By Carol Sorgen
It won’t take you long to figure out what Rhett-yes, that Rhett-was talking about when he told Scarlett that he was returning to Charleston, where he could find “the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days, I didn’t realize the slow charm of them.”
That slow, Southern charm is still pervasive in this beautiful coastal city that today is known as much for its fine dining, world-renowned arts festival and architectural preservation as it is for the fact that the nation’s bloodiest war was launched following the firing on Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor.
Charleston has received countless accolades in recent years, but perhaps the one that typifies the city best is its ranking by etiquette expert Marjabell Young Stewart as the “most mannerly city.”
“The people who are there have such an affection for their city,” said Stewart. “It’s the soft, gentle way of behaving, and they do it with such ease.”
Rhett would still feel right at home.
But apart from Mr. Butler’s recommendation, here are our top 10 reasons to add Charleston to your vacation plans.
1.Getting to Charleston is easy. Independence Air offers daily nonstop flights from Dulles International Airport for approximately $200 round-trip. If your bag is too large to fit in the overhead compartments on the plane (and chances are it will be-luggage space is at a premium on board; the seats and legroom, however, won’t leave you pinched) but you don’t want to deal with baggage claim, take advantage of the airline’s plane-side check-in. Just put your bags on the luggage cart by the side of the plane, and they’ll be waiting for you as you exit the plane.
2.The Charleston area has myriad lodging choices from well-known motel and hotel chains to elegant bed and breakfasts to vacation resorts and home rentals.
For both charm and modern amenities, combined with an ideal location just steps from the historic market hall, check in to Charleston Place. (Shopaholics take note-the upscale Shops at Charleston Place flank either side of the lobby of the hotel so you can spend your money coming and going–literally.) The hotel is ranked among the “Top 10 Hotels in North America” by Conde Nast Traveler, and impresses from the moment you enter with its Italian marble lobby, stately Georgian Open Arm staircase, and 12-foot crystal chandelier.
3.Charleston is world-renowned for its annual Spoleto Festival USA (this year’s event-the 29th-runs from May 27 through June 12). As one critic has written, “A true festival is a place where the new is championed and the old is revisited in fresh ways,” and Spoleto “once again lived up to its high calling.” This year’s festival highlights include three operas-the American premiere of Walter Braunfels’ “Die Vogel,” Ottorino Respighi’s rarely performed “La bella dormente nel bosco,” and a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; an adaptation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” with a South African cast; an appearance by dancer Savion Glover; the Westminster Choice concerts; and jazz and chamber music series. At the same time that Spoleto USA is going on, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs offers a companion festival, Piccolo Spoleto, which showcases the best of regional talent…this festival is more informal and affordable and includes sidewalk art shows, jazz, classical music, film, crafts, theater, dance and daily activities for children.
4.For the best perspective of the beautiful historic district, visit The Battery, a peninsula that opens onto Cooper River and the harbor, where Fort Sumter is located. Walk along the sea wall on East Battery Street and Murray Boulevard. There’s a landscaped park at the end of the peninsula where you can take a break under the majestic live oaks.
5.Charleston is an architecture lover’s delight with the most beautiful of its buildings constructed between 1686 and 1878. In 1931 Charleston became the first city in the world to adopt a preservation law that preserved whole sections of town, not just individual buildings. One of the most well-known streets in the city is known as Rainbow Row, which runs from 79-107 E. Bay Street. Its name can be traced to the 1930s when the entire block was restored and painted in colors used by the colonials who once lived in Charleston. Rainbow Row is the longest block of Georgian-inspired buildings in the United States. Before setting out on a walking tour, you may want to pick up a copy of Complete Charleston, A Guide to the Architecture, History, and Gardens of Charleston, by Margaret H. Moore. The book divides the city into 11 neighborhoods and points out the highlights of each.
6.Southerners love their history and they love to tell stories. Combine those two facts and you have the makings of an informative, entertaining tour guide. No matter what your individual interests, there’s likely to be a tour, and an expert tour guide, for you. Walking tours, horse and carriage tours, motorized tours, and water tours are all available, many focusing on special interests such as African American history, Jewish history, architecture and ghost stories.
7.The Old City Market covers four buildings that stretch from Meeting Street to East Bay Street (just a short walk from Charleston Place Hotel). There are hundreds of vendors here, selling anything from foodstuffs to artwork to the famous sweetgrass baskets, a Charleston tradition for three centuries.
This basket weaving art was brought to the region when slaves were shipped here from the western coast of Africa. The technique has been passed down from the women of one generation to another and remains one of the oldest crafts of African origin found in this country today. The baskets are no longer a bargain (to put it mildly) but if you want an authentic piece of Charleston history and tradition, this is the souvenir to buy. (A word of advice-many of the basket weavers resent having their pictures taken, so, no matter how picturesque you think the scene is, ask before you snap.)
8.Step into the past at one of Charleston’s numerous remaining plantations still open to visitors. Each plantation offers a different glimpse of the area’s antebellum history. One of my favorites is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. This 17th century estate was acquired in 1676 by the Drayton family; the family has lived here continuously since the 1670s. The plantation features America’s oldest gardens-first planted circa 1680-which are in bloom all year long. On the grounds you can visit the pre-Revolutionary War plantation house (which replaced the first mansion, which burned just after the Revolution, and the second, which was set on fire by General Sherman), Biblical garden, antebellum cabin, nature train, nature boat, wildlife observation tower, and art gallery.
9.It’s no surprise that Charleston is sometimes known as the Holy City. It has the largest collection of historic houses of worship in the South, including the Circular Congregational Church, founded in 1681, Congregation Beth Elohim, the fourth-oldest synagogue in the United States and the oldest Reform synagogue in the world (the present building was constructed in 1840, although the congregation was formed in 1749), the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1791 by free blacks and slaves (this is the largest black congregation south of Baltimore, with a sanctuary that holds 2,500 worshippers), and Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church, the oldest surviving church in Charleston, founded and built in 1706…to name just a few.
10.If you come to Charleston and do nothing else but eat, it would be time well spent. There are a number of gourmet restaurants with menus that include American, Asian, French, Italian-and other-fare, but you won’t want to miss the city’s “down home” restaurants with traditional Southern fare like shrimp and grits. Our favorite dining spots on a recent trip included McCrady’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, located in the historic French Quarter District in Charleston’s first tavern, built in 1778; Fish, for local seafood, located in a building first erected in 1836 which housed Charleston’s largest Germany bakery for 53 years; Slightly North of Broad, in the Historic District (this is the place for shrimp and grits-even if you thought you weren’t a grits fan…trust me!) and Charleston Grill in Charleston Place Hotel (more grits, this time baked with cheese…trust me again; and don’t miss the intensely-flavored sorbet sampler for dessert either…this is not your everyday rainbow sherbet).
For more information:
* Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 774-0006, www.charlestonCVB.com
* Independence Air, www.flyi.com
* Charleston Place Hotel, 130 Market Street, (800) 611-5545, www.charlestonplacehotel.com
* Spoleto Festival USA, (843) 723-6383, www.spoletousa.org
* Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, 3550 Ashley River Road, (843) 571-1266, www.magnoliaplantation.com
* McCrady’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, 2 Unity Alley, (843) 577-0025, www.mccradysrestaurant.com
* Fish, 442 King Street, (843)-722-FISH, www.fishrestaurant.net
* Slightly North of Broad, 192 East Bay Street, (843) 723-3424, www.mavericksouthernkitchens.com
* Charleston Grill, 224 King Street, (843) 577-4522, www.charlestongrill.com
**Photo contributions by Mary Gallagher