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July 26, 2003
Whatever you’ve read about Charleston’s beauty, it’s role in history, it’s architecture, its vibrancy - is true. The old city of Charleston, surrounded by the Cooper River, Charleston Harbor and the Ashley River, feels like a city that has always “been”. It’s wonderful sense of time and place permeates every fibre of its heritage district, quaint accommodations, great restaurants and quality attractions. If you’re lucky, when you visit, you might get a glimpse of charming Charleston ladies who enjoy lunch or afternoon tea wearing lovely pastel suits and very elaborate matching hats that make an elegant statement about the city and its inhabitants.
Situated on a peninsula, Charleston is a city of bridges. It is also known for its decorative wrought iron - spacious balconies - wide colonnaded porches - impressive stairs, sweeping to formal entries - massive windows, pediments and decorative facades - right hand houses - well prepared seafood - avenues of crepe myrtle, palmetto, pine and majestic oak, historically significant structures and gracious people. I’ll not kid you. Driving around old Charleston can be a royal pain in the neck, especially during rush hour. The secret, of course, is to time your visit to the old city, to avoid high season and heavy commuter traffic.
Finding accommodation during high season can be just as much a challenge. One solution is to stay outside the heritage area, but near the ocean in a resort such as Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms. In that way, you have the benefit of an ocean side accommodation with all the amenities of a resort and can pick and choose your times for visiting Old Charleston. If you feel like sunning and swimming, you can. Golf or tennis lesson? Book a time. A kayak eco-tour? Not a problem. Have children with you? Wild Dunes has programs for them too. A cosy dinner? Reserve a table at the Sea Island Grill. Try the fried green tomatoes, four seasons salad, red snapper and for dessert - chocolate souffle! Breakfast can be traditional fare with cheesy grits or a delicious fruit plate.
One of Charleston’s premier visitor attractions is “The Hunley”, the first submarine to sink a ship, the U.S.S. Housatonic, a feat that happened during the Civil War. At the moment The Hunley is in temporary quarters, and only open weekends. Reservations are a must but it is worth the effort of making the telephone call. The recovery of “The Hunley” in August , 2000 caused great excitement. What is most interesting about “The Hunley” is that it contained the remains of eight crew members, jewellery, a gold coin worn by Hunley commander Lt. George Dixon, leather shoes, canteens, bits of clothing, a candle, pencil, pipes and pipe stems - a virtual c1860's time capsule. To help fund the project, Friends of the Hunley, operate an on-site gift shop where you can buy replicas of the coin and other related memorabilia.
Charleston is known for its restaurants that cater to any taste and budget. One of the best eateries is Slightly North of Broad, the name coming from a comment made by a potential customer who lived in the upscale heritage section of the city which is south of Broad. Housed in an old dockyard warehouse, the bistro serves up some of the most innovative and delicious food in Charleston. One of their lunch specials is sausage and shrimp over grits, the grits being yellow and rough ground. Maverick Fish & Chips is another of their popular dishes and unlike any fish & chips plate you’ve had. SNOB’s creme brulee is the BEST! Other signature dishes include crispy-fried chicken livers over grits, and an innovative Charcuterie Plate.
Charleston’s South Carolina Aquarium is housed in a newly built facility on the shore of the Cooper River near the downtown area. The aquarium’s exhibits and displays are designed to take visitors from the Mountains, through the Piedmont country to the coastal plain and salt marshes then into deep ocean habitat. An escalator ride to the second floor where the tour begins is made special by a sculpture of stylized aluminum birds that fly overhead, the length of the building. Displays are innovative, informative and entertaining. The mountains of South Carolina are interpreted in an open-to-the-elements arboretum on the Aquarium’s second level. When it rains outside, rain falls naturally through overhead screening onto a mountain forest. Very clever!
Fort Sumter National Monument and a Visitor Education Centre are located next to the Aquarium in a former waterfront warehouse. Fort Sumter is important to the Civil War as the first shots were fired at it from nearby Fort Johnson - the first shots fired in the war. Visitors can visit the Fort, located on an island in the harbour.
To fully appreciate Charleston’s rich architectural heritage you must either take a guided tour - many start at the Visitor Information Center or take your own tour, using a handy map given out by the Center. Some folks go further and take an evening ghost tour of the old city. Such tours can be both fascinating and informative. The highest concentration of grand heritage homes is in The Battery, south of Broad. Many of these magnificent homes were built after a devastating earthquake in 1886. A hint, the best time to see these properties is early in the morning when the rising sun accentuates their colours. This is also the best time to find parking along Murray Boulevard. To do justice to Charleston’s built heritage, you should set aside at least one day for exploration.
Pre-Civil War, the banks of the Ashley River were the site of many fine plantations. A number are open to the general public today, including the magnificent Magnolia Plantation, located ten miles north of Charleston on Highway #61, a lovely drive through trees hanging with Spanish moss. The plantation once produced both indigo and rice. Formal gardens in the French tradition were begun at Magnolia more than three hundred years ago and were well known as a “spring garden” for their extensive displays of azaleas. Today the gardens are a year round experience with many different species of flowering shrubs located in twenty acres of gardens, and ponds interspersed with paths and statuary, reflecting pools and decorative bridges.
Before taking a tour of the property, be sure to see the presentation at the Orientation Theater, located right beside the plantation’s house. Along with the gardens, the best known in the U.S., the plantation includes a former 125 acre rice field waterfowl refuge, a petting zoo, biblical garden, enclosed Barbados tropical garden, a row of anti-bellum slave cabins, topiary garden, large Indian Burial mound, plantation worker’s grave yard, replica rice barge and tours of the plantation house with its excellent displays of family antiques. The lower level of the house houses an art galley and gift shop.
Visitors can take an “up-close and personal” tour through former rice fields and the Ashley River for a glimpse of a wide variety of lowcountry shore birds and animals, including alligators, turtles, herons, egrets. Canoes can be rented for those who are really adventuresome. The plantation’s Audubon Swamp Garden consists of sixty acres of tupelo swamp and blackwater cypress, where its common to see alligators, anhinga, osprey, bald eagles, turtles, nesting egrets, heron and crane.
From Magnolia Plantation it’s a short drive to Summerville, known as “Flowertown in the Pines”. Summerville has a great main street, gorgeous flower displays and is also the home of the prestigious Woodlands Resort & Inn. Built as a private home in1906 by Robert W. Parsons, the property became an inn in 1995 and has made its mark in fine dining and excellent accommodation. Lunch at Woodlands Resort is a real treat.
Other attractions in the Charleston area include Patriot’s Point with its display of ships, military aircraft, submarine and the WW11 aircraft carrier USS Yorktown; historic house tours, Charleston Harbor tours, Boone Hall and Middleton Place plantations tours. For information on these and other attractions, contact Charleston Convention & Visitor Bureau or drop into the Visitor Reception and Transportation Center in the heart of Charleston, for brochures and first-hand information.
From Charleston, it’s an easy drive north along Highway #17 to the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina; or to head south toward Beaufort and Hilton Head. Close to Charleston, you’ll notice a number of small structures set up along the highway where sweet grass baskets and boiled peanuts are sold during the busier months. Sweet grass baskets in particular, are a distinctive South Carolina craft and made in a variety of styles and sizes.
Highway #17 is also bordered by hundreds of acres of pine forest on land that was once rice plantations, replete with hugh mansions most of which are ruins now. If you’re alert to the landscape, here and there, vestiges of the rice fields can been seen. Along the route, watch closely for some good examples of mid-century commercial architecture and interesting, sometimes surprising advertising and signage. South Carolina, always full of pleasant surprises, is a great place to spend quality vacation time.
IF YOU GO:
Isle of Palms, S.C. 29451
N. Charleston, S.C. 29405
P.O. Box 13001
Charleston, S.C. 29413-9001
Charleston, S.C. 29414
Summerville, S.C. 29483
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