The first thing you might like to know about Charleston, in South Carolina is that it began life in 1670 as Charles Town – in honour of King Charles II. For quite understandable reasons, it changed its name to Charleston in 1783, after the Revolutionary War (the one we call The War of Independence).
That much is certain. Equally certain is the fact that it was never, ever, called Carolopolis. But that’s the name you’ll see time and time again on the useful plaques that have been put on many of the city’s old buildings by the South Carolina Historical Society. Try as I might, I could not find an explanation for this bit of historical fakery.
Unnecessary fakery, as it happens, because Charleston has enough real history for itself and a couple of other cities, too. It also basks in the reputation of being America’s most friendly city, or its most polite and hospitable city, depending on which travel magazine you read.
Half of all the slaves entering America did so through its harbour. America’s oldest theatre (opened in 1736 and still going strong) is in Dock Street. The first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter.
And the USA’s first game of golf was played here.
Actually, I have a couple of riders to add to those last two items. The 1861 siege of Fort Sumter was an inconsequential affair in which no casualties were suffered. It was only during the surrender ceremony that a couple of chaps died owing to the accidental explosion of a gun.
And, try as I may, I haven’t been able to pin down the date and location of that first golf game. But more than one local official made the claim, and it was printed on the little slip of paper on my pillow at the Bennett, which came with a piece of fancy chocolate and tomorrow’s weather forecast. So it must be true.
The Hotel Bennett is very large and very grand and could be a bit overwhelming if you let it. It is quite new, too, and all set to make a reputation for itself. The quality of its service is high, as are its public rooms and bedrooms.
Mine was terrific. It had all the conveniences you would expect in a top quality establishment, including one of those machines that gurgle and hiss and turn little foil and plastic sachets into coffee. The Bennett is so smart that I half expected George Clooney to appear from a cupboard and operate the machine for me.
However, you need to be on top of your game when switching the lights on and off, drawing the curtains, or operating the television and the air conditioning. Because it is all done by way of a handset resting on its cradle on the bedside table. It took me a little while to work it out, and I hadn’t truly mastered it by the time I left after three nights. I have friends who would be overwhelmed by that little gadget and, most likely, would spend their time at the Bennett with the lights and the television set permanently on and the curtains permanently drawn – or vice versa.
Anyway, the Bennett will more than suit folk who like their hotels a little bit over the top, and I know there are plenty of those who follow my musings.
A smaller, older and more stylish choice would be the French Quarter Inn, located, as its name implies, within walking distance of the Old Town and its many attractions. I took to it from the moment I walked through its doors, and was not surprised to learn it has been rated Charleston’s top hotel by a couple of US travel magazines and comparison sites and, again according to some, the third best hotel in the entire USA.
In fact, so impressed was I by the French Quarter Inn that I did what I very rarely do, and drew it to the attention of a couple of folk I know who are in the business of selling holidays to the USA. If, as I expect, more UK visitors choose Charleston because of British Airway’s new direct flight from Heathrow, I hope my chums will get on that bandwagon.
That direct flight, which I mentioned in a previous ‘Now and Then’ was the reason a posse of fellow travel writers descended on Charleston in April. (Is ‘posse’ the correct collective? How about ‘a rambling’ or ‘a scribbling’?)
Whilst there, we held our Annual General Meeting in the Gibbes Museum, which is one of the best in a city which boasts of many. A tremendous benefit is that the majority of museums and churches and other historic buildings are within strolling distance of each other in the downtown heart of Charleston – the aforementioned French Quarter, which has, too, plenty of restaurants and shops and even a few market halls such as you find in old towns back home.
Horse drawn carriages clop about and clutter up the cobbled heart of Charleston. I was told five different companies operate these tourist rides, which I think is probably too many. Attempts to graft traditional attractions on to real history are rarely successful, and I’m inclined to side with the growing number of local folk who’d be happy to see the back of them.
(Though, whilst those words are in my thoughts, their passing would also bring the demise of the equine sanitation vans, whose drivers are tasked with hosing horse pooh from the streets, and have ‘Doody Calls’ printed in large letters on their sides – the vans, I mean, not the drivers.)
There are old Plantation Houses to be visited – I chose Middleton Place and found it fascinating – and among Charleston’s other attractions are the aircraft carrier Yorktown, a working distillery called High Wire (where we enjoyed a very well organised party) and many first class restaurants. The two that stick in my memory are the Grocery restaurant on Cannon Street, and Halls Chophouse on King Street.
(At the latter, choosing the smallest steak from the display, I discovered it was Bison. Delicious!)
Charleston is unique. It carries its history lightly, and seems to have come to terms with its past links to the slave trade. It is a city in which you can eat and drink well, having discovered the superiority of locally brewed ales over America’s national brands.
Unlike so many American cities, it does not overwhelm you. I can’t wait to go again.
You may also find interesting:
- Charleston, South Carolina – a honeymoon for Silver Travellers by Louise Hudson
- Huey and Charleston by John Carter
- Charleston – elegance and irony by Roger Bray
- Top tips for visiting Up Country South Carolina by Godfrey Hall
- Charleston – the fruits of pluff by Roger Bray