You could spend days in Charleston ogling the city’s sites, but that’s only half of the story. Scattered along winding rivers just outside of town, where the live oak trees are so massive that roadways are transformed into sun-dappled tunnels, Charleston’s historic plantations offer a decidedly different perspective. Plantation owners were farmers, but on a grand scale—their imposing manses were filled with silver, artwork and ornately carved woodwork, while formal gardens brought a touch of England to the lowcountry.
Even the plants are historic at Middleton Place: Middleton Oak is more than 900 years old while winter-blooming camellias planted in 1786 thrive in one of the country’s oldest landscaped gardens. Plantation life is illustrated through ongoing demonstrations of traditional pottery, weaving, blacksmithing, candle-dipping and open-fire cooking techniques; the Beyond the Fields walking tour details plantation life as seen through the eyes of the enslaved people who lived and worked at this National Historic Landmark. Be sure to visit near lunchtime – the restaurant serves up she-crab soup, shrimp & grits and other lowcountry favourites alongside views of the Ashley River.
Drayton Hall, the 1738 home of John Drayton, is widely considered the finest, and oldest, example of Georgian Palladian architecture in North America. Its painstaking preservation has utilized modern methods like GIS technology to return the home to its original 18th-century condition. Visitors with specific interests can set up private Connoisseur Tours, which delve into women’s, military or African-American history, architecture or food and wine, and offers an insider’s look into pieces of the collection not on view to the public. An optional Madeira tasting explores this wine's popularity among elite coastal Southern planters like John Drayton and Thomas Jefferson.
The core of Magnolia Plantation’s main house was constructed prior to the Revolutionary War, but didn’t get to its present location until just after the Civil War, when owner John Drayton (yes, he owned this piece of real estate, too), floated it down the Ashley River on a barge after the plantation’s original home burned to the ground.
Planted with some of America’s first azaleas, the sprawling gardens, which weave through cypress swamps, come alive in the spring when the plants explode with hues of pink, fuchsia and purple.
Established in 1681, Boone Hall Plantation is perhaps best known for the centuries-old avenue of moss-draped live oaks that line its long driveway. It’s also one of America’s oldest working plantations— tomatoes, strawberries and pumpkins now grow where cotton plants once flourished. Although the 10,000 square foot home was built in 1936, many original buildings remain, including brick slave cabins (which are each set up with multi-media presentations), a smokehouse, the commissary and the cotton gin house. Gullah culture is presented through speech and song by performers in period garb.
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Have you been to Charleston? Did you stop by any of these historic plantation homes? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Katie McElveen
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About the author: KatieMcElveenKatie McElveen
Travel writer Katie McElveen’s love of exploration began when she was 17 and driving from her home in Maryland to South Carolina for a family vacation. A wrong turn put her in unfamiliar territory and an overheated engine extended her stay longer than she’d planned, but the adventure left her wondering what was around every turn. Katie has shared her discoveries through her work in magazines such as Real Simple, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Southern Living, Modern Bride, Tennis and Business Traveler.