Moss-draped oaks. Stately mansions. Wide beaches. Rolling mountains. And an ornery streak as old as the state itself. Ah yes, South Carolina, where the accents are thicker and the traditions more dear. From its Revolutionary War patriots to its 1860s secessionist government to its outspoken legislators, the Palmetto State has never shied away from a fight.
Most travelers stick to the coast, with its splendid antebellum cities and palm-tree-studded beaches. But the interior has a wealth of sleepy old towns, wild and undeveloped state parks and spooky black-water swamps. Along the sea islands you hear the sweet songs of the Gullah, a culture and language created by former slaves who held on to many West African traditions through the ravages of time.
From well-bred, gardenia-scented Charleston to up-and-coming Greenville to bright, tacky Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is always a fascinating destination.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout South Carolina.
Opened to the public in 2015, this James Island plantation offers an honest and frankly devastating account of the lives of the enslaved and later (theoretically) emancipated African Americans who lived and worked here between 1851 and 1990. Yes, you read that right. The last African American resident, who worked as a nurse for the grandson of the man who enslaved her great-great-grandparents, moved out of the former slave quarters only a few decades ago. The 37-acre property contains a welcome center, the Georgian-style plantation home, a row of former slave houses, a cotton gin house, a Gullah cemetery and several other structures, some dating back to the early 1800s. Over the centuries, occupants have included three generations of McLeods, the Confederate army, the Union army and the Bureau for Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. The story of this property is, in many ways, the story of the South, and it offers a clear-eyed account of the inhumanity and lasting impacts of slavery. The 45-minute guided tours, offered at 9:30am, 11am, noon, 1pm and 2:30pm, come with your admission ticket and are highly informative.
The only surviving urban town-house complex, this 1820 abode gives a fascinating glimpse into antebellum life on a 45-minute self-guided audio tour. The role of slaves is emphasized, and visitors wander into their dorm-style quarters behind the house before moving on to the lifestyle of the rich and famous. The Historic Charleston Foundation manages the property 'preserved as found,' conserving but not restoring it. There have been few alterations and you get it as is, peeling Parisian wallpaper and all. At the back of the house, a laundry business was believed to have been operated by freed slaves after the Emancipation Act, and that room is now on display.
The first shots of the Civil War rang out at Fort Sumter, on a pentagon-shaped island in the harbor. A Confederate stronghold, this fort was shelled to bits by Union forces from 1863 to 1865. A few original guns and fortifications give a feel for the momentous history here. The only way to get here is by boat tour, which departs from 340 Concord St and from Patriot's Point in Mt Pleasant at varying times depending on the season (check the website). The monument also includes Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island.
Formerly called Ryan's Mart, this building once housed an open-air market that auctioned African American men, women and children in the mid-1800s, the largest of 40 or so similar auction houses. South Carolina's shameful past is unraveled in text-heavy exhibits illuminating the slave experience; the few artifacts, such as leg shackles, are especially chilling. For firsthand stories, listen to the oral recollections of former slave Elijah Green and others. In a word: haunting. Combination tickets with the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon cost adult/child $15/8.
This layered fort encapsulates the history of US coastal defense spanning nearly 200 years and four wars. Aspects of the fort have been restored to help visitors understand the evolution of architecture, weaponry and engineering during a range of time periods, with special attention given to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWI and WWII periods. The attraction is also notable for its secluded, fine-sanded beach and a variety of exhibits outside the fort, including the grave of Seminole leader Osceola, and the sites where the first and second iterations of the fort stood. In 1776 the initial Fort Moultrie was composed of palmetto logs, which were surprisingly good at stopping cannon balls.
As the name hints, this 1772 Georgian-style town house is kind of a big deal because George Washington rented it for a week, and visitors can stand in what was likely his bedroom. The owner, Thomas Heyward, Jr, was one of South Carolina's four signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it's fun to think about all the talk of revolution that must have taken place in the withdrawing room. Enthusiasts of old-timey furnishings will appreciate the collection here, which includes a chair that belonged to General Francis Marion (the 'Swamp Fox') and the priceless Holmes bookcase, which was declared on Antiques Roadshow to be the most magnificent piece of furniture in America.
Some folks reckon this Southern live oak tree is 1500 years old (others says it's 400 to 500 years old). Whatever the case, it's one of the oldest living organisms east of the Mississippi, standing 66.5ft tall and measuring 28ft around. Its thick branches shoot off in all directions, in many cases twisting to the ground and back up again. Although there's no climbing allowed, you can take tree selfies. A small gift shop on the property contains tree art and various books, and about 15 signs forbidding visitors from reading the books without purchasing them. Don't even try it!
For those looking for an escape just a touch less discovered than Hilton Head Island, this idyllic island offers a sublime day trip and a window into the Lowcountry's slower-paced past. The attractions of the island – a historical trail, a few restaurants, a couple of golf clubs, some art galleries, a winery and a rum distillery – are best visited via golf cart, the primary mode of transport on the island. Its shores are only accessible by boat. For information about the ferry and water taxi, visit www.daufuskieislandferry.com.
Part of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, this pristine barrier island offers a haunting 'boneyard beach' (pines and myrtles poke out of the sand, having been stripped of their leaves by the salty air), great shelling, gator sightings and hiking trails. One trail leads to a pile of oyster shells stacked long ago by Native Americans. The ferry captains' main role is transport, but they're often knowledgeable guides as well. Depending on the time of year, the island can be buggy.