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Agriculture dominates the small state of South Carolina, a region of rolling hills, fertile farmland, and grand antebellum plantations. The pastoral landscapes are charming but hold little interest, with most visitors drawn to the South Carolina coast, which contains most of its attractions.
White sandy seashore stretches from the Grand Strand in the north to the mouth of the Savannah River in the south. The resort of Myrtle Beach is the glitzy heart, which is famous for its family entertainment, amusement park attractions, and recreational activities, especially golf.
Resorts populate the coast to historic Georgetown, sitting between the carnival atmosphere of Myrtle Beach and the old port grandeur of Charleston, one of the most elegant cities in the country. South of Charleston, the coastline breaks into small marshy islands that preserve traces of Gullah culture.
The Sea Islands are home to descendants of West African slaves, brought to labour on the plantations but given land when freed in 1865. They speak a dialect known as Gullah that's unique to the African Americans of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Nicknamed the 'Palmetto State', it has a rich history documented in the historic district of Charleston and restored plantation estates. Civil War enthusiasts and those interested in the history of slavery in the USA enjoy a wealth of attractions in South Carolina, while those less engaged can simply soak up the distinct southern culture.
South Carolina conjures images of antebellum plantation houses, scents of jasmine and notions honeysuckle floating over long stretches of sun-drenched coastline. It's in many ways an ornamental state, thanks to a heritage of elegant British architecture from a time of aristocratic colonial rule.
The turbulent history of slavery and civil war adds an edge to this otherwise entrancing rural state. Yet travellers embrace this aspect, educating themselves with trips to restored plantations, battlefields, and museums promising rich sightseeing fodder.
Although Columbia is the capital and largest city of South Carolina, famously atmospheric Charleston is the most popular travel hub of the state. It invites visitors to step back centuries, with horse-drawn carriages one of the most popular forms of touristic transport.
Alongside this old-fashioned cultural powerhouse, the coastal resorts of glitzy Myrtle Beach offer a different sort of holiday fun, with water sports, outlet malls, amusement parks, and arcades warring for attention with the lovely beaches.
Most of South Carolina's popular attractions sit along the coast and the majority of visitors don't explore further inland. But for those looking to get off the tourist track, the interior promises dramatic mountains, mysterious swamps, rolling farmlands, and sleepy old towns, best explored by hiring a car and allowing yourself to get a bit lost.
Situated on a small manmade island in the bay, the Fort Sumter National Monument guards the entrance to Charleston Harbour. It's one of the most important historic military sites in the country, built using 70,000 tons of granite and rock brought from as far afield as New York City.
The first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861. With the secession of South Carolina, the Confederates demanded the surrender of the fort and after 34 hours of continuous bombardment, the Union forces had no choice but to relinquish their hold. The Union troops became the first prisoners of the Civil War.
The fort became a symbol of resistance until it was retaken by Union forces in 1865 after nearly four years of continual attack, reducing most of the fort to rubble. Park rangers conduct free tours around the restored structure, which includes a museum with historical displays.
Charleston's most visited attraction, the South Carolina Aquarium features thousands of amazing aquatic animals. These include river otters, sharks, and loggerhead turtles in over 60 exhibits, representing the rich biodiversity of South Carolina from the mountains to the sea.
The aquarium also affords visitors fabulous views of Charleston Harbor, and there are daily interactive exhibits and programmes for guests of all ages. Every visit reveals something new, with glimpses of new animals, budding plants, baby animals, and more.
The institution provides a variety of opportunities to learn about conservation, animal life, endangered species, and environmental issues. It also houses creatures from further afield, with different exhibits illustrating various habitats.
South Carolina Aquarium is involved in a few initiatives too, such as Good Catch. Organisers hope to foster awareness in the community around responsible harvesting and consumption of local seafood. They work with restaurants, fisheries, and caterers, in an attempt to protect the ocean.
Founded in 1773, the Charleston Museum opened while the United States was still a British colony. It encompasses three historic buildings, aiming to preserve the unique culture and natural history of Charleston and the surrounding South Carolina Lowcountry.
Exhibitions include cultural, historic, and natural artefacts, alongside two National Historic Landmark houses: the Heyward-Washington House and Joseph Manigault House. They are good representations of the graceful architecture and wealthy lifestyles of days gone by.
Daniel Heyward built the Heyward-Washington House for his son, Thomas Heyward, who was among those who signed the Declaration of Independence. George Washington stayed here during a weeklong visit to Charleston, giving the house its name.
Joseph Manigault House is a clear example of Federal architecture, influenced by the French Huguenots who moved to America to escape religious persecution. Both houses are furnished and decorated to appear as they would have done in the 1700s.
The Hunley was the world's first successful combat submarine, built on President Abraham Lincoln's orders during the Civil War. The submarine first arrived in Charleston by train 1863, proceeding to sink the warship USS Housatonic in 1864.
During the attack, it sank and remained a mystery for many years. Modern navigation tools finally discovered the submarine in 1995, brought to land both for preservation and in order to piece together the history of the submarine's final hours.
The submarine is now on display in a conservation tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on the Cooper River. Visitors can see facial reconstructions of the Hunley crew, artefacts excavated from the submarine, and the legendary gold coin that supposedly saved the captain's life.
The British used Provost Dungeon for prisoners during the American Revolution. In 1774, the Old Exchange Building hosted the delegate elections for the First Continental Congress. Built in 1771, its original purpose was to assist with heavy import and export trade in Charleston.
The Exchange was built in the Palladian style of architecture with a facade constructed from imported Portland stone. Having withstood war, earthquakes, and hurricanes, the building is strong. Part of the Half-Moon Bastion was excavated here and is the only visible section of the old Charlestown fort.
Today, the South Carolina Daughters of the American Revolution run both the Old Exchange Building and the Provost Dungeon. All three floors of the main building are open to the public as a museum focused on the city's history and its role in American history.
On tours through the dungeon, visitors are educated about the many pirates jailed during the 1800s. The Old Exchange Building regularly hosts symposiums on topics relating to Charleston's history, with the building also available to rent after hours as a function venue.
The climate of South Carolina is subtropical, with plenty of humidity in its long, hot summers. Temperatures tend to be higher on the coast, with colder conditions in the mountains. But on average, winters are short and mild.
With predominately low altitudes in the state and the protection of the Appalachian Mountains screening South Carolina from cold interior air, average temperatures tend to range from 58°F (14°C) in the northwest to 68°F (20°C) on the coast.
Summer temperatures usually climb to 90°F (32°C) and up, particularly in the central part of the state. Rainfall occurs mostly in the spring and summer, with more precipitation occurring in summer along the coast and in spring further inland.
Magnificent plantations sit along the Ashley River and the highway towards Georgetown, the main attraction being Boone Hall Plantation. A majestic oak avenue leads to the estate, where travellers can visit the original slave quarters, cotton gin house, and the mansion, furnished and decorated according to the period.
Still near the river and closest to Charleston, Drayton Hall is the oldest preserved plantation house in the USA. Dating from 1742, the Georgian masterpiece is a National Historic Landmark and the only plantation house on the Ashley to survive the Civil War intact.
Conversely, Middleton Place was largely destroyed. But the south wing has been restored and contains an impressive collection of historic documents, silver, furniture, and paintings. Interestingly, its grounds are the oldest landscaped gardens in the country, designed in 1741.
The estate also boasts stable yards filled with heritage breeds of cows, goats, pigs, and chickens. The ornamental lakes and surrounding gardens are home to roaming peacocks and other farm animals.
Magnolia Plantation was founded in 1676 by the Drayton family. The plantation opened its doors to the public in 1870, allowing all comers to view the gardens. It thus became the oldest public garden in the country.
The stunning decorative gardens can easily be viewed on tram tours that cover the grounds. South Carolina is blessed with many impressive plantation estates and there are hidden gems to be discovered in addition to the favourites listed here.
Angel Oak is thought to be one of the oldest oak trees east of the Mississippi River. This extraordinary live oak is between 400 and 500 years old and boasts a vast canopy in excess of 17,000 square feet, despite it not being very tall. It's survived countless hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, including severe damage from Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The tree's forest home may have been one of the islands' many lumber sources for ship-building back in the 18th century, yet nowadays the park and tree are owned by the city of Charleston. The Angel Tree features in various local legends and books. Keeping the tree safe from encroaching urban development has lately become an issue, although so far it is still located deep enough in the forest to be safe.
Set in the Caw Caw Swamp, the Caw Caw Interpretive Center is home to vast natural, cultural, and historical displays. Dating back to the 18th century, this formerly slave-worked rice paddy exhibits earthen dikes, rice trunks, and canals. Many species of animals and plants make their homes in the wildlife sanctuary, with a landscape of beech and holly forests servicing resident otters, frogs, squirrels, and more. Self-guided canoe trips are possible, as is cycling, hiking, and rock climbing. The park features six miles (9km) of walking trails, including elevated boardwalks through the wetlands where visitors can sometimes spot alligators creeping through the swamps. Birdwatchers will delight in searching for rare swallow-tailed kites and bald eagles.
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