In the closing pages of Gone With the Wind, Rhett tells Scarlett that he's going back home to Charleston, where he can find "the calm dignity life can have when it's lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days, I didn't realize the slow charm of them." In spite of all the changes and upheavals over the years, Rhett's endorsement of Charleston still holds true.
If the Old South lives on in South Carolina's Low Country, it positively thrives in Charleston. All our romantic notions of antebellum days -- stately homes, courtly manners, gracious hospitality, and, above all, gentle dignity -- are facts of everyday life in this old city, in spite of a few scoundrels here and there, from pirates to politicians.
Notwithstanding a history dotted with earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, and Yankee bombardments, Charleston remains one of the best-preserved cities in America's Old South. It boasts 73 pre-Revolutionary War buildings, 136 from the late 18th century and more than 600 built before the 1840s. With its cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages, Charleston is a place of visual images and sensory pleasures. Jasmine and wisteria fragrances fill the air, the aroma of she-crab soup (a local favorite) wafts from sidewalk cafes, and antebellum architecture graces the historic cityscape. "No wonder they are so full of themselves," said an envious visitor from Columbia, which may be the state capital but has little of Charleston's style and grace.
In its annual reader survey, Condé Nast Traveler magazine named Charleston the number-three city to visit in America, which places it ahead of such perennial favorites as Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Santa Fe. Visitors are drawn here from all over the world, and it is now quite common to hear German and French spoken on local streets.
Does this city have a modern side? Yes, but it's well hidden. Chic shops abound, as do a few supermodern hotels, but Charleston has no skyscrapers. You don't come to Charleston for anything cutting-edge, though. You come to glimpse an earlier, almost-forgotten era.
Many local families still own and live in the homes that their planter ancestors built. Charlestonians manage to maintain a way of life that in many respects has little to do with wealth. The simplest encounter with Charleston natives seems to be invested with a social air, as though the visitor were a valued guest. Yet there are those who detect a certain snobbishness in Charleston -- and truth be told, you'd have to stay a few hundred years to be considered an insider here.