28 March 2017 by Emma Sanger-Horwell
There is something special, something alluring about Charleston, South Carolina. Perhaps it’s the 18th-century grandeur of its historic centre, the garden-lined charm of its pretty antebellum plantations or its spectacular surrounds, defined by white-sand beach towns and pristine barrier islands. It really is three destinations in one, combining a rich, urban heritage with a spectacular coastal setting and plenty of rural idyll. And, it’s that famous Southern hospitality that ties it all together, best experienced in Charleston’s boutique hotels or with a long evening meal taken in one of its superb verandah restaurants.
Since its 17th-century beginnings, Charleston has grown up on the promontory that divides the Cooper and Ashley rivers, termed simply ‘The Peninsula’. It’s here that you’ll find the city’s grand history. Trace its colonial origins with the three-hundred-year old limestone houses that dot cobbled streets before stepping back to its 18th-century heyday. Once one of America’s richest cities, Charleston’s historic wealth was predicated on the cotton, rice and indigo trade, with its strategic position making it the country’s fourth-largest port. It’s an affluence that survives to this day in Georgian townhouses, neoclassical mansions and verdant gardens shaded by crepe myrtle trees.
Take it all in on horse-drawn carriage tours or a stroll along the Gateway Walk. This garden route showcases Charleston’s finest churches, resplendent in majestic spires and classical colonnades. And, as you continue along the city’s timeline you can also trace its pivotal role in the Civil War with a visit to Fort Sumter. This fortified island is where it all started, with the first shots fired at its defences. In between, Charleston’s chequered past is remembered in the Provost Dungeon – a historic pirate prison – and the Old Slave Mart, a haunting glimpse into the city’s ignoble beginnings.
The plantation houses
Spreading out like the dazzling plumage of their resident peacocks, 17th-century plantations surround the Charleston peninsula. These grand, centuries-old mansions are full of old-world charm, with sweeping staircases, opulent dining rooms and intricate brickwork transporting you back to the indulgences of yesteryear. However, it’s often their manicured grounds that impress the most. Pretty gardens make for scenic walks, gnarled trees hang over long drives and lakes stand still as the passage of time. The delicate scents of wisteria, climbing roses, and tea olive trees perfume the air throughout the year. You’ll also learn about what went into it all, with sobering visits to the slave quarters and informative talks on the struggle of the plantation’s indentured residents.
The picturesque islands
Once taking in the verdant interior, turn the other way to be treated to nearly 90 miles of postcard-perfect coastline. A meeting of intertwining waterways has fissured Charleston’s seafront into a series of islands, rendered into a stunning collection of golden beaches by this geographic exuberance. It all makes for a delightful setting for everything from cottage getaways to seaside resorts, complete with ocean-fronted golf courses. For something more active, perhaps explore the region’s river maze on kayaks, canoes and paddleboards or head out on a schooner tall ship to truly evoke the city’s seafaring past.