What is the difference between a good place and a memorable one? Part of the answer lies in the atmosphere, the subtle distinctions of the feelings present in the place, the vibrations locked in the buildings, and whether or not the stories about that place have depth. They don’t necessarily need to be a good stories only, and they won’t be.
But there is also something else: a quality that makes you, a visitor or a guest, feel really fortunate. Something that is unique, warm, and distant at the same time. You will recognize this quality upon your arrival to Charleston. And you’ll be charmed by it in an instant, even if your journey, like ours, has taken over 20 hours, and you are so tired that you can hardly recognize yourself.
Charleston is considered a cultural capital of the South. Noble families with noble taste for architecture and gardening have built and rebuilt it after the wars and natural disasters. The city has that charm and noble grandeur unique to European historic cities like Paris, Vienna, or Venice (which I’ve visited some years ago). Historically and architecturally amazing, it has no tall buildings though, and this very characteristic feature of Charleston is directly related to the preservation efforts.
If you remember the movie "Notebook" based on best-selling Nicholas Sparks’ novel, there is an opportunity to take a stroll through the places filmed by Nick Cassaventes in and around Charleston. Unfortunately, a boat trip to the Cypress Gardens has yet to wait, because the place is undergoing renovation. But there is a different picturesque secret place outside Charleston. It is called Angel Oak – a giant oak tree which has survived the wars, the fires, the hurricanes, and all the tourists so far. It resides in the community of Johns Island and is its oldest native citizen (between 400-1,000 years old). On a hot day, the guardian oak provides a perfect shade.
As a tourist you are supposed to visit the Old City Market – a community gathering place, kitschy tourist trap, and a glimpse to the old South. Like us, you will find there all kinds of things, including rare beautiful objects of traditional craftsmanship. It’s the best place to admire traditional sweet grass basket-making skills of African Americans – the world’s foremost experts in the field. And remember, there was never slave auction here.
You probably wouldn’t also miss the French Quarter. Protestant in origin and flavor, it contains Charleston’s most historic buildings, most evocative old churches and graveyards, and most charming streets and art galleries. If you are a woman, you will also probably have your picture taken next to Rainbow Row – the most photographed place in the US. The nine bright pastel colors go back to Caribbean heritage, a legacy of English settlers from Barbados. These 1730-1750 houses were first to be renovated, and their restoration inspired Charleston Preservation Society (first such group in the United States).
There are so many “Charleston's things”: Charleston’s pineapple, Charleston’s iron work, and “Charleston’s green” (unique Charleston color – a few drops of yellow in black). They all have a story behind them, so let me tell you one. In this city of southern hospitality and charm, everyone knows that the pineapple stands for “welcome”. The symbol, as well as British imperial lions, can be seen all over Charleston, from doorknobs to the Pineapple Fountain in the Waterfront Park. Not everyone knows yet that pineapples do not grow in Charleston. A legend says that during the colonial times, when the sea captain was coming back home with the exotic gifts and stories from foreign land, he would spear a pineapple on his fence post to let everyone know that he came back safely. Friends would come over to try exotic pineapple and to listen about his journey.
Speaking of a sea… for those, who prefer to relax with a little salt, there is charming town of Folly Beach nearby, with a beach called “the edge of America”. It has a funky charm and fame of Gershwin who was to write here his score to “Porgy and Bess”. In May it is beautifully empty, and provides a perfect rest from the crowd.
Old architecture, friendly people, countless churches, carriages, famous southern cuisine, charming locally owned shops – all that makes you feel at home in Charleston. This paradise for nature and history lovers will stay in your memory like a steady soft sea breeze from the promenade.