The smell of mouth watering BBQ food sifting through the air; the sound of jazz echoing from bars and even bakeries, makes you smile and stop a while. Cats peer out at you from closed shops if you wander the streets before ten on a Sunday (as I did). Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning, as the song goes. It pays to get up early in Charleston.
Side streets lead to glorious gardens. Window boxes would win Chelsea Flower Show prizes. everything is painted beautifully, in harmony with nature. Lamp posts, water pillars, everything is pretty. Even the cobbled pavements are pretty. It is impossible to take a bad photo even on a grey day. Symmetrical, neat, polished and colourful. It is linear with its grid like network of streets, and English secret gardens, smelling like heady aromatherapy baths, with mimosa, jasmine and rose carefully cascading over intricate hand made wrought iron gates. The piazzas (second story porches) on the houses, are picture perfect - always to the left hand side of each building to protect the modesty of the ladies who in their large skirts (in the 1700s) didn't want to show their ankles.
After the beauty and sensual serenity you notice that Charleston is wealthy. There are more shiny four wheel drives there than there are in Richmond Upon Thames (and that is saying something). There are the prosperous who like to wear diamonds. There is a church seemingly on every street, not for show. People I am told, actually go in there to pray. It is called the Holy City because it is known for its tolerance for all religions and numerous historical churches including the circular Congregational church one of the oldest congregations in the South
The city is culturally rich. Rich by American standards, if not by European standards, but it is still utterly fascinating. There are many galleries, but one of the best is the recently renovated and wonderfully designed Gibbes Museum (www.gibbesmuseum.org). Situated in Kings Street, it has some exquisite works of art which could easily grace and centre stage any of the finest in London or Paris. Indeed many of the art works were inspired by the travels of the wealthy landowners who spent their summers visiting Europe returning with works of art, and furniture as well as plants from the finest English and French gardens. There are painting workshops there as well as an excellent gallery shop selling wonderful clothes and pottery, not just tourist tatt.
The city is flat making it an easy city to walk around and navigate.
There are plaques on the houses and major buildings which are well written and pithy. There is a quirkiness and whimsy to the place. One restaurant calls itself a 'vegan rehab centre' (sells ribs), and there are houses which are number one and a half, and two and three quarters. Very Harry Potter. I even saw a road sign with two children son a see saw in a yellow square which I still don't know the answer to (no see sawing in the road?). And oddest of all, the state dance is called a Shag. I spoke to an expert who told me its a very smooth dance. You don't go up and down a lot. Quite.
Get a VIP pass (www.explorecharleston.com) which will save you time and money. There is a lot to see and various ways to see it, although personally, I preferred by foot. Some of the residents allow visitors to look around their homes and gardens (www.toursbylocals.com. www.charlestonperspectives.com). Everything is polished, in place, pristine. Everything is manicured. Even the lawns. There is a grace to the place. Everyone walks and talks slow with that southern drawl which is like listening to a lullaby. Those who speak the Gullah English - the sea island creole are wonderful to listen to. You can go on Gullah tours (www.gullahtours.com) and buys books (www.bluecyclebooks.com) which translate this literal language. I have a dream, Martin Luther King, 'Ie still hab uh dream'.
In bakeries, there are jazz bands playing. Local artists hang their paintings and sculptures in the hotels and restaurants. The buildings are painted and well kept. There are restaurants to cater for all tastes as well as bars for the young. Restaurants sell amazing fish - must try the oysters which are excellent and fresh here. As one fisherman told me 'when the oysters are not doing well, the oceans are not doing well. They clean the oceans.' Grits (a savoury porridge) is an acquired taste. Often combined with shrimp, and served with BBQ chicken, ribs, anything with loads of flavour, also try benne seed wafers (sugared wafers, nice but stick in your teeth), boiled peanuts, grilled peaches, fried green tomatoes, she crab soup (very good and moorish). It is also the land of the BBQ and they do it well. (check out Rodney Scott's in North Central (www.rodneyscottsbbq.com)
Its a city of firsts. The first playhouse, college and museum in America. It even organised the first golf course in America, Harleston Green, and South Caroline Golf Club. The first ever miniatures were painted in Charleston (on show at the Gibbes Museum)
It has a thriving craft beer scene. I had lunch at the High Wire Distillery
(www.highwiredistilling.com) which makes a wide selection of fine beers but you can sample a wide selection in the bars, restaurants and shops around the city. Buildings are always being reused for something else. The distillery was originally a warehouse for electric cables (hence high wire rather than circus acts). The owner is a former master baker, so knows his grains and the distillery produces gin, vodka and bourbon. They organise very interesting tours and there is an apothecary where you can try out making your own.
Out of town walk about the cotton, rice and indigo plantations. There are many to choose from. I visited Middleton Place, owned by Arthur Middleton, one of the signatories of the US declaration of Independence. You walk amongst majestic live oaks which are of prehistoric proportion, dwarfing anything in Richmond Park. There is a serenity about the place. Although get too close to the lakes and you'll see it isn't birds grazing by the lakes, but alligators.
Horses clip clop through the streets drawing their carts of people - following a designated path so that there are never any horse powered traffic jams (there are about five horse cart companies in town). The air is warm, tropical and subtropical.
Charleston is also the only place in the States where I have ever sampled excellent tea. Kings Street has the designer labels where every second Sunday it becomes pedestrianised. There are names on the stones of the pavement, which is rather disconcerting - whoever they are, the idea of walking over someone is a bit icky. The harbour has white sailed schooner rides which take you out into the harbour where you see pelicans with X ray vision zoning down onto invisible fish from a great height and looking around proudly to see if anyone was watching. There are dolphins which come up to the boat.
The wilderness in Bulls Island makes it a must (www.coastalexpeditions.com). The beach is haunting with its skeletal petrified forest half submerged into the ocean, seemingly pointing out to sea, as jelly fish glisten in the sun daring you to step on them.
The Charlestonians have a lot to be proud of and you can tell they are. But as the stunning light of Charleston casts a shadow there is the lingering shadow of slavery.
The tranquility, this wealth, this peace, was there by the grace and favour of tens of thousands of slaves who were shipped over from West Africa. And I remember when I worked for Classic Fm, and visited Senegal and the Ile de Gore, another place that had a tranquility and beauty to it with its bourganvilea and second homes of the wealthy Parisians, but also the place where the slaves were kept like sardines before they were shipped over to the Americas. I remember clearly the guide saying there, both in native French and translating into impassioned English. 'Everyone talks about the Holocaust and what dreadful atrocities were done there. But no one talks about these slaves. Well, I'm going to talk about them till the day I die." the guide said.
If you go cold to Charleston, as in don't read about the recent history, you wouldn't know about the city's complex racial history. This is an understatement. Example. In Marion Square in front of the newly opened Hotel Bennett, there is a statue of John C Calhoun, the antebellum Vice President of South Carolina, one of slavery's most ardent defenders, next to a memorial for the holocaust, and a block away from the memorial in remembrance of the nine who died in the massacre in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015 where nine people had been killed while taking benediction. Its a beautiful white building with a tall spire, not far from the harbour and easy walking distance from the French Quarter and main shopping street of Kings Road. If you had not read up on the history, you would not know of the efforts made to remove the statue of Robert E Lee in the Lee Park, renamed Emancipation Park in 2016 (too much #metoo), then Market Street Park in 2018. Or the subsequent rally in May 2017 where a group of white supremacists led a rally to protest against the plans to remove Lee's statue, carrying torches where counter protesters also held a rally. In July the same year the Ku Klux Klan held another rally, which though non violent was 'loud'. The argument for upholding the statue of Lee is they want to protect their Confederate history. Protect is the wrong word. Remember is better. I was given a book Very Charleston, beautifully illustrated about the history of the city, but it skimmed over the darkest bits.
There is a memorial by the church bearing the names of those killed in the massacre (which they call 'the tragedy' in town), reminding people not only of the event but of the power of forgiveness. It was in June last year, when the Charleston council officially apologised and denounced its role in the slave trade. The resolution approved by a voice vote and greeted with loud cheers recognised the city had flourished at the cost of the slaves and policed on behalf of the city. The resolution pledged city officials will work with businesses to strive for racial equality and creation of an office of racial conciliation to help the process of racial healing. That's a huge step.
My overall impression of Charleston? Beautiful and cautious and clever in the way it is handling its shadows, for lest we forget, every place, every person has a past they wish to hide. Charleston wants to learn from theirs. Many historic cities appear to teach us history is cyclical if we live long enough. America doesn't have the depth of history of Europe or the Far or Middle East, but Charleston has managed a lot within its time. Even and especially a formal declaration and apology. And has set out laws to enhance racial healing. It is a big ask for a city which is generations deep in not only one way of living but one way of thinking. Its history is as dark and shameful as anything you will find in Cambodia or those places in Europe where tragedy and cruelty take centre stage. Here it does not. Well, it does, but not in the same way. The city is extremely wealthy. The wealth was made on the back of slaves. As a visitor you are well aware of the wealth of the city and that it has been founded on the slave trade. The population is still 30/70 black to white, and even the map maker is aware of the have and have nots. South of Broad Street is the haves. North is the have nots. It is clearly defined. Just like the clear Charleston light, it casts a sharp shadow. The light casts shadows everywhere in Charleston.
Every tree, building, person casts a shadow like ghosts following you about. The beauty of Charleston does not mask the tragedy and violence of its history. It shows it is aiming to learn from it. The beauty polarises it. It shines that bright artists light on the dark side of human nature, and makes you realise where there is clearest light there is always the darkest shadow. And that where there is light, there is hope. It also made me realise there is a slave trade everywhere. Just it is better hidden. And the slaves are just slightly better paid. And the chains are of their own making.
Where did I stay?
In Wild Dunes,(www.destinationhotels.com/wild-dunes) a resort a few miles from Charleston central, there are rows and rows of houses which are Tarras, with their cascading double staircases from the main terrace and doorway.
This place boasts one of the best golf courses in the world, and although I do not play golf, I loved cycling around the area, past the houses, and their post boxes, always with the union flag flying high, each street named after a conch or soft shell crab. I made baskets with Lynette who is fifth generation making wonderful works of art from sweetgrass. The locals are friendly. Really friendly. I get cross with myself now for throwing that line away on places which are friendly but not as friendly as this. But friendly as in you can start up a conversation with someone who cleans your hotel room, or the person at reception or the person selling grits in the market and find yourself there still after twenty minutes transfixed and not wanting to get away.
The Spectator hotel (www.thespectatorhotel.com) in the heart of the French Quarter, is a superb boutique hotel, with dark entrance, gold lift opening up to bright bedrooms. There is a butler service (Alex and David - I had two, greedy I know), who do everything for you, like iron your clothes and bring you Epsom salts with flowers for your bath (I had four in two days). I realise now I do not want a boyfriend, I want a butler. The food is exquisite, views wonderful (I looked down over a fish restaurant specialising in soft shell crab, and the market where they were selling sweetgrass baskets). Its one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in taking everything from service, location, facilities into account. They served purple and brown macaroons with tea in the afternoon with giant S on them - this place had my name written all over it.
The Hotel Bennett (www.hotelbennett.com) with Calhoun's statue and the holocaust memorial in front, is a striking building, Palladian. Twenty years in making it happen, the building just opened a few months ago, is already a landmark of the city. The rooms are large and luxuriant, staff are friendly and accommodating. The doorman is a fountain of all knowledge so ask him loads of stuff. He knows everything.