One normally thinks of centuries-old buildings and cobblestone streets when thinking of the grand historic landscape around South Carolina’s oldest city, but there is something else standing tall in the area that predates them all — the magnificent Angel Oak Tree out on Johns Island about 12 miles south of Charleston proper (3688 Angel Oak Road, Johns Island. 843-559-3496,www.charleston-sc.gov). The Angel Oak Tree stands a stately 66.5 feet tall with a 28-foot circumference and is estimated to be at least 400 to 500 years old (some say it’s considerably older). It has a magnificent canopy of branches, some of which soar to the sky, others that dip to the earth. The Angel Oak touches a chord deep inside where we’re at home in the deep forest of human history.
Charleston is also home to a considerable number of historic human-built structures as well, and one of the most impressive is Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Road, Charleston. 843-769-2600, www.draytonhall.org, @draytonhall). This circa 1738 building about 12 miles northeast of Charleston sitting alongside the Ashley River is the oldest unrestored plantation house in America still open to the public and considered one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in the U.S. Its intact but unrestored state makes it very special; imbuing it with a kind of historical authenticity that is quite compelling. Outside, Drayton Hall’s grounds have stout live oak trees dotting the landscape, an allee of azaleas, and a garden with a reflecting pond.
History is alive and well in Charleston, but the “Holy City” keeps moving forward. The Dewberry (334 Meeting St., Charleston. 1-888-550-1450, thedewberrycharleston.com, @DewberrySC) opened last year and offers elegant luxury accommodations in downtown Charleston overlooking Marion Square. The Dewberry has a restaurant with seasonal menus called Henrietta’s, a first-class spa and a large terrace on the highest rooftop in the city.
The newest acclaimed Charleston eatery is Stella’s (114 St. Philip St. A, Charleston. 843-400-0026, stellascharleston.com), which opened early this year. Stella’s dishes up (mostly) Greek with favorites such as moussaka, souvlaki and leg of lamb, and it’s already become a favorite Sunday brunch spot for Charlestonians.
Greenville has blossomed in the past half-dozen years or so like few other cities in the South. It’s received accolades aplenty for the striking design of its downtown featuring Reedy Creek, a sleek pedestrian bridge and picture-perfect eminently walkable Falls Park on the Reedy.
One of the primary elements of Greenville’s ascension as a tourist mecca is its food and drink profile, and that just keeps getting better. Jianna (600 S. Main St., Second Floor. 864-720-2200, jiannagreenville.com) is the newest restaurant to excite foodies. Chef Michael Kramer was previously at McCrady’s in Charleston and now makes fresh pasta daily and dishes up modern Italian cuisine, including freshly shucked oysters, in an eatery that overlooks gorgeous Falls Park.
Another new addition to Greenville’s downtown food and beverage scene is the memorably named speakeasy/eatery Vault & Vator (655 S. Main St., Suite 100, Greenville. 864-603-1881, vaultandvator.com, @VaultandVator). The name comes from the original vault and elevator still in the turn-of-the-century building that was at the time a Dr Pepper Cola Co. facility. It isn’t merely the name that makes V&V so memorable, however. Located in the basement of the building, Vault and Vator is more a cocktail lounge than an eatery, though its small plates are mighty tasty. But the signature cocktails at Vault & Vator really light the place up. Try a Don’t Fear the Reaper — blanco tequila, Carolina Reaper tincture, Aperol, grapefruit sherbet, lime, honey, simple syrup. Simply sublime.
The Noble Dog Hotel (1320 Hampton Ave. Ext. Suite 8, Greenville. 864-412-5222, nobledoghotel.com, @nobledoghotel) rounds out Greenville’s new treasures. Claiming “five-star luxury for our four-legged friends,” this canine-only hotel offers luxury suites for Duke or Rover that, according to the room, include amenities like Snoozer bedding, private chef-catered meals and evening story time readings. The hotel also provides bubble baths, “pawdicures” and doggie “wine” in its spa, and a fitness center for day care.
South Carolina’s Upcountry entries for something old that’s well worth a visit are Campbell’s Covered Bridge (171 Campbell’s Covered Bridge Road, near Landrum. 864-288-6470, www.visitgreenvillesc.com) and the Poinsett Bridge (580 Callahan Mountain Road, near Landrum. www.visitgreenvillesc.com), the state’s oldest (and only remaining) covered bridge and its oldest bridge of any kind, respectively. The two bridges are only about 10 miles from each other. Campbell’s Covered Bridge, a wooden bridge, dates to 1909 and is near Landrum, approximately 25 miles northeast of Greenville, where it crosses Beaverdam Creek. Poinsett Bridge, built in 1820, is a stacked-stone bridge that crosses Little Gap Creek.
The Midland region of South Carolina offers its own old and new attractions. The tiny town of Ninety Six, less than three hours away, is home to the Ninety Six National Historic Site (1103 Highway 248, Ninety Six. 864-543-4068, www.nps.gov, @NatlParkService), where the first land battle in the South of the American Revolution took place. The unique name of the town came from earlier English settlers’ belief that the site was 96 miles from the Keowee Indian village, an important trading post.
Today, the historic site has a visitor center from which park ranger-led tours are offered, and the grounds include a paved 1-mile walking trail, two reconstructed forts dating back to the 18th century, the site of the old town of Ninety Six and more. There are also hiking trails and the 26-acre Star Fort Pond, where fishing is allowed three days a week. But it is the periodic Living History events at Ninety Six National Historic Site that really give visitors a sense of Colonial-era America. Depending upon your timing, you may experience a realistic re-enactment of the historic battle that took place here in November 1775, or depictions of typical Colonial life and demonstrations of practical skills necessary to the times.
Another “old” attraction in Midlands South Carolina is the charming Villa Tronco restaurant (1213 Blanding St., Columbia. 803-256-7677, www.villatronco.com), the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the Palmetto State. Villa Tronco traces its history back to 1940, and members of the Tronco family still operate the eatery, where they continue to prepare Italian dishes old-style. A special treat is the restaurant’s Broadway Nights, when local vocalists perform songs from Broadway shows on the third and fourth Thursdays of the month — at no extra charge.
But don’t think there’s nothing new under the Midlands South Carolina sun. Lula Drake Wine Parlour (1635 Main St., Columbia. 803-606-1968, www.luladrake.com) recently opened and offers small batch wines, as well as Madeira and sherry, along with a variety of beers, and a killer small-plates menu. Try the Capa Negra Bellota Iberico Ham or the Salmon Roe, Avocado Mousse, Brioche Toast.
Lowcountry towns Beaufort and Bluffton have a mix of nice old and new attractions. The Bluffton Oyster Co. (63 Wharf St., Bluffton. 843-757-4010, blufftonoyster.com) is one of the oldest continuing oyster shucking facilities in South Carolina and the only hand-shucking operation left in the Palmetto State. The Toomer family has been in the oystering business for more than a century and operates Bluffton Oyster Co. today. A number of oyster harvesting buildings have existed on the May River at the end of Wharf Street for the past couple of hundred years, but the tin-roofed concrete block building located there now was built in 1954.
The Bluffton Oyster Co. harvests oysters, clams and mussels from mid-September to mid-May; soft-shell crabs during March, April and May; and crabs year-round. It isn’t unusual for interested parties to go down to the Bluffton Oyster Co. to witness the activity — and maybe get a taste. That just whets their appetite for a visit to the Toomer’s Family Seafood House nearby.
About 30 miles north, across the Harbor River, South Carolina’s second-oldest city, Beaufort, is a lovely town on the mainland sitting beside the Beaufort River and across from several barrier islands. It has loads of good on-the-water recreational opportunities, plenty of good shopping and a nice city historic district.One part of Beaufort’s history is that of the Gullah population that have long lived in the area. Gullahs are descendants of African slaves who maintained strong components of their homeland’s culture and language. The Gullah language is a Creole pastiche of English and various (mostly) West African dialects.
Most who are aware of this Gullah connection think of nearby St. Helena Island and the Penn Center in Frogmore as a focal point of Gullah culture, but Beaufort itself has some interesting elements of it, as well. The best place to get your bearings is at the Gullah/Geechee Visitors Center (1908 Boundary St., Beaufort. 843-379-9407, https://www.facebook.com/gullahgeecheevisitorscenterbeaufort). From there, you might head to Robert Smalls House, a National Historic Landmark (511 Prince St., Beaufort). Smalls was a Civil War hero for the Union and later represented a district of South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then perhaps you hit LyBensons’ Gallery and Studio right down the street (211 Charles St., Beaufort. 843-525-9006, www.lybensons.com) to peruse some exceptional artistry of various sorts with an African perspective, including what store owners promote as the largest collection of Zimbabwe Shona Verdite stone sculptures in a retail setting in North America. If a taste of Gullah cooking sounds good to you, try Sgt. White’s Restaurant(1908 Boundary St., Beaufort. 843-522-2029) and Momma Lou’s Gullah Cuisine (102 Sea Island Parkway, Beaufort. 843-770-9988).
One of the Myrtle Beach area’s attractions with historical resonance is actually about 20 miles south of the city located off U.S. 17 between Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island, across from Huntington Beach State Park. Brookgreen Gardens (1931 Brookgreen Garden Drive, Murrells Inlet. 843-235-6000, www.brookgreen.org) was established in 1931 and is designated a National Historic Landmark. The 9,100-acre site offers not only a magnificent year-round floral garden but also Oaks Plantation History and Nature Trail, the largest and most comprehensive collection of American figurative sculpture in the country and the Native Wildlife Zoo and Domestic Animal Exhibit.
The boardwalk in Myrtle Beach doesn’t date back very far yet it evokes a nostalgic feeling for days gone by when simple boarded walkways offered easier beachside walking and the promise of colorful shopping and entertainment options along its path — like the original one in Myrtle Beach in the 1930s. These days, the city’s 1.2-mile-long Oceanfront Boardwalk and Promenade runs atop a strip of beachside sand, the midsection presenting an almost carnivalesque atmosphere with the Skywheel rising nearly 200 feet into the air, the kiddie carnival at Plyler Park, and beachy gift shops, eateries and other entertainments.
Myrtle Beach has new attractions to go with its older ones. The North Myrtle Beach Sports Complex, about 20 miles north of Myrtle Beach, in June became the home of Shark Wake Park (150 Citizens Circle, Little River. 843-399-9253, sharkwakepark.com). The watersports park has a five-tower full-size cable system and a smaller two-tower cable system for pulling skiers over the water and over various ramps and other obstacles, should they so choose. There’s also an easier, kid-friendly Aqua Park covering an acre of water with an inflatable floating arrangement of slides, obstacle runs and jump-off points.
The nice thing about Shark Wake Park is that visitors don’t need a boat or any gear — it’s all provided. Plus, Go Ape Treetop Adventure is right next door.
Another new entertaining enterprise in Myrtle Beach is Heidi’s Corner, a new spot that will feature both a new Croissants Bistro and Bakery at the Grande Dunes (8014 N. Kings Highway, Suite A, Myrtle Beach. 843-839-5888, @hookandbarrelmb) and a new seafood restaurant, Hook & Barrel (8014 N. Kings Highway, Suite B, Myrtle Beach. 843-839-5888,hookandbarrelrestaurant.com, @hookandbarrelmb), with operations dedicated to the highest level of environmental awareness and sustainability.
For something new and appealing, try Beaufort’s paean to beloved hometown literary hero Pat Conroy, who died last year. The Pat Conroy Literary Center (308 Charles St., Beaufort. patconroyliterarycenter.org), a museum/classroom/community center that opened about six months after the award-winning author’s death. If you visit Oct. 19-22, you can attend the second annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival.