Sweet Home Carolina

Anne Benjaminson is about to go on a three-week vacation from her living hell News Editor job. Respond to her or submit your own travelogue to [email protected].

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Before 1991, Charleston, S.C., was a hick town somewhere down South where Jim Crow was still everyone's friend and nothing worthwhile ever happened. For me, at least. But when my grandparents continued their migration (California, by way of Australia, followed by Oregon and Washington, D.C.) to the Low Country, I became quite a fan of the city.

Charleston, as all you A.P. U.S. History grads will remember, is nestled between the Ashley and Cooper rivers -- named after the man who founded the place. As a result, the city itself sits right in the middle of a lot of water (hence, Fort Sumpter). So, the first thing you need to know before you go is how to swim.

The first time my family headed down to Charleston, my parents decided to get reacquainted with a family they had known when they lived in Atlanta. We all drove out to their country place, expecting something out of "Gone With The Wind." Instead, we found four kids swinging Tarzan-style from a rope over a river and a dog eating live shrimp the youngest kid was catching.

Later in the day, we headed out on the powerboat to go for a swim. Already bloody from scrambling around on barnacles all day, I was readily adapting to the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of our friends. So, when an alligator surfaced about 20 feet from where we were swimming, I didn't react when someone casually said, "Look honey, there's an alligator swimming with our kids."

My mother, on the other hand, got a little hysterical and made me get out of the water. ("But mom," I said, "I wanted to pet the alligator.")

While Charleston locals might like spending their weekends on the water and, well, shooting things, the town they live in is more civilized than most places I've ever been -- including my hometown of New York City. Zoning laws have been around forever, and they place strict and well-enforced height limits on buildings in the historic areas of town.

As a result, Charleston looks like New Orleans without the crime, drunks, hookers and casinos -- and that's a good thing. The light radiates into the alleys between the centuries-old houses. Beautiful bed-and-breakfasts and sidewalk cafes abound, and a long walkway stretches along a picturesque waterfront. Cars are fairly unwelcome in the downtown areas, so everyone walks around looking at each other.

They look at each other for a reason. The beautiful people of Charleston could easily be the beautiful people of Malibu, Beverly Hills and Laguna Beach -- and then some. And to top it off, they have accents, y'all. If you're a blond who drives a red convertible, you better have another blond with you if you even want to get noticed.

Beautiful people or not, the real reason to visit Charleston is its history. Fort Sumpter is still standing and you can take a boat out to it. They let everyone run wild through it and peer through the holes where the cannons used to be. In the same trip, you can tour historic ships. Another day trip will take you to well-preserved historical planations.

While it is easy to gloss over the details of Fort Sumpter and the ensuing madness, some parts of Charleston still make all but the most die-hard Confederate a little uncomfortable. The slave market still stands, although these days it isn't more than an upscale flea market. The nice parts of town are almost 100 percent white. And there's that whole Confederate flag thing -- don't ask for an opinion in the Low Country unless you really want one. This is the place where they levelled death threats at the city council member who suggested a ban on smoking in restaurants.

Despite its history, Charleston is very much in the modern era. They got a Starbucks a few years ago (what better way to mark the transition into the new millennium?) and Abercrombie & Fitch appears to be doing pretty well. Once outside the city, the land of strip malls and drive-thrus is right there, in the view of Fort Sumpter.

Once past the highways, however, the flavor of the old South hits you smack in the face as you head out toward Savannah or Raleigh or a number of other destinations. The drive out of your way is well worth it.

South Carolina is an agricultural state, but we're not talking large-scale, Merced-style farming here. We're talking small farms built around shacks. The phrase "middle of nowhere" takes on a whole new meaning for the hardened middle-class college student. The destitution of the South can be a real reminder of the gap between rich and poor in America.

So head on down to one of the last vestiges of plantation days. Walk among the townhouses and listen to the tinkle of iced tea glasses on a sleepy afternoon, and savor the flavor of a place decidedly older than Berkeley. Just wear pastels and a hat, especially if you're a brunette, and don't rush to judgment on much -- no one likes being told they're wrong, especially not by someone who doesn't know how to make grits.


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