Deep, deep South in Charleston

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Travel writer Tim Locke heads to Charleston, Greenville and Columbia to explore the heritage and attractions of South Carolina in the USA’s Deep South.

Disclosure: Tim travelled as a guest of Explore Charleston, South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and British Airways, and is grateful for their assistance. None of those organisations have reviewed or approved this editorial feature.

As from 2019, flying to Charleston, one of the most bewitching places in all the USA, is a doddle. British Airways have introduced direct flights, meaning you can get to this astonishing South Carolina port town in nine hours from Heathrow. And once there you’ll find plenty of reasons to explore the Lowcountry of US’s southeast corner.

So what of the ‘Charles’ bit of Charleston?

The town goes back to 1670 when Charles II granted land to eight cronies called ‘Lords Proprietors’ who’d helped him get restored to the throne. Not a bad deal. With the best harbour in the Southeast, Charleston grew very, very rich on trade, first with furs and agriculture but then particularly as America’s main slaving port.

The waterfront in Charleston. The city fronts the Cooper River and is nicknamed both the Holy City and the River City.
The waterfront in Charleston. The city fronts the Cooper River and is nicknamed both the Holy City and the River City. Photo by Stuart Forster.

In 1861 the very first shot of the Civil War was fired here, at Fort Sumter, in this Confederate stronghold. The fort (now a fascinating visitor attraction) was originally built of palmetto tree trunks, which did an amazing job against British cannons during the American Revolutionary War – they simply absorbed the shock and the fort was unscathed. Not for nothing is South Carolina dubbed the ‘Palmetto state’: those trees are local heroes.

A sign welcomes visitors to Fort Sumter National Monument near Charleston. The site is operated by the US National Park Service.
A sign welcomes visitors to Fort Sumter National Monument near Charleston. The site is operated by the US National Park Service. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Four years later, with the Confederates defeated, the whole town was in ruins: estates broken up, slaves freed and a huge casualty list.

Water meter cover on King Street in Charleston. The metal cover bears cannons and a Palmetto tree.
Water meter cover on King Street in Charleston. The metal cover bears cannons and a Palmetto tree. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The best-looking town in the US?

Quite simply, Charleston will have any first-timer blinking in disbelief. Its historic centre – easily explored on foot or on a horse-drawn carriage tour – is astonishingly good-looking, and there’s so much of it. Wander around just about anywhere and you’ll peer through wrought-iron gates into gardens of gorgeous old clapboard houses. The period of economic stagnation post-Civil War meant very little got updated, and in 1931 Charleston became the first US town to have restrictive ordinances protecting its buildings.

House with a porch and veranda in Charleston.
House with a porch and veranda in Charleston. Photo by Stuart Forster.

One of Charleston’s hallmarks is the ‘single house’, built with the porch on the southern side, and so called because the house just a room deep to minimise the effect of the baking summer heat. Tradd Street is one of the loveliest: its houses get older as you walk towards the river end.

Houses in Charleston in South Carolina, USA.
Houses in Charleston in South Carolina, USA. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Down by the waterfront, the multi-hued houses of Rainbow Row overlook the bay, with Fort Sumter in the background. Wait a few moments and you may well spot dive-bombing pelicans and cavorting bottle-nose dolphins. Add the plethora of great beaches and golf courses nearby and you’ll find plenty of reasons to extend a stay.

Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) flying above the Cooper River off Charleston. Photo by Stuart Forster.
Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) flying above the Cooper River off Charleston. Photo by Stuart Forster.

And there’s loads going on in town to tempt you to linger. Galleries everywhere, festivals year round, including opera, food, houses and gardens. Horse-pulled carriages tour the tree-shaded streets. It’s just as easy to wander at will, though in the height of summer the heat may well defeat you.

Shops on King Street in Charleston. The city has a range of boutiques and designer stores.
Storefronts on King Street in Charleston. The city has a range of boutiques and designer stores. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Two great starting points

Gibbes Museum of Art A choice array of American art, especially local works. It’s modelled on a European museum and was built in 1905,  with a mosaic floor beneath a coloured glass dome. James Gibbes was a wealthy merchant and probably a slave owner. He was passionate about keeping young people in Charleston after the Civil War, so set this museum up as a teaching institution. The building itself is a work of art: all the fixtures (including mosaic floors) are original.

St Phillips Church spire Charleston. Photo by Tim Locke.
St Phillips Church spire Charleston. Photo by Tim Locke.

Charleston Museum The oldest museum in all North America, this has been going since 1773 and presents an excellent survey of the city’s story, arranged chronologically from earliest prehistory, Revolutionary and Civil Wars, natural history, silver smithing, industry railways onwards. The display on slavery features a sobering assembly of shackles and slave badges.

Traffic lights on King Street in Charleston.
Traffic lights on King Street in Charleston. King Street is one of the principal thoroughfares of the handsome downtown. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The heritage of the enslaved

So here’s the rub. Charleston looks totally idyllic, but you can’t ignore its distinctly uncomfortable past. It made money from slavery and human misery. From the late 1600s onwards, 40 percent of the slave trade in the British Empire came through Charleston as slave ships landed their cargo at the port. The enslaved were brought in to the Exchange – which still stands – a building of Purbeck stone. They were sold, along with rice and other goods, at the town’s numerous auction houses.

Many of the enslaved Africans – the Gullah – knew about growing rice, and the Lowcountry climate was ideal for this crop. Rice and indigo dye (aka ‘blue gold’) helped plantation owners make a healthy buck. Slaves were made to work on a ‘task system’ charged with a task for the day and allowed to stop only when they’d completed it.

The United States Custom House in Charleston.
Slavery was ended with the Civil War. The United States Custom House in Charleston. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Selected highlights from the slavery days

Aiken Rhett House No elegant museum piece but an atmospherically shabby, unrestored, distinctly spooky time capsule, unchanged since its last occupant left in 1968. As the family dwindled after the Civil War, one room was closed off after another – after it was empty, the choicer items were taken by the family or stolen but there’s still plenty there to conjure up the scene. Aiken was one of the largest slave owners in town in the 1800s; his slaves worked mostly on his rice plantation – eight of them lived here. The self-guided audio tour starts in the gloomy, plain servants’ hall, and you emerge into the sunlight into the workyard, enclosed on two sides by the work buildings and slave quarters – stables, laundry, kitchen and so on downstairs, living quarters upstairs.

Nathaniel Russell House In total contrast to the Aiken Rhett House, this one is immaculately restored. Russell was a patriot and donated to the British cause, and came to Charleston in 1765. a rich trader made money in rice and slaves; completed this house 1808 and moved in here at the age of 70; his 18 slaves lived here. It’s designed like a London town house, full of geometric shapes and Robert Adam influences: three rooms rectangular, three square and three oval. Guests were entertained upstairs where the sea breeze made things a mite cooler.

The Old Slave Mart Museum Succinctly relates the story of slaving across the world, in what was from 1856 to 1863 the largest of 40 auction rooms in the area, with buyers coming from out of state.

The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston.
The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston. Photo by Tim Locke.

Outside of Charleston

Nearby plantations flesh out the story further. The McLeod Plantation gives an excellent idea of the slaves’ perspective, and the evolution of Gullah/Geechee heritage in the Lowcountry, telling you about the daily relationships of those who lived and worked here before and after slavery.

Middleton Place gives you an idea of how a plantation owner would impress his clients. The main house was reduced to rubble in the Civil War. The Middletons made their money out of rice and indigo, and like other plantation owners would have been hugely outnumbered by their own slaves.

Eliza's House at the Middleton Plantation . The building holds a museum exhibition about enslaved people on the former plantation.
Eliza’s House at the Middleton Plantation . The building holds a museum exhibition about enslaved people on the former plantation. Photo by Stuart Forster.

To make their British guests feel at home and realise the Middletons meant business, the family had the grounds landscaped from 1741 like a miniature Versailles, with geometric plantings as well as a wilderness area. A smaller house that survived displays a big stash of silver from the owner’s Grand Tour.

The House at Middleton Place near Charleston. The house (South Flanker) houses a museum.
The House at Middleton Place near Charleston. The house (South Flanker) houses a museum. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Heading upstate

While there’s plenty to keep you occupied around Charleston and the coast – the coastal town of Beaufort (pronounced Byoh-put) is another seductive gem – upstate South Carolina’s largely forested inland presents a different picture.

Columbia: on the way up

While the state capital might not compete with the likes of Charleston for tourist appeal, it’s definitely worth a stopover if you’re heading north, and – rarity of all rarities for the US – there’s even a direct train from Charleston.

The State House A massive blue granite Greek Revival (1851–75) pile in leafy grounds packed with memorials of dignitaries and others. The marble, mosaic and stained-glass interiors can be enjoyed on a free tour, where the guide will lead you through an entertaining delve into the state’s history. Six bronze stars on the outside of the building mark where cannonballs struck during an attack by the Union in the Civil War.

Columbia Museum of Art Large chunks of the city have seen wholesale renewal in recent years, including the stunning new renovation of the Museum of Art, where galleries have a ‘thematic install’ – mixing artists and cultures up through themes such as ‘heroes and legends’ and ‘art and identity’. They have the only Botticelli fresco outside Italy, The Nativity, in the Spiritual Beings gallery. Look out for the major Van Gogh exhibition scheduled for 2019–20.

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden On the edge of town, with more than 2000 animals as well as botanical gardens, Riverbanks is the biggest zoo in the Southeast. Pay extra to go inside the pens and meet the animals – and maybe wander among the friendly Galapagos turtles and tickle some of those very elderly residents under the chin. They’ve been in the US since the 1920s, apart from a female named Alberta who was rescued from illegal ownership later on, so look well at home – not that anyone would remove turtles from the Galapagos nowadays.

Tortoises at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia.
Galapagos turtles at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia. Photo by Tim Locke.

Greenville: BMW boom town

The world’s largest BMW factory has given Greenville a prosperous makeover. Once a depressed dye-producing mill town, it’s now buzzing with life. The Reedy River’s been cleaned up and an ugly 1960s highway bridge in the town centre was demolished to reveal the waterfall and gorge running through the very heart of town. An elegant pedestrian bridge makes the most of the views over what’s now called Falls Park: the city’s logo – there’s Shakespeare performances and moonlight movies here in summer, plus lots of music.

‘The energy of this city is palpable: it’s got this cool vibe.’ enthuses guide, Rose Woelker, of Foothill Foodie Tours. ‘My kids who visit say I live in Disneyland. Pretty much everything revolves around children and dogs.’ Yes, there are dogs, with their owners, everywhere you look.

BMW Performance Center Overlooked by the world’s largest BMW plant, this gives the unique chance to take one of several tutored courses driving BMW cars and motorbikes, including high-speed round a test circuit, or taking a short off-road course that tilts the car at alarming angles and takes in improbable slopes and even a section through water. The BMW X5 you might be driving copes with that all admirably – even leaning the car at 45 degrees with two wheels airborne. Getting the vehicle splattered with mud is par for the course.

Cars at the BMW Performance Center in Greenville.
Cars at the BMW Performance Center in Greenville. Photo by Tim Locke.

Lake Jocassee: wet, wet, wet

Don’t be too surprised if it’s a bit damp hereabouts, in the northwest corner of the state, by the Blue Ridge escarpment, which drops 3000 feet over a quarter of a mile horizontal distance. Rainfall here is almost a daily occurrence, but that shouldn’t put you off venturing out here for the wilderness experience. Somewhere in the depths of the forest are black bears, though you are very unlikely to encounter any.

Accommodation here is limited to comfortable cabins by the lake, though they get booked up very fast as soon as they’re available. Otherwise the best options are camping or Airbnb.

Waterfalls appear everywhere in this gushing landscape – about a hundred of them, including the highest in the eastern US (the White Waterfall). On the watery border with Georgia, this is the deepest and smallest of a chain of reservoirs built for hydroelectric power. Its construction drowned a gorge along with dozens of buildings, and divers often plunge down and swim around some of the submerged structures. There’s still a lot of gorge scenery left – access on foot only.

Falls Park at Greenville in South Carolina.
Falls Park, Greenville. Photo by Tim Locke.

Along the lake there’s no development, and a lake cruise – a couple of hours or all day – gives great views of waterfalls and the area’s abundant wildlife. Often there’s a naturalist on board, and you’ll get opportunities for fishing, birdwatching, kayaking, hiking and bouldering (on the Foothills Trail) or venturing out on a paddleboat.

Practical information

Where to stay

Charleston

Hotel Bennett Splendid recreation of a very grand European hotel, right in the heart of the historic city beside Marion Square, but with plenty of Lowcountry touches too: the grand entrance leads into a circular antechamber with a 360-degree mural of 18th-century Charleston and of the view from Bennett’s house by Jill Biskin. You might pinch yourself when you enter the foyer that it’s only newly opened in 2019: it looks and feels like a historic building but it replaced a disused 1960s library. Chef Michael Sichel oversees the hotel’s elegant signature restaurant, which offers a fusion of European and coastal Carolina cuisine.

The Hotel Bennett in Charleston. The luxury hotel opened in 2019. Photo by Stuart Forster.
The Hotel Bennett in Charleston. The luxury hotel opened in 2019. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Columbia

Hyatt Place Columbia: modern block minutes’ stroll from the State House, so very much at the centre of things. Each bedroom also has a living area with a sleeper sofa.

Adverts on a wall in Columbia.
Adverts on a wall in Columbia. Photo by Tim Locke.

Food and drink

Charleston

Charleston takes food and drink pretty seriously. Wander along King Street and around and you can hardly fail to notice what’s on offer. Southern cuisine is at the fore, meaning the likes of soft-shelled crab – eaten whole – fired okra, she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, boiled peanuts (a lot better than they sound), penne wafers and Carolina gold rice.

Prohibition There used to be one tavern for every ten white male citizens in town. Prohibition isn’t exactly a survival of those days but it’s got heaps of atmosphere, excellent Southern food and a good range of local beers, cocktails and homemade liquors. Live music every night and a quieter sitting space in the garden.

Parcel 32 Owned by husband and wife team who have restored several local buildings. It’s got a lovely mellow, contemporary vibe with low lighting and photos of old Charleston. So named as it was parcel 32 on an old map, this was originally a Jewish bakery. Tuck into the likes of stewed oysters, duck pastrami or crispy passion fruit turmeric octopus.

Seasoned fish served in Charleston. The colourful dish is served on a bed of vegetables.
Seasoned fish served in Charleston. The colourful dish is served on a bed of vegetables. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Columbia

International food vendors appear on Saturday mornings in Soda City Market.

Bone-In Barbeque Great Southern food of the likes of bone chips – pimento beer cheese (a Southern staple, like nachos), sprouts cooked in cider vinegar and macaroni cheese in pengo breadcrumb balls, washed down with locally brewed IPA. Owner Scott Hall used to own a food shack and got great press for his streetside barbecues and opened this restaurant in 2018 within Bull Street District, an area within the city formerly owned by the state and being renewed – still lots of dereliction but you get the feeling that things are distinctly on the way up.

Lunch at the Bone-In-Barbeque in Columbia.
Lunch at the Bone-In Barbeque in Columbia. Photo by Tim Locke.

Small Sugar A nicely ethical café in the old city market, with bare brick walls and run by a husband and wife team – they pay their staff living wages and refuse tips, and source from small farmers around the Carolinas.

Greenville

Foxcroft Wine Just above Falls Park, a wine store and restaurant where you can try the wines on sale at retail prices; wine list changes daily. The most local? ‘Virginia and North Carolina.’ Kitchen food all made in house, including doughs, with veg and herbs from local farmers.

Soby’s Offering accomplished ‘New South cuisine’ in a huge open-plan, two-tier restaurant, where upstairs you get an aerial view of your food being cooked. Lots of bustle and happy chatting diners. Right in the centre of town.

Adverts on a wall in Greenville.
Adverts on a wall in Greenville. Photo by Tim Locke.

More info

Lots more on the Explore Charleston, Discover South Carolina and Visit the USA websites.

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5 Comments

  1. This is a region of the States that we haven’t quite made it to yet, but it’s certainly on the list. This a really interesting read, I love the architecture.

  2. Gosh it looks idyllic but I am pleased that the town does not avoid its dark history. I feel any visit to this town must be combined to a trip to one of the museums. I had no idea about who Charleston was named after so that you for the trivia!

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