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Charleston: High Point of the Low Country
by Fred and Karen Eckert
You can learn some interesting things by taking one of these tours. Stephen Reynolds, the young man who was conducting our Palmetto Carriage tour, has an undergraduate degree in history plus 27 hours of postgraduate credits in Southern history - and he clearly enjoys the subject. As the sights slowly rolled by us, he explained that King Charles II of England granted a huge tract of land in the New World to a group of eight men as a reward for their loyalty to the crown during the Oliver Cromwell years. They named it Carolina, honoring the king with a Latin-inspired term that references the two kings named Charles who immediately preceded and immediately followed Cromwell.
They then named this city Charles Towne after Charles II; the name evolved into Charleston after the American Revolution.
It's the oldest major English settlement south of Virginia, he pointed out, with some of its buildings around 300 years old. Its history includes significant roles in both the American Revolution and the Civil War.
"Know what they call that part of a house here in Charleston?" he asked, gesturing toward what some of us call a porch and others call a veranda. "It's a 'piazza,'" he told us, "after the Italian word for an open gathering spot, often adorned with columns."
ONE OF AMERICA'S BEST-PRESERVED CITIES
Walk around the historic district here - delight in the grand architecture of both colonial and antebellum eras; relish the cobblestone lanes and the gas lanterns on posts and along walls; admire the wrought-iron fences, gates and balconies; enjoy the lovely landscaping; and take pleasure in the pleasing colors - and it is easy to understand why Charleston is ranked as one of the country's best-preserved cities. It was the first American city to adopt a zoning ordinance preserving and protecting historic structures, and 23 square blocks of its Lower Peninsula area are set aside as a historic district in which exterior alterations require approval from the city's Board of Architectural Review.
To fully appreciate the appeal of this lovely city, you need to walk around. A good place to start is the old city market area. The stalls of its brick sheds once drew locals shopping for meat, fish, fruits and vegetables and now draw tourists shopping for gifts and souvenirs. Outside the market building and at some other spots nearby you will see African-American women sewing sweet grass baskets for sale. They do it the way that has been passed down from African ancestors. It takes great skill and a long time to produce such baskets, and that, combined with the sharp decline in both the number of women skilled in the craft and the available supply of sweet grass, is why they sell at such premium prices ($150-$275).
The route we walked soon led us to Chalmers Street, just north of Broad Street, a particularly picturesque cobblestone street with brightly colored houses, wall-mounted gas lanterns and other interesting architectural details. Those beautiful wrought-iron works, many featuring intricate ornamentation, that you see on fences, gates and balconies around such places as Chalmers Street and throughout the historic section are a legacy of African slaves and their descendants who created almost all of these fine pieces. Almost every building you walk by - be it a home, a shop, a church or a public building - seems to contain a small plaque testifying to its historical, museum-like status. There are so many of them - in all, more than 1,000.
A favorite with most visitors is a walk along the area of East Bay Street just south of Broad Street, an area known as Rainbow Row. As the nickname suggests, the rows of houses here are reminiscent of the colors of a rainbow.
WHY THEY CALL SOUTH CAROLINA THE PALMETTO STATE
It's also the point where you find White Point Gardens, a lovely spot with tall oaks and palmetto trees. On one side are the stunning mansions of South Battery, on the other side cannons face out toward a small island in the middle of the harbor that houses a place called Fort Sumter. From here in the midafternoon of April 12, 1861, cadets from the Citadel, the famous military academy located in this city, opened fire on the fort and the Civil War was under way.
While Fort Sumter may be well-known, nearby Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, also open to the public, is not - yet it, too, is very historic. It may be commonly overlooked, but it is a fact that South Carolina saw more battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution than any other of the 13 colonies.
The attack on Fort Moultrie, sometimes referred to as the site of the first significant victory by the American patriots, is an interesting one. Its newly erected walls were from palmetto trees. When British ships fired upon the fort, its rubbery palmetto logs absorbed or bounced the cannon balls rather than being crushed by them, thus delaying significant British gains in the colony. This is why the palmetto tree came to symbolize South Carolina.
You see palmetto trees just about everywhere you walk in the historic district. And you see a great diversity of architectural style: colonial, federal, Georgian, Gothic revival, Greek revival, Italianate and Victorian, plus one highly unusual style distinctive to this city: the Charleston single house. Rather than having a wide facade facing the street, with a Charleston single house the two long sides run front to back. Often, but not always, it is augmented by a long piazza, and when so it usually also has balconies and a false door for privacy. It was designed to provide much-welcome cross ventilation in the days before air conditioning. A Charleston single house usually is positioned facing west or south to catch prevailing breezes.
It wasn't just its architecture and history that drew us back to Charleston, it was also the food. We've always considered New Orleans our favorite city in which to dine out - but Charleston matches it. That surprised us. And, by the way, if you are at lunch or dinner or anywhere else in town and overhear a local mentioning the "Holy City," the reference probably isn't to Rome or Jerusalem. It's a local nickname for Charleston. To understand why, take a good look out across its low skyline. In any direction you will see spires and steeples piercing the view, 181 of them, including from a church at which George Washington and Robert E. Lee both worshiped.
IF YOU GO
For information on visiting Charleston, contact the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-868-8118 or visit www.charlestoncvb.com.
Accommodations: The best hotel in Charleston is Charleston Place, a 450-room Orient-Express property that is also home to the outstanding Charleston Grill restaurant. Click on www.charlestonplace.com or call 800-611-5545.
According to AAA, Charleston has the highest concentration of Four Diamond hotels in the Carolinas. Contact the Charleston Area Convention and Business Bureau (see above) for a comprehensive hotel listing.
Dining: The Oak: A $3.3 million restoration and renovation of an 1850s landmark bank building has created the most elegant and comfortable dining space in Charleston. Opened only two years ago, it has deservedly achieved ranking as one of America's finest steakhouses. Try Chef Brett McKee's Pittsburg-style steak - unsurpassed! Ask your wait person to explain how it's done. The Oak enjoys a reputation for outstanding seafood as well and will soon be adding a large addition specializing in seafood in the adjacent building.
The Grill at Charleston Place: Long considered one of Charleston's premier dining experiences, this stylish spot located in the city's finest hotel was recently renovated with a lighter decor. Chef Bob Waggoner has also just launched a new, lighter menu. Hard to believe a great place like this could be improved upon, but it has been.
Grill 225: Located off the lobby of the upscale Market Pavilion Hotel, it bills itself as the only steakhouse in town that serves only USDA prime beef. Another Charleston great that merits national ranking.
Tristan: Located in the market area, it rates very highly for lunch and dinner and is especially known for its outstanding Sunday brunch.
Hominy Grill: Despite a somewhat inconvenient location, it's extremely popular with locals for great food at reasonable prices. Shrimp and grits, a Charleston favorite, is a signature dish here. Try the different ways they do catfish.
Travel guides: The best-written, most intelligent and interesting to read guidebook on South Carolina is the Compass American Guides on by Henry Leifermann.
Fred and Karen Eckert are freelance travel writers.