I’ll always remember the first time I traveled to Charleston.
I sailed to the city on a cruise ship, as part of America’s inland waterway system. And, as the boat glided into the city, I was instantly reminded of one of the great movie lines about Charleston — a sentence that has been shortened over the years.
In “Gone with the Wind,” Rhett Butler’s most famous line came at the end of the movie, when he turns and faces Scarlett O’Hara and says, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn….” Everyone remembers that line. But it didn’t end there. The complete quote is: “I’m going back to Charleston, where there is still a little grace and civility left in the world.”Well, if you DO give a damn about grace and civility, you can still find it in abundance in Charleston, a remarkably well preserved peninsular city between the Ashey and Cooper Rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a city with a skyline of steeples — 180 of them, to be exact, and where most of the doorknobs in town are brass — and always seem polished.Charleston is all about history, and the intersection of culture in America. What do Edgar Allen Poe and Flavor Flav have in common? They both lived in Charleston. So did John F. Kennedy and Blackbeard the Pirate, Samuel Morse and Stephen Colbert. And that’s just for starters.Want some real starters? Consider that America’s first free library was established in Charleston, in 1698. In 1735, opera was first performed in America — in Charleston. Built around 1741, Middleton Place is the oldest formally landscaped garden in the United States. America’s first public museum opened in January 1773 — in Charleston. Want some other firsts? America’s first prescription drugstore (1780), first golf course (1786), even America’s first scheduled train service (1830) — all started in Charleston.
And here’s another first, which helps to explain why Charleston retains so much of its history: The first zoning ordinance in America was established here in 1931, including the creation of a Board of Architectural Review.
Charleston remains a city of history and myth, of legend and storytelling, of visions and yes, of ghosts.
If you visit in April, May or October, the weather is at its best, when it’s not too hot or humid. At the same time, there’s not much of a “slow” season in Charleston — January is your best bet. The city doesn’t see the same dip in downtown hotel occupancy and rates that you’ll see elsewhere. People are ping in the King Street area up until Christmas time. Christmas has the Holiday Festival of Lights (more than a million lights in James Island County Park) and the restored plantations are all decked out.
Before New Year’s is the large multinational Renaissance “think tank,” hosted by the Clintons; February marks the Distinctively Charleston Food and Wine Festival, followed by the Southeast Wildlife Exposition.
Still, no matter what time of year you travel to Charleston, be prepared to be colorfully entertained. Again, this is a city that thrives on myths, legends and miracles.
Some might even call Charleston the hors d’oeuvre capital of America. Why? It started in 1865.
After the Civil War, Charlestonians did not have the means to afford the luscious and ostentatious meals they served prior to the war. However, they still wanted to entertain. Hence, they started serving cocktails with “dine and dash” hors d’oeuvres, never using plates, so as to offer less food and make for a chic evening. Guests could help themselves to stationary appetizers — no need for staff to serve at tableside. Plates were never used. And to this day the tradition remains. Only napkins, of course, which are always linen and often monogrammed.
Then there are the legends.
Visit the old county jail, where Charleston’s most notorious serial killers, John and Lavinia Fisher, were sentenced to death in 1819. Lavinia, a beautiful 27-year-old, requested that she be hanged in her wedding dress. She was hoping to use her charms to persuade the judges to spare her, but the public wouldn’t have any of it. They packed the courthouse and the streets shouting for her death, so she was sentenced to die. She shouted, “If ye have a message ye want to send to Hell, give it to me — I’ll carry it!” Legend has it that she grabbed the noose herself and jumped off the block.And don’t forget ghosts. You don’t need Halloween to visit Charleston.Learn about Charleston’s legends and ghosts firsthand on a walking tour that takes you through dungeons, jails and a graveyard … at night! Adults: $18.50; children (8-14): $10.50 (843) 722-8687, www.bulldogtours.com
Drayton Hall Drayton Hall is one of the “finest surviving colonial houses in America.” It’s considered to be one of the best examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the country. Guided tours are available, as well as a 45-minute program called “Connections: From Africa to America” that uses maps, documents and artifacts to trace the story of Africans from Africa to the 20th century. You can also walk along the river and marsh, and visit an African-American cemetery. Thematic stations and demonstrations include “A Day in the Life of a Plantation,” “The American Revolution: War Comes to Drayton Hall” and “The Civil War: Soldiers & Civilians.” Admission $14 adults; $6 children, www.draytonhall.org.North Charleston and American LaFrance Fire Museum and Educational CenterJust opened in April, this is where you’ll find the oldest fire trucks in America (between 1857-1969). The 27,000-square-foot space contains an old fire station with 18 antique fire trucks that include a hand-operated fire pump and two horse-drawn steam engines. Not surprisingly, the Great Escape exhibit is popular with kids. Why? This is the place where they can slide down a fire pole! Admission $6. www.legacyofheroes.orgMagnolia CemeteryLocated on the banks of the Cooper River (about three miles north of downtown), the cemetery is the final resting place for more than 33,000 people. It’s a common area for picnicking under the magnolia trees. Two large cannons stand in the middle of 800 Confederate soldiers’ graves. It’s also the final resting place of five Confederate generals and more than 1,700 other men who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Civil War.Cooper River BridgeOpened in July 2005, it’s the longest cable stay bridge in North America. The 500-foot-tall structure is excellent for walking and biking to get one of the best views of the city and the harbor. Bigelow Tea PlantationThe Bigelow Tea’s plantation on Wadmalaw Island is the only operational tea plantation in the country. The 127-acre plantation holds hundreds of thousands of tea bushes, plus a new factory that has a 125-foot long window gallery so you can see how tea is made. Bus tours into the fields are $10; Tours are available Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday noon-4 p.m. www.bigelowtea.com/actGullah ToursOkay, it’s a bus tour, but it’s one with a twist (and you’ll be grateful for the air conditioning in Charleston’s summertime heat). This tour is a less politically correct city tour that explores the history of the Gullah, slaves from the Low Country region of South Carolina, where the language and culture still exist today. Guide Alphonso Brown provides anecdotes and historical details that are unique to Charleston, and he even speaks a little Gullah along the way. The two-hour tour will take you to locations like the Whipping House, the Underground Railroad sites, Old Slave Mart, Slave Quarters and one of the last remaining black cemeteries in the city (most are now paved over and used as parking lots). $18 per person. (843) 763-7551, http://www.gullahtours.comBarrier Island Eco-ToursIf the kids are along for the ride, check out the Barrier Island Eco-Tours, which set out from Isle of Palms, located about 20 minutes from downtown. There are several naturalist-guided tours of the tidewater ecosystem. A three-hour kayak tour traverses Charleston’s famous salt marshes (the guides do all the work, so no experience is necessary). Traveling along some of the most undeveloped regions in Charleston, you’ll be eye level with bottlenose dolphins, crabs and native birds that live in the fertile ecosystem. On a family-friendly “crabbing clinic,” you actually catch the tasty little critters and eat them on the spot at a beachside crab boil. Tours range from $38-$85 adults, and $24-$75 for kids. (843) 886-5000, http://www.nature-tours.comCharleston Farmers MarketThis area is often falsely referred to as a “slave market,” but slaves were never sold in this area (it usually happened by the waterfront). The Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square is a cornucopia of fresh seafood, produce and flowers. You can also pick up your souvenirs, like hand-woven textiles, custom ironworks and handmade glass jewelry, knowing that you’re giving directly to the community. Families also love it here, with face painting and pony rides for the kids, plus arts and crafts shows and live music. Every Saturday from April 7-December 16, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. (843) 724-7309Turtles on the TownYou’ve seen the whimsical cows dotting street corners in a number of major American cities. But in Charleston, it’s turtles. Fiberglass loggerhead sea turtles have been transformed by local artists and displayed throughout Charleston. The project will help raise funds and awareness for the conservation programs of the South Carolina Aquarium … another cool place to visit.FoodCharleston cuisine is rapidly gaining worldwide attention, boasting the only restaurants in the state with five diamonds and five stars. Many of its local restaurants follow sustainable practices, using only locally caught seafood. The Distinctively Charleston Food + Wine Festival was established last year, and is scheduled again for February 28-March 2, 2008.“Low country” food is Charleston’s soul food — lots of seafood and rice. Try something called “seafood muddle,” she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, Gullah rice (rice, shrimp, sausage and chicken) and collard greens.Hominy GrillOnce a 19th-century shotgun dwelling with the ground floor as a barber, the building now houses Hominy Grill. The restaurant still features vintage barber poles, hardwood floors and the original pounded-tin ceiling. This restaurant serves traditional Low country cuisine at old-world prices, but more importantly, each dish is made from fresh, local ingredients and from scratch — no cooking from cans here. If it’s not too hot, eat outside and make sure you chow down on plenty of seafood — sautéed shad roe and shrimp creole are two local favorites. (843) 937-0930, http://www.hominygrill.com
The Boathouse on East BayA little more upscale, this is where you’ll find some of the best and freshest seafood in S.C. (there are other locations on Isle of Palms and in Asheville, N.C.). The multi-award-winning restaurant overlooks the water. Littleneck and topneck clams, smoked applewood salmon, fried green tomato salad and outstanding sushi make up just a portion of the menu. (843) 577-7171, www.boathouserestaurants.com
TransportationCharleston International Airport is about a $25-$30 cab ride to downtown Charleston. It currently has 63 flights daily going to 17 destinationsAirTran began the only low-cost service to Charleston in May.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at .