15 December 2012
USA: From Forts to Flowering Magnolias
Discover Charleston past and present - and why this southern city has just been voted Top US City for the second consecutive year, plus Top Destination in the World.
If you love culture, great food and good living let us show you why this southern belle tops the charts.
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To discover more about why Charleston should feature on your travel agenda, visit www.charlestonly.com.
The Big Daddy
As far as history goes, Fort Sumter is Charleston's headliner. It's a small ring of stone and rubble in the middle of the harbour, and its significance is felt in every cranny. Here is where the first cannon shots of the Civil War landed and it's not hard to imagine yourself as a Union soldier surrounded by nothing but churning water and fiery rebels. Even if you're not a history buff, a visit to the fort is a good excuse for a ride across the bay on one of the many tour boats that leave from downtown Charleston.
War and Now Peace
Fort Moultrie, situated so agreeably on the beach in Sullivan's Island, is older than Fort Sumter and a veteran of two major wars. It started life made out of logs from palmetto trees and, as Charleston's first defense, took a pounding from the British in the Revolutionary War.
Later, Moultrie was one of three Confederate-held forts that fired on Fort Sumter to ignite the Civil War. (The fort has some literary history as well. Edgar Allan Poe was stationed here as a private.) But a tour of the old citadel is only one reason to make an excursion here. Sullivan's Island is one of the most enchanting communities you'll find in the South.
Most of the homes are grand old structures modelled on the fort's officer's quarters and a walk or bike ride through the streets will leave architecture lovers drooling, a small town centre offers both upscale restaurants and laid-back pubs. Broad beaches and parks with views over the Intercoastal Waterway now make this island the antithesis of its purpose when Fort Moultrie was built.
In Rhett's Hometown
New Orleans has the French Quarter. San Francisco has its Painted Ladies in Pacific Heights. In Charleston, the place to go for eye-popping buildings that ooze history is the Battery. Beginning in the mid-1700s, merchants who became wealthy in this major port town built impressive houses along the edge of the harbour, at the lower end of the peninsula that makes up the heart of the city.
Today, you can see an impressive collection of architectural styles - Georgia, Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian - in a few blocks all together, either on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage. The most famous stretch is Rainbow Row, along East Bay Street, where a number of townhouses are painted in enchanting sherbet colors.
When you need a rest, pause a while at Charleston's Waterfront Park, named as one of the 10 best public spaces in the U.S. by the American Planning Council. Splash in the inviting fountain or take a turn on the family-sized swings hanging from the pavilion. You'll feel like you're on a proper Southern veranda, albeit minus the mint julep.
In the Antebellum South, the low-country of South Carolina was chock-full of plantations, with rice and sugarcane being the main crops. That way of life is long gone, but it's still possible to appreciate the fine houses and gardens. The most stunning estates include the 17th Century Magnolia Plantation, which could outshine even mythical Tara.
Go in spring when its seemingly endless arrangements of azaleas and camellias are in bloom and don't miss the cypress-filled swamp garden or a boat tour of the former rice fields (alligator alert). Also on the Gone-With-the-Wind circuit are Drayton Hall, the oldest surviving example of Georgian Palladian architecture and Middleton Place, an 18th-century red-brick mansion that (barely) withstood Sherman's raid and now is a historic landmark. The 65-acre grounds are the main attraction, however, with lawns that look like green velvet.
Though there is no grand home on the Charleston Tea Plantation, you'll want to take in the acres of luxurious tea plants surrounded by Spanish-moss-dripping live oaks on Wadmalaw Island. This is the only tea garden in the U.S. and naturally, you'll want to try some homegrown caffeine. A cup of tea is like Charleston itself - warm, packed with tradition and wonderfully genteel.
By Jeannie Ralston, a US-based writer for many international publications.
Any other recommendations of great places that bring history alive?