Thursday, September 29, 2011

CHARLESTON : The Lowcountry
27th June – 5th July 2011
Sitting on a leafy peninsular between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, the historic city of Charleston rests comfortably in grand southern style. As we motored into the harbour and up to our anchorage in the Ashley river just across from the Charleston City Marina, the grandeur and wealth of a bygone era was clearly evident from the numerous beautiful mansions lining the waterfront.    
Charleston in summer is hot, really hot. It’s the type of heat that takes your breath away and makes you feel so exhausted that all you want to do is lie around in air conditioned comfort. But when you live on a boat that is not always an option and unfortunately the river was extremely tidal with the currents  running at around 4 knots so swimming off the boat was not a sensible thing to do.Still heat or no heat we were here to explore whatever this charming city had to offer.
But first a little bit of history. Charleston is known not only as the place ( Fort Sumter) where the first shots of the Civil War were fired but also for it’s long time involvement in the slave trade. Charleston and it’s surrounding districts, including some offshore islands, sit on low flat coastal plains, hence the name Lowcountry, that were at one time thick with swamp and marshland making this area  both climatically and geographically suited to the cultivation of rice and other crops. Wealthy land owners in the 1700’s saw this potential and began buying slaves who were transported from many West African areas including Sierra Leone, Senegal and The Gambia  to change the natural landscape into profitable rice, cotton, corn and sugarcane plantations. These slaves who lived in the lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia were known as Gullah and had their own language. Singing was a strong part of their culture and  this allowed them to make escape plans and  jibes at their masters who couldn’t understand them. The  slave trade  was certainly very lucrative but have a guess as to how many slaves arrived on these shores to work the plantations? If your answer is less than 10 million then you are way off the mark, as statistics estimate  the numbers to be as high as 20 million, and that’s not very far short of the entire population of Australia! Slavery became widespread throughout the southern states and in the Carolinas caused much tension between the north and south, and between the aristocratic plantation owners and the backcountry’s rural farmers. Slavery eventually came to an end in 1865 at the end of the civil war and this was also the demise of the labor intensive rice plantations which could no longer be sustained without slave labor. Ok, that’s enough of history, if you crave more you’ll just have to see what Mr Google has to say.
We spent seven very interesting days in Charleston wandering the streets and soaking up the southern charm. Our first stop was  the South Carolina Aquarium which had a really neat 42ft  vertical glass tank housing sharks to loggerhead turtles and everything in between. It was great to see such magnificent creatures up close and personal without having to get wet.IMG_5341 IMG_5344
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There were lots of other exhibits too including touch pools if you fancied patting a sting ray,indoor and outdoor bird enclosures, big slithery things that Annie had to be led blindfolded past, hence no pictures and in a separate tank a very menacing looking albino alligator which, when he didn’t move, you’d swear was made of plastic.The aquarium was great and well worth visiting if you stop in Charleston.  After a couple of hours at the aquarium we strolled down to the Old City Market, a bustling colorful market full of local crafts, including many styles of  sweetgrass baskets made by Gullah women, these are a popular lowcountry souvenir for the tourists, as well as baskets there were heaps of hats, bags, clothing, produce and all the usual  fun things that markets are full of.IMG_5374 IMG_5372
After a quick lunch at Magnolias, one of the many restaurants in the main street, we pushed on to the Charleston Museum. It had been a long walk on a very hot day and Liam and Daryl just couldn’t resist stopping for a little rest along the way on the aptly named “husband parking” chairs.
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The museum was lovely and cool and  there are two floors worth of cultural and natural history exhibits, including a rather large stuffed polar bear that didn’t look like he quite belonged in this part of the country. 
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A stop in Charleston wouldn’t be complete without a trip out to one of the plantations and there are quite a few, so  after visiting the tourist bureau and seeking some advise on the subject, we chose to visit Boone Hall. It was a rambling estate that dates back to the mid 1700’s. A shady tree lined driveway named the Avenue of Oaks stretches 3/4 mile from the roadway to the house. The oaks, dripping with beautiful spanish moss, are said to be 265 years old. Boon Hall is now the only working plantation in Charleston.The days of cotton growing and brick production, this plantation also was a major producer of mud bricks for the area, are long gone cotton and today the land is used to cultivate fruit and Christmas trees. We toured the large Boone family home, where several  of the ornate  rooms open to the public, and were fascinated by the excellent slave exhibition that was displayed in the old slave accommodations and also by the theatrical recital of the history, through both story and song, of the Gullah people.One thing that we found strange was that about nine of the slave cabins were clustered just beyond the house gates. These rather up-market small brick cabins,made from the plantations own bricks,housed only the most trusted slaves and having this accommodation so close to the masters house was a way for the family to flaunt (good slaves cost a lot of money) their wealth in front of all who visited the plantation.
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Over the next few days we certainly weren’t idle, we caught the ferry over to Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum  and spent the whole day visiting the facility and walking around the decommissioned  800ft long aircraft carrier USS Yorktown and the submarine USS Clamagore. The Yorktown served in the Pacific during the years 1943-1945 and had around 90 aircraft on board. Many of her planes are still on display today and as Liam and I quite enjoy all the Navy stuff we found the well signed self guided tour one of the highlights of our stopover in Charleston.
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IMG_5444 IMG_5448 We strolled the historical area of Rainbow Row, with it’s horse drawn carriages, blooming crepe myrtle trees and colourful period buildings, and admired the classical South Carolina homes surrounded by leafy parks and manicured gardens in the waterfront areas of Battery Park and White Point . We also visited The Old Slave Mart which showed in excellent detail what it was like to arrive here and live out your life as a slave.
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A couple of times we dropped into the very friendly Charleston Yacht Club for a cooling afternoon drink on the balcony and were even invited to join the club members for their 4th of July pot luck dinner bbq and to watch the fireworks. Everyone was so friendly and they couldn’t believe that we owned a boat from Australia named “Gone With The Wind” and  had actually sailed all the way to Charleston where everywhere you look there is some reference to Ashley, Rhett or that legendry Hollywood movie! We definitely felt right at home and  had a great night at the club and it was a memorable way to celebrate American Independence Day with some new found friends. No doubt about this southern hospitality, it’s alive and well in the Carolina’s.
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The weather continued to cook us as well as the locals who took up residence under the shade of park trees or in the cool waters of many fountains around town. Ice cream eating was another good way to cool down.
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So what did we enjoy about Charleston?, pretty much everything. It’s an easy city to hang out for a few days,it’s flat so walking is easy and it’s a great place to learn about the history of the civil war and the events that shaped the southern states of this great nation.
Cruising Info:                                                                                                              Formalities. Call up CBP Charleston on arrival on 843 579 6513.                                      Transport: Walk or catch one of the free trolley buses around town,( ) or pick up  route details and maps from the Visitor centre on Meeting Street.                                        Supermarkets: Harris Tweeter, well stocked large supermarket about 30 min walk from the marina.                                                                                                                                                                Dinghy Dock: pay $5 per day for tie up at the City Marina, if you anchor in the Ashley river it’s the best and safest place to leave your dinghy.                                                                                    Chandlery: West Marine about 20 mins  car ride out of town.

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