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 (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
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.
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
Anson, 12 Anson Street. Tel. 803-577-0551. Open daily, dinner. Moderate.