CHARLESTON, one of the finest-looking towns in the US, is a compelling place, its historic district lined with tall, narrow houses of peeling, multicoloured stucco, adorned with wooden shutters and wide piazzas (porches). The palm trees and tropical climate give the place a Caribbean air, while the hidden gardens, leafy patios and ironwork balconies evoke the romance of New Orleans.
Founded by a group of English aristocrats in 1670, Charles Towne swiftly boomed as a port serving the rice and cotton plantations. It became the region’s commercial and cultural centre with a mixed population of French, Germans, Jews, Italians and Irish, as well as the English majority. One-third of the nation’s enslaved Africans passed through Charleston, sold at the riverfront market and bringing with them their ironworking, building and farming skills. The town had a sizeable free black community too. Nevertheless there was still slave unrest, culminating in the abortive Veysey revolt of 1823, after which the city built the Citadel armoury and later the military university to control future uprisings. Charleston was practically ruined by the Civil War, which started on its doorstep, at Fort Sumter in the harbour. Fire swept through in 1861 and Union bombardment was relentless until it was finally taken in February 1865. The decline of the plantation economy and slump in cotton prices led to an economic crash after the war, worsened by a catastrophic earthquake in 1886. As the upcountry industrialized, capital steadily deserted the city, and it only really recovered when World War II restored its importance as a port and naval base. Since then, a steady programme of preservation and restoration has made tourism Charleston’s main focus. Downtown there’s a genteel air about the place and prices tend to be high; nonetheless, Charleston has kept its charm without turning into a theme park. The traditions of the sea islands are a tangible presence: “basket ladies” still weave their sweetgrass baskets at the market and many residents – both black and white – speak the distinctive Gullah dialect.