A Introduction to Historic Charleston and Surrounding Areas: Mount Pleasant and Islands, West Ashley, John’s Island and Summerville
Travel %2B Leisure magazine’s readers survey has rated Charleston and its surrounding area one of America’s five Best Cities. Charlestonians regard that as somewhat incorrect, as there obviously are no better cities than Charleston. Almost 300 years old, Charleston wears its age with pride in its history and a lively willingness to engage the future.
Charleston history is a gloriously colorful tapestry of events that are in many ways unique. It has been captured and occupied during two major wars: the Revolution and the Civil War (still known among graciously firm minded ladies of a certain age as “The Late Unpleasantness”). It’s been attacked by pirates, burned to the ground, destroyed by earthquake, and walloped by several huge hurricanes. All of these events were generally regarded as irritating interruptions in the continuation of Charleston’s stately lifestyle.
When you visit Charleston, you find yourself in a city that’s European in many aspects. The colorful downtown area is really a walking city, best seen from the sidewalks. There are shops, antique stores, restaurants, coffee houses, art galleries, taverns, and a wide variety of performing arts, not to mention festivals. There’s even the Market, a covered area full of little places and stalls where almost anything you didn’t know you wanted can be found for sale. Market Street is composed of small shops that are equally eclectic in their wares.
In true Charleston juxtaposition, only a block away is King Street, the main shopping thoroughfare with large and small stores featuring everything from designer clothing to jewelry to antiques. Unique items such as original sculpture and hand rolled cigars can be found on King or its side streets.
Away from the shopping areas, there are narrow streets full of houses that are up to two hundred and fifty years old. Several of these are open for you to tour and others have become small inns. A stroll through the old section (South of Broad Street) is the best way to see what Charleston looked like back in its first glory period as a major eighteenth century seaport or get a feeling for how people lived before the Civil War. The churches are worth a look-see, too. Many of the graveyards are open to visitors, and the old grave stones tell a vivid story about city residents of centuries past.
Charleston is also, among many other things, a college town and the Bohemian aspects of some parts of the city reflect the presence of the College of Charleston in buildings, dormitories, and fraternity houses scattered throughout its heart. Young men and women in uniform are walking evidence of the Citadel, one of the few remaining state military colleges. The Citadel has dress parades every Friday afternoon and visitors are welcome to tour its beautiful campus at any time. Located in the hospital section along western Calhoun Street is the Medical University of South Carolina, another of the major centers of learning that the city hosts.
A wide variety of restaurants cover every aspect of the dining spectrum, too. You can have a sandwich in a fast food shop or dine on expensive haut cuisine. In between are places that feature down home Charleston cooking, excellent sea food, or just a good cup of coffee and a pastry.
West of the Ashley (West Ashley, James Island, John’s Island, Folly Beach)
Cross over the Ashley River bridges and you’re in one of the major suburbs of Charleston, but it’s more than a residential area. Follow Old Town Road to Charles Towne Landing, a state park located where the first colonists landed. The park has a brand new interactive Visitors’ Center that graphically portrays early eighteenth century life in early Charles Town. For a different dose of history, travel Highway 61 and you pass several classic plantations, all open for touring, that give a visitor the feeling of pre-Civil war plantation life.
On James Island, follow Folly Road to its end and you’re at Folly Beach, the “Edge of America”. It’s a laid back fun and funky little beach town that is known for a relaxed lifestyle, sense of humor, and some of the best surfing on the east coast. Lie on the beach, walk out on the fourteen hundred foot fishing pier, or dine at any of several little restaurants during your visit. You’ll enjoy it all.
Rural John’s Island is pure South Carolina back country within easy reach of the city. Gorgeous moss-hung oaks line the roads, but the grandfather of them all is the Angel Oak, nearly 14 centuries old and massive in stature. It’s truly living history.
East of the Cooper (Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms)
Cross the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, an architectural wonder that’s the longest cable span bridge in America, and you are in chic Mount Pleasant. Here you’ll find exclusive communities surrounding a small town full of outstanding shopping and dining. Along the Cooper River is Patriots Point Museum with it’s collection of naval ships from the 20th Century, including the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.
For the beach lover, Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms both offer beautiful clear sand and rolling waves. Sullivan’s Island is a classic small beach community with the amenities of a county park while the Isle of Palms features upscale homes, a great resort, golf, and exclusive island living.
The city of North Charleston is the area’s business, transportation, and manufacturing center, but it also has the North Charleston Coliseum with its Convention Center and Performing Arts Center featuring national touring entertainment. The Warren Lasch Conservation Center houses the conservation efforts for the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship – in 1864. The sub and the ongoing work of conservation may be viewed on weekends.
The bedroom community of Summerville was originally where Charlestonians went to escape the heat and humidity of the Charleston summer. Nowadays, modern air conditioning makes that effort moot, but Summerville is still worth a visit since it has over 700 buildings on the National Historic Register. Every spring, The Flowertown Festival celebrates the blooming of azaleas in public parks and private gardens that turn the city into a riot of color and natural beauty. Although growing, Summerville still has its small town feel.
There’s no single color, shape or tone to Charleston and its surrounding area. Instead, the old city and its environs have a kaleidoscope of shifting aspects, so you’d best be prepared for something a little different everywhere you look. The one constant to Charleston is its courtesy to everyone. So feel welcome, visitor. Please enjoy your stay.