Saturday, May 23, 2009

Visiting the South - Site Seeing in Charleston

Picking up from my last post about our recent trip to the south, Diane and I next traveled north from Savannah, GA to Charleston, SC.

With it's long and interesting history, beautiful old town and stellar restaurants - not to mention it's location directly on the coast - we lingered in Charleston longest of any destination on our vacation.

I'm going to dedicate a separate post to our culinary adventures in Charleston, so for now here are some of the sites and adventures we had in the city illustrated with some pictures I took while there:

French Quarter - No, this isn't New Orleans. But, Charleston has a "French quarter" too and it's very charming for all it's colorful old buildings, gas lamps, cobbled streets, restaurants and art galleries. 

Our hotel, the Vendue Inn, was located in this district, so we called the French quarter home for five six days and five nights. (Left: French quarter buildings)

Within easy walking distance of some of the city's best eateries and sites...not to mention the waterfront and a great pathway for an early morning run...we knew we picked the right spot to stay the moment we arrived. And really, that's why you should base yourself here too. It's so charming and walking distance to everything that you owe it to yourselves to stay here. Every morning simply walking to the coffee shop or going out for that run was to immerse yourself in colonial ambiance. (Right: French quarter alley)

Old Charleston Neighborhoods - we knew Charleston would have some beautiful old neighborhoods to explore, and we ended up seeing them in a couple really fun ways.
First, our hotel offered free bicycles for guest to check out. So, we obliged and tooled around the cobbled streets, alleyways and crooked byways of old Charleston taking in the homes that have occupied the city for decades and centuries. Some highlights as we peddled leisurely in the warm sun and breeze were a wedding in progress in the front yard of a particularly decadent home, spotting a dashing red cardinal bird on the roof line of a house, rolling down the waterfront of the Battery and the general grander of the whole scene. 
(Right: Typical old Charleston home)

The second way we saw old Charleston was on a horse drawn carriage ride. Yes, this is touristy. Yes, it's expected. We did it anyway and did not regret it. Why? Well, we got stories...stories of various homes and the families who owned them dating back to the the 1700s and 1800s as well as a little architectural history lesson on how many of these magnificent homes were built.

Fort Sumter - This is the island fort out in the bay where the American Civil War started in 1861. The short story is: the state of South Carolina left the United States (seceded) over issues around states rights and slavery and was soon followed by other southern states. Meanwhile, the US Army occupied Fort Sumter

Upon seceding from the Union, South Carolina's military went a step further and began firing cannon at the Army in Fort Sumter. And thus the Civil War started. Some from the south will say that President Lincoln or the Union Army "baited" or "manipulated" the southerners into firing on the fort, but don't you believe it. That's hogwash from the losing side. The truth is - the south left the nation and started the war. Period. More on Fort Sumter here. (Left: Fort Sumter)

As a major site in U.S. history, we had to go out to see it. And we did one gloriously sunny morning. Getting out there requires a boat ride and we really enjoyed the cruise because it gave us a new, waterborne perspective on the city. So, you not only get to see a significant place in American history, you get a boat tour of Charleston harbor. We loved it. For that alone I think this is worth doing if you visit Charleston.

Slave Museum - From the very beginning of Charleston until the end of the Civil War, slave labor served as the major engine of the South Carolina and, truly, the entire southern economy. With its position on the coast, Charleston was a significant hub of slave buying and selling. Slaves would come into port aboard ships from Africa and the people inside were put up for sale to plantation owners and the wealthy (it was the wealthy who owned slaves...everyday southerners could never afford them) in open markets near the waterfront. Today, this area is still a market, but it's your garden variety t-shirts, flags and bric-a-brac on offer instead of human beings.

At some point, the city decided that selling slaves out in the open was a bit unseemly so they moved the operation indoors into "slave mart" buildings.
 Only one of those slave mart buildings still stands today, and it is now fittingly a museum documenting the institution of slavery and the impact it had on the slaves and American culture. 

Diane and I toured this museum. I was particularly impressed with two things: 1) the way the museum displays and interactive features made it easy to understand how the slave trade worked and the inhumane situations slaves had to face, and 2) that without coming across as hysterical or casting blame on today's citizens, the museum made the clear and repeated point that slavery was perpetrated by people in Charleston and across the south. This was real. It did not happen "somewhere else" or by "someone else." The whites and wealthy of Charleston did this. (Right: Original slave mart in old Charleston, now a museum)

Plantations - Plantations enjoy an almost mythical status as an idealized representation of the "old south." You know, large beautiful properties with big oak-lined pathways where southern belles in their fine dresses and hats engage in social matters and flirtations with southern gentlemen decked out in suit and tie and sporting any manner of plush facial hair. Think Gone With The Wind.

Well, I'm sure some of this happened, but the reality is that southern plantations were agricultural factories owned by the wealthy. They were places where large quantities of rice, cotton and other valuable crops were grown, harvested, packed up and sent to market. And who do you think did the work out in the fields? Those same slaves who were bought and sold in the Charleston markets.

We visited Boone Hall Plantation outside Charleston to see one of these places for ourselves. Boone Hall met expectations for beauty with a large colonnaded home, gardens and a small lake. (Left: Boone Hall Plantation house and garden)

Some of you may have seen the entry drive in and out of the property from the mid-1980s TV mini-series (remember mini-series?!) The North & The South. We enjoyed the short tour of the home and we took in the colorful gardens. However, the most impressive element of the visit proved to be the original, still standing slave quarters. 

These are small brick or stone structures are where the slaves who worked the plantation lived. Today, there are nine still standing. Originally, there were 27 at Boone Hall. That tells you something about the wealth of the landowners here. Each of the dwellings is now outfitted with exhibits that tell the story of the slave experience on plantations, and by visiting each of the nine we left knowing much more than when we arrived. (Right: Original slave quarters at Boone Hall Plantation)

Another thing we learned on our visit is that plantation houses weren't really all that big or spectacular. Wealth was measured in how many slaves you had and what types of clothing, goods or foods you could get your hands on. Houses were not viewed as monuments to wealth as they are today. In fact, the stately home sitting at Boone Hall today was built in 1936. The house that occupied its spot during slavery days was far, far more modest - to the degree that by today's standards you'd wonder if the owners were wealthy at all. But remember, people measured wealth in terms of number of slaves rather than homes.

There are other former plantations to visit in the area if you like, but this one had the best diversity of home, history and check it out when you're there.

The Beach - Ah yes, the beach. Warm sun, smooth sand, slow rolling waves, temperate water and a nice gentle breeze. These are all things we here in the Seattle area don't get much of so any opportunity to enjoy a sunny day at the beach is most welcome. (Below: A stretch of Folly Beach)

Luckily, there are really great beaches right near Charleston. We spent a day out at Folly Beach - about a 20-30 min. drive from our hotel. We split our time between a remote area and then later in the afternoon a more popular spot. Both were wonderful. I mean, come on...sitting on the beach, sipping cold beer and then snoozing in the sun. What's better than that? My advice? Do this if you're in Charleston and the weather's good.

Patriots Point - You can't help but see this area from anywhere near the water in Charleston because the huge aircraft carrier USS Yorktown is moored here along with a few other Navy vessels as part of a major US Nave museum.

Now, if you're not a history buff or maybe you're not too keen on the military, you might say to yourself that you'll skip a visit here and a tour the Yorktown. However, I'd suggest it anyway. Two reasons: 1) The ship is a standing monument to the sacrifices made by sailors in World War II and other conflicts. 
(Right: Aircraft carrier USS Yorktown at Patriot's Point)

So, not matter how you feel about those wars, you can literally walk around and see the place where these people gave all so you can enjoy your freedom today. 2) You can learn something. The Yorktown is packed with info about where the ship saw action, why and dozens of airplanes from different eras. We toured the ship and ran through the adjacent submarine in about 1.5 hours tops.

King Street - This is the main shopping street in old Charleston. Lined with both national chain stores and local boutiques of all types, most all the shops and restaurants here are housed in old buildings that give this very commercial drag a charming touch. (Below: King Street in Charleston)
Since it's also near the College of Charleston campus, it also has a touch of the bohemian. My experience on this street was mostly waiting outside boutiques as Diane shopped, but even that was pretty interesting as I was able to watch the Charleston world go by. Diane scored a few items for herself and our nieces, and on our last day, even I picked up a nifty shirt that ought to come in handy for our trip to Hawaii later this year.

Art Walk - On the last Friday of every month, art galleries in the old French quarter host an art walk where they open up their spaces to the masses and offer food and wine to encourage people to come in and check out art. And they do. Each gallery brimmed with people. Were they they there for the art or the free wine? Not sure. But, most people were dressed up in attire boarding on formal and many were younger than you'd think an art-going crowd would be.

Earlier in the week, Diane spied a gallery and a few paintings she was interested in, so after strolling through a number of galleries we ended up at the one featuring the artist she had interest in. We looked at a number of pieces and even met the artist. Ultimately, we came back the next day and purchased an original painting for our home.

These are the primary sites we visited in Charleston. Certainly there are more that we could have it. And, even little everyday things like walking down an alley, checking out shop that just so happens to be in a build that's been around since the 1600s or having a pre-dinner cocktail on a rooftop bar overlooking the bay added immensely to our enjoyment of this city.

In the end, based on the sites and ambiance of Charleston I would recommend a visit...and I haven't even talked yet about the restaurants! But, that's my next post so you'll just have to come back and read that.

You can see more pictures of our trip to the southeast by clicking here.

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