Friday, June 12, 2009

Longing to see Charleston, South Carolina

View of Drayton Hall, also along the banks of the Ashley River in Charleston, South Carolina.
by Jamee Gregory

For years I begged my husband to visit Charleston, South Carolina, longing to see azaleas and camellias in bloom. Suddenly, last week, he proposed a romantic weekend trip, and even though we missed the peak season, I couldn’t wait to visit the historic city.

Calling all my friends who are lucky enough to live in this charming city, only an hour and a half by plane from Manhattan, I followed their instructions to the letter.
A typical Charleston vista.
Peter found the most charming five-star Relais and Chateau, The Planters Inn, circa 1844, located in the historic center. We arrived in time for dinner Thursday, adoring our beautiful high-ceilinged room and four-poster bed. The concierge, Dustin, arranged for us to have private guides for walking tours and plantation visits. He reserved the hotel’s fabulous Peninsula Grill for our first dinner. Feasting on corn bread and grilled shrimps in bourbon, we sampled the famous seven-layer coconut cake.

Needless to say, we needed a long walk, and headed down Charleston’s busy streets, finding them alive with young people, clustering in front of many establishments with names like “Wet Willie’s” where jazz was playing. We found our way easily, enjoying the balmy temperature after a rainy Manhattan week.
Here I am, ready to sample the Peninsula Grill’s famous low-country cuisine. In the historic Unity Alley outside McCrady’s, where George Washington dined.
The next morning our breakfast appeared promptly and we were off on a special walking tour with Alfred Ray. He explained to us the history of slavery and freedom in Charleston, pointing out the historic homes, including Rainbow Row and Cat Fish Alley where Porgy and Bess took place, explaining to us that rice was farmed here allowing many slaves to earn their freedom since it did not require all day work, like cotton.

Did you know that Charleston was the only North American walled city in place by 1712? He explained how the small pioneer settlement in 1670 became the greatest city in the South by the time of the American Revolution. Two and a half hours of walking passed in a second as we discovered one section more charming than another. Regaling us with historical facts and anecdotes, we covered enough ground to gain a sense of direction and an idea of which areas we would revisit at our leisure. Thanks to the informative plaques placed by Historic Charleston Foundation, the nation’s first historical preservation society, information is at hand.
Clockwise from top left: Our beautiful four-poster bed and chintz-covered room in the Planters Inn; Busy nightlife, streets filled with young people waiting to enter bars with live music; Peter in front of the Peninsula Grill’s garden entrance; Inside the cozy Peninsula Grill.
Ready for lunch we headed for Slightly North of Broad, a terrific restaurant called “SNOB.” In this city the best homes are South of Broad, but there are new areas popping up. After lunch we walked along King Street, lined with shops, and investigated the Battery, on the tip of the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers which boasts an elevated walking path and many of Charleston’s most magnificent homes.
one of the wonderful, informative signs placed on homes recognized by the Historic Charleston Foundation, the first preservation society in the US A salmon-colored house, inspired by the colors of Barbados, where many settlers had lived.
We visited the Edmondston-Alston house, built in 1825. From its piazza General Beauregard watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, signaling the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee also took refuge here. The house has been in the Alston family, a well-established Low Country rice-planting dynasty, since 1838 and is filled with personal belongings and furniture. Built in the Greek Revival style and beautifully preserved it recaptures a period in the city’s turbulent history. It also has a joggling bench, a see-saw for grownups, which was popular in the South.
Homes on the Battery, including the Edmondston-Alston House. A Charleston garden.
Clockwise from top left: The steeple of St. Phillips; Charming colorful townhouses on Rainbow Row; The graveyard at St. Phillips.
The view of a typical Charleston piazza that runs along the side of a home to catch the breezes. View under a live oak.
Clockwise from top left: An historic Charleston building; Inside St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church; Our guide leading us down one of the city’s charming alleys; Beautifully crafted Sea grass baskets, made locally and displayed on the streets.
Clockwise from top left: Catfish Row the scene of Porgy and Bess; Another lovely garden; Peter reading the information on one of Historic Charleston Foundation’s helpful plaques; The dock where slaves were dropped off and auctioned; This green house was a famous flop house!
For dinner we visited McCrady’s, an historic spot where George Washington visited. The brick walls and warm atmosphere were equally welcoming today, as we entered from the cobblestoned Unity Alley. We shared a beautifully presented dessert which featured mini-cones filled with an array of sorbets.

Saturday began with a visit to the historic market where we bought spicy praline pecans and sea grass baskets, a local craft. We then set off, bright and early, with our charming guide, Linda, to visit two of the most famous plantations, first Middleton Place, with magnificently manicured gardens and rooms filled with incredible furniture, paintings and objects as they would have been in 1775. Next we toured Drayton Hall, built in 1738, with its Georgian-Palladian architecture surviving untouched without electricity, heating, or running water. Instead one sees original plastered ceilings and wall colors, mahogany stairs and painted floors. Both properties have magnificent views, live oaks dripping in moss and wildlife to spare, even alligators!
Clockwise from top left: The market; The scene at Slightly North of Broad, a trendy restaurant otherwise known as SNOB where Peter enjoyed a ham salad and corn bread; I’m sitting on the elevated walk that extends along the Battery, at the tip of a peninsula between the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers; The Custom House.
Clockwise from above: Standing outside the Grill 225; The Grill 225’s roof terrace with panoramic views; Dessert at McCrady’s!
Returning to town we head for drinks on the rooftop bar of the 225 Grill which offers panoramic views of the city under colorful umbrellas. Thirsty and exhausted, we were joined by a local couple who shared their tips. What a friendly city!
The Roper House, perhaps the most beautiful home in Charleston. An elegant Charleston home.
For dinner we hit Hank’s, a terrific restaurant with big banquettes and lots of action. My shrimp curry was spicy and delicious and Peter’s pork was tender. Walking home down the historic streets, past so many lovely homes, on a beautiful starry night was enchanting. No wonder everyone wants a second home in Charleston!
Scenes from Edmondston-Alston House garden. Above, left: Exiting onto Motley Lane.
Scenic views abound at Middleton Place, a stately plantation with America’s oldest landscaped gardens.
Clockwise from top left: Peter and I really enjoyed visiting Middleton Place; A magnificent Cormorant sunbathing; Middleton’s Butterfly Lakes which look like wings; More Middleton formal gardens.
Clockwise from top left: A Heron enjoying the sand at low tide; Views of the winding Ashley River where Middleton sits; Costumed women demonstrating weaving; Sheep being shorn.
Original plaster work at Drayton Hall. Drayton’s view.
Sunday morning we visited the Nathaniel Russell House with its delightful gardens and furnishings. The guide was informative and entertaining. We searched afterwards for Latrell Brigg’s gardens and Mrs. Whaley’s house (the latter being a famous Charleston hostess who wrote about entertaining and gardens). I purchased both her books.

Our next stops were visits to private homes and plantations which were magnificent. By six we arrived at the airport, so sorry to leave and looking forward to another visit.

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