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Charleston: History and Hospitality in the South

November 01, 1987|GEOFFREY DEAN-SMITH | Dean-Smith is a Beverly Hills free-lance writer.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — As one of the South's most sophisticated cities, Charleston captures the grace, charm and hospitality that this corner of America is famous for. With its classical buildings and nearby plantations, it is high on the list of places to visit.

Charleston is a delight to the senses, what with sea air intermingled with the pungent scent of magnolia blossoms, a fragrance familiar along cobbled streets where horse-drawn carriages appear and gentlemen still raise their hats to ladies carrying parasols. And Charleston is a place to wind down, take stock, breathe a little deeper.

The city rises where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet in an Atlantic coastal zone known as the Low Country, on the same latitude as Bermuda.

Founded by English colonists in 1670, Charleston prospered by the cultivation of rice, cotton, indigo and the slave trade. It has survived fires and a hurricane in 1911 that left the rice industry in ruins.

But today Charleston thrives, renowned for its art, architecture, history and fine living. These streets and buildings were familiar to several signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Begin a history tour at the Visitor Information Center, 85 Calhoun St., where you may pick up maps and brochures before setting off, preferably on foot. For a small admission fee, a multimedia show about places to see is shown daily, every half hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A book, "The Complete Walking Tour of Historic Charleston" ($3.95), tells how you can touch on the major points of interest in only two hours.

The Charleston Museum on Meeting Street, the oldest museum in America (dating to 1773), is well worth a visit at $3 per person. It's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Then there's the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon, used by the British to imprison patriots during the Revolutionary War.

Our choice of where to start was the open-air market, a maze of stalls and shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables, leather goods, jewelry, paintings and antiques. From the various food stalls come the aromas of steamed crab and mussels, fried fish, boiled creek shrimp and oyster pie. Breakfasts are served with concoctions such as milk gravy, sops and grits, and the key lime pie for dessert in the evening is outrageously satisfying.

Flower ladies weave wicker baskets in makeshift stalls, both at the market and at places throughout the city. From the market down any one of five or six streets one can take a sightseeing stroll. We followed East Bay Street toward the battery, with views of Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor where on April 12, 1861, the first shot of the Civil War was fired.

The Edmonston-Alston House, 1828-1838, at 21 E. Battery, has a collection of rare treasures--historic documents, portraits, engravings, period furniture, and an outstanding library. Admission is free.

Several fine restaurants provide harvests from the sea and fresh vegetables from country gardens.

A. W. Shuck's, 35 S. Market St., offers an informal and friendly atmosphere, and if you like seafood it is a good bet. Once a warehouse, it has lots of room and is popular with residents. The fish chowder soup at $2.95 a bowl, with fresh fish and vegetables in a zesty tomato stock, is delicious.

Clams, oysters, shrimp and crab are available in a variety of ways, or you may wish to try the steam pot, a large simmering dish filled with shrimp, oysters, clams, mussels, sausage, cobs of corn and new potatoes. Dinner runs between $15 and $25 a person.

Henry's at 54 Market St. is a good place for lunch. The sandwiches are generous. Bacon Cheddar burgers go for $4.85, and a pepper steak sandwich--served on a grilled roll with tender chunks of beef tips covered in bell peppers and onions in a spicy sauce--costs $5.25.

As for accommodations, the Omni Hotel is an impressive place in the heart of Charleston at 130 Market St., a luxurious 450 rooms with shops, meeting rooms, restaurants and lounges. Its plantation-style Palmetto Cafe overlooks an open courtyard with a view to each side of the hotel. It's a great place to stop for tea and watch the passing scene. A single costs about $100, a double $120. For information, call (803) 722-4900.

Two Meeting Street Inn is a small and elegant hotel. A Queen Anne mansion, it was built as a wedding gift in 1891 by Waring P. Carrington, a wealthy jeweler. Porches, towers, bay windows and balconies dominate. This is one of Charleston's oldest guest houses.

The property is owned by David S. Spell, who has restored the house and gardens with loving care. The wood in the foyer, stairs and dining room is hand-carved English oak. The grandfather clock is circa 1790.

Guests serve themselves a continental breakfast in the dining room or on the patio, weather permitting. A decanter of sherry is available.

The inn is 19th-Century elegance. Large rooms on the second floor have canopied four-poster beds (the inn specializes in welcoming honeymooners and anniversary couples). Time almost seems to have stopped at Two Meeting Street Inn; it's an experience to be cherished. Rates are $55/$110 a night. Address: Two Meeting Street Inn, Charleston, S.C. 29401; phone (803) 723-7322.

On the Isle of Palms one can move into lovely beach-front properties about 15 minutes from the center of Charleston.

These houses rent for $1,000 to $4,000 a week and are ideal for groups or families. The Atlantic waves fall onto endless stretches of powdery sand. Schools of porpoise surface just a few hundred feet offshore.

For information about beach rentals contact Carroll Realty, 2201 Middle St., P.O. Box 387, Sullivan's Island, S.C. 29482; phone (803) 883-9600.

For additional information contact the Charleston Trident Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 975, Charleston, S.C. 29402; phone (803) 723-7641.

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