||Published Jan/Feb 2006
Left: Top: The newer South Carolina Aquarium has several exhibit areas to explore. South Carolina Aquarium photo
Historic Charleston blends its rich history with new developments.
By Patrick Martin
|It’s a short list of citiesSan Francisco, London and Brooklynthat are defined by their bridges. Charleston, S. C., is famous for so many thingsits role as the starting and focal points of the Civil War, architecture, cuisine and Southern hospitality. Yet in the 21st century, Charleston may become identified with the spectacular Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, which dominates its skyline from all directions.
The new span over the Cooper River links Charleston with nearby Mount Pleasant. It is named for the retired congressman who ran for the South Carolina State Senate to jump-start the $632 million project, the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.
The bridge eases traffic in and out of the historic city and provides an architectural exclamation point to a city that has celebrated its architecture and culture for more than 300 years.
We visited Charleston for the first time just two weeks after the Ravenel Bridge opened in July 2005, the culmination of a 20-year effort to replace an obsolete bridge built in the 1920s. At the time of our visit, even the locals were still impressed with their city’s latest wonder.
From our perch on the nearby Isle of Palms, the bridge gave us easy access to the old town of Charleston, whose historic riches could not be adequately assayed in a week’s visit. But we gave it a good try.
The start of something big
Our first tour was Fort Sumter National Monument, which rests on a man-made island in Charleston Harbor. The city has been an important port since colonial times. With the American Revolution and War of 1812 still fresh memories, the fledgling United States hatched a plan to secure the harbor (and city) by constructing an impregnable fort in a strategic spot.
They began dumping rocks in the harbor in 1829, eventually creating an island of about 2.4 acres. They built a pentagon-shaped fort whose five-foot-thick walls would eventually rise 50 feet above the sea.
In December of 1860 following South Carolina’s secession, and with tensions rising between the northern and southern states, a federal major, Robert Anderson, moved his 85 troops from the outdated and vulnerable Fort Moultrie under cover of night to the 90-percent completed Fort Sumter.
Charleston’s residents were outraged the next day when they saw the federal flag fluttering over the island. Confederates determined to starve out Anderson, blockading the island and causing supplies to run low in April 1861.
Confederate forces under Brig. Gen Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired on the fort in the wee hours of April 12. After a one-day exchange of fire, which produced no fatalities on either side, Anderson surrendered and was allowed to vacate with his men. And the Civil War had begun.
Two years later, federal troops returned in large numbers and began siege operations against Charleston, blasting away at the island fort for 18 months, reducing it pretty much to a pile of rubble. It was estimated they fired 7 million pounds of metal at the fort.
Tours are available year-round from two embarkation points, from nearby Mount Pleasant or from downtown Charleston. It’s a 40-minute boat ride each way, leaving about an hour to tour the fort, which is plenty. Not much remains of the original fort, it having been updated around the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, but there is a museum, gift shop and enough cannon and other remains to bring the story back to life.
The fort is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Tours cost $13 for adults, $12 for seniors and $7 for children 6 to 11. Those 5 and younger are free.
The oldest part of the historic city sits on a peninsula that juts into Charleston Harbor. Visitors can’t walk a block without seeing something of interest. There are historic homes, churches and shops. Restaurants abound. Helpful historic markers are plentiful, walking maps easily available. And it is a city that can be walked.
The Charleston Visitors Center at Meeting and Ann streets is a good place to start.
Visitors can come away with maps, brochures on virtually any attraction and excellent, friendly advice from the helpful staff.
We started our tour of old Charleston with one of its newer attractions, the South Carolina Aquarium (100 Aquarium Wharf), which opened in 2000. I’ve been to a half-dozen or so large aquariums. The South Carolina Aquarium takes a back seat to none of them, including the famous Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
Divided into 11 zones, the South Carolina Aquarium welcomes visitors into The Mountain Bog, a damp, deep Appalachian holler that is a cooling haven to those coming in from a sizzling Charleston summer’s day.
The tour proceeds with a mountain forest, coastal plain, salt marsh and other mini-climates found in South Carolina. It is an awesome sensory experience, topped by a 385,000-gallon, multi-story saltwater aquarium that is mesmerizing.
Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and $6 for children 3-11. AAA members receive a discount of 75 cents off admission, and visitors save with combination tickets that include the Aquarium’s IMAX theater or a Fort Sumter tour.
Having visited a 21st-century aquarium, we skipped the 20th century and backtracked to the 19th for a tour of the Aiken-Rhett House at 48 Elizabeth St. The Aiken-Rhett House was of particular interest to the Historic Charleston Foundation because the 1817 structure was a rare example of an original urban plantation, with separate slave quarters and carriage house intact. The house was owned by an elderly woman who had not done much of the updating of the home. When she died in the 1970s, the home looked much as it did immediately after the Civil War.
Visitors today can see original paintings, wallpaper, ceiling patterns and other features that have been removed in most homes of that era. A headphone-prompted, self-guided tour allows visitors to move at their own pace. Tours cost $10.
The aircraft carrier Yorktown at the Patriots Point Maritime and Naval Museum (40 Patriots Point Road) gives an up-close perspective of not only the gigantic scale of a carrier, but also what it took to operate what was essentially a floating city of 3,500 people. Tours of the carrier, a Coast Guard cutter and a Cold War era submarine are all included in the price of admission, which is $14 for adults, $12 for active military and seniors, and $7 for children 6-11. Plan to spend at least half a day there. Claustrophobics or visitors with back problems might want to view the submarine from the outside; tight quarters here.
Lovely ocean view
Accommodations at Beach Club Villas, part of the 1,600-acre Wild Dunes resort on the Isle of Palms, boasted good ocean views. Other lodging at the resort includes the luxurious Boardwalk Inn, given four diamonds by AAA. It’s a good location (30 minutes from downtown Charleston) for vacationers who want to golf or spend time at the beach. Otherwise, you will be in your car a good amount of time.
Charleston’s restaurants are some of the most famous in the South. With only a week to sample them, we barely scratched the mint leaf at the top of our julep glass.
My favorite was Slightly North of Broad, which a tour guide explained represents an acronym that originated in Charleston. Really rich folks, he said, lived south of Broad Street on the peninsula. Ones who didn’t quite make the cut but wanted to affect the same airs said they lived “slightly north of Broad.” They became known as SNOBS.
There is nothing snobbish about the restaurant of the same name, 192 East Bay St. We arrived for lunch and had a chicken breast stuffed with cornbread that highlighted the trip.
We also sampled the genteel Southern cuisine at Blossom Café (171 East Bay) and got down with some serious ribs at Sticky Fingers, (235 Meeting St.). Both were excellent.
For fun with the kids, we tried out a pirate-themed place, Queen Anne’s Revenge (160B Fairchild) on Daniel Island, 15 miles northwest of downtown Charleston. With good steak and seafood and suitable for all ages, this establishment got high ratings.
Indeed, the whole Charleston experience rated highly, from the cuisine to the compelling attractions. Charleston is a gracious, beautiful city we will visit again.
Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis.
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