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.
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.
This 1738 Palladian brick mansion is the country's oldest preserved plantation house open to the public. Yep, it's older than the nation. Drayton Hall was the only structure of its kind on the Ashley River to survive the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and the great earthquake of 1886. Tours enlighten visitors about the lives of the era's super-rich, along with the African Americans they enslaved. Guided tours explore the unfurnished house, which has been preserved but not restored.
Designed in 1741, this plantation's vast gardens are the oldest in the US. Countless slaves spent years terracing the land and digging the precise geometric canals for the owner, wealthy South Carolina politician Henry Middleton. The bewitching grounds are a mix of classic formal French gardens and romantic woodland, bounded by flooded rice paddies and rare-breed farm animals. Union soldiers burned the main house in 1865; a 1755 guest wing, now housing the house museum, still stands.
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.
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.
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.
Inky-black water, dyed with tannic acid leached from decaying plant matter. Bone-white cypress stumps like the femurs of long-dead giants. Spanish moss as dry and gray as witches' hair. Congaree National Park protects the largest contiguous, old-growth bottomland forest in the eastern US, and there's nothing like canoeing through its unearthly swamp to make you feel like you've stepped into a Southern Gothic novel. The park stretches over nearly 27,000 acres, offering excellent camping and ranger-led canoe trips and hikes.
If you've ever wondered what the wealthiest, fanciest, most well-traveled hoarder's house might look like, visit the Calhoun Mansion. With 35 rooms and 24,000 sq ft, this Gilded Age, Italianate manor is Charleston's largest single family residence, and nearly every inch of it brims with the eccentric homeowner's collected furnishings, art and antiques from around the world.
Formerly occupied by large rice plantations, this area fell out of use after the Civil War and was bought up by sportsmen who turned it into a hunting retreat. They managed the land wisely, and when it became a wildlife refuge in 1990 the wetland ecosystem was still thriving. Over the refuge's 12,000 acres, visitors can spot alligators, endangered storks and whooping cranes. There's an 1828 plantation house at the entrance that contains the refuge's main office.