- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

CHARLESTON, SC — Two mules pull our 16-passenger carriage along Horlbeck Alley onto King Street. “We are now at the highest ridge in Charleston,” says our driver and guide. “It’s 12 feet above sea level here.”

So, that explains why this area of South Carolina is called the Low Country. You can learn some interesting facts by taking one of these tours. Stephen Reynolds, the young man conducting our Palmetto Carriage tour, has an undergraduate degree in history and 27 hours of postgraduate credits in Southern history. He clearly enjoys the subject.

As the sights roll slowly by us, he explains that King Charles II of England granted a large tract of land in the New World to a group of eight men as a reward for their loyalty to the crown during the interregnum of the Oliver Cromwell years.

They named it Carolina, honoring the king with the Latin-inspired term that references the two Charleses who preceded and followed Cromwell. They then named this city Charles Towne after Charles II; the name evolved into Charleston after the American Revolution.

Charleston is the oldest major English settlement south of Virginia, Mr. Reynolds tells us. Some of the buildings are about 300 years old, and the city played significant roles in the American Revolution and the Civil War.

“Know what they call that part of a house here in Charleston?” he asks, gesturing toward what some of us call a porch and others call a veranda. “It’s a piazza,” he tells us, “after the Italian word for an open gathering spot, often adorned with columns.”

The facts and quirks of Charleston are very interesting to know. It is, we have concluded after two visits within a year, one of the very best U.S. cities as a travel destination.

Walk around the historic district here and delight in the architecture of the Colonial and antebellum eras; observe the cobblestone lanes and the gas lanterns on posts and along walls; admire the wrought-iron fences, gates and balconies; enjoy the lovely landscaping and take pleasure in the colors, and it is easy to understand why Charleston is ranked as one of the country’s best-preserved cities. This came about partly by accident and equally by design.

From its early Colonial days until the Civil War, the great wealth generated from area plantations made Charleston by far the most prosperous area in the American Colonies. The rich poured much of their money into building grand houses. After the Civil War, however, no one could afford to tear down the old houses or build new ones. This is the same reason that Natchez, Miss., which ranked high in per-capita millionaires before the war and fell on hard times after the bloody conflict, is celebrated for its historic preservation.

That’s the accidental part. The design part came about in the early 1920s, when Charleston was preparing to demolish many structures in what is now the historic sector. The city was planning to install wider roads to accommodate the growing popularity of the automobile. This touched off a protracted resistance campaign, led by the city’s aristocracy, which culminated in Charleston’s becoming the first American city to adopt a zoning ordinance preserving and protecting historic structures.

In 1931, the city set aside 23 square blocks of its Lower Peninsula area as a historic district in which exterior alterations would require approval from the city’s board of architectural review. “Folks who live in this part of town like to quip that they own the inside of their house but the architectural review board owns the outside,” Mr. Reynolds tells us.

Though a carriage tour can give a fine overview of this lovely city, walking around is the way to appreciate its appeal. A number of good walking tours are offered, but we choose to do our walking at our own pace.

The old City Market area, the starting point for most of the carriage tours, is also a good place to begin a walking tour. Take time to explore this market. The stalls of its brick sheds once drew locals shopping for meat, fish, fruits and vegetables and now draw tourists shopping for gifts and souvenirs.

At one stall, we talk with a man selling cork purses and wallets made in Portugal; they are extraordinary. At a shop just across North Market Street, we stock up on some fine pralines, a confection made with nuts, usually pecans, and sugar syrup. Invented in France and usually associated with New Orleans, pralines also are very popular in Old South towns such as Charleston and Savannah, Ga.

Another food tourists like to buy here is the benne-seed wafer, a treat that can be traced to Africa. These tasty cookies made with sesame seeds (“benne” is a West African word for sesame seeds) are high in protein and B vitamins and low in carbohydrates.

Outside the market building and at some other spots nearby, women make sweet-grass baskets to sell. They follow a process that has been passed down from their African ancestors, taking sweet grass and bull rushes and tying them in an overhand knot. This becomes the base of the basket.

Layer by layer, the basket is sewn and stitched with palmetto leaves. For color, pine needles are added at intervals. It takes great skill and a long time to produce such baskets, and that, combined with a decline in the number of women skilled in the craft and a drop in the supply of sweet grass, is why the baskets fetch premium prices.

RAINBOW ROW

The route we walk soon leads us to Chalmers Street, just north of Broad Street, a particularly charming cobblestone street with brightly colored houses, wall-mounted gas lanterns and other interesting architectural details. This has become the French Quarter. Actually, other than the fact that there is a French Huguenot church in this part of town, there is nothing particularly French about it; some tourism promoter attached that label fairly recently, back in the 1980s.

There is, however, an interesting African influence. Those beautiful wrought-iron works, many featuring intricate ornamentation, on fences, gates and balconies around such places as Chalmers Street and throughout the historic section are a legacy of African slaves and their descendants, who created almost all of these fine pieces. Of particular note are those created by 20th-century artist-blacksmith Philip Simmons, who was named a National Heritage Fellow by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1990s.

To deal with so many horse and mule carriages rolling through the city from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the animals are dressed up for their work in what might be described loosely as diapers; should one of them have an accident, the carriage driver tosses out a marker and a vehicle will be dispatched to clean the spot and disinfect it with a perfumed spray.

Almost every building along these Charleston walks — a home, shop, church or public building — seems to bear a small plaque testifying to its historical museumlike status. There are many of them — in all, more than 1,000.

A favorite with most visitors is a walk along the area of East Bay Street just south of Broad Street known as Rainbow Row. As the nickname suggests, the hues on houses here are reminiscent of the colors of a rainbow.

If these rainbow houses recall the Caribbean, it probably is not surprising to learn that when the friends and allies of Charles II were given their land grants in Carolina, they recruited wealthy planters from the British Caribbean island of Barbados to establish new plantations in the Charleston area. Barbados is known for its rainbow-colored homes.

Here, too, there is an interesting African influence. Because of the knowledge and skill of the slaves regarding this particular crop, rice, not cotton, was grown in this area in such abundance as to make almost everyone but the slaves comparatively well to do. Contrary to a widespread but mistaken impression that lingers, rice is the foundation from which the Charleston aristocracy rose.

“We’re like the Chinese,” goes a popular gag line here among the city’s old families. “We eat rice and revere our ancestors.”

PLANTATION ROW

A feel for the lifestyle of those wealthy planters comes from driving about a half-hour from downtown to an area along the Ashley River where, close to one another, are three great shrines to those days of glory: Drayton Hall, Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation.

Drayton Hall, the only Ashley River grand mansion still standing after the Civil War (spared because it was being used as a hospital tending to freed slaves) is one of the country’s finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture.

Middleton Place, home to Henry Middleton, president of the First Continental Congress, bills itself as home to America’s oldest landscaped gardens. Its gardens and lakes are the sort of 17th-century gardens popular with visitors to the English countryside.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, established by Thomas Drayton, whose son built Drayton Hall, is always lovely and at times is ablaze with 250 varieties of azaleas and 900 types of camellias. It has a nice petting zoo, and iridescent blue-green peacocks and other birds wander all around the grounds. Adjacent to the property is a cypress-and-tupelo swamp garden named for the artist friend Drayton used to invite to come here for bird specimen studies, John James Audubon.

We talk about those wealthy planters while we walk through the historic Lower Peninsula section and come to a great view of still more grand mansions, these with water in the foreground. This area, the Battery, is where, as some locals put it, “the Ashley River and the Cooper River come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.”

It’s also the home of White Point Gardens, a lovely spot with tall oaks and palmetto trees. On one side are the stunning mansions of South Battery; on the other side, cannons face a small island in the middle of the harbor that houses a place called Fort Sumter. From here in the midafternoon of April 12, 1861, cadets from The Citadel, the military academy located in this city, opened fire on the fort — and the Civil War was under way.

More cannons from nearby Fort Moultrie and elsewhere later joined in firing on a fort whose cannons were of a range to reach ships in the harbor, not the town. After nearly a day and a half of almost continuous bombardment, with the fort burning, the Union forces surrendered to the Rebels. A short boat trip to tour Fort Sumter is another Charleston experience we enjoy.

Fort Sumter may be well known, but nearby Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, also open to the public, is historic as well. It may be a commonly overlooked fact, but South Carolina saw more battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution than any other of the 13 Colonies.

The attack on Fort Moultrie, sometimes referred to as the site of the first significant victory by the American patriots, is interesting, for its newly erected walls were from palmetto trees. When British ships fired upon the fort, the rubbery palmetto logs absorbed the impact or bounced the cannonballs rather than being crushed by them, thus blocking for quite a while any significant British gains in the Colony. This is why the palmetto tree came to symbolize South Carolina.

Palmettos are everywhere in the historic district, along with a rich diversity of architectural styles: Colonial, Federal, Georgian, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Victorian and one highly unusually style that is distinctive to this city: the Charleston single house.

Rather than having a wide facade facing the street, a Charleston single house has its two long sides running front to back. Often, but not always, it is augmented by a long piazza; when this occurs, the house usually also has balconies and a false door on the street side for privacy. It was designed to provide welcome cross-ventilation in the days before electric fans and air conditioning. A Charleston single house, like the piazzas of houses in other styles, usually is positioned facing west or south to catch prevailing breezes.

It isn’t just architecture and history that have brought us back to Charleston, but history’s anecdotes contributed to our decision. For instance, Edgar Allen Poe, who once was stationed at Fort Moultrie, was referring to Charleston when he described a “kingdom by the sea” in his poem “Annabelle Lee.”

Also, the first instance of a submarine sinking an enemy vessel occurred in Charleston’s harbor when the Confederate submarine Hunley sank the Union’s Housatonic. The event doesn’t inspire much bragging, probably because the submarine itself sank in the process, killing all aboard.

It isn’t just the grand architecture or the fascinating history — or the many festivals and cultural opportunities. It’s all of that — plus the food. We have always considered New Orleans our favorite city for dining out, but Charleston matches it. That surprises us.

At lunch or dinner, chances are that the Charlestonian mentioning “the Holy City” is not referring to Rome or Jerusalem, for that is the nickname in these parts for Charleston. A glance in any direction shows spires and steeples piercing the view — 181 of them, including on a church at which George Washington and Robert E. Lee worshipped.

We are saving the churches and some of the great houses we have not seen for our next trip. It is sad to leave a place wishing to have seen even more, but there is a good feeling knowing that more awaits for the next visit.

Restaurants, lodging receive raves

For more information, contact the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau: phone 800/868-8118 or visit www.charlestoncvb.com

The conveniently located Charleston Place (205 Meeting St.; 800/611-5545; www.charleston place.com) is a 450-room Orient-Express hotel in downtown Charleston. According to AAA, Charleston has the highest concentration of four-diamond hotel facilities in the Carolinas.

A $3.3 million restoration and renovation of an 1850s bank has made the Oak Steakhouse (17 Broad St.; 843/722-4220; www.oaksteakhouse restaurant.com) the most elegant and comfortable dining space in Charleston. Opened two years ago, it has deservedly achieved ranking as one of America’s finest steakhouses. Chef Brett McKee’s “Pittsburgh-style” steak is unsurpassed, and ask a waiter how it’s done. The Oak also enjoys a reputation for outstanding seafood, and soon an addition next door will specialize in seafood.

The Charleston Grill (205 Meeting St.; 843/577-4522) long has been considered one of Charleston’s premier restaurants, and during a recent renovation, it received a lighter decor. Chef Bob Waggoner offers a new, lighter menu.

Grill 225 (225 E. Bay St.; 843/266-4222; www.grill225.com) is off the lobby of the upscale Market Pavilion Hotel and bills itself as the only steakhouse in town that serves only USDA prime beef.

Tristan (55. N. Market St.; 843/534-2155; www.tristandining.com) is in the market area and rates high for lunch and dinner and especially for its outstanding Sunday brunch.

Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Ave.; 843/937-0930; www.hominygrill.com) has a somewhat inconvenient location, but it is extremely popular with locals for great food at reasonable prices. Shrimp and grits, a Charleston favorite, is a signature dish here. Catfish is delicious and receives several preparations.

A well-written, intelligent and interesting guidebook is the South Carolina volume in Compass American Guides (Fodor’s).

Spoleto on many stages

Spoleto Festival USA is Charleston’s annual large cultural binge. This year’s dates are May 25 through June 10.

If Charleston is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of theater and other performing arts, perhaps it should be. The first professional theatrical performance to take place in North American was in what was then Charles Towne in 1703.

More than 300 years later, Charleston is still at it in a big way. For the past 30 years, the city has hosted Spoleto USA, a cultural smorgasbord with more than 120 theater, music (chamber, symphonic, choral and jazz), dance and opera performances by renowned artists and up-and-coming performers. Spoleto USA is named and modeled after the well-known cultural festivities begun by the late composer Gian Carlo Menotti in Spoleto, Italy.

Venues for performances include some of the city’s historic theaters and churches as well as outdoor locations.

This year’s Spoleto events include the Westminster Choir in what is described as a French circus physical theater performance, and a Chinese-born choreographer performing as “human paint brushes” making patterns on a canvas floor.

This year, for the first time, tickets — with seat selection — may be purchased at www.spoletousa.org (which also lists all performances) or by calling 843/579-3100.

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