It doesn’t take long to see what Rhett (as in Butler) meant when he told Scarlett (as in O’Hara) that he was returning to Charleston, where he could find “the calm dignity life can have, when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone — When I lived those days, I didn’t realize the slow charm of them.”Fictional hero he may have been, but that slow, Southern charm of which Gone with the Wind’s hero spoke was—and still remains—pervasive in this beautiful coastal city that today is known as much for its fine dining, world-renowned arts festival, and architectural preservation as it is for the fact that the nation’s bloodiest war was launched following the firing on Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor.
Charleston has received countless accolades in recent years, but perhaps the one that typifies the city best is its Lifetime Achievement Award for consistently winning the title of America’s “most mannerly city,” first so dubbed by nationally known etiquette expert Marjabell Young Stewart.
“The people who are there have such an affection for their city,” said Stewart, who died in 2007. “It’s the soft, gentle way of behaving, and they do it with such ease.”
Yes, Rhett would still feel right at home.
Manners aside — as pleasant as they will make your trip — there are any number of reasons for visiting this Southern gem. Here’s my current top 10 list:
1. Getting to Charleston is easy. From my home base in Baltimore, there are now daily nonstop flights on Southwest (Washington-area Dulles International Airport also offers nonstop flights, as do a number of other markets throughout the country). The very manageable Charleston International Airport is less than 15 miles from downtown Charleston, so you can get your bags, check in at your hotel, and be off exploring in less than an hour.
2. The Charleston area has myriad lodging choices, from well-known motel and hotel chains to elegant bed and breakfasts to vacation resorts and home rentals. My favorite hotel, with an ideal location, just steps from the historic City Market, is Charleston Place, a member of the Orient-Express Collection of hotels and travel adventures. (Shopaholics take note—the upscale Shops at Charleston Place flank either side of the hotel lobby so you can spend your money both coming and going — literally.) The hotel is consistently ranked among the top hotels in the world by readers of Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines, and is impressive (though not at all pretentious or stuffy — those good Southern manners again!) with its Italian marble lobby, stately Georgian Open Arm staircase, and 12-foot crystal chandelier.
3. Charleston is world-renowned for its annual Spoleto Festival USA (the 2013 event runs from May 24-June 9) and its more informal little brother, Piccolo Spoleto. Spoleto Festival USA is known for introducing audiences to new and groundbreaking work. This year’s edition offers a number of American premieres in a variety of genres. On the schedule is the premiere of the contemporary opera “Matsukaze” by Toshio Hosokawa, one of Japan’s most prominent living composers. Young tap virtuoso Jared Grimes will make his Spoleto debut in a new evening-length work, created especially for the Festival, while the theater program will offer the American premiere of a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by England’s Bristol Old Vic, in association with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. An operatic double-bill will include the first fully staged U.S. production of Umberto Giordano’s “Mese Marian,” and on the music front, John Kennedy, Spoleto Festival USA’s Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities, will lead the Festival Orchestra in American premiere performances of Pierre Boulez’s arrangement of Ravel’s “Frontispiece” and P’teris Vasks’ “Credo.”
At the same time that Spoleto USA is going on, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs offers a companion festival, Piccolo Spoleto, which showcases the best of regional talent in a more informal (and affordable) setting, with sidewalk art shows, jazz, classical music, film, crafts, theater, dance and daily activities for children.
4. Charleston is an architecture lover’s delight with the most beautiful of its buildings constructed between 1686 and 1878. In 1931 Charleston became the first city in the world to adopt a preservation law that preserved whole sections of town, not just individual buildings. One of the most well-known streets in the city is known as Rainbow Row, which runs from 79-107 E. Bay Street. Its name can be traced to the 1930s when the entire block was restored and painted in colors used by the colonials who once lived in Charleston. Rainbow Row is the longest block of Georgian-inspired buildings in the United States. Before setting out on a walking tour, you may want to pick up a copy of Complete Charleston, A Guide to the Architecture, History, and Gardens of Charleston by Margaret H. Moore. The book divides the city into 11 neighborhoods and points out the highlights of each.
5. Southerners love their history and they love to tell stories. Combine the two and you have the makings of an informative, entertaining tour guide. No matter what your individual interests, there’s likely to be a tour and an expert guide for you. Walking tours, horse (or mule!), and carriage tours, motorized tours, and water tours are all available, many focusing on special interests such as African-American history, Jewish history, architecture and ghost stories.
6. The Charleston City Market, the second oldest in the country (Lexington Market in Baltimore takes longest-running honors, should you care to pull out that little factoid at some point), covers four buildings that stretch from Meeting Street to East Bay Street. There are hundreds of vendors here, selling everything from foodstuffs to artwork to the famous sweet grass baskets, a Charleston tradition for three centuries that was brought to the region when slaves were shipped here from the western coast of Africa. The technique has been passed down from one generation to another and remains one of the oldest crafts of African origin found in this country today. The baskets are no longer a bargain, but if you want an authentic piece of Charleston history and tradition, this is the souvenir to buy. (A word of advice—many of the basket-weavers don’t like having their pictures taken, so no matter how picturesque you think the scene is, ask before you snap, and be prepared to be turned down. Be mannerly yourself … if the answer’s no, don’t try to sneak a photo in.) If you really want a photo opp though, along with an engaging history and demonstration of the basket-weaving tradition, visit the stand of Darryl Stoneworth and his wife, Angela, of DNA Sweet Grass Baskets. Ask Darryl why he’s so friendly and chatty and he just laughs and says, “I’m from New York!”
7. Go back in time (as my airport driver said is not hard to do in Charleston — “We don’t change much, and that’s the way we like it,” he chuckled) at one of Charleston’s remaining plantations open to visitors. Each plantation offers a different glimpse of the area’s antebellum history. On this trip I visited Middleton Place, the family seat from 1741 to 1865 of four generations of the distinguished Middleton family (no, not the forebears of the current Duchess of Cambridge). Middleton Place includes Middleton Place House with its collection of rare family furniture, portraits, silver, china, and historic documents; America’s oldest landscaped gardens, dating back to 1741; and the plantation stable yards, where you can see how an 18th-century self-sustaining Low Country (as this region of South Carolina is called) plantation operated.
8. Charleston is sometimes known as the Holy City and boasts the largest collection of historic houses of worship in the South, including the Circular Congregational Church, founded in 1681; the Jewish Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, whose 1840 sanctuary is the second oldest in the United States and the oldest in continuous use; the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1791 by free blacks and slaves (this is the largest black congregation south of Baltimore, with a sanctuary that holds 2,500 worshipers); and Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church, the oldest surviving church in Charleston, founded and built in 1706 — to name just a few.
9. If you come to Charleston and do nothing else but eat, it would be time well spent. There are a number of gourmet restaurants with menus that include fare ranging from American to Asian, French, Italian, Caribbean, and more. But don’t miss the city’s “down home” restaurants, such as Jestine’s Kitchen (you’ll know it by the long line outside), which offers traditional Southern fare like shrimp and grits or frogmore stew. Our favorite dining spots on this recent trip included Charleston Grill, which attracts as many locals as visitors, and in this foodie heaven that’s no small accomplishment (not Southern, but my Colorado lamb chops were flawless); Gaulart and Maliclet Fast and French for an informal French bistro lunch (croque monsieur pour moi); and for my fellow sweet-toothed travelers, Christophe Artisan Chocolatier for authentic French pastries and hand-painted chocolates by owner (and Frenchman) Christophe Paume.
10. While one of my traveling friends is fond of saying that she “travels on her stomach,” I’m more likely to be looking for the nearest gift shop than the nearest restaurant. If you fall into the same category, be prepared to part with some money — not because Charleston is particularly expensive (though that depends on what you’re looking for), but because of all the opportunities to shop — from high-end boutiques (think Gucci and Louis Vuitton) to arts and antiques galleries to hipster clothing shops. My latest find (being especially partial to souvenirs that sparkle) was the 100-year-old Croghan’s Jewel Box, run by third-generation owners, sisters Rhett Ramsay Outten and Mariana Ramsay Hay. The shop, housed in an 18th-century former Charleston home, also features an event space upstairs; the day I visited (and treated myself to a pair of birthday earrings — aquamarines, if I happen to be on your gift list!), Judith Paixo, a visiting designer, was on hand to create individualized pieces from her extensive collection of beach glass, charms, beads, and the like.Other souvenirs found throughout the city, you might like for yourself or the folks back home — homegrown tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation, Carolina rice, benne wafers (traditional crispy sesame seed cookies) and, of course, grits.
This is just my current Charleston “hit list.” There’s more than enough to do in this gracious city to keep you busy for as long as you desire, but it can all be done at a leisurely Southern pace. So, see the sights but don’t forget to “set a spell” with a tall glass of sweet tea and just let the day unfold before you. You’ll be glad you did.
For more information, call the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau 800.774.0006, or visit their website.