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Charleston, South Carolina

Belle of the South

On the evening of December 31, 1997 the ballroom at Charleston Place, an Orient Express Hotel, was filled with several hundred revelers; many of them traveled from out-of-town to Charleston to welcome the arrival of 1998. The calendar for the Christmas season, starting in November, was marked by daily and on-going events--performances, markets, illumination ceremonies, food fairs--and culminated in an inaugural First Night, the city's newest festival. Five thousand admissions were sold for more than 50 down-town events. At midnight the hotel's formally clad celebrants shouted "Happy New Year" as they raised their glasses in a champagne toast. The informally dressed (costumes, jeans, sneakers or sportswear) First Nighters voiced the same words as they watched a spectacular fireworks show.

Both spirited parties, the one that was held in mutiple, moving venues--churches, theaters and squares--and the other that took place in the confines of a grand salon festooned with glitter were sneak previews of what it will be like to commemorate the millennium in urbane Southern surroundings. Although it is one and one-half years away, it's not too soon to plan. If you're looking to spend the last New Year's Eve of the century in a city that is no mere place on the map, but a cultural treasure with a point of view and graceful human proportions, Charleston is a possible choice for a long weekend to usher in the year 2000.

Middleton Place, Charleston
Middleton Place, Charleston (credit: Edwin Fancher)

The atmosphere of affluence and vitality is only fitting since it harks back to Colonial times when Charles Town, settled by Irish, Scots, Germans, Huguenots and Sephardic Jews, was the most prosperous port on the Eastern Seaboard. Then came many disasters: floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, attacks by Indians, pirates and Spaniards, the devastation of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and even the boll weevil. Revitalization was slow. The town is back on a roll again, sophisticated and glamorous in its second golden age, as it was in the years following its establishment in 1670.

Citizens are concerned with manners, propriety and graciousness. Strangers greet one another by saying, "good day." So well preserved is the Historic District that you almost expect those gentle folk smiling at you to be dressed in hoop skirts and knee breeches. Docents in the historic homes and tour guides are uncommonly well informed. Motivated by a love of and pride in the city, their knowledge goes beyond what is required to provide cursory information about the subjects on which they speak. Having studied everything relating to a particular topic, most can provide endless details about it.

A prime virtue of Char-lestown is that it is supremely walkable. But carriage and bus tours ought not to be over-looked. Before embarking on any sightseeing, watch "Forever Charleston", a background presentation using multi-images and shown contin-uously through-out the day at the Visitor Reception and Transportation Center. Get a copy of "The Complete Walking Tour of Historic Charleston", which not only provides directions, but commentary on the architectural influences of England, the Continent, the West Indies, New Orleans, and the Colonial, Georgian, Federal and Classic Revival styles of the homes. Note the single house (one-room wide) design, well suited to the narrow lots of the old city, and the double two-room wide arrangement, as well as the side piazzas placed to catch the southwesterly breezes. Some of the mansions--John Rutledge, Daniel Higer, John Edwards and Miles Brewton Houses--are not open to the public, but have exteriors that are worth pausing for.

Tour buses leave from the Visitor Center, but Gray Line will call for you at your hotel. Carriages depart the streets and stables near City Market. With a total of more than 3,500 buildings in the Historic District you'll want to reconnoiter the alleys, cobblestone streets and residential and commercial areas using several modes of transport.

The Holy City, so named because it has more churches relative to the population than any other metropolis, exudes charm, beauty and polish. In winter it blooms with flowering camellias and pansies and is green with palmettos and live oak dripping Spanish moss. At that time of year the weather, almost always clement, and the mood, a very jolly one, beckon.


Six historic house museums, all worthwhile because of their varied histories and styles of architecture, are open to the public.

Edmonston-Alston House, 21 East Battery. Tel. 803-722-7171. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; Sunday and Monday, 1:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Aiken-Rhett House, 48 Elizabeth Street. Tel. 803-723-1159. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Nathaniel Russell House, 51 Meeting Street. Tel. 803-724-8481. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Joseph Magigault, 350 Meeting Street. Tel. 803-723-2926. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Heyward Washington House, 87 Church Street. Tel. 803-722-0354. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Calhoun Mansion, 16 Meeting Street. Tel. 804-722-8205. Open Thursday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Through the use of animatronic figures, the events of Charles Town's past come alive in the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon.

Old Exchange & Provost, 122 East Bay Street. Tel. 803-727-2165. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

At the Charleston Museum, America's oldest museum, learn about trade, plantation and commercial life and the people of the area. Collections of artifacts, clothing, tools and furnishings are on exhibit.

Charleston Museum, 360 Meeting Place. Tel. 803-722-2996. Open, Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5.

The only way to visit Fort Sumter National Monument where the Civil War began is on a harbor cruise. You can also opt to see Charleston's harbor from the water on a non-stop boat trip.

Fort Sumter Tours, Inc., 205 King Street. Tel. 803-722-1691. Do not use the Gray Line Water Tour Company. Schedules are not adhered to and boats are canceled contrary to telephone information.

The combination of historic buildings, Confederate Museum and an arcade comprise the Market. Shops, restaurants, stalls and craftspeople selling their handiwork are located on the adjacent streets. An outdoor bazaar is open daily.

The Market, corner of Meeting and Market Streets.

Middleton Place, a plantation that started in 1741, has the oldest landscaped gardens in America. Tour the grounds to see the reflection pool, rice mill pond and butterfly lakes and the house containing family artifacts, furniture and portraits. Watch a blacksmith, weaver, carpenter, potter and farm workers demonstrate the self-sustaining life on a Low Country plantation. Plan to eat lunch in the Middleton Place Restaurant and order a Low Country Sampler, which includes tastes of six of the area's most popular dishes.

Middleton Place, Ashley River Road. Tel. 800-782-3608, 803-556-6020. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A unique feature of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, home of the oldest garden in America and boasting a large collection of azaleas and camellias, is the Audubon Swamp. Take a guided nature train ride around part of the 60-acre swamp--the rest can be explored on a foot path--to find out about the creatures inhabiting the black water.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Rte. 4 Hwy 61. Tel. 800-367-3517, 803-571-1266. Open daily, 8 a.m. to dusk.


When you ask the concierge at Charleston Place for directions to any of the attractions, you are given a card on which the instructions and a map are printed, a service we had never been offered at any other hostelry. Special small amenities make a hotel visit pleasant; architectural splendor makes it unforgettable. Charleston Place is not only a hotel, but its dramatic lobby is the anchor to which a group of specialty stores is strung like beads on a cord. A curved double staircase lit by a 12-foot chandelier from Murano, Italy is center stage in the sweeping two-story entrance hall.

A stay on the club floor is almost like being on a cruise ship. Food and drink, including an ample breakfast; early afternoon beverages, wine and champagne; afternoon tea; cocktails and hors d'oeuvres; and after dinner pastries and cordials are served. Like the rest of the hotel, the cheerful club lounge is traditionally furnished. The gym and indoor pool should please every traveler concerned with fitness on the road.

For the 1997 New Year's Eve dinner the hotel used the menus from six Orient Express Hotels around the world. More than 50 dishes were served, such as suckling pulled pig from Bora Bora and three kinds of sausage from Africa. Couples who did not come with friends but requested group seating were placed at tables with other guests.

For up-to-date details on the millennium celebration, telephone the hotel.

Charleston Place, 130 Market Street. Tel. 800-455-2427, 803-722-4900. Regular rates start at $139. www.orient-express.com/web/oe/oe_c1a2b_charleston_hotel.jsp


Unless it's unseasonably cold you can dine al fresco, particularly for lunch, at 82 Queen. Made up of separate structures, the three adjacent townhouses with seven private dining rooms are more than 100 years old and give the appearance of one building surrounding a courtyard. Since the chef prepares Southern regional cuisine with a Low Country flair, you can practically guess what some of the ingredients and dishes will be before you even open the menu. Low Country cooking is said to be the "cuisine of the water," because of the plethora of crabs, shrimp, oysters, clams and small fish caught off the coast. The culinary style relies on other local products--rice, grits, cornmeal and okra--and was influenced by Cajun, French, Spanish, African and Anglo-Saxon tastes. She crab soup, shrimp and crawfish jumbalaya, stuffed quail with creamy grits and collard greens and fried green tomatoes are the staples of this restaurant.

82 Queen, 82 Queen Street. Tel. 803-723-7591. Open daily, lunch and dinner. Moderate. www.82queen.com

Although Anson has only been open for four years it is focused on history. A two-story building for storing ice was remodeled to look like a 19th-century townhouse with folding French doors across the first floor facade and a wrought iron balcony across the second one. Its softly lighted period decor mirrors an earlier Charleston. The recipes and ingredients that were known in the area prior to the Civil War as the "Carolina Rice Kitchen" are served at Anson whose chefs buy produce and herbs from heirloom growers. Several families raise poultry and meat for the restaurant and another group supplies the seafood. Anson is working to revive the famous "Carolina Gold" rice crop. The finickyness about products extends to concern about preparation and presentation, too. Some of the best local recipes come out of the kitchen in new sophisticated versions. Pecan crusted chicken and blackberry bourbon sauce and crisp benne and almond basket with berries and ice cream are a few of them.

Anson, 12 Anson Street. Tel. 803-577-0551. Open daily, dinner. Moderate. www.ansonrestaurant.com

Summer 1998