Many people don't know the NotSo Hostel exists, but we've always been curious about the place. And even though locals typically aren't allowed to stay there, we took a look to see what (and who) we'd find inside.
The NotSo Hostel was opened in 2002 by a recent CofC graduate named Claire Cunningham. Cunningham got the idea to open a hostel after backpacking around the U.S., and decided a hostel was just what Charleston needed. Cunningham owned and managed the property for three years; she sold NotSo Hostel to the Charleston Housing Company in 2005.
"Because Charleston's a town that attracts a lot of tourists, we feel having a hostel is very much needed, and we are committed to keeping it alive," says Karen Anderson, senior researcher for the Charleston Housing Co. "I can walk into the hostel, and everyone is speaking a different language, but there's a camaraderie and excitement about being there."
Anderson adds, "It's amazing to see people who live with just their backpacks. They're not focused on cars or having a job. They're just enjoying life. "
It may seem like the NotSo Hostel is only the big, white house that stands on Spring Street, but there are actually two other houses behind it. The first two are for guests, and the third is for the female innkeepers, who keep the hostel running. Each house was built in the 1840s. The double porches are adorned with colorful hammocks and rocking chairs.
"It's easy to get the travel bug, talking to guests about how they've sold all their belongings and are traveling for two years," says Victoria Matsis, who's been the manager of the hostel for almost three years.
Walk through either of the black doors of the main house and you might find Matsis sitting at the front desk. The office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., with check-in from 5 to 10 p.m. There are two computers in the office guests can use for free. And during daylight hours, you can almost always see people writing e-mails or checking Facebook.
There's a bookshelf stacked with Fodor's travel guides and novels for guests to borrow. By the front desk, a map hangs on the wall, covered in pushpins marking where the guests who've stayed at the hostel have come from. Some are from the U.S., but most are from Europe, with others traveling from as far as Australia, Japan, and Zimbabwe. Every year, the hostel has to clear the map because it's covered in pins.
A Sense of Community
One of the NotSo Hostel's favorite sayings is that "Life is too short to sleep alone." For travelers, a hostel isn't just a place to stay, but somewhere to meet and enjoy the company of people. The whole point is that accommodations are shared, like bathrooms, bedrooms, and kitchens.
"While hotels are often isolating, enclosed experiences, staying in a hostel forces people to interact with each other as part of a community," says Matsis. "If you're staying at a good hostel, meeting people, it makes the whole experience of the city better."
And a good hostel will provide space for this sense of community to flourish. There are three guest kitchens, fully stocked with plates, silverware, oil, and spices. There's always a local newspaper on the table and fair-trade coffee brewing. In the yellow kitchen outside the main office, NPR plays from the vintage, turn-dial radio.
Matsis says most guests have meals together. Food is stored in the community refrigerators, and almost all items go unlabeled.
"Hostels are based on trust," says Matsis, "that you can leave your stuff here and expect it to be there when you return."
And because of the communal vibe, most guests don't mind sharing what they have with others. Sharing is like a peace offering, a way to make friends. In fact, hostels are like mini-utopic societies where generosity is accepted. Guests cook dinner, trade alms, and then hit the town.
As another way to build community, the NotSo Hostel offers complimentary breakfast every morning. Guests can nosh on bagels and English muffins and laugh together through their latest hangovers with almond butter, Nutella, and cream cheese.
With all the socializing that takes place, it's easy for a hostel to seem more like a frat house than a hotel. And though the NotSo Hostel allows drinking, drunkenness is a no-no. Matsis doesn't consider the NotSo Hostel to be a place to party.
From 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., quiet hours are administered. And during the weekdays, when business is slower, the hostel remains for the most part silent, disrupted only by people stopping in and out, taking a break from sightseeing to grab a snack or some tea.
In the office, there's TV for people to watch, but Matsis doesn't allow it to be used for anything but movies. She says she wants people to get out of their rooms and experience the local culture — which we all know involves eating, drinking, shopping, and going to the beach. But if guests do feel like staying in and hanging out with each other, the hostel has board games and a ping-pong table in the backyard.
"We play an enormous amount of ping-pong here," says Matsis.
For this reporter, a hostel conjures up bad memories of a bug-infested bed and a shower that smelled like sulfur in Central America. But one thing guests are usually happy about when they first arrive at the NotSo Hostel is that it's actually very clean.
"This is one of the better hostels we've stayed at," says Lucy Apampa, 22, who's traveling from England. "It's clean. It has a nice atmosphere."
And the reason why the hostel's so clean is the same reason why check out's at 10 a.m. Matsis says she and her coworkers, Kendall Snead and Melissa Kondor, spend all day cleaning for new arrivals. They wash the towels and the linens they provide each guest.
Another convenient feature is the hostel's private parking. Pull in the gravel driveway and you're almost sure to see the NotSo Hostile mobile, a 1992 magenta pick up truck. If guests don't have a car, for $15 a day they can rent one of the beach cruisers hanging on the bike rack outside.
The NotSo Hostel also allows pets, the one rule being that the animals are well behaved and stay with their owner at all times. They've had parrots stay before. And turtles.
There are four recently renovated full bathrooms in the hostel, and in them guests can find blow dryers, contact cases, mini-bottles of shampoo, and conditioner. In one of the downstairs bathrooms, we even found some roll-on anti-cellulite cream (which we reached to put on, but then had second thoughts). The shower water is hot and lasts long, though management leaves notes asking people to take short showers to be eco-friendly.
In addition, there's a vending machine stocked with goodies like macaroni, laundry detergent, fruit bars, and canned peaches. And if people want to wash their clothes, there's a coin-operated laundry. But beware: When the tumble dry cycle activates, the whole hostel starts shaking.
To stay in a bunk in a dorm room costs $23 a night. Most of the dorms sleep four people, with an exception of the one eight-person room. Private rooms are available for $60 a night.
All the doors and walls in the hostel are decorated with hand-painted art. Each room has a different name, like the Dylan Room, the Aimee Room, or the Kenya Room. During her three-year long stint as manager, Matsis has added many personal touches around the hostel, like the framed pictures of Albert Einstein with quotes like "Why is it that everybody likes me, yet no one understands me?" that hang in the back guesthouse.
And because the NotSo Hostel is privately owned by Charleston Housing Company, it doesn't abide by the rules of Hostels International. There are no age requirements to stay at the hostel. You can come if you're young. You can come if you're old. The rooms are co-ed, too.
The maximum occupancy of the hostel is 40 people, but they have allowed folks to camp in the backyard for $10 a day. One guy lived in a tent for an entire month in the backyard. He was determined to finish writing a novel.
The People You'll Meet
"What's the big deal about these grits everyone's so keen on?" British traveler Simon Hood asks while staring into his bowl of instant cereal.
"It's like porridge, except with more oil or something," says Lucy Apampa, a fellow Brit.
"I heard they eat them with shrimps and gravy," answers Hood. "Which I can kind of enjoy." He looks at his spoon and says, "But just for the shrimps, really."
We visited the NotSo Hostel on a gray and stormy day in late November. Hood, who'd been at the hostel for three days, had just returned from a pilgrimage to a local bowling alley to fulfill one of his Big Lebowski fantasies.
"The place was rubbish," Hood says. "Not at all like the movie."
Next to him sits Finnola Staples, Apampa's backpacking partner, who is also 22. Lucy and Finn have just graduated from "university" in different parts of Europe. The two were friends in high school and decided to reunite for a tour of the United States and Latin America before trying to figure out what their next life moves would be.
"I would love to be an artist," says Staples, who graduated with a degree in sculpture.
Hood, who is also between jobs, chimes in. "I want to be an artist, too."
A new girl walks into the kitchen. Her asymmetrical auburn hair and Adidas jacket are damp from being outside in the rain.
"Oh look, it's Miriam," Staples says. Miriam is traveling from Sweden, and Apampa and Staples recognize her immediately. The three had met previously in Memphis, Tenn. She sits down and eats a bagel. It's been the first hot meal she's had in days.
"You know, we've eaten at three college cafeterias since we've been in America," says Apampa. "Is every town here a college town?"
As we sit around the table, discussing weird American things like Walmart, a group of traveling musicians carrying cased instruments walks through the kitchen and into the eight-person dorm room. They call themselves the Dharma Bums.
The Dharma Bums have been traveling together for three weeks, after leaving the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Omega is the nation's largest holistic, educational retreat center, where they had just finished doing a seasonal work/study.
The group begins to cook a vegan dinner, and when it's ready, they invite everyone at the hostel — including the staff — to join their feast. But before we start to eat, the musicians grab each other's hands and sing a song for grace:
"Peace begins when the hungry are fed. Peace begins when we see each other as a friend. Let the peace begin..."
Most of The Dharma Bums appear to be in their early 20s, except for the gray-haired man wearing neon orange reading glasses and an Omega shirt who is leaning against a banister. His name is Izzie, and the Dharma Bums is the product of his dreams.
According to fellow Dharma Bum Brandon Sickbert, the Dharma Bums are "a group of pseudo-sadhus (the Hindu word for mystic, yogi, or wandering monk) catalyzing consciousness using music as an access point to engage people in a shared experience of peace, joy, love, and other things that sound cliché until you experience them." After dinner, they perform around a bonfire in the backyard.
Flames are kindled, and ping-pong matches begin. The Dharma Bums bring out their instruments: a guitar, djembe, auto harp, and a maraca shaped like an egg, and passed around laminated songbooks.
And as we sing along to gospel hymns and folk songs, this reporter realizes that — whoa! — the mission of the Dharma Bums has proven to be true. They have succeeded in uniting people from all different places around a campfire and are filling them up with things like joy and peace — clichéd things, yes, but things so often missing in this world.
And even though the Dharma Bums could be classified as hippies (which we don't think they would really mind), they travel not to avoid life, but to pursue simple truths. And while they may not have settled in one place, with a job, spending their time "accomplishing" things, the Dharma Bums give out hugs and have fun. It is so infectious, I almost decide to quit my jobs and join them on tour.
But alas, being a Dharma Bum is not for everyone.
"Enough of this Kumbaya shit," Staples says to Apampa after about an hour around the fire. They grab Hood, and we show them to the Recovery Room.
A New Hostel
With all the demand for a hostel in Charleston, the NotSo Hostel is about to open an extension of itself, called the NotSo Hostel Too. The NotSo Hostel Too is set to open in early 2010 on 33 Cannon St. All the same amenities will be provided.
"We're still working with the city to get this hostel started, doing renovations to bring it up to standards," says Anderson. "The house is a little newer. It's closer to King Street. It's closer to campus."
All this is great. Now we know the NotSo Hostel is fabulous, but it still remains somewhat of a forbidden fruit to locals. And the reason is safety. Matsis says if they let people living in Charleston stay at the hostel, it would run the risk of turning into something like a halfway house.
But even if we can't spend a full night at the NotSo Hostel, it's still available when friends or family come into town. And it's comforting to know that somewhere in our city, there's a place people from all over the world are constantly moving in and out of. They are sitting by a campfire, talking about life, visiting our restaurants and bars.
So if you start to feel caged up in Charleston and a life of the same old day-in-day-out starts to get you down, head over to the NotSo Hostel during office hours. Visitors are always welcome.
And if wanderlust really strikes, it's never too late to become a Dharma Bum and visit some hostels on the road.
To go along with the green-loving nature of most backpackers, the NotSo Hostel has taken many measures to operate in a sustainable manner. The staff composts, recycles, and has a vegetable garden growing eggplant and pineapple sage in the backyard. In addition, the staff displaces water into toilet tanks, and leaves reminders asking guests to turn off lights and ceiling fans. The house is reinsulated, and room temperatures are regulated daily. The staff only uses biodegradable, earth-friendly cleaners. A lot of items at breakfast are organic, too.