Silver linings don’t come much shinier than the one that followed Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.
Such was the ferocity of the storm — which left 61 dead and destroyed nearly 100,000 homes as it swept up the coast and through South Carolina — that the federal government’s residual antipathy to the state, and to Charleston in particular, changed overnight.
President Bush Snr freed up big bucks to help with the recovery effort — and Charleston has never looked back.
A horse and cart tour passes through Charleston. Many visitors use this method to tour the city
‘It’s as if the clean up from the Civil War finally happened after nearly 130 years,’ says a long-time Charlestonian, deploying a sarcasm out of character with this charmingly exquisite city.
It was founded in 1670 as Charles Town, in recognition of Charles II handing over the province of Carolina to eight of his cronies — sorry, his Lords Proprietors.
The Civil War and Charleston will forever be entwined — though the notion that the city was persistently punished for the part it played at the onset of America’s darkest hour seems a little far-fetched.
But there’s no denying the facts: South Carolina was the first state to break away from the union and the first shots in the war were fired by secessionist forces in Charleston harbour, when they attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861. Abraham Lincoln took a dim view. War ensued.
Then there’s the uncomfortable truth that more than 40 per cent of enslaved Africans came through the port of Charleston, and those who toiled in the city were strictly regulated — even their work songs were censored.
Rodney Scott’s BBQ, where Rodney smokes between eight to ten whole hogs every day
‘It’s a difficult part of our history, but it happened and there’s nothing to be gained from brushing it under the rug,’ says Doug Warner, from Explore Charleston, a local government quango.
And they’re not brushing it under the rug. Quite the opposite. The Old Slave Mart deals with it head-on and plans are afoot for a brand new museum which will tell the story of slaves and how they played their part in making Charleston one of America’s richest cities. Owning the past is preferable to being ashamed of it.
Given how many Americans can trace their roots back to Charleston, the museum should bring more black visitors to the city, something everyone agrees will be a positive development.
As it is, reportedly 28 people each day are relocating to Charleston (population 135,000). It’s easy to see why.
The Georgian and Antebellum architecture is ravishing, the people are disarmingly friendly, the food is terrific (especially if you’re partial to grits), there are spectacular beaches (you’re almost certain to see dolphins), plantation houses and gardens are nearby, the pavements are pristine — and good manners matter.
Tooting the horn is a no-no; you don’t walk and eat; litter goes in bins; and rushing is something they do millions of miles away in New York City.
Genteel? For sure. But resolutely authentic, with pastel-coloured colonial clapperboard houses sharing the plaudits with classic brick buildings.
A while bridge covered in azaleas at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, founded in 1676 by the Drayton family. It claims to be the most romantic garden in the U.S
They do old, too. The Pink House is the oldest stone house in Charleston, built from Bermudian limestone between 1694 and 1712.
For tours of the city, visitors are invited to hop on board horse-drawn carriages rather than garish open-top buses. And there are no skyscrapers because long ago it was decreed that buildings should never be higher than the spire on top of St Matthew’s Lutheran Church.
Speaking of which, there are almost as many churches as there are hotels (Charleston’s moniker is the Holy City), but this will change in the next few years, not least because British Airways has started offering direct flights to Charleston for the first time.
King Street is the main drag and it’s mercifully free from international brands, although I do spot one Starbucks and — horrors — a Gap, rubbing shoulders with antique shops, galleries and independent clothes stores. ‘Hello there, I like your shirt,’ says the owner of a nick-nack shop.
I like your style, ma’am, because my shirt hasn’t seen an iron in weeks.
The Belmond Charleston Place is an excellent hotel in easy walking distance to everything that matters — including The Tavern, America’s oldest liquor store (founded 1686).
The area around Charleston Place was once a seedy hang-out, but that all changed when Joseph Riley, who was mayor for an astonishing 41 years, pushed for a hotel to be built on a vacant plot.
‘Hell will freeze over before this gets built,’ ruled the local Architectural Review Board.
‘Hell froze over,’ read Mayor Riley’s T-shirt when the hotel opened in 1986. It now has a spa, rooftop bar, award-winning restaurant and grand Gone With The Wind-style central staircase with a huge Murano chandelier above it.
British Airways has started offering direct flights to Charleston, pictured, for the first time
WHILE YOU ARE HERE…
On most Fridays, eight to ten of Charleston’s historic gardens are open to the public free of charge (historiccharleston.org). A small army of volunteers is on hand to answer any questions (all of a certain age) and they love to talk.
The pace is leisurely, especially if you opt for a carriage ride. Your horseman will provide a running commentary (oldsouthcarriage.com) or Beth Briggs does a spirited walking tour (charlestonstrolls.com) that does not gloss over the city’s past.
Charleston may come across as a grand dame but over the years it has been a pioneer. It was one of the earliest cities to open a theatre (Dock Street Theatre) in 1736, a public library in 1748, a museum in 1773 and it founded the Preservation Society of Charleston in 1920.
Kiawah Island is less than an hour from Charleston. Its sandy beach stretches for miles. Houses here sell for millions and, if you like golf, you will love The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort (kiawahresort.com), where the 1991 Ryder Cup was played. The hotel will arrange dolphin-watching trips with an engaging man who has names for all the dolphins. Rooms aren’t cheap, but it’s super-plush.
Any trip to Charleston must include visiting one of the plantation houses to the north of the city. We opt for 120-acre Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, founded in 1676 by the Drayton family. It claims to be the most romantic garden in the U.S.
We are shown round by Tom Johnson, the boss, who exudes all the warmth and humour for which the deep south is renowned.
‘Romantic Gardens should transport y’all to a place where emotion takes precedence over reason,’ he says, adding: ‘Magnolia employs 100 people to make it never look maintained.’
On the way back into town, I notice the billboards.
‘Bone dry roofing’ strikes a chord, I had forgotten how there is something instantly refreshing about America.
We stop off for a feast at Rodney Scott’s BBQ, where Rodney smokes between eight to ten whole hogs every day.
Later, we have a drink in Felix on the lively stretch of King Street where new bars and restaurants are opening all the time as part of Charleston’s belated renaissance.
We end up at The Darling Oyster Bar, where the staff seem genuinely thrilled to have us as customers.
Weaving back to the hotel afterwards, I admonish myself for announcing to friends a few months ago that if I never visited America again it wouldn’t bother me.
That was before spending a few days in Charleston.
British Airways Holidays (ba.com, 0344 493 0122) offers four nights at the Belmond Charleston Place (belmond.com/charlestonplace) from £979 per person travelling June 1 to June 30, including return flights from Heathrow and accommodation.