South Carolina’s Coastline Cities

RIDING AROUND IN THE BACK OF A CARRIAGE pulled by two mules, and listening to our driver wax lyrical on the history of Charleston, it’s easy to see why the original landowners and cotton brokers were so protective of their rights and privileges in this New World outpost.

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

The mules – Hit and Run – and our driver/guide, Matthew, work for the Palmetto Carriage Company. The city allows only 20 carriages on the streets at any one time, so after leaving the barn we line up at a curbside bingo machine and take our chance with the lottery that will determine our exact trail.

zoomer3pic1Hit and Run could do this route in their sleep and we wind our way through neighbourhoods where every second home looks like a candidate for the pages of Architectural Digest. Giant live oaks and tall saw palmettos line the roadways.

“In the early days, Carolina was one big gift from King Charles II to a group of noblemen,” says Matthew. Here they were guaranteed freedom of religion and the chance to make fortunes growing rice, indigo and sea island cotton. The walled city of Charleston grew to be the largest slaving trading port in the Americas. By the early 1800s, it boasted a concentrated aristocracy, the fourth largest population in the United States and, by a factor of six, the richest city in the country.

zoomer3pic7And it shows. Along the Battery – the city’s defensive seawall – vaulting Antebellum mansions of plantation owners feature the finest craftsmanship and attention to detail. Built in the classical styles, these magnificent homes were designed – incorporating ideas from the Bahamas – to maximize every breeze. Homes, large and small, often have a door that looks from the street to be a front door but which actually opens on to a sprawling veranda or open-air piazza.

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zoomer3pic3WE WANDER ALONG STREETS OF COBBLESTONE. These stones were imported as ballast in the ships that transported slaves from Africa to the New World and then cotton to Europe. Wasting nothing, the city’s early engineers re-purposed the stones into streets that will last forever.

The Battery’s million-dollar views over Charleston Harbor include Fort Sumter where, on April 12, 1861, Confederate shots were fired igniting the Civil War (in the South, sometimes called the War Between the States).

Matthew recalls the events that changed the face of the nation. “The area was full of Southerners, who came to witness the start of the battle. When they heard the cannons they got all dolled up and sipped Planter’s Punch. They thought it would be over in a month.” For a period before that awful war, the nobility of Charleston – rich beyond their imaginations – thought they had conquered the world. Four years later, much of the city was reduced to rubble.

If there is one public building that encapsulates the history of Charleston it could be the Old Exchange Building – it was the formal entrance to the city and a statement of the community’s wealth and power and the last building constructed by the British in the Americas before the American Revolution. The main floor is a historical timeline of the crops that fuelled the Southern economy.

A Dungeon Tour took us into the Exchange’s cellar, once used to store merchandise arriving to Charles Town as well as prisoners, pirates and lawbreakers. “The dungeon’s brick arches were built 243 years ago,” explains our costumed guide. “They have survived every earthquake, hurricane and war these buildings have seen.”

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A LITTLE TO THE NORTH sits South Carolina’s other coastline city – Myrtle Beach. The two cities may both be oceanside, but they couldn’t be more different. While Charleston is steeped in history and Antebellum mansions, Myrtle Beach is a modern-day entertainment centre popular with Canadian snowbirds, golfers and families.

T-shirt shops, wax museums and entertainment venues like the impressive SkyWheel line the city’s main drag, Ocean Blvd. We were on the hunt for local music venues and found just the thing at an iconic honky-tonk that’s been an area fixture for decades.

The Bowery is an old-fashioned beer joint where the only things they sell are cold draft and live music. The decor hasn’t been updated in decades but it has some pretty serious street cred as the place where country supergroup Alabama got its start as a house band in the 1970s (the boys still stop by). Live music kicks off around 8:30 p.m. and goes steadily until 1:30 a.m. or later – the band takes no breaks, playing requests from the audience.

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Just south of the city – and at the opposite end of the genteel spectrum – is Brookgreen Gardens, a quiet escape of manicured grounds that tastefully showcase art, formal gardens and a wild nature preserve on the grounds of a former rice plantation.

Railroad magnate Archer Milton Huntington and his wife Anna designed the landscape at Brookgreen, a mix of ponds and Southern gardens that provide a backdrop for hundreds of pieces of sculpture by some of America’s most celebrated artists.

Two very different cities provide a whole spectrum of Southern experiences.

 IF YOU GO

The seaside hamlet of Murrell’s Inlet is famous for its fishing docks. The Wicked Tuna offers a one-of-a-kind fresh seafood experience: local fishermen dock their boats just steps from the restaurant and pass their day’s catch directly into coolers in the restaurant’s ground floor.

“Benefit is, we control the quality of the fish right from the ocean to the restaurant,” says Chef Dylan Foster. “It can be fished in the morning and on the plate for lunch. It’s ocean to table.”

More entertainment: Myrtle Beach boasts several large soft-seat entertainment venues including The Carolina Opry and the Alabama Theatre. We enjoyed the Alabama Theatre’s current show, One, featuring a selection of number one country, Motown, Broadway and R&B hits from the 20th century.

Who’s writing

Our travel horizons keep expanding. For fall 2014, we’ve packed the camper van, taken along our easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and are exploring the Carolinas and Georgia. On the way down we’re looking for everything unique about life along the ocean coastline. And on our travels back north we’re taking the inland route, looking for food, culture and roots music. We’ve added a new website devoted to our travels: www.travelswithrigby.com with info on RV travel, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.

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