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The South’s grande dame
Charleston shines like a coastal jewel, presenting its historic homes and gardens

By Debra Wood
Published: Sep/Oct 2000

A horse and carriage tour is a wonderful way to see Charleston’s many sights (left). The Sundial Garden at Middleton Place (above) is filled with romance./ © Lee Snider-Photo Images
With more than 300 years of fasci- nating history, Charleston is one of the country’s oldest cities, but it offers three distinctive experiences that are the jewels that make this coastal grande dame shine with the luminescence of a rose-cheeked maiden.

Three prime locations–the city itself; Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island; and the Ashley River plantations–each bestows gracious Southern hospitality while offering a glimpse of Revolutionary and antebellum Charleston. When you divide your time between these three areas, you’ll discover historic homes, forts, gardens, spas and more. You can relive the splendor of rice planters’ homes, pamper yourself at one of the world-class spas and devour Low-Country dishes at AAA Four- or Five-Diamond restaurants.

Yet more than rich history, this charming South Carolina town rolls out the red carpet to ensure guests enjoy their stay.

In town

Narrow streets, scarce parking and sights in close proximity to each other create an ideal walking town. Many architectural details and ironwork are best viewed up close.

A carriage ride gives guests a lay of the land and an idea of how far they will be hoofing it. Catch a carriage tour on Market Street, but save shopping in the stores and bartering with vendors for later. After the ride, grab a bite to eat at one of Market Street’s many restaurants, before heading to the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon (122 E. Bay St. at Broad Street).

The walls of the exchange hold Revolution-era secrets. A key center of 18th-century political and economic life, the building rises above the old city wall, a fortification for early settlers. The state’s delegates to the first Continental Congress were elected in the Great Hall. Colonists hid British tea and gunpowder in the cellar. And here, in 1776, South Carolina declared its independence. During the war, the British used the cellar as a prison. Listen carefully for the whisper of ghosts said to frequent the darkened caverns.

A few blocks away, the Heyward-Washington House (87 Church St.), which provided in-town shelter for patriotic leader Thomas Heyward Jr., serves as a grand example of accommodations and furnishings wealthy planters kept during the Revolutionary War period. George Washington stayed in the home during his 1791 Southern tour.

Harbor views from the second-floor porch make the Edmondston-Alston House (21 E. Battery) well worth a stop. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard and others watched from these piazzas as Confederates lobbed the first bombs of the Civil War toward Fort Sumter. The home remains in the hands of Alston descendants, and family paintings and heirlooms decorate the rooms. Stroll along the battery and look out at what local lore boasts is where the Cooper and Ashley rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean.

Let the breeze ruffle your hair during a boat ride to the Fort Sumter National Monument. Rangers welcome guests to the island fortress./ ©Lee Snider-Photo Images
Let the breeze ruffle your hair during a boat ride to the Fort Sumter National Monument. Rangers welcome guests to the island fortress and explain the Confederates’ successful attack and subsequent encampment. Scars mar the walls, reminders of the impact from an estimated 7 million pounds of munitions leveled at the fort during the war. Wander across the parade grounds, pass ruins of the barracks and climb up the Battery Hugar, constructed for the Spanish-American War, to the museum and gift shop.

A few other attractions round out the northern sights. The Joseph Manigault House (350 Meeting St.) was an elegant planter mansion. The Charleston Visitor Center is in a restored train depot. And the Charleston Museum (360 Meeting St.), a modern building, is filled with artifacts and interpretations of the area’s history and natural attributes.

After a long day in the historic district, unwind at the Charleston Place, an elegant AAA Four-Diamond hotel in the center of town. Prepare for a bit of pampering, a sauna or a swim, year-round in the indoor, heated pool. Stop for a cool one and some people watching in the lobby bar, then head to the hotel’s Charleston Grill for a sumptuous Low-Country dinner, served with a friendly smile.

Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island

Cross the Cooper River to visit Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, where Americans secured a decisive Revolutionary War victory. Fort Moultrie saw action during the Civil War and stood sentinel over the harbor during World War II. Munitions and garrisons highlight how military installations have changed over the years.

Across the intracoastal waterway near Mount Pleasant is Boone Hall Plantation (U.S. Highway 17 north). Drive under a half-mile-long live oak canopy and pass into another era. Slave quarters, puffs of growing cotton and hoop-skirted hostesses add to the antebellum allure. The mansion was rebuilt in 1935, using bricks made on the plantation, as well as woodwork and other items from the original building. Stay for a sandwich in the restored former cotton gin house.

Not far from the plantation, the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site provides insight into the South Carolinian’s participation in shaping the U.S. Constitution.

The Ashley River Plantations

Three plantation museums hug the Ashley River. Don’t miss Drayton Hall, a 1700s relic that escaped destruction during the Civil War. The home, which remained in the family for more than two centuries, lacks electricity, plumbing, central heat and other modern amenities, giving it rare authenticity. Docents share legends about how the mansion survived the war and recount other tales surrounding the preserved National Trust Historic Site, pointing out where the Draytons kept track of their growing children’s height, the mysterious columns in the cellar and other fascinating details.

The homes at Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation and its gardens did not fare so well during the war. Landscaped gardens grace both properties. Ruins and a guest wing stand at Middleton. Ponds, swans and lambs on the front lawn enhance the rural appeal. Crafts people relate anecdotes about plantation life while grinding flour, hewing logs and tending to animals in the stable yard. Dine on okra gumbo or she-crab soup at the full-service restaurant while soaking up the garden atmosphere.

An elegant home moved from nearby Summerville adorns Magnolia Plantation. Wildlife experts, guiding Magnolia’s Nature Train, regale guests with tales about the former rice fields, Native Americans, alligators, birds and other creatures.

Woodlands Resort & Inn, a AAA Five-Diamond restaurant and country inn, provides an ideal base of operations for touring the plantation area. Staff members at the Summerville Inn re-create the ambiance of a stay at a favorite aunt’s country home, only better. Dinner is served on an elegant brick and glass-enclosed verandah, and the spa’s masseuse offers a moonlight massage in the gazebo. Small, boutique shops round out Summerville’s activities.

History buffs with a hankering for gentile hospitality will relish the sights, spas and friendly folks that make Charleston the grande dame of the South.

Debra Wood is a contributor from Orlando, Fla.

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