To inquire about the house tours mentioned in this article, call the following: Historic Charleston Foundation (803-723-1623), Natchez Pilgrimage Tours (1-800-647-6742), and Historic Garden Week in Virginia (804-644-7776).
They all are timed to coincide with the South’s best spring bloom and run from sometime in March until late in April. Each organization has brochures showing what’s on view as well as suggesting hotels and restaurants that for the most part also share long histories.
It is wise to start making plans for a trip as soon as the brochures are out (usually in January), since tours and hotels fill up quickly, especially on weekends. From the relaxed pace and tempo of the weekday tours, I noticed a distinct quickening as Friday arrived. Suddenly people were bunched up in lines outside the houses, and restaurants were jammed. So try to include a few weekdays on a Charleston visit.
I stayed at the Meeting Street Inn,which was well located and had an inviting tree-shaded courtyard. Other hotels and bed-and-breakfasts clustered in the Meeting Street area looked equally appealing. I remember a couple of good meals at Poogan’s Porch, in an old house named for the owner’s departed dog, who is buried in the front yard. The Oyster Factory was also a good choice, recommended by a cabdriver, but I think any reliable guidebook or hotel concierge would set one on the right eating course.
During this visit I focused on the house tours, but there are many other distractions—museums, walking tours, harbor cruises—that, taken together, help fill in Charleston’s story. The first settlement, founded in 1670 along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, was circled with a moat, but its population soon overflowed those borders as the city moved to become one of the wealthiest and showiest places in the colonies. That wealth was, of course, founded on the great rice and indigo crops of the outlying plantations, worked by a huge slave population. In truth, everything beautiful that you see in Charleston was made possible by the skill and labor of slaves. Much of this story is wonderfully evoked at the Charleston Museum, where the ornate furnishings in one gallery bump up against a room displaying the slavemade pottery and polished brass identification tags used by owners who rented out their slaves. The Gibbes Museum of Art and the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture also provide a wider sense of the city’s past for the house tourist.