brought a bowl.
I enjoyed my dish – the seafood wasn’t overcooked, and the broth had a subtle flavor from the saffron and leeks.
Mr. SBC also appreciated his pork belly, which arrived with purple potato hash and corn, both sourced from South Carolina farms. A sweet blackberry reduction added a splash of color to complete the dish.
Portions were large enough that we decided to forego dessert, even though they featured homemade Southern favorites including peach crisp and pecan pie, all in the $7-8 range.
Stay away from the house wine!
Our bill arrived, and I noticed we were charged for the wine, but then credited after Charleston’s 11% tax was applied. Once I got home and scrutinized my receipt, I noticed that I had paid tax again on the already-taxed bottle! We always tip on the full amount of the bill before any discounts, so our undrinkable “free” wine cost us $10.32.
If you’re staying at the Francis Marion and thinking about dining at The Swamp Fox, think twice about using the wine coupon that likely will be left in your room. If you’re dining as a non-guest, stay away from the house chardonnay. Trust me on this one.
Other than the wine issue and our clueless server, we enjoyed our meal at The Swamp Fox. The atmosphere in the dining room was calm, a bit old-fashioned, and just slightly upscale without being too fancy or pretentious. Service was prompt, and we were never made to feel rushed even though we were amongst the last parties seated.
Other features and amenities at the Francis Marion Hotel
Just downstairs from the lobby is a Starbucks, which was packed with customers every time we walked by. The line for our morning coffees was long, but the location was well-staffed and efficient.
The Francis Marion Hotel has a small fitness center with televisions, open 24 hours. Equipment includes treadmills and ellipticals, Peloton bikes, a stretch trainer, a pulley weight system, and free weights. There is no pool in the hotel.
We didn’t have time to try the on-site spa, which is under new ownership. The extensive menu includes facials, body treatments, massage therapy, and waxing. They do not offer nail services.
Ballrooms and conference space
Like many grand old hotels, the Francis Marion has several spacious restored ballrooms, making it a popular location for business conferences and weddings.
Valet parking is available for $25 per day. Self-parking is available in the City Garage next door. The garage charges $20 per 24-hour period.
If you’re just visiting The Swamp Fox Restaurant, they offer valet parking for restaurant guests for $5.00. This service is available for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Is the Francis Marion Hotel haunted?
Like many old buildings in Old Charleston, the Francis Marion comes with an oft-told story of a spirit haunting its rooms. The hotel doesn’t try to hide the fact that many claim to have had supernatural experiences while visiting.
Mr. SBC and I are fans of staying in historic properties, and legends of hauntings at many of these places don’t scare us. I’d put us firmly in the camp of interested, open-minded skeptics when it comes to the idea of ghosts.
The tragic tale of Ned Cohen and the haunting of the Francis Marion Hotel
Legend tells that a lovesick young man from New York deceived his boss in order to woo a young Charleston woman, leading to his tragic end.
Ned Cohen was a salesman for Florsheim Shoes in the early 1930s. Enamored with a young lady from Charleston whom he had met at a social gathering in New York, Ned convinced his manager that he had to be sent to Charleston on company business.
After having tracked down the object of his affections and spending the weekend together, Ned was distraught that she had left his hotel room at the Francis Marion before he woke up. She left a note stating, “I’m sorry; my family will never understand us. Goodbye.” In despair, he flung himself out the window of his tenth-floor room.
Did we notice any evidence of haunting at the Francis Marion Hotel?
Ned’s tragic spirit supposedly haunts room 1010, and guests from different rooms on various floors have reported seeing a body plummeting past their windows, years and even decades after his alleged death. Each time, there’s never anything on the sidewalk below that would explain these visions.
Some hotel guests have stated that the windows in their room rattle without explanation or won’t remain closed. Others have claimed to see a man crying in the hallway, and then suddenly vanish. Another common complaint is guests feeling the sensation of someone stroking their cheek while resting in bed.
Did we see or feel anything unusual during our stay at the Francis Marion? Not at all. I think Mr. SBC might have been a little disappointed! He even ventured up to the 10th floor to see if he could see or feel anything creepy. As for me, I was glad that if there is a spirit in the Francis Marion, it chose not to bother us.
Francis Marion Hotel, 387 King St, Charleston, SC. (877) 756-2121. Swamp Fox Restaurant and Bar, weekday breakfast 7 am-11 am, weekend breakfast buffet 7 am-11:30 am, weekday lunch 11:30 am-3 pm, weekend lunch 12 pm-3 pm, dinner 5 pm-10 pm. (843) 724-8888. Spa Adagio, open Monday to Saturday 9 am-7 pm, (843) 577-2444.
Have you visited Charleston’s historic district or the Francis Marion Hotel? I’d love to hear about it! Let me know in the comments below.
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