It is not Rhett Butler who draws up in the horse and carriage this spring evening in South Carolina – but with just a little imagination, how easily it could have been.
White muslin curtains tied with pink satin sashes flutter freshly at a window looking out on a green wisteria and tea olive. I pour a second glass of red wine from the crystal decanter and wonder whether it is this heady brew or the Deep South’s own distinctive cocktail of nostalgia and romance that is conspiring to transport me to the era of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind.
Suddenly I am Miss Scarlett and Mammy is busying herself in the room behind me, laying out my evening frock on the four-poster bed and chiding: ‘T’ain’t fitt’n’ Miss Scarlett’ as I stand in my slip at the open window.
Charleston’s historic inns are still one of America’s best kept secrets. The 18th-century Swordgate Inn (no dearer per night than the Sheraton) is one of 80 ‘olde worlde’ houses which offer bed and breakfast in a setting far removed from eight-lane freeways, fast food drive-ins and air-conditioned tower block sites.
All of them seem to be run by charming down-homey couples who will cook your breakfast to order and serve it on polished Queen Anne tables far too grand for bacon and eggs; who will, when you order a cab, magically produce the horse-drawn variety; and who, when you flop gratefully into that four-poster at night, will have left chocolates on your pillow and a lot of brandy.
Charleston is a picture-book southern town on the east coast of South Carolina, looking out on to the Atlantic. It was the first in America to set an example and preserve its heritage. It now has a vast 789-acre historic district with 3,000 protected homes, most of them privately owned and occupied.
Most of the year, frustrated tourists can be seen peering through windows, wishing they could have a proper look round. If only they had been in Charleston in the spring.
During the last week in March and first two weeks in April, Charleston celebrates its Festival of Houses, and becomes a living museum. The local historic society has persuaded some of the owners to throw open their homes to a curious public for daytime and candle-lit evening tours, and even gala dinners where guests feast in stately drawing rooms while the Charleston Symphony Orchestra plays.
Most visitors spend two to three days in Charleston – time enough to stroll along a seafront, refreshingly devoid of ice-cream parlors and slot machines, to take a sunset harbor cruise across the bay to Fort Sumter where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, to tour the sprawling cotton plantations where visitors are invited to help dip candles, grind corn and milk a cow. But not time enough to visit all of Charleston’s cozy little restaurants or to sample all the ethnic dishes – boiled creek shrimp, oyster pie with sweet potatoes, she-crab soup (mother and her eggs).
Kuoni is one of the few operators which feature Charleston – as part of an eight-day tour – and will tailor-make itineraries for people wishing to change the tour or extend it.
The set tour takes clients on from Charleston to nearby Kiawah Island, an unspoilt beach resort which makes Miami look like an American East Croydon-on-sea.
A whistle-stop tour of Hilton Head Island – farther south – is included, but if a suntan is the object and money is not, this is the place to rest up for a few days. Hilton Head is a boot-shaped island over a bridge from the mainland and into a different world.
There are eight different self-sufficient resorts, all with a choice of deluxe hotel rooms or villas looking out over the ocean. Palmetto Dunes resort has its own marina and offers every outdoor sport imaginable – at a price.
Savannah is another slice of old colonial history – peaceful and sedate – where Spanish moss hangs decoratively from giant oaks in shady squares. River Street on the harbor front is cobbled with the original ballast stones brought over in the first settler ships from Gravesend. Savannah is mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and on most tours a visit to the Pirate House is obligatory. It is now a restaurant which has suffered from over-the-top attempts to ‘authenticize’ it – Talking Long John Silver, simulated tropical storms and lavatories called Davy and Daisy Jones locker.
The most convenient international airport from which to start a southern tour is Atlanta – Delta Airlines and British Caledonian both fly there direct from the UK.
There is more than enough to attract the passing fancy of anyone just passing through this ultra-modern plate glass and concrete city which has risen, like its emblem the phoenix, from the ashes of the Civil War. There are air-conditioned shopping malls, theatres, cinemas – all the trappings of a cosmopolitan metropolis – and there’s also Sweet Auburn, the district which became the first thriving black business community and raised the champion of all civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King.
From this hub, the very best of the Deep South is accessible – the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina; Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana, even Florida.
Who says America’s heritage has gone with the wind? There is a charm and a welcome waiting for visitors in the Deep South that will take more than a hundred civil wars to change.