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Slow dance with Charleston

Times Staff Writer

WHEN George and Ira Gershwin were adapting DuBose Heyward’s novel into the opera “Porgy and Bess,” they decamped to the Charleston area in the summer of 1934.

They got very little done.

Summertime ... and the living is easy, in a desultory kind of way. With temperatures and humidity in the high 80s, you’re forced to slow to a saunter. And that, it turns out, is the most appropriate pace to take in and fully appreciate Charleston’s residential lanes, pastel-colored row houses and hidden gardens.

That secret is starting to slip out. Tourism here is booming, up from 3.2 million visitors in 1997 to 4.7 million 2004, and the onetime summer “low-season” hotel rates in the city are starting to disappear. The gap between the peak spring home-garden tours and the fall conventions has closed, mostly filled by family vacationers.

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A family reunion on Sullivans Island, about 15 miles east, brought me to the area just as summer was starting, and I decided to linger for four more days in a town whose history and character are as contrarian as its cuisine is tantalizing.

With my family, I got my first overview on a one-hour carriage tour. The city has divvied up the historic district into four routes, and only 20 total carriages can be out at any one time. But it’s such a popular tourist activity that on a weekend afternoon, carriages back up on Market Street and down Anson Street like airliners queued up at LAX.

Waiting for our tour to start, we ambled through the open-air Old City Market, which was full of souvenirs: watercolor paintings, photographs and coiled sweet-grass baskets that women weave in the shade of outdoor umbrellas. I’m not a trinket buyer, but I walked out of the market wearing a woven straw hat with a 3-inch brim. A good shade hat isn’t an accessory here; it’s an essential.

Our midday carriage tour meandered through the streets south of Broad, the tip of the peninsula where most of the city’s oldest and grandest houses stand. Charleston boomed in its first 50 years, becoming the fourth-largest city in the American Colonies. It quickly became the wealthiest too as a result of its slave-plantation economy and thriving port, which shipped millions of pounds of rice to England.

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At Broad and King streets, we passed the John Lining House, thought to be one of the oldest in the city. Like others surviving from the Colonial period, it has no foundation, so its sits practically atop the sidewalk. The distinctive single houses are tall and skinny, only one room wide, and perfectly scaled to the one-lane streets. The oval bronze plaques affixed to houses indicate whether a resident paid for insurance and which fire company would fight a blaze at that address.

Plate-sized discs indicate a different kind of rescue operation. At joist-level, they were installed much like the earthquake retrofit bolts commonly seen on masonry buildings in Los Angeles. The bolts aren’t preventive here; they pulled the walls back together after a devastating earthquake in 1886. I always thought one had to choose between earthquakes and hurricanes but apparently not.

The bolts are subtle reminders of an unlikely impetus for the city’s preservation: dire poverty. After the Civil War, the onetime richest city in America was suddenly among the poorest. Grand homes were converted into schools, boardinghouses and businesses.

A few days later, I toured the Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772 as the brag-worthy home of a wealthy planter but by the late 19th century was a bakery with an upstairs apartment for the baker’s family. The Charleston Museum bought it and has restored it to its 1790s grandeur. Today, it looks as it would have when George Washington stayed there.

The rooms are filled with locally made early American furniture. Atop one of the mantels was a ceramic figurine that, at the time, was sold as Washington, Ben Franklin or “a country gentleman” -- as if the characters were interchangeable.

Right size for strolling

THE marshy Atlantic coast of South Carolina resisted colonization for 150 years before British planters from Bermuda and the West Indies dug in for good in 1670. The settlement, named Charles Towne for King Charles II of England, was upstream a bit, but shortly moved to the more defensible peninsula pointing into Charleston Harbor, with the Ashley River to the west and the Cooper River to the east.

Although the greater Charleston area now has nearly 600,000 residents, these natural boundaries keep the city itself smaller, about 96,000 people. The peninsula is also pedestrian-scale, less than two miles across.

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Strict preservation laws keep houses from changing much, but it remains a living neighborhood, not a museum. We passed residents walking their dogs or parking their SUVs. My favorite time for strolling the historic district was after the sun had gone down and a breeze was coming in off the harbor. My partner, Amy, and I would start at Waterfront Park, overlooking the Cooper, then follow the sea wall that runs along East Bay Street, then around the Point by the Battery, then wend our way back to our hotel by whatever route lured us.

We would gaze enviously at the massive two-story porches, the ideal place to take in the velvety evening air.

On one stroll, Amy spotted a little tree-canopied lane cutting between the yard of St. Philip’s Church and a warehouse-cum-theater. It was a shortcut back to our hotel, with age-smoothed brick pavement and vines reaching out from atop the church wall.

Later, I saw a truck parked there, and I realized that this lane was just a back alley. Just the most wonderfully charming alley.

For all its genteel ways, Charleston has a wicked independent streak. Residents first bucked their governance in 1719, when they threw out the legislators put in place by the English. The rich planters, who hated paying taxes to the British crown, were among the most fervent patriots. The state flag -- blue with a crescent moon and a palmetto tree -- references an early Revolutionary War battle, in which nearby Ft. Moultrie, built of spongy palmetto logs, repelled shelling from British warships.

The other flag I kept seeing in Charleston had two red stripes, a white one and a circle of white stars in a blue field. (It wasn’t the well-known Confederate battle flag, whose presence on the statehouse grounds in Columbia has led the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People to call for an ongoing economic boycott of the whole state.) At Patriots Point, a museum of World War II-era naval craft, I happened upon one explanation: It was the first flag of the Confederacy, used from 1861 to 1863. I still don’t know what to make of its presence around town. A substitution for the more politically loaded Southern Cross battle flag? A secret rebel handshake? It seemed not to say “The South will rise again” so much as “You’re not the boss of me.”

That sentiment was most evident in December 1860, when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. When Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president in 1861 and refused to acknowledge an independent South, soldiers in Charleston fired on Union-held Ft. Sumter, an island in the mouth of the harbor.

But South Carolina was more an instigator than a locale for the Civil War. Most of Charleston’s historic sites are related to the Colonial period and the American Revolution.

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One of my first historic stops was the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, at the eastern end of Broad Street. Right up against the old wharves, it was built as a British customs house, but the Great Hall on the second floor was where patriots gathered to protest the tea tax, to elect delegates to the first Continental Congress and, after the Revolutionary War and the birth of this nation, to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Some of those same men spent time in the basement too, where rebel-patriots were imprisoned after British troops captured the city in 1780 during the Revolutionary War.

I put off my visit to the Charleston Museum until my last day, which was a mistake. The 233-year-old institution has a deep collection, firearms as well as quilts, whale skeletons and Early American silver. Here, in the Lowcountry History exhibition hall, the snippets I’d picked up about the Colonial period, the Revolution, the antebellum South and the Civil War fell into a cohesive timeline.

I think it must be particularly difficult to strike the right note in discussing slavery here. About 40% of the slaves brought to North America came through Charleston, and local fortunes were built on that trade. The tone of the tours I took was matter of fact without being apologetic. That was true of the Charleston Museum’s exhibit “When Rice Was King,” but it also captured the tragedy of slavery and seemed unflinching in its look at life on rice plantations.

South Carolina’s plantations are now a big tourist draw. The closest to Charleston are Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation, west of the city, where elaborate gardens bloom each spring. We chose Drayton Hall for its architectural significance: The Georgian brick house remains largely unchanged since its completion in 1742.

An afternoon drizzle started just as we gathered on the back porch, which looks out at towering oaks, and the ponds that are what’s left of the levee system used to flood the rice fields. Inside the walls are still cypress paneling, some stained an indigo blue. The house has no electricity, no plumbing. Faux doors, added to create symmetry in each room, open onto brick walls.

Grits with that?

MY brother-in-law has (rightly) observed that my family is happiest if the next meal is being planned as the current one is being consumed. Charleston was a heavenly place for us.

Even as chefs tinker and improvise, the essence of Lowcountry cuisine remains the local fare -- seafood, rice, corn and greens -- prepared with spices that migrated with the planters and slaves from the West Indies and influenced by French Huguenot colonists.

Every slick eatery and homey diner seemed to offer its own variation on shrimp and grits, and Amy decided to pursue expertise on this dish. She sampled her third variation at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, near the City Market, where a worn-warehouse exterior belies a white-tablecloth dining room. I also had a fried grit cake, smothered in a saffron sauce with mushrooms and fennel, then fish, shrimp and scallops. Sprinkled across the top: bits of sweet white crabmeat. They called the dish Seafood a la Wando. I called it Need Serious Exercise Tomorrow.

The next morning, resigned to working up a drenching sweat, we rented bikes from Bike the Bridge, which supplied us with locks, helmets and maps. Our path was clear: the immense Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, completed in 2005, which has the longest cable-stay span in North America.

The new bridge gives low-rise Charleston a high-profile landmark, albeit one without a marquee architect. The design evolved from engineering requirements and public input.

We pedaled up the sweeping ramp over the Cooper River, climbing for nearly 1 1/2 miles as cars sped past us on the way to Mount Pleasant and the outlying beaches at Sullivans Island and the Isle of Palms. As the ramp grew steeper, the marshy lowlands dropped out of my peripheral vision, and I pedaled through the sky toward the soaring gates, each seemingly strapped to the Earth by 64 white cables.

I was panting and soaked by the time I reached the observation deck of the bridge. But the afternoon wind picked up and I got -- honestly -- a chill.

I took in the long shot of the Charleston peninsula. I could make out a few spires of the centuries-old churches but little else. I couldn’t see the onetime tenements on Church Street that are now pricey condos. I couldn’t see the Hominy Grill, where the waitresses wear shirts that declare, “Grits are good for you.”

The view was wonderful. But the city is better in close-up.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the Lowcountry

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) is available on Northwest, US Airways, Continental, Delta, American and United. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $439.

WHERE TO STAY:

The Vendue Inn, 19 Vendue Range; (843) 577-7970, www.vendueinn.com. Five buildings, some from the 18th century, connected to create 66 guest rooms, each different. Doubles $189-$325, including breakfast.

Two Meeting Street Inn, 2 Meeting St.; (843) 723-7322, www.twomeetingstreet.com. White Queen Anne mansion turned into an elegant nine-room B&B.; Wraparound porch with rocking chairs overlooking the Battery. Two stained-glass windows installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself are stunners. Doubles $219-$395.

Wentworth Mansion, 149 Wentworth St.; (888) 466-1886, www.wentworthmansion.com. Built between 1885 and ’87 for a wealthy cotton and phosphate industrialist, the mansion now is a AAA five-diamond inn with 21 rooms, all with king-size beds. It’s a slice of the Gilded Age with hand-carved woodwork, tile floors and a cupola overlooking the city. Doubles $255-$695.

WHERE TO EAT:

Hank’s Seafood, 10 Hayne St.; (843) 723-3474, www.hanksseafoodrestaurant.com. Seafood, raw bar and upscale Lowcountry specialties in the heart of the historic district. Entrees $19-$24.

Hominy Grill, 207 Rutledge Ave.; (843) 937-0930, www.hominygrill.com. Get your grits at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with eggs, shrimp, sesame-crusted catfish, or just on the side. Dinner entrees $6-$20.

FIG, 232 Meeting St.; (843) 805-5900, www.eatatfig.com. Modern decor. Menu emphasizes fish and meats prepared with just the right treatment. Reservations recommended, particularly on Tuesday nights when there’s live jazz. Entrees $20-$25.

Shem Creek Bar & Grill, 508 Mill St., Mount Pleasant; (843) 884-8102, www.shemcreekbarandgrill.com. A good place to get an overview of Lowcountry cooking, including shrimp ‘n’ grits or “boils” of steamed Dungeness crab, shrimp, clams, mussels and lobster. Entrees $17-$30.

The Boathouse, 549 E. Bay St.; (843) 577-7171, www.boathouserestaurants.com. Seafood and Lowcountry specialties, including roasted corn and crab soup, crab cakes, bacon-wrapped grouper and spicy shrimp and grits. Entrees $17-$29.

WHAT TO DO:

Carriage tours are an essential part of the Charleston experience. Many companies offer them, but the routes -- all set by the city -- are the same. I took mine from Carolina Polo & Carriage Co., (843) 577-6767, www.cpcc.com. $20, $12 children.

Bike the Bridge Rentals, 360 Concord St., Suite 108; (843) 853-2453, www.bikethebridgerentals.com. Seven-speed Raleigh hybrid bikes rented for four hours ($12.50) or a full 24-hour day ($25).

Charleston Museum, 360 Meeting St.; (843) 722-2996, www.charlestonmuseum.org. Cultural and natural history, including impressive collection of silver and historic exhibits. The museum also manages two historic homes in town. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays.

TO LEARN MORE:

Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 423 King St., Charleston, SC 29403, (843) 853-8000, www.charlestoncvb.com.

-- Robin Rauzi


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