Old Southern Charm in Charleston

November 18, 2009
Filed under Destinations

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I could almost see him. Rhett Butler, the debonair blockade runner from “Gone With the Wind,” standing on a piazza of some elegant Charleston mansion and gazing over the Charleston Harbor’s sparkling waters.

As I strolled through Battery Park and admired the grand antebellum homes, it was easy to create such a picture. Charleston, S.C., is home to one of America’s most intact historic districts. Nestled along a narrow peninsula — where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet and empty into the Atlantic Ocean — it exudes old South charm. With very few tall buildings, Charleston instead offers quaint cobblestone roads, colonial structures, a unique culture and gobs of history.

2370421_old_southern_charm_1.jpgCharleston’s history reveals both its good and bad sides. Known as “the Holy City,” it was one of the most religiously tolerant cities in the New World — the results of which can be seen in the many striking church steeples that rise majestically over the city’s skyline.

The city’s elegance, however, was created through the income generated by the abundant rice crops of the region’s swampy fields. Wealthy plantation owners and merchants reaped the labor of the many slaves who came through the port city of Charleston — a major port for slave trafficking.

But the world those early Charleston residents left behind is something to behold. To get a closer look at Charleston’s history, it’s best to start with a walk through its historic district. But before heading off, you can stop at the visitor center located at 375 Meeting St. In addition to a small museum, the center offers maps, guides and parking information. 

2370421_old_southern_charm_6.jpgI began my tour of the old city by touring The Battery, a landmark promenade that follows the shores of the peninsula and the Ashley and Cooper rivers. From Battery Park, also known as White Point Gardens, you can enjoy a gorgeous view of the Charleston Harbor, including the striking 13,200-foot-long Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. The structure, with a main span of 1,546 feet, is the longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

Battery Park

Battery Park — a park since 1837, but once used for artillery during the Civil War — is shaded by grand live oak trees. It includes a bandstand and artillery pieces, including a Columbiad once used to shell Fort Sumter. While at the park, you might also see some interesting bird life. My son spotted two enormous yellow-crowned night herons in one of the live oaks. Soon, a crowd of spectators joined us in observing the incredible birds.

Leaving the park, visitors can stroll the charming streets lined with live oaks and Spanish moss, gawk at the elegant homes, and peek through the iron gates at many of the formal backyard gardens.

Several of the old Charleston homes — filled with Southern elegance on the inside and gardens on the outside — are open to the public and worth a visit. The Aiken-Rhett, Edmondston-Alston and Heyward-Washington houses are among Charleston’s most visited and once hosted guests such as George Washington, Jefferson Davis and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. 

Heading north, I walked the raised sidewalk that skirts between the harbor and the historic homes along East Battery Street and East Bay Street. Here, the clip-clop of horses pulling the many carriage tours is particularly prevalent. If not for the cars also cruising the road, the horses and mansions might make you think you slipped back in time to the romance of the antebellum South.

2370421_old_southern_charm_4.jpg

Farther along, I came to the famous Rainbow Row. This section is home to pastel-colored, mid-18th century homes that appear on many Charleston postcards. Near Rainbow Row is Waterfront Park, a beautiful eight-acre park with fountains, spacious lawns and a large pier, which provides breezy, closeup views of the harbor.

Continuing along East Bay Street, visitors will find the vast Market Hall and Sheds, a National Historic Landmark. The market — also known as City Market — was originally where vendors brought meat and produce in from surrounding communities and dates back to the early 1800s.

City Market

After surviving such calamities over the years as fires, earthquakes, hurricanes and of course, warfare, the market today is home to products geared to the city’s visitors. You’ll find the hustle and bustle of an old-fashioned market, but with vendors showcasing Lowcountry arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry and some standard souvenir fare. The most interesting products, however, are the sweetgrass baskets locally crafted by Gullah women of West African descent who speak in an old Gullah dialect of English.2370421_old_southern_charm_7.jpg 

If the market goods don’t do it for you, more traditional shops are located along the surrounding South Market and North Market streets. And upscale shopping can be found along King Street, which intersects Market Street in front of the impressive Greek Revival-styled City Market.

The area is also home to many of the city’s fantastic restaurants. For an afternoon break, my family and I grabbed ice cream at Kaminsky’s, “Charleston’s favorite dessert café,” and later, enjoyed a seafood feast at Charleston Crab House.

Many of Charleston’s popular tours operate from the market area, including the abundant horse-drawn carriage tours, as well as walking tours of the historical or ghostly variety.

Charleston Harbor

East of the market, the harbor waters provide some of the city’s best sights and attractions. From the separated pedestrian lane on the massive Ravenel Bridge, visitors can catch an aerial view of Cooper River leading to the Atlantic. The constant flow of container ships, cruise ships and schooners, plus views of the USS Yorktown, Fort Sumter and the church spire-dotted skyline, will capture your attention.

Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, where you’ll find the USS Yorktown and other naval vessels, is located on the far side of the bridge. There, you’ll find ample parking, and it’s the perfect place to visit if you’re touring directly from your motorhome. Among its attractions, Patriots Point displays four ships, 25 aircraft and the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum. However, its anchor feature — excuse the pun — is the 888-foot aircraft carrier.

The mammoth, 27,000-ton Yorktown, nicknamed the “Fighting Lady,” took part in many epic World War II battles. Visitors can explore much of the famous carrier. We spent almost an entire day investigating its nooks and crannies by taking the six self-guided tour routes through the living and working spaces, engine room, flight deck and bridge, wardroom and brig, officer quarters and the naval history exhibits.

2370421_old_southern_charm_5.jpgThe cavernous hangar bay and the vast flight deck also display aircraft from WWII to Desert Storm. From the flight deck, you can close your eyes and imagine the daring exploits as planes launched from and landed on the windy platform.

USS Laffey, a WWII destroyer, is another must-see ship at Patriots Point. (Unfortunately, it was closed to public access for repairs during our visit.) It earned the nickname “The Ship That Would Not Die” after it was hit by five Kamikazes and four Japanese bombs and still managed to shoot down nine planes and remain afloat.

Fort Sumter

For motorhome sightseers, Patriots Point offers the best departure point to one of Charleston’s most famous landmarks, Fort Sumter — the site of the Civil War’s first battle. The fort’s remains are only accessible by private boat or by ferries departing from Patriots Point and Liberty Square in downtown Charleston.

The 2.4-acre fort, which sits on a man-made island, is an example of a coastal fortification typical of the era following the War of 1812. Its five-sided wall, now largely in ruins, was once three stories high.

In December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to vote for secession. As other states seceded, the Confederates soon took control of the Federal forts within their territory — except Fort Sumter. U.S. Maj. Robert Anderson refused to surrender. On April 12, 1861, Gen. Beauregard’s shore artillery bombarded the fort, and after 34 hours, Anderson finally relented and the South won its first victory. Neither side suffered a fatality during the fight, but it started a war that would kill more than 600,000 soldiers.

Later, Federal forces returned and engaged in one of the longest sieges in modern warfare. From 1863 to 1865, they fired 46,000 shells over and into Fort Sumter’s crumbling walls. However, the South held the fort until they evacuated to reinforce retreating Confederate mainland forces. 

The ferry ride to the fort takes visitors on a 30-minute narrated cruise of the picturesque harbor. If you’re sightseeing by car, you’ll want to pick up the ferry at the Visitor Education Facility at Liberty Square (next to the South Carolina Aquarium). This serves as the primary departure point and a Fort Sumter visitor center for the National Park Service.

On the island, visitors have only one hour to explore. Wayside exhibits explain the various areas, objects and harbor vistas. One of the more interesting things to see are the shells still imbedded in the remains of the wall. If you’re like me and try your family’s patience by reading every informational sign and absorbing every view, you’ll need to pick up the pace to see everything in your allotted hour.

Other Attractions

After Fort Sumter, if you have more sightseeing time available, you can visit other popular attractions, such as: Charles Towne Landing, where English settlers landed in 1670; Fort Moultrie, the site of the first Revolutionary War victory over the British Navy; and the South Carolina Aquarium, the aquatic home of more than 10,000 plants and animals. 

Just outside Charleston, visitors can tour some of the gorgeous plantations that once flourished and created the wealth of the antebellum era. Since 1676, the Drayton family has called Magnolia Plantation their home, and today it’s open to the public and includes the oldest public garden in America. Boone Hall, Drayton Hall, Middleton Place and the Charleston Tea Plantation also attract many visitors.

2370421_old_southern_charm_3.jpgFor motorhomers, the campground at James Island County Park serves as an ideal home base. The 643-acre park is convenient to downtown Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry, and the campground provides a round-trip shuttle service to the city’s visitor center.

The park itself makes a fun destination. Miles of paved trails wind through forests and Palmetto trees and skirt by marshes and tidal creeks. Bicycle rentals are available, as are pedal boat and kayak rentals for its 16 acres of lakes. For motorhomers with pets, there’s a dog off-leash area where Rover can run wild without incurring the wrath of a passing ranger.

The county park system also manages three nearby beaches. Isle of Palms, Kiawah Beachwalker and Folly Beach offer a warm and gentle surf, plus lifeguard-protected (in season) swimming areas, showers and beach chair and umbrella rentals. At Folly Beach, the Folly Beach Fishing Pier provides an immense (1,000 feet long, 25 feet wide) berth for fishing, birdwatching or simply enjoying the breathtaking views. James Island County Park also runs a shuttle to Folly Beach, but there’s plenty of motorhome parking available, and if you’re a James Island camper, you can park for free. 

Whether it’s scenic beaches, bustling antebellum streets, or historic sites and naval vessels, Charleston offers many attractions for the motorhome traveler.

It’s a place I’m sure Rhett Butler would be proud of.

For More Information:

Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (843) 853-8000, www.charlestoncvb.com.

Fort Sumter National Monument (843) 883-3123, www.nps.gov/fosu.

James Island County Park Campground (843) 795-7275, www.ccprc.com.

Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum (866) 831-1720, www.patriotspoint.org.

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