As soon as you step off the plane you are hit with the searing 95% humidity associated with the tropics. Every pore in your body goes from standby mode into full operational onslaught within nano seconds of exposure to the moisture laden air. Similarly your freshly ironed cotton shirt looks like a damp rag and anything you are wearing containing Lycra will have to be surgically removed if you don’t immediately seek refuge in an air conditioned environment
Welcome to Dixie
Travelling into Charleston from the airport – the loveliest introduction to a what turns out to be an even lovelier city – via the Ashley River road is a low country treat. Flanking the River Ashley – one of Charleston’s 2 main river systems – this wide sinuous road, home to many of the magnificent Plantation Estates of the South Carolinas has a delightfully rural feel, lined with ancient oaks and magnolias and embraced with spanish moss hanging in feathery festoons overhead and across the banks of the river.
You know you’ve entered the city’s core as soon the tar macadam gives way to mottled pink and ochre cobbles.
When your car has to give way to one of many horse and carriages that thread their way up and down the mainly residential lane ways from The Battery into the heart of the city by the old market buildings.
When you appear to pass through into an alternate reality of streets lined with gracious 17 century white and pastel antebellum houses, wedding cake affairs tiered with 3-sided verandas all facing the same direction in a bid to capture the breezes coming off the sea.
These are the famous “Charleston Single Houses”, homes which have form and function perfectly suited to the hot, humid local climate. One- room wide with the narrow end of the house facing the street they usually have Two-story piazzas (verandas) stretching down the windward side
*Take a rikshaw ride at dusk around the Battery and White Point Gardens. This area is home to the grandest most exclusive Charlestonian mansions – built here for maximum exposure to the Atlantic breezes funnelled up through the inlet of Charleston Harbour.
* I know it’s touristy but a carriage ride with an excellent guide is a MUST – we had a highly entertaining couple of hours with “Charleston Carriage Works” who are based near Meeting Street just behind the market
*A ferry to the notorious Fort Sumter the place where the American civil war kicked off in 1861. Tickets for this trip are available only through the National Parks site
* Hire a car and visit a few of the gracious old world plantations that line the Ashley River. We visited Magnolia Plantation, Middleton place (only the lodge house remains after fire however the restaurant is lovely as are the grounds). We also visited the rather sad remains of the once significant Drayton Hall. Funds are being raised by Drayton Hall historic trust to restore this beautiful estate to its former glory.
*”Hang onto the car an extra day and go to Morris Island with its amazing beach community, and lighthouse.
*Back in the city, the most effective way of covering Charleston’s richest concentration of cultural heritage sites is to stroll the one-mile section of Meeting Street called “Museum Mile”. You will discover six museums, five nationally important historic houses, four scenic parks and a Revolutionary War powder magazine, as well as numerous historic houses of worship and public buildings including the Market and City Hall
The Charleston Museum
Childrens Museum of the Lowcountry
Joseph Manigault House
Washington Light Infantry
The Powder Magazine
Gibbes Museum of Art
Old Slave Mart Museum
South Carolina Historical Society
Nathaniel Russell House Museum
Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon (Take a guided tour and hear about the various escapes, the hidden cache of gunpowder and the ghosts – yes you can do a ghost tour of this historic building but book in advance. This part of the city is a maze of underground tunnels)
If you still have tune to spare Spend a few hours in the Meeting Place Market browsing fragrant sweet grass souvenirs and straw hats.
A trip to Charleston is nothing you are without an understanding of the foundation upon which the city’s prosperity and social hierarchy was built. The picture painted by the exhibits and accounts at The Old Slave Mart ( see above) are not for the faint hearted. The legacy of the slave trade still lives on on this part of the world, deeply embedded in the psyche of the ruling Charlestonian class and interwoven into the very fabric of current Charleston high society.
Finally no visit to Charleston can be complete without an out of town visit to Charles Towne Landing to see where it all began in 1670
“The Girl from the South” – Joanna Trollope
“The invention of Wings” – Sue Monk -Kidd
Any of the “Virals” series by Kathy Reichs
Over and out