Monday, May 27, 2013

CHARLESTON AND THE CHARMING SOUTH



Charleston, South Carolina 

Last year while I was thumbing through travel catalogs I noticed a tour called "Southern Charm". The description of the tour promised that I would “experience true Southern hospitality and charm in Georgia and South Carolina”. They would take me to “antebellum Charleston” which literally drips in Spanish moss and elegant manners, and personally escort me to Boone Hall Plantation set amidst moss draped oaks”. Next, I would be chauffeured “through South Carolina’s low country to the charming town of Beaufort, the ‘Queen of the Carolina Sea Islands”.  Once there, I would be carried aboard a horse drawn buggy to clip clop through the quiet tree lined streets to view the genteel mansions where I could imagine refined ladies dressed in long lace gowns sipping sweet tea on their verandas. As I read these seductive phrases, I began to feel as if I were being courted by a soft spoken goatee-d southern gentleman and almost swooned. But there was more…”Continue south to historic Savannah and wander this enchanting city’s park like squares….” Savannah??!! They had just said the magic word! I couldn’t whip my credit card out fast enough!

Ever since I read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Brendt, Savannah has been on the top of my bucket list. This graceful town became almost a character in Brendt’s true story of a lover’s deadly quarrel set in one of its most beautiful mansions, Mercer House, and I promised myself that one day I would see it. Plus, I’ve always wanted to see a real plantation and historic Charleston as well so this promised to be a great trip!

My plane landed about 7pm in Charleston on May 5th. I’d paid for a shuttle to pick me up at the airport and was joined by four other travelers; all of us had fallen for the same siren call of the south. After we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted by our tour manager and true southern gentleman, who suggested a great low country eatery around the corner from our hotel called Justine’s Kitchen for good ‘ole southern home cooking. I bravely ordered the okra and sausage soup with corn bread (which was spicy but dee-licious!) and the only disappointment was that I didn’t have room enough for the warm peach cobbler with heavy sweet cream offered for dessert.

The first day of the tour was going to be very busy and whoever was in charge of the weather (Al Roker?) gave us a perfect day. (It had rained all the week before and I packed an umbrella and raincoat just in case, but as it turned out, I never needed it.) Our Tour Director herded us up in the lobby and passed out a printed agenda which started with a guided bus tour of the city, a stop for lunch at the City Market place in downtown historic Charleston, then another bus ride to Boone Hall Plantation, and ended with an included seafood dinner on the wharf. And, all I had to do is show up. Pretty sweet.

Our first stop on the bus tour was The Citadel, Charleston’s military college founded in 1842, one of only six in the nation. Paula, our very knowledgeable tour guide that morning, reflected Charleston’s enormous pride in their military college by having us walk around for a few minutes to admire the immense grass parade grounds and stately buildings that sits on 300 acres of prime South Carolina real estate bordered by the Ashley River.

The Citadel
 
As the bus took us around the parade ground on the way out, we heard Paula purr into the microphone in her silky Georgian accent, “The College isn’t for everyone. The first year students, called ‘knobs’ because of their very short hair, are expected to conform to a good deal of hazing and very strict discipline.”  Then again, almost wistfully, she softly said, “No. It’s not for everyone.”

Fort Sumter sits on a small rocky island in the Charleston harbor. The Confederate Army fired on this Federal Fort in 1861, starting the Civil war. The fort surrendered 34 hours later. 
(photo from Google Images)

Back on the bus, we headed toward the Battery (also called White Point Park and Gardens) located at the end the Charleston Peninsula. On our way, we passed dozens of incredibly gorgeous old homes overlooking the bay and it killed me that I couldn’t take one photograph! Thankfully, we were able to stop for a few minutes to enjoy the views of Fort Sumter from the Battery and to walk a couple of blocks to Meeting Street to see at least two of these historic gems up close.

The Calhoun Mansion 

 A great view of the three verandas, or piazzas as they say in Charleston.
 One of the many gardens. This one is in the side yard overlooked by the piazzas.

 Mr. Calhoun built this house for his daughter when she married just down the street from his own.
 It looks like a wedding cake good enough to eat!

If we could only see one jewel in Charleston’s finery, the Calhoun Mansion was an excellent choice. Its style is called Italianate which we discovered was big in the south in the 1900’s, so much so that southerners started calling their porches piazzas. (Well, I do declare!) The mansion is one of the largest in Charleston with 35 rooms, all with fireplaces, a grand ballroom, Japanese water gardens,  75 foot high domed stair hall ceiling,  a 90 foot cupola, and three levels of piazzas. I would have loved to have seen the inside!

Back on the bus, Paula explained, “As you can see, Charleston has a very unique style of home. Many of the houses are only a single room wide with large porches built on the side, which face either the south or west to catch the breeze. The front doors open onto the porches rather than the main hall of the house. Here we call them “piazzas” rather than porches and they come in all sizes, from simple to the grand, like the Calhoun Mansion.” We were to see the same style in the town of Beaufort. Given the hot and humid southern heat, I can imagine these “piazzas” became the main living area of the home.

By now it was lunch time and we were dropped off at the Custom House downtown and left on our on to shop at the restored City Market (originally the main vegetable and food market for the city) and have lunch. 



 United States Custom House in the heart of historic Charleston



Just one of many long narrow buildings comprising the City Market filled with local crafts.

A couple of other travelers and I wandered through what seemed like a mile of the open air market space finally announcing to each other that we were starving. We had decided that a place called the “Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.” sounded about as low country as it gets and maybe we could find some “she-crab soup” that Paula mentioned on the bus tour. It just so happened that Bubba’s was located exactly where we emerged from the market and we settled in to pig out.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Charleston. The bench at the entrance of the 
restaurant like the one used in the the movie "Forrest Gump".

The she-crab soup was amazing! Paula had told us that it was named for the she-crab or female crab and traditionally included crab roe, but now sometimes chopped boiled egg is substituted for the roe.  It seemed to be a cross between a bisque and a chowder. I asked the waiter how it was made and he told us that it contained heavy cream, Atlantic blue crab, and dry sherry among other ingredients. Whatever it had in it, it was yummy!

Not only was the food good, but the atmosphere of the restaurant was fun and inviting. There were “Forrest Gump” movie references everywhere, including license plates on the tables which read, “Run Forest Run” or in the case of getting a waiter’s attention, “Stop Forest Stop”. Of course I had to have a picture taken on the park bench outside the restaurant like the one where Forrest uttered his famous line, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” (The original bench is in the Savannah History Museum and the scene was filmed in Chippewa Square in Savannah.)

Next time: Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

*Double click on any picture to see a full screen image 

** Map of our Southern Charm tour courtesy of Collette

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