‘Now and Then’ – or, rather, ‘Deja vu’

Travel Talk

In my last offering, I mentioned that there was a very strong ‘Now and Then’ element about my recent visit to Charleston in South Carolina.

The ‘Now’ is the pleasure of finding, in April 2019, a delightful city, and realising that it is about to undergo a massive change in its fortunes as a tourist destination.

The ‘Then’ was travelling to Miami in Florida in 1978, when more or less the same situation applied.  

Four decades ago, you see, Florida was unknown to the majority of British holidaymakers. But a UK tour operator named Harry Goodman planned to sell inexpensive summer package deals to Miami (inexpensive because Americans, sensibly, regard Florida as a winter destination). The mass holiday market was about to invade the Sunshine State, and ‘culture clash’ doesn’t begin to describe what happened.

Miami Beach The British imagined Miami would be like Benidorm, only a bit bigger. They thought it would be possible to stroll to the beach from the hotel. The men reckoned they would have no trouble finding a decent pint of beer. The ladies anticipated lots of inexpensive souvenir shops. All were convinced that real America would be just like Hollywood America.

For their part, the Floridians had no concept of what ‘mass market’ meant. They had hitherto encountered a fairly small number of the middle and upper-class clients of Thomas Cook or Swans Tours.   

They thought that installing ‘darts boards’ in bars and serving American beer at room temperature (which, in Florida, in summer, can be very warm) would make their visitors feel right at home. They also underestimated by a couple of hundred percent the amount of cash that Brits would be spending daily on drinks and meals. And how much alcohol they would consume.

Well, we can look at Florida now and see how it panned out, especially after the mass market moved inland to Orlando, following the arrival there of Mickey Mouse.

Though we now know far more about America as a holiday destination, and the Americans know far more about us, I have the same premonition about Charleston in particular and South Carolina in general. (Even to the extent that a rumour reached me just before my visit that the Disney organisation was thinking of locating a theme park there. When I mentioned this to a local tourism person, the reply was “Charleston  needs Mickey Mouse like it needs a hole in the head”, and that Myrtle Beach might be a more suitable location.)

Walt Disney World, Orlando Cast your eye along the eastern seaboard of the USA and it is obvious why British Airways have chosen to open a direct service between Heathrow and Charleston. From Washington DC right down to Florida there is no ‘holiday’ point of entry.  

The present two flights a week are certain to be increased as news of this ‘new’ holiday destination gets around. And you can bet your boots that, sniffing success, the Scandinavian, German and French airlines will not be slow to jump on the bandwagon.

The airport authority has already spent a considerable sum installing a catering facility that meets the standards set for international flights. You can see at a glance that much other work is being done to expand and improve that airport.  

It is clearly necessary, as the sole, small, carousel in our arrival terminal could barely cope with the luggage from a single Boeing 787 – the ‘Dreamliner’ which, by coincidence, is built in their Charleston factory.

It was also obvious that more than the available half a dozen immigration desks were needed for the passengers from that single 787. How will the airport cope when three or four trans-Atlantic flights arrive at more or less the same time?    

The local folk I quizzed were certain that airport improvements and expansion would be sufficient, but I can’t help feeling, as happened forty years ago, that the ultimate number of international arrivals has not yet been properly appreciated.

Now, I realise these ‘nuts and bolts’ facts may not be as interesting to you as the facts about Charleston and what it has to offer its visitors right now. But it is sometimes useful to ponder on the ‘now and then’ aspects of the holiday scene, as I have done here, because where we have come from is usually a good indication of where we are going.

Rainbow Row, Charleston But I promise I shall tell you of the delights of Charleston, and to whet your appetite will draw your attention to the rather magnificent ‘Pineapple’ fountain in Waterfront Park. It is just one manifestation of the pineapple motif one encounters in the older part of the city – in particular along Rainbow Row, a much-photographed group of pastel coloured houses off East Bay Street.

A recent article about Charleston in one of our national newspapers explained that this dates from the time when pineapples were a luxury, but the female writer – either through ignorance or sensitivity – completely missed the real reason why they were often displayed in the windows of housewives fortunate enough to have been given one.

Charleston is a port. Sea captains returned home with gifts for their wives and those gifts usually included a pineapple. Grateful wives would place the pineapple in their windows.   

They would tell their husbands it was to show the world how fortunate they were to have such a generous spouse.

They never told them it was a signal to warn their gentleman friends to keep away, as hubby was home.  

The removal of the pineapple from the window was a signal that the coast was clear. What happened then, I leave to your imagination.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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