Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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Southern Comforts

Step back in time in Charleston, a city where civility and charm still reign supreme

Night was falling fast on the 300-year-old churchyard at the centre of town. Reclining beneath a palmetto tree, I watched the dusk envelop an enormous oak draped with Spanish moss. The evening air was thick with the sweet fragrance of Confederate jasmine, so humid and still that oxygen itself seemed another exotic perfume. As the light continued to crumble, I could almost see the ghosts of southern belles rise up from rows of nearby gravestones, to curtsey to fallen soldiers beginning their nightly "haints" of the tombs of the Civil War dead. Then, suddenly, my reverie was shattered by a tap on the shoulder. I turned to see an impeccably dressed figure carrying a flashlight. "Ah'm closin' up for the evenin,'" the church watchman said in a honeyed drawl, "but Ah surely hope y'all are enjoying Carolina and our ol' city of Charleston."

For Canadians unfamiliar with the American south, Charleston, South Carolina is perhaps its best-kept secret -- an impossibly beautiful old-world town filled with flowering trees, cobblestone streets, pastel-hued antebellum mansions and the traditions of a history redolent with romance and tragedy. Only two hours by air from Toronto, Charleston seems to inhabit a different century, one where people interact with a gallantry long since departed from other cities. But make no mistake; it is also a thriving, forward-looking community offering all the attractions and amenities any contemporary tourist expects. Charleston and the surrounding "Lowcountry" -- the coastal wetlands and small Atlantic islands -- boast a mild climate year-round, four centuries' worth of stunning architecture, some of the finest restaurants and hotels in the US, a wealth of recreational activities, miles of sub-tropical scenery, white sand beaches and a history and culture as rich as the land is lush.

That Late Unpleasantness
Charleston was originally settled in the late 1600s by British lords seeking to recreate a miniature aristocratic London; what they got was one filled with banana trees, poisonous snakes and more species of flowers than exist in all of Europe. Since then, this Grande Dame of the South has survived pirates, war, floods, pestilence, earthquakes, tornadoes and most recently Hurricane Hugo, which in 1989 displaced tens of thousands as it blew the roofs of their houses into the alligator-filled wetlands.

Charleston has also been pivotal to the course of American history. The richest, most sophisticated city in the original Thirteen Colonies, it was both the locale of the first battles of the American Revolution (recently depicted in the Mel Gibson film, The Patriot) and the epicentre of the Old South, built on the evils of slavery and the plantation economy. The American Civil War -- or, as the locals still refer to it, "that late unpleasantness" -- began here in 1861 with the Confederate shelling of the island Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, chose Charleston as the hometown of the dashing Rhett Butler -- never mind his Savannah, Georgia consort Scarlett O'Hara, who sniffs at Charlestonians for their superior airs.

A century and a half later, I saw no trace of hubris in the people I met, only a quiet regret at the area's turbulent past, pleasure in its amicable present and a sense of generosity easily extended to outsiders. From the African-American cabdriver who, mid-journey, took me to his home for a heaping lunch of "Hoppin' John" -- a local specialty concocted from rice and black-eyed peas -- to the society lady who rescued me from the dripping June heat to sip iced tea on the livingroom-sized piazza of her 18th-century manse, Charlestonian charm is sure to melt the hardest urban heart. My Sainted Lady of Iced Tea even invited me to stay and watch her kudzu vine, able to grow a foot a day, shoot like a fairytale beanstalk up the giant white columns supporting the portico.

Ghosts of Charleston Past
But however seductive the languorous pace of piazza afternoons, there was just too much to do. Leaving my room at the opulent Charleston Place Hotel (205 Meeting Street; tel: 800-611-5545), I travelled inland along the Ashley River for a disquieting history lesson about slave times. The rice-growing plantations of the area had been the richest in the Old South, elaborate fiefdoms built with the whips of overseers for the benefit of indolent plantation owners. At the 125-acre Drayton Hall Plantation (3380 Ashley River Road; tel: 803-766-0188), the Spanish moss hung limply off South Carolina's ubiquitous live oaks as a guide described the gothic excesses of seven generations of Draytons. Their ancestral home, one of the finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the US, is now run by the National Historic Trust, which maintains its sombre, stupendous melancholy and costly grandeur.

More family-oriented is neighbouring Magnolia Plantation (3550 Ashley River Road; tel: 800-367-3517), transformed into a "complete plantation experience" that features a petting zoo, horticultural maze, snack bar and river boat tour. A nature train travels the 500-acre property, also criscrossed by walking trails. But Magnolia's jewel is its famous 50-acre gardens, filled in early spring with vibrant displays of azaleas and camellias. While it's hard to dispute the loveliness of the gardens or the long magnolia-laden drives traipsed by resident peacocks and miniature horses, I quickly decided I preferred the plantation's Audubon Swamp Garden.

Comprised of 60 acres of eerie-looking "blackwater" swamp traversed by rickety boardwalks and bridges, the Swamp Garden is home to hundreds of bird species, thousands of strange, showy flowers and a population of over 200 alligators. I'd been there barely 10 minutes when I spotted one, sunning itself on a nearby floating island. As soon as I approached, it sank silently into a clump of half-submerged cypress stumps. A second later, the only sign of the gator's getaway was the viscous green slick of duckweed spreading lazily across the inky surface of the swamp water.


Cuisine à la Lowcountry
Safely back in Charleston, I sloughed off the day's primeval ooze and sought out my own form of prey, principally South Carolina's much vaunted Lowcountry cuisine. Informed by the African influences of slave-staffed kitchens where cooks threw hot peppers into bland Scottish soups, Lowcountry cooking uses okra, eggplant, grated nutmeg and pure vanilla in abundance. These ingredients pervade a style of cooking that has always drawn on the seafood of the tidal marshes, while relying on rice and grits the way the rest of us use potatoes and pasta.

Eager to try out such specialties as she-crab soup, frogmore stew and shrimp and grits, I headed out into the night. Charleston, with a population of less than 100,000, is reputed to have a more dynamic restaurant scene than any other American city its size. Wondering how to choose one from the plethora of fine restaurants, I luckily found myself invited to the Charleston Grill (224 King Street; tel: 843-577-4522). Seated in the courtyard, I scanned an ornate menu -- complete with an 800-bottle wine list, including 28 Champagnes -- and then settled into a delicious meal of southern collard greens braised in Palmetto Amber beer and dotted with Cabernet-doused pig feet ($24). From then on, it was off to the races -- Slightly North of Broad (192 East Bay Street; tel: 843-723-3424), where I lunched on costalina deviled crab cakes and maverick grits ($US16.75 and $US9.75). My evening's fare was courtesy of two of the better restaurants in town: McCrady's (2 Unity Alley; tel: 843-577-0025), a slickly renovated 18th-century tavern that could easily pass for Tribeca on the inside; and the up and coming Vintage (14 N. Market Street; tel: 843-877-0090), an intimate venue that attracts a relaxed, younger crowd to enjoy succulent entrees courtesy of chef Patrick Weber.

Once sated, I would find myself once again wandering Charleston's idyllic boulevards. The city's fantastic new aquarium (corner of Calhoun and Concord) houses more than 10,000 indigenous aquatic animals in a setting that puts its counterparts in much larger centres to shame. I also spent many evenings across the street from my convenient and comfortable hotel (The Harbour View Inn, 2 Vendue Range; tel: 888-853-8439) in Waterfront Park, a reclaimed wharf area featuring swinging benches perfect for romantic moments, anchored to the roof of an elaborate new pier. But even after venturing out to the gorgeous white sand beaches surrounding Charleston (Sullivan Island, Isle of Palms, Folly and Edisto Beach, Kiawah Island), I was constantly drawn back to the old heart of the city known as the Historic District. This easily walkable area extends down from the city centre to the nearby end of the Charleston peninsula and the ocean promenade called White Point Gardens (Murray Boulevard & East Battery Road).

Filled with majestic 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century houses built in Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Classical and Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian and Art Deco architectural styles, this area is the secret behind Charleston's storied uniqueness. Shady gardens behind elaborate wrought-iron gates shelter clusters of roses, lilies, orchids, arbors and anemones. At different times of year trees like star magnolia, crepe myrtle and the exotic golden rain tree burst into glorious flower.

Do the Charleston
To begin to see the area, leave the city centre from Charleston's Market Area (Market Street off East Bay Street), filled with collectibles and miscellany (including the famous Charleston sweetgrass baskets), and wind over to King Street and its enviable collection of designer and fashionable shops (everything from Gucci and Saks 5th Avenue to the Gap and Banana Republic). Continue walking and you eventually leave antique stores and art galleries behind for the spires of the "Holy City's" grand churches. As horse-drawn carriage tours trundle down the streets, some of the United States' most imposing historic residences come into view, many of them now open for public tours.

Built in 1818, the Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth Street; tel: 843-723-1623; open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, Sunday from 2 to 5pm) offers a comprehensive look at urban antebellum life. An intact "city plantation," its compound includes slave quarters, privies, kitchens and stables that provide glimpses of life in the 19th-century city. The Calhoun Mansion (16 Meeting Street; tel: 804-722-8205; open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm) is a Victorian Baronial manor house built in 1876 that features a stairwell reaching to a 72-feet-high domed ceiling, as well as a ballroom with a 45-feet-high glass skylight. The Heyward-Washington House (87 Church Street; tel: 803-722-0354; open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday) dates from 1772 and was briefly rented by George Washington. Situated in a neighbourhood of alleys that inspired George Gershwin's jazz opera Porgy and Bess, the house boasts a magnificent collection of American furniture and an exquisite formal garden.

By the time you reach the seawall across from the monuments to the Confederate war dead in White Point Gardens, and rest at the foot of East Battery Road, you'll know you'll have to return to Charleston again and again. At the end of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler abandons Scarlett and returns for good to his native Charleston, a city of iconoclastic luxury and civility, filled with the salt tang of the sea and the fragrance of jasmine, still floating everywhere in the southern air.


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