Charleston, South Carolina, is a world unto its own. I realized it as I left Charleston International Airport and crested the General William C. Westmoreland Bridge over the Ashley River. Lush greenery awaited me on the other bank, a few homes with docks, no boats on the waterway, just a quiet river with lush trees everywhere.
Charleston’s riverways and seaport made this southern city once one of the major ports for the slave trade, and there is an Old Slave Mart museum where tourists can see the relics of an ugly practice. But the city is trying to exorcise those ghosts by building the International African American Museum, which should be underway by now. But the $75 million project still lacks the last $11 million needed to start construction, after the state Legislature failed to appropriate the full $25 million folks understood it would contribute.
But Charleston remains a special place, where author Pat Conroy found inspiration, where a certain architecture and social structure developed, where the Old South and its ways, its food and fashion, flourished. Today, it is a popular tourist destination, especially for weddings. There is something utterly feminine about the place, in its gardens, its terraced houses, its flowers and gardens, its pastel colors, its manners.
The natural setting also shapes Charleston, which sits at the bottom of a peninsula of land on the Atlantic Ocean, and is surrounded by rivers, islands and swamps, its roads canopied by oaks that drip Spanish Moss, giving it a spooky and somewhat romantic feel.
While Charleston grapples with its past, four plantations remain open to the public, though the architecture and gardens are more of a highlight than the slave quarters, and from what I could see there is no remnant of the cotton or agricultural production of any kind. One, the Boone Hall Plantation out in Mount Pleasant, is reportedly the most extensive, but unfortunately I didn’t make it out there. But three plantations lie along the Ashley River and can be visited in a single day, though in great weather, Magnolia Hall could take up an entire day.
Magnolia Hall is perhaps the most popular of the three, featuring 500 acres of vast gardens around a well-preserved and furnished home. The plantation offers well-educated tours of the home as well as the gardens, and a store/museum that offers the history of the family that occupied the plantation over the generations. There is a street of slave cabins as well as an Audubon Swamp Garden, and even a petting zoo, with friendly deer and rabbits as well as peacocks. My trip occurred during an unfortunate cold spell, complete with drizzle and 45 degree temperatures, and so I begged off the garden tour, which is conducted by small train.
Still, you can wander some of the gardens on your own, and they are beautiful. The bridges across the waterways lend a feeling of swamp and ares of untended shrubbery are just as beautiful as the carefully cultivated gardens elsewhere.
Magnola Hall is managed by the Drayton Family, which is next door to Drayton Hall, which is separately run. Drayton Hall is unfurnished, conserved to a condition as close to the original as possible, unlike Magnolia Hall. It is the sparest of the three along the Ashely River, without any furniture or restored ceilings. The rooms show the aging of a house that once hosted guests from the city, who came up the long drive, past the wide expanse of lawn and the reflecting pond. Today the pond is apparently home to a few crocodiles that sun themselves along the banks on warm days.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Drayton Hall is the basement, where you can walk around the kitchen, a possible slave quarter and a small worship room, also possibly for the slaves that lived on the premises. The basement has plastered walls and a rabbit-warren of rooms.
Middleton is the third plantation on the Ashley River Road, one of the oldest survivors of the Revolution and graced with grand low-country gardens full of statuary, reflecting ponds, bridges over the waterways, and blooming azaleas. Middleton also has a stableyard, carriage house, blacksmith shop, candlemaking stop, a potter’s place, one very talkative barrel-maker and other historic outbuildings that functioned during the old plantation days. For tourists, Middleton has created a restaurant featuring southern food and a 55-room inn.
During my wanderings through the gardens, a sheepherder with a herd of fat, woolly sheep came waddling across one of the lawns, and further down was one of the oldest known oaks, currently with a circumference of 37 feet.
There are also a few statues in the various garden sections, one a funny quintet of fat cherubs, each singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument.
But this moving statue of a young girl, called The Wood Nymph, caught my eye, her sad, reflective face curious among all the beauty around her.
These old slave plantations aren’t the only plantations in the area. After I stopped to see Angel Oak, a sprawling oak tree estimated to be up to 500 years old, I drove on down the road to Wadmalaw Island and the Charleston Tea Plantation, the only tea plantation in North America. Owned by the same folks who produce Bigelow Teas, the plantation is an actual working plantation, with tea plants and a roomful of equipment that cleans, chops, sorts and “cooks” the tea for the proper duration to create green tea, oolong or black tea. You can take trolley tours through the acres of tea plants and take a free factory tour, told via video screens that walk you through the tea production.
You can’t visit Charleston without going out to one or more of its nearby island beaches. Kiawah Island is a well-known resort spot. Sullivan’s Island, out by Fort Moultrie, and Folly Beach to the south of the City, on James Island, both have nice stretches of beach. They are lined by houses that show the lessons of the hurricanes that have hit this coastal area. All built on raised platforms, some newly built, they testify to the value we place on coastal property.
Despite the cold weather the day I was there, the locals were out, though the seashells on the beach were far more plentiful than the people. This brother-sister team, however, seemed intent on building a sandcastle of sorts despite the cold.
Folly Beach is a bit more touristy at its center, where beach shops and a hotel greet you. To the northeast, the beach is fronted by homes and to the southwest, there is a county park with quiet, untouched sand dunes, grasses and birds.
But nothing says Charleston more than the downtown: its churches, art galleries, shops and homes. Walking its streets, especially King and Meeting streets, gives you a real feel for the place. If you love photography, don’t miss Ben Ham‘s gallery on King. His sepia images of the Low Country will remind you of the work of Ansel Adams, his spiritual mentor.
The downtown also is well-known for its street market–located in a long, warehouse-like building, The market is a bustling place where you can find just about anything. I bought a nice warm hat for a quick $10 that I later lost somewhere. Street sellers also can be found here and there, many of them offering sweetgrass baskets, one of the crafts brought to Charleston by the slaves that are now works of art, embellished with coils and made with bulrush, long-leaf pine and palmetto interwoven with the sweetgrass. The larger and more complex baskets sell for hundreds of dollars.
The art, the shopping, the food–it’s all there. But Charleston’s antebellum homes are the real draw downtown. The homes have a unique architecture. Often the front door and garden are on the side of the house, not facing the street, allowing passers-by to enjoy the flowers and greenery.
Several historic homes are open to the public: The Joseph Manigault House, which is affiliated with the Charleston Museum across the street, the Calhoun Mansion, the Edmonston-Alston House and the Nathanial Russell House are the most visited. At the Charleston Visitor’s Center, you can not only find affordable and ample parking in the garage, but also purchase tickets that will give you free or discounted entry into museums, historic homes and the plantations, as well as carriage rides.
Intricate wrought iron decorates the homes and shops.
The most famous and most photographed homes are those on South Battery, facing the park, and of course the line of homes on East Bay Street: Rainbow Row. Each home is painted in a different pastel color, many of them with flower boxes out front. They are a beautiful historic site, especially when a horse-drawn carriage clops by, though they are not the most beautiful homes in the city, nor the oldest. The are homes on side streets leading to the ocean, built entirely of brick, that are amazing examples of historic Charleston and the newer homes in the Battery can’t be missed.
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