Charleston's Southern exposure beckons visitors back

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Charleston's Southern exposure beckons visitors back

By: Juanita Gammon

By: Juanita Gammon

By: Juanita Gammon

Although we have been there and done that, the beauty, charm and heritage of Charleston – the 339-year-old Holy City of the South Carolina Lowcountry – were magnets that pulled my sister and me back to revisit our Southern roots.

Before we headed south, I googled the Charleston Chamber of Commerce for its official guidebook that lists special events, restaurants and lodgings to help plan places to revisit and new ones to discover within the Historic District, and to figure out time just to meander.

Getting there is usually half the fun, but express-driving suited us, so we ate fast food for lunch while thinking about the culinary delights to come, and proceeded on to the Best Western Cedar Bluff in Knoxville, Tenn., to overnight. The following morning, a hardy complementary breakfast fortified us for the drive before we stopped for a fast-food lunch again, allowing us to arrive in Charleston in the late afternoon. Our reservations at the Doubletree Guest Suites, 181 Church St. in the Historic District, made checking in easy.

Eager to experience the sights, sounds and tastes of the city, we headed for dinner at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant at 99 S. Market St. This popular, tourist-friendly place has quirky tabletop flip signs to get the server's attention, long plank tables, memorabilia-covered walls and a menu offering a variety of delicious Cajun and Southern dishes.

We finished dining on blackened chicken and vegetable gumbo, washed down with sweet tea, in time to join a guided ghost and graveyard walking tour that evening, exploring Charleston's oldest church graveyards, located up narrow cobbled streets and down lamp-lit walled alleyways in the "haunted" Historic District.

Thanks to the guide's power of suggestion, stories of voodoo, malevolent ghosts, macabre murders and Lowcountry superstitions tweaked our imagination, almost convincing us that shimmering plasma orbs were floating above ancient gravestones in St. Michael's churchyard.

Unusually heavy rain the following day did not dampen our spirit of adventure. With breezes buffeting our umbrellas, we waded through 3 inches of water, hampered from draining by high tide, to pounce on bargains at the open air market, before the waterlogged vendors closed early.

We dried off at a nearby restaurant and enjoyed the sound of rain drumming on the canvas-covered roof, while Jane savored she-crab soup and I appreciated spicy vegetarian fare and sweet tea in a Mason jar.

The next morning, a skyscape of church spires outlined against an azure blue sky heralded a perfect day to hop on a trolley to Murray Boulevard and East Bay Street, to visit White Point Gardens, and to meander along the battery adjacent to the junction of the Ashley and Cooper rivers for the ultimate harbor overview and a faint glimpse of Fort Sumter 3 miles away.

Along the waterfront, White Point Gardens typify the "sense of place" in Charleston. Basking in the offshore breezes while munching boiled peanuts, we sauntered under the branches of oak trees, covered with silvery strands of fringe-like Spanish moss, that served as a backdrop for the heroic bronze statue flanked by Civil War-era cannons.

Thick layers of white oyster shells crunched underfoot as we admired the dense oleander shrubs lining the paths and displaying brilliant blooms of pink, red and white, framed in glossy, green leaves.

A row of elegant antebellum homes, painted in white or pastels, with two- and three-story wraparound porches supported by tall white columns, overlook the park's north edge. One of these ageless sentinels, the Edmondston-Alston mansion, at 21 E. Battery St., was open for tours.

Walking through those ornate double doors seemed like stepping back in time to an opulent era of ornate furniture, rich brocades, gilt mirrors and the abundance of prosperity supported by rice farming.

In contrast to these elegant homes, more than 3,000 examples of the less-imposing, single-house style of Charlestonian architecture, dating from the 1700s, can be seen by continuing to walk around the peninsula's point to the French Quarter. The shotgun-style homes, one room wide by three rooms deep, have side porches, many supported by tall white columns. Intimate courtyard gardens, enclosed by intricate wrought-iron fences, create a tranquil haven of timeless beauty.

Caught peeping through a fence like kids at a candy store window, we were invited through the gate by a genteel Southern lady, who greeted us with, "Why don't y'all come in and mosey around."

We spent a delightful hour in her fragrant garden admiring the landscaping and lush plants designed around the central focal point – a three-tiered fountain that splashed errant water drops on delicate ferns below. Lining the paths were magnolia and palmetto trees, crepe myrtle, blue hydrangeas, delicate jasmine blooms, bougainvillea and prized camellias.

Sharing this experience with a native Charlestonian compelled us to imagine how our great-great-grandmother's South Carolina garden might have been designed.

We used $5-a-day trolley passes to visit our picks of other Charleston gems:

– Calhoun Mansion, an Italianate-style house that was built in 1876 on property that was visited three times by George Washington, and is recognized as one of the grandest post-Civil War homes on the southern seaboard.

– St. Michael's Episcopal Church, built around 1761, which is the oldest of the many churches in the Holy City and the place where George Washington and later Robert E. Lee occupied pew 43.

– Market Hall, circa 1841, which was constructed in the Roman-revival style as a guild meeting hall and houses an extensive Civil War museum.

– The Charleston Museum, founded in 1733, which is the oldest museum in the U.S. and showcases Charleston and Native Americans' rich culture, the history of African-American contributions, and history and artifacts of the Revolutionary War and Civil War eras.

– Fort Sumter, the massive three-story fort where the opening shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861.

– Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a top attraction for exploring the bygone days of plantation life. Founded in 1676, it is noted for the oldest public gardens in America. The 11th generation of owners shares with the public 500 acres of gardens, a petting zoo and tours of the plantation house.

Around the Charleston area, there are scores of casual and luxury shops, and a notable absence of fast-food chains, replaced with an abundance of bistros, casual seafood places and fine dining. Two of our favorite places are Poogan's Porch and Circa 1886.

Poogan's Porch, at 72 Queen St., occupies a 1888 restored house, supposedly haunted by the ghosts of a lady in black, and a scrap-begging porch dog named Poogan. The menu suggests Southern dishes such as fried green tomatoes with Cajun remoulade, pecan-encrusted fried flounder, shrimp and grits, biscuits with honey butter and, for the adventurous taste, fried alligator bites.

In contrast, Circa 1886, is an elegant restaurant, snuggled in a garden behind Wentworth Mansion at 149 Wentworth St., offering sophisticated dining with such dishes as antelope loin with grit sauce and merlot fondue, ragu of corn and leeks, salmon with citrus sauce, blueberries and cream souffle, wild strawberry float, and honeysuckle ice cream.

At the end of our visit, we were reluctant to leave, but Charleston is a city of rewarding experiences for the senses. It exemplifies the heart of Southern life, and has many more jewels to be discovered that will lure us back.

Juanita Gammon is an artist, listed in Who's Who of American Art, and a correspondent for the Savoy Star. She retired early as a college art professor so she can spend time at her home in Champaign and on her farm southeast of St. Joseph, gardening, painting rural landscapes and panoramic scenes of public and private gardens, and writing.

If you go

In advance, get the 2009 Official Visitors Guide for Charleston, S.C. (www.charlestoncvb.com), which gives you plenty of information about attractions, events, dining and lodgings, plus a map of the Historic District.

You can choose several ways to reach Charleston from East Central Illinois, and have many choices of where to stay, dine and visit.

Take a guided tour to get your bearings before meandering on your own.

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