In the final scene of Gone With the Wind, moments before Scarlett O'Hara's iconic "Tomorrow is another day" speech, a war-weary Rhett Butler announces he's going back to Charleston. "Back where I belong... to see if ...there is something left in life with charm and grace."
Close to a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, the genteel city for which Rhett Butler yearned is alive and well. Stately mansions and carriage and clapboard houses line cobblestone streets. Horse drawn carriages filled with visitors amble along roads once used by British, Confederate and Union soldiers. Magnolia, southern jasmine and seasonal flowers scent the city air, while only a few miles out of town, America's oldest gardens bloom year-round at the 17th century Magnolia Plantation.
Like the Spanish moss wrapped snugly around the city's elegant oak trees, Charleston's colonial history is inextricably entwined with the city's psyche. But Charleston, voted the most mannerly city in America ten years running, isn't stodgy or stuck in the past. The city's pace is slow, but its energy level is high.
My friend Lisa and I spent a girlfriend's getaway weekend tripping through 300 years of American history, while soaking up the city's many southern charms.
History 101: Saved by the Bill
By the mid-18th century, Charles Towne, named for Charles II, King of England, was already famous for its elegant architecture and exceptional wealth. Of the 13 original colonies, Carolina's inhabitants had the highest per capita income. After the Revolutionary War and the exit of the British, the city once known as Little London welcomed George Washington. His visit in 1791 turned into the social event of the year and ultimately raised the selling price of every building and alehouse he visited.
Economic misfortune and natural disasters, it turns out, were responsible for the survival of Charleston's celebrated cache of 17th and 18th century buildings. At the end of the Civil War (started in Charleston Harbor when Confederate soldiers fired on Union-held Fort Sumter), the city was flat broke. With no funds to repair or rebuild, Charleston's antebellum architecture remained untouched. Hurricanes and a World War bled the city coffers to the bone. They were "to poor to paint and too proud to whitewash" is a saying often heard about that period.
By the 1920s, when the city's cash flow reversed, the ladies of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, now the Preservation Society of Charleston, had formed and was working on what would become the first Historical Zoning Ordinance in the United States. Passed in 1931, the ordinance mapped out the "Old & Historic District," which protected some 400 residential properties from "destructive" improvement.
Charleston sits on a peninsula bordered by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Only six miles long and about a mile wide, it's sized for strolling. Lisa and I spend the morning exploring quaint streets, admiring architectural styles and peeking into courtyards filled with fountains and flowers. We roam in and out of antique stores and art galleries of the French Quarter and pop into every boutique we spy. At the Old City Market, where local artisans gather daily to sell their wares, we watch a Gullah woman hand-making coiled sweetgrass baskets, a craft tradition practiced by descendants of African slaves who lived on Charleston's outlying sea islands.
After lunching on she crab soup, a local specialty, we meet up with Linda Wohlfeil, a native Charlestonian, for a private tour. As we roam, Linda regales us with tales and tidbits about her city.
Don't Know Much About History
"You see how those riverfront mansions are angled?" Linda asks, pointing to a row of elegant private homes facing the city's tranquil waterfront. Lisa and I are clueless. "They're that way so they can catch the breeze," Linda explains. "You ladies know what really saved Charleston from economic oblivion?" We are silent. "Air conditioning," she says, nodding her head in church appropriate solemnity.
"See those carriage houses," says Linda, pointing to a cluster of brick houses adjoining a Georgian-style mansion. "They used to be kitchens and slave quarters." At one time, Charleston was the principal port of entry for African slaves. This significant piece of the city's history, we learn, will be a focal point when Charleston's International African-American Museum opens in 2007.
Over the course of two hours, we see a good share of Charleston landmarks and legendary spots. Rainbow Row is a collection of houses painted in the bright colors of the Caribbean. Cabbage Row, a.k.a. Catfish Row, a former windowsill market where African-American residents once sold their goods, was also the inspiration for a story called Porgy and a Gershwin opera called Porgy and Bess." At the end of the day, Lisa and I promise to sign up for an online course in American history.
Over the past ten years, Charleston's once languorous restaurant scene blasted into hyperdrive. The city's culinary arts are now almost as famous as its architecture.
It's first come, first served at Jestine's Kitchen, a deliciously down-home eatery where you can order a Peanut Butter & Banana Sandwich or Sweet Chicken & Limas or Mac & Cheese. For brunch, low country style—salmon cakes served over creamy white grits with poached eggs—head to Magnolia's. S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad), a hip, airy restaurant housed in a 19th century warehouse and Anson, a Charleston favorite, with a relaxing, sophisticated décor and eclectic low country menu, are two great dinner spots.
From the Georgian staircase and ornate chandelier in the lobby to the cozy colonial-style rooms and attentive staff, the Charleston Place Hotel—where Lisa and I stayed—seamlessly blends European charm and southern comfort. The hotel's Ladies Ultimate Getaway package includes a two-night stay on the Club floor with a private concierge, complimentary beverages all day, evening cocktails and hor d'oeuvres and head-to-toe spa treatments. And after a few days of dining on low country cuisine, you'll appreciate the complimentary personal fitness appraisal. Package rate: $1,998 for two; www.charlestonplacehotel.com.
The Three S's Sisterhood Sojourn at the historic Planters Inn includes spa treatments, shopping, sports, daily breakfast and a dinner at the inn's Peninsula Grill, plus two nights' accommodation in period rooms with canopy beds and jacquard robes to bring home. Package rate: $1,600 for two; www.plantersinn.com.
The pink exterior of the Embassy Suites Hotel Charleston belies the fact that the hotel once housed the Citadel Military School. The rooms all face the building's impressive atrium. Each suite has a sitting area with a sofa bed and a mini kitchenette equipped with a coffee maker. The hotel offers several packages:
- Historic Package: Rates from $159 to $309, depending on seasonality; includes two adult tickets to Boone Hall Plantation (America's oldest working plantation); two tickets for a carriage tour of the city.
- Family Package: Rates from $159 to $309, depending on seasonality; includes two adult tickets to the SC Aquarium and two adult tickets to the U.S.S. Yorktown, the "Fighting Lady" of World War II. Reservations: 843-723-6900.
To learn more about Charleston...
- Learn more about Charleston's black heritage on the Web site of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston: www.charlestonblackheritage.com.
- Linda Wohlfeil: www.absolutelycharleston.com/private-tours.html.
- S.N.O.B.: 843-723-3424; www.slightlynorthofbroad.net.
- Anson: 843-577-0551; www.ansonrestaurant.com.
- Jestine's Kitchen: 843-722-7224
- Magnolia's: 843-577-7771; www.magnolias-blossom-cypress.com.