Seaside traditions and historical homes make this South Carolina city a popular destination.
By Pam Windsor
In Charleston, South Carolina, bells ring in churches built more than 200 years ago; cannons remain strategically placed on the grounds of Fort Sumter; and homes built before the Civil War still line the streets. Shades and shadows of this peninsula city’s rich past are evident everywhere. And the pace is slower and more relaxed, as it should be. This is the South.
Charleston originally was named Charles Towne to honor King Charles II of England. In 1783, after the Revolutionary War, the city’s name was trimmed down. The site where English settlers first arrived in 1607 just off the Ashley River remains open to the public as the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site.
A visit to Charleston should start downtown, right along the water. The Battery offers scenic views in every direction. This fortified seawall sits at the southern tip of the peninsula where the Ashley River and Cooper River join and then flow into the Atlantic.
Horse-drawn carriage tours are a great way to get an overview of the city, for a fee. Licensed tour guides are full of stories and interesting tidbits. Free trolleys also run daily throughout the historic district, if you want to do some exploring on your own. Detailed maps, routes, and trolley schedules are available at the visitors center at 375 Meeting St. A parking garage is next door, making it easy to park your towed vehicle, pick up a map and brochures, and then board the trolley, which stops at the visitors center.
The garage is needed. Finding a parking spot downtown is often difficult, and taking a towed car is best. A city parking garage a block north of the visitors center at 63 Mary St. does have spots for RVs on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call (843) 973-7290.
Charleston is called the “Holy City” because of its many churches. Saint Michael’s on Broad Street is the oldest church building in town. Construction began in 1752, and the church opened for services in 1761. Its cemetery has headstones dating back to very early days. It is the final resting place for two signers of the U.S. Constitution and a Revolutionary War general. Visitors can wander through the churchyard and read the headstones, many of them faded and worn, but still legible. It’s also interesting to note that George Washington worshipped at St. Michael’s when he visited Charleston in May of 1791. General Robert E. Lee also worshipped there some 70 years later.
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is just down the street from St. Michael’s. It was built by the British between 1768 and 1771 and designed as a place to conduct public and private business. Over the years the structure has been the site of many significant historical events. During the 1773 protest of the British Tea Act, when Boston dumped tea in the harbor, tea was seized, stored in the building’s cellar, and later sold to fund the patriots’ cause. During the British occupation from 1780-82, customs offices were used as prison cells for American rebels and others. Later, as president, George Washington spent a lot of time there during a 1791 visit to Charleston. He attended balls, dinners, and other special gatherings. According to Washington’s diary, at one event in the Great Hall, the guests included “256 elegantly dressed and handsome ladies.” In this same building in 1788, the state of South Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution.
The first shot of the Civil War was fired in Charleston. Confederate troops on nearby James Island fired that shot at Fort Sumter in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861. Within two days, the federal garrison was in Confederate hands. Today visitors can take a boat out to Fort Sumter and tour the grounds. (There are two points of departure for the boat: Liberty Square downtown or Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.) Cannons remain in place at the fort, along with several projectiles lodged in the walls. It’s awe-inspiring to stand in this spot, look out at the water on all sides, and think about what happened there more than 150 years ago. Rangers lead tours, explaining the scene before and after the first shots were fired.
Charleston is full of magnificent homes with a variety of architectural styles. The Nathaniel Russell House on Meeting Street was built in 1808 for a wealthy shipping merchant from Rhode Island. This National Historic Landmark is considered one of the most important neoclassical dwellings in America. Furnishings are similar to what might have been in place when the Russell family lived there. The original slave quarters are located behind the house.
Some of the bigger plantation homes are a bit of a drive from downtown. A few of the more well-known include Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation, and Middleton Place. A complete list of area plantations is available from the city’s tourism office.
Boone Hall Plantation, about 10 miles from downtown, is across the Ravenel Bridge in Mount Pleasant. The setting may look familiar; a number of movies and TV shows have been filmed there, such as the “North and South” TV minisieries and The Notebook motion picture. It’s one of the oldest working plantations. The current home was built in 1936, although the plantation has been there since 1681.
There are nine original brick slave homes at Boone Hall Plantation. They are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are open for tours, with each one highlighting a little bit of history. One outlines the background of the popular sweetgrass baskets unique to this part of the South, or “Lowcountry,” as it’s called. Initially, the baskets were made by slaves, who used skills they learned in their native West Africa. The baskets are created with sweetgrass, bulrush, palm leaves, and long-leaf pine needles.
Many artisans in town today continue to make these baskets, such as Anna Dawson. “It’s passed down from generation to generation and I’m the fifth generation, so far. My mother and grandmother taught me, and I’m teaching my children and grandchildren,” she said.
She explained that all baskets are handmade using original designs, and the materials come from area marshes. The bulrush must be retrieved from the water. She did mention, with a laugh, that she relies on someone else to handle that part of the process because she is afraid of the snakes!
Ms. Dawson is among many crafters who sell sweetgrass baskets along U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant. The baskets are also sold in the Charleston City Market and at stores throughout the area.
Mount Pleasant lies just across the Cooper River from Charleston by way of the Ravenel Bridge. It has its own share of attractions, including Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum. Patriots Point is home to the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum and the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, which is open for tours.
Since Charleston is a peninsula city, getting to the beach requires a little bit of a drive; it’s about 20 minutes from downtown. The Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island beaches are east of Charleston in the Mount Pleasant direction, while Folly Beach is south, in the direction of James Island. Isle of Palms has miles of scenic beaches, shops, and a boardwalk. Sullivan’s Island boasts beautiful beaches, along with bars, restaurants, Fort Moultrie (open for tours), and a lighthouse. Folly Beach has some shops and restaurants but is known for a laid-back atmosphere, so more surfers and bicyclists gravitate there.
For a different, more “in-depth” view of the ocean, there’s the South Carolina Aquarium, with the 385,000-gallon Great Ocean Tank, which is home to more than 750 marine animals. The aquarium gives a great overview of aquatic life throughout the region, with everything from river otters to sharks. It also houses the only sea turtle hospital in South Carolina.
One of the highlights of visiting Charleston has always been its Lowcountry cuisine, which often involves shrimp, crabmeat, oysters, rice, grits, and she-crab soup. The city is home to a number of chefs who have made their mark on the culinary scene, and with so many restaurants to choose from, it’s hard to pick a bad one.
The area offers several campgrounds; the one at James Island County Park is the closest to downtown.
Charleston welcomes visitors with a warmth and hospitality that leaves a mark. Spending time here is more than a vacation; it’s an experience. Perhaps that’s why so many people return.
Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
423 King St.
Charleston, SC 29403
Charleston Visitor Center
375 Meeting St.
Charleston, SC 29403
The following may not be a complete list, so please check your campground directory or the RV Marketplace, found in the June and January issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Campground at James Island County Park
871 Riverland Drive
Charleston, SC 29412
Oak Plantation Campground
3540 Savannah Highway
Charleston, SC 29455
Mount Pleasant/Charleston KOA
3157 U.S. 17 N.
Mount Pleasant, SC 29466
(800) 562-5796 (reservations)