When you visit Charleston, you're sure to hear the story of a wealthy old Charlestonian woman who was once asked why she so seldom traveled. She replied, "My dear, why should I travel when I'm already here?"
It's easy to understand this woman's complacence, because few places on earth can rival Charleston's blend of grace, beauty, history, and tradition. Charleston has a way of charming visitors (and residents) so that they never want to leave.
Charleston is an "old world" city, lovingly preserved and unique among American destinations. In this grand old city, church bells still toll the hours and the rhythmic sounds of horse-drawn carriages join in the melody. You can see the antebellum homes and plantations that echo a lifestyle of the old south and you can feel and smell the salty sea breeze blowing into the city from beaches of the resort islands nearby. Then you can taste the delicious fresh seafood at one of many renowned Charleston restaurants.
Whether taking a carriage tour, shopping at the popular open-air public market for native sweetgrass baskets, choosing freshly-cut flowers at the Four Corners of Law (an intersection surrounded by government and judicial offices), looking for antiques along historic King Street, pursuing plantation life, or combing beautiful beaches, a Charleston visit is always a sensational sensory experience.
In the city and out on the plantations, America's oldest gardens explode with vibrant colors and are a delight, as the scent of the flora is like no others and the vision of the alluring azaleas, roses, and camellias are almost too exquisite to capture on film. Charleston is beautiful and aristocratic, where century-old houses peek at visitors behind gates that are alive with carolina jessamine, the state flower of South Carolina. If you happen to be in Charleston during the spring or fall, some of the oldest and grandest homes and gardens are open to the public.
You should definitely begin any Charleston exploration with a visit to the Charleston Visitor Center at 375 Meeting Street. Here, you'll a multi-sensory presentation called "Forever Charleston," lots of brochures and information, many tour and attraction tickets, and even the regularly departing DASH Trolley.
Right in Charleston's historic downtown area, you'll find many urban treasures, including the Nathanial Russell House, a fine example of Federal architecture built in 1808. It's one of many homes targeted by the city-saving work of the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation.
Other houses open to the public include the Edmonston-Alston House, the Heyward-Washington House, and the Aiken-Rhett House. The Edmonston-Alston House has a commanding view of Charleston's harbor and a treasure chest of antique family furnishings. The Heyward-Washington House was the home of prominent rice planter Daniel Heyward and once hosts George Washington. The Aiken-Rhett House provides one of the most complete looks at antebellum life in the south at one of Charleston's most palatial residences.
Other "must-sees" in downtown Charleston include White Point Gardens (commonly called "The Battery"); the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (both from slavery days); and at least one of the town's historic churches. Everything is within walking distance, down the city's many tree-lined streets.
If you want to explore even more colorful Charleston history, visit Charles Towne Landing, site of the area's original settlement; the Charleston Museum, America's oldest city museum; The Citadel, one of the last three military state colleges in the nation; or the world's largest naval and maritime museum at Mount Pleasant's Patriots Point, home of the famed WWII aircraft carrier, the Yorktown.
You can also see the area as the first settlers did in 1670, which was by water. There's an interesting boat cruise that starts at the Charleston marina ands goes up the harbor to the Charleston Naval Base or to Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began.
Art lovers will love the colors at the Gibbes Museum of Art. Begun in 1888, thanks to an endowment by wealthy Charleston merchant James S. Gibbes, the museum stands as a symbol of cultural leadership in Charleston, displaying an intriguing collection of American paintings, prints, and drawings from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The museum provides visitors with a comprehensive view of Charleston scenes and South Carolina notables, as well as 400 miniature portraits, one of the oldest and finest of its kind. There are also 10 historic rooms painstakingly reproduced and scaled down by four craftsmen, ranging from the simple dining room of a Martha's Vineyard sea captain to the elaborate drawing room of Charleston's historic Nathaniel Russell House.
But Charleston's colorful charms can also be explored a bit further afield, where many plantations are open to visitors. Out Ashley River Road, three colonial plantations interpret more than 250 years of rural life in the Lowcountry.
Drayton Hall is preserved in almost original condition after more than 2 1/2 centuries. Considered one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in America, this historic house is the only plantation remaining on the Ashley River that survived the Civil War completely intact. Visitors will enjoy learning how seven generations of Draytons lived and worked at this home and on the surrounding land.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens features some of America's oldest and most colorful landscaped gardens. Built in the 1670s, it has been the continuous residence for ten generations of Drayton descendants. Along with pre-revolutionary summer home of the Draytons, the famed gardens include a horticultural maze, an herb garden, and the Barbados Tropical Garden. Also located at Magnolia, Audubon Swamp Garden is the south's newest garden and encompasses a unique 60-acre blackwater cypress swamp, crossed by bridges, dikes, and boardwalks.
Middleton Place offers an 18th century rice plantation. Laid out by Henry Middleton in 1741, the landscaped gardens are considered the oldest in America. Visitors can also explore the stableyards, complete with animals and period workers. The house tour provides an inside look at Colonial life. For those who want a truly historic stay, you can even spend the night at the convenient, comfortable, and architecturally unique Middleton Inn just down a pretty path.
On the other side of Charleston, Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens begins with a 3/4-mile drive lined with massive Spanish oaks planted in 1743 by Captain Thomas Boone. Original plantation buildings include nine 18th century slave cabins, built with bricks made on the plantation, and a gin house, used for processing cotton.
Just 15 miles south of Charleston on Wadmalaw Island, Charleston Tea Plantation boasts the only tea grown in America. The tea is called American Classic and its smooth fresh taste has won it White House acclaim. The tea bushes of the plantation are directly descended from the original plants brought to the colonies from India, China, and Ceylon more than 100 years ago. Co-owners Mack Fleming and William Barclay Hall pride themselves on the freshness of their tea, which is the freshest available on American shelves.
Of course, Charleston is also quite close to many excellent beaches and beach resorts. Just ten minutes from downtown Charleston, Folly Beach has maintained a small beach town atmosphere, but has modern resort amenities and the state's longest fishing pier. Other resort beach destinations include Edisto Island, Isle of Palms, Seabrook Island, and famed Kiawah Island, where golf and beach resort life reigns. You can definitely have your Charleston and beach it too.
Whether you're in the city, out on the plantations, or at the beach, Charleston is also a city of celebration and special events. Some of the most popular events include the huge musical Spoleto Festival USA, the Festival of Houses and Gardens, the Fall Candlelight Tour of Homes, the Southeaster Wildlife Exposition, and Christmas in Charleston.
Charleston accommodations options range from modern hotels to quaint B&Bs. For a city its size, the dining scene is truly remarkable, with a wide range of restaurants offering creative seafood, southern cooking, and other fare.
From one of America's premier historic downtown areas to some of the nation's finest plantations and out to the beaches, Charleston is always colorful and charming. Once you visit, you'll understand why residents (and visitors) never want to leave. They, too, know they're already there.
For information, contact the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 975, Charleston, SC 29402; (803) 853-8000 or (800) 868-8118.
The following are recipes taken from Charleston Receipts, America's oldest Junior League Cookbook in print. Offering a taste of history as well as southern specialties, Charleston Receipts has become a living legend. Included in the cookbook are Gullah phrases and translations that document a fascinating part of America's heritage.
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon flour
1 quart milk
2 cups white crab meat and crab eggs
Few drops onion juice
1/8 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon Worchestershire Sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons dry sherry
1/4 pint cream (whipped)
Melt butter in top of double boiler and blend with flour until smooth. Add the milk gradually, stirring constantly. To this, add crab meat and eggs and all the seasonings, except sherry. To serve, place one tablespoon of warmed sherry in individual soup bowls, then add the soup and top with whipped cream. Sprinkle with paprika or finely-chopped parsley. Serves 4-6.
12 cups bourbon
2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups water
Fresh mint leaves
Fresh mint sprigs
Place bourbon in the freezer 24 hours prior to preparing mint juleps. The bourbon won't freeze, but it will acquire a syrup-like consistency. For each serving, place 1/4 teaspoon sugar in a julep cup and add 2 tablespoons of water and 7 fresh mint leaves. Stir this gently until the sugar is dissolved. Add 1/2 cup of bourbon to each cup, stirring gently. Then add enough finely-crushed ice to fill and cup and stir gently. Place in the freezer and freeze for at least three hours before serving. Break the ice with a spoon and garnish with a fresh mint sprig. 24 servings.