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Charleston, South Carolina

Charming South Carolina Port Rolls Out the Welcome Mat for Cruise Callers

Even those in Charleston only for a single day are sure to hear the story of a wealthy old Charlestonian woman who was once asked why she so seldom traveled. Puzzled, she replied, "My dear, why should I travel when I'm already here?"

It's easy to understand this woman's complacency, because few places on earth can rival Charleston's blend of grace, beauty, history, and tradition. Charleston has a way of charming visitors so that they never want to leave--even if they’re boarding a ship bound for other far-flung ports.

Charleston is a natural as a popular port for visiting cruise ships--and a growing number are calling on the city or using it as a port of embarkation and debarkation. The deep Charleston Harbor has always welcomed huge commercial ships, but cruise liners--and their passengers--are becoming much more common. Located right in the heart of historic Charleston, the Passenger Terminal couldn’t be more convenient for those enjoying a day docked in town or a pre- or post-cruise stay (which is highly recommended, given all there is to see and do).

Charleston is a historic town, 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. Visitors in town for just the day still have time to see the antebellum homes and plantations that echo a lifestyle of the Old South--and feel and smell the salty seabreeze blowing into the city from beaches of the resort islands nearby. They can also taste the delicious fresh seafood and other local delicacies at one of many renowned Charleston restaurants open for lunch, where many chefs specialize in flavorful “Lowcountry“ fare.

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 and more 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 other and the vision of the alluring azaleas, roses, and camellias are almost too exquisite to capture with a camera. Charleston is beautiful and aristocratic, where century-old houses peek at visitors from behind gates that are alive with Carolina Jessamine, the state flower of South Carolina. If one happens to be in Charleston during the spring or fall, some of the oldest and grandest homes and gardens are open to the public.

In keeping with the city’s welcoming nature, the Convention & Visitors Bureau even sets up a mini-Visitor Center right at the Passenger Terminal when ships are in port. Visitors will also want to head to the Charleston Visitor Center at 375 Meeting Street. Here, with a multi-sensory presentation called "Forever Charleston," gather lots of brochures and information, purchase tour and attraction tickets, and even board the regularly departing DASH Trolley.

Many urban treasures are easily found within walking distance of the cruise ship dock, including the Nathanial Russell House, a fine example of Federal architecture built in 1808 and one of many homes targeted by the city-saving work of the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation. Other nearby houses open to the public include the Edmondston-Alston House, the Heyward-Washington House, and the Aiken-Rhett House. The Edmondston-Alston House, a treasure trove of antique family furnishings, has a commanding view of Charleston's harbor. The Heyward-Washington House was the home of prominent rice planter Daniel Heyward and once hosted George Washington. The Aiken-Rhett, one of Charleston's most palatial residences, provides a quite complete look at antebellum life in the South.

More "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 for most visitors, just easy strolls down tree-lined streets.

Those who want to explore even more colorful Charleston history can visit Charles Towne Landing, site of the area's original settlement; 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, USS Yorktown and the newly-refurbished interactive Congressional Medal of Honor Museum. One can also see the area as the first settlers did in 1670--by water--or an interesting boat cruise that starts at the Charleston marina and 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 collection 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.

For those with more time, 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, despite being more than 250 years old, is preserved in almost original condition. 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 10 generations of Drayton descendants. Alongside the 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 encompasses a unique 60-acre blackwater cypress swamp, crossed by bridges, dikes, and boardwalks.

Middleton Place is a fine example of 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 (including two new water buffalo) and period-dressed workers. The house tour provides an inside look at Colonial life. For those who want a truly historic stay, it’s easy to spend the night at the architecturally unique Middleton Inn just down a pretty path.

On the other side of Charleston, Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens is entered along a three-quarter 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 North America. Called American Classic, 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. Owner William Barclay Hall prides himself on the freshness of their tea-- the freshest available on American shelves.

Of course, Charleston is also quite close to many excellent beaches and beach resorts. Folly Beach, just 10 minutes from downtown, 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, Sullivan’s Island, Seabrook Island, and famed Kiawah Island, where golf and beach-resort life reigns. Visitors can definitely have their historic Charleston and beach it too.

Whether in the city, out on the plantations, or at the beach, Charleston is also a city of celebration and special events. The most popular include: the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (February), the Charleston Food & Wine Festival (early March), the Festival of Houses and Gardens (March/April); Spoleto Festival USA (May/June), the Fall Candlelight Tour of Homes (September/October), and Christmas in Charleston (late-November through early-January).

Area accommodations run the gamut from modern hotels to quaint bed & breakfasts; near the Passenger Terminal is a wide range of pre-/post-cruise options. For a city its size, Charleston has a truly remarkable dining scene, with creative seafood, Southern cooking, and a vast choice of other great fare.

From one of America's premier historic downtowns to some of the nation's finest plantations and out to the beaches, Charleston is always colorful and charming. Once there, it’s easy to understand why residents (and visitors) never want to leave. They, too, know they're already there.

NCL's Norwegian Majesty is homeported in Charleston, setting sail on weeklong Bahamas and Florida cruises every Saturday through April 25, 2009 (followed by a few Bermuda itineraries in May). Ships from other lines--including American, Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Seabourn--occassionally call on and sometimes homeport in Charleston. Excellent information for cruiseship passengers is on the South Carolina State Ports Authority web site, www.scspa.com.

For more information, contact your travel agent or the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (Cruise Travel Magazine), 423 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403; call (800) 868-8118; or log on to www.charlestoncvb.com.