Being from England, a country where thousands of years of history are charted, I don’t tend to think of the US as having much, but of course it does and Charleston in South Carolina is a great place to experience it.
We flew down from Washington DC and immediately knew we were in a very different part of the States. The pace feels slower as does the speech and we quickly had to tune into the distinctive Southern drawl. But the welcome was warm and the hospitality and charm came thick and fast. ‘How y’all doin’ was soon a frequently heard phrase.
One of the oldest cities in the US, Charleston has a gorgeous historic district that’s very walkable as is the pretty mansion lined promenade that skirts the tip of the city’s peninsular. There’s also a choice of plantations to visit that are not far away and offer a real insight into the centuries old racial divide that still exists to some extent today.
Originally called Charles Town, the city was founded in 1690 and named after England’s King Charles II. With water on three sides it became a busy trading port and quickly grew to be one of the largest cities in colonial America. That changed after the Civil War shelling drove people away, but Charleston picked itself up , became the first US city to enact a historic zoning ordinance and is now popular with visitors from all over the world.
There are plenty of tours of the historic district that you can book, but it’s quite a compact area so we went DIY and bought ‘The Complete Walking Tour of Historic Charleston’ booklet from the main tourist office in Meeting Street, near the cross with John Street. Oddly for a tourist office its a bit of a walk from the centre, so we jumped on the DASH (Downtown Area Shuttle) to start our walk at the Market Hall, which is 8 blocks further down Meeting Street. The Market Hall is an impressive Roman style building and is also worth coming back to later for a wander through the shops and stalls inside.
For now the tour takes you off down Meeting Street with plenty of buildings to look at along the way, particularly around the junction with Broad Street. It’s known as the Four Corners of the Law as each one represents a different branch of the law – city, state, federal and God’s law. The latter is St Michael’s Episcopal Church, the oldest church in Charleston and with its tall spire is very recognisable as it features in lots of books and articles.
There’s lots more to see as you continue down Meeting Street including the Calhoun Mansion where we decided to stop off and take a tour inside. It would be fair to say that my friend thought I was going to have heart failure when we walked in. I’m not a fan of clutter and oh my goodness this place was packed. The dining room even had two sets of dining tables and chairs. Some absolutely fascinating stuff, but no photos were allowed inside so you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself. Even if you don’t do that the gardens are worth a look as very pretty with a gorgeous fountain.
At the end of Meeting Street you reach The Battery, the area at the tip of Charleston’s peninsular that is graced by beautiful mansions, views of the river and harbour and the White Point Gardens. Once used as a gun battery the gardens are now home to monuments in honour of war heroes but are also a nice spot to pause and enjoy the views on all sides.
The walking route continues all around the lovely historic district and other sights particularly worth looking out for include Cabbage Row in Church Street, which was the inspiration for Catfish Row in DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy which the opera Porgy and Bess was based on. And there’s Rainbow Row in East Bay Street, colourful houses that were originally built for merchants and had stores below with living quarters above.
Not far from here is the Old Slave Mart in Chalmers Street, which is now a museum of African and Afro-American history and arts. Then just around the corner in Church Street is the lovely Dock Street Theatre and the Gothic style French Huguenot Church.
Now if this all sounds like we spent our whole visit to Charleston soaking up the historical sites, that’s not entirely true as we did also spend more than a bit of time tracking down some others – the filming locations for the Notebook! Yes the story of Allie and Noah was shot for the big screen in and around the area and being a fan I couldn’t resist dragging my friend around a few places, like the American Theatre where they went to the movies and the very road junction where they lay in the street.
In fact Calhoun Mansion that I mentioned earlier was used for the interior shots of Allie’s parents’ summer home, though with all the clutter that I described its not that easy to recognise! What is more recognisable is the exterior of their home which is actually Boone Hall Plantation, eight miles north of Charleston in Mount Pleasant, the town that also doubled as Seabrook for parts of the movie.
There are a few plantations you can visit near Charleston and I’ll admit we were more drawn to Boone Hall because of the Notebook connection, but we were really glad we went as thought it was fab. It was $20 to get in but that included a tour inside the plantation house, an open air bus tour around the plantation, a butterfly pavillion, various exhibits and presentations about slave history and life and a the Cotton Dock that is used for weddings.
Live oak trees line the drive, planted in the 18th century and meet to form a moss covered corridor that leads to the house. It’s not the original as the first three were wooden and destroyed by fire, but its beautiful outside and just as lovely inside – I loved the library with its antique furniture and white book cases with mesh doors to let the books breathe. The tour guide was great at providing lots of interesting information like this with a sense of humour and patience for the many questions that were bound to come.
The plantation tour gives you a sense of the size of the grounds though only a small amount of cotton is grown there now. Most of the crops are fruit and veg which are sold at the Boone Hall Farms Market, a short drive away and a really nice place to stop off for lunch after your visit. Though you can also pick your own – called U-Pick in the US.
Needless to say the most fascinating part of the plantation is the row of original slave cabins, along with a smokehouse and cotton gin. The Black History in America exhibit is shown across eight slave cabins and provides an insight into the history, living quarters and daily lives of the 295 slaves who worked at Boone Hall.
It was certainly a very different life to those who ran the plantations and from the life you can experience in Charleston today. As well as beautiful buildings, it’s packed with very nice places to eat and drink. Our first lunch was at the Low Country Bistro on Market Street where we sat on the balcony with fans to cool us and shared a pesto swordfish sandwich and a fried flounder sandwich. The fish both in Charleston and at our next destination, Savannah, were great.
The next day we had a lovely light lunch and a window seat in the elegant dining room at Magnolia’s in East Bay Street and in the evening went to busy and buzzy Hank’s Seafood Restaurant in Hayne Street. I decided to embrace our location and went for one of their Southern Fried Seafood plates. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much batter on a plate, literally everything was fried but I guess the clue was in the name.
So the only things left to mention are the Pavillion, a very nice rooftop bar with a view of the harbour and our hotel the Meeting Street Inn, which was another historic building and even came with historic beds. They were so high I literally had to do a running jump onto mine, much to my friend’s amusement as she’s a few inches taller. It wasn’t until we were checking out we realised there were footstools under the beds!
Beds aside we really liked it as was in a great central location, had a nice courtyard garden with plenty of seating and was our first experience of wine hour. This is where they lay out cheese and other snacks along with copious amounts of wine at 5pm. How very civilised we thought and immediately over indulged in a very uncivilised manner and to the extent that we didn’t go out for dinner that night. Ah well, what can you do? When in Charleston you really do just have to embrace that Southern hospitality.
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