Vail Daily travel: Charleston, South Carolina, offers a peek into early American history
Special to the Daily
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part travel series about Charleston, South Carolina. The next installment will be published Sunday, Nov. 15.
Blackbeard didn’t need to slay many sailors — nay, his 6-foot-6 stature, long dark hair, pistol in one hand, cutlass in the other and smoking pirate hat (created by stuffing burning rope under it) frightened most men into surrendering.
Despite Blackbeard’s threatening tactics to rake in gold, silver, gems and medicine — including ransoming children and cutting a man’s finger off to snatch a ring — Charleston, South Carolina, townsfolk supported Blackbeard in the early 1700s by purchasing his bootlegged cloth and sugar, which he sold cheaper than imported English supplies.
Blackbeard joined forces with Maj. Stede Bonnet, an unlikely, well-groomed and educated man who apparently couldn’t live with his “nagging” wife — albeit on a huge estate in Barbados — and so, he became the “gentleman pirate.”
Rather than overtake and steal ships as “real” pirates did, Bonnet bought a sloop and 10 cannons and then hired 70 men to compensate for his lack of sea experience. Blackbeard eventually took advantage of Bonnet’s naivete, but the rest of the bold story is best told by one of the colorful and well-versed guides at Charleston Pirate Tours.
City of stories
More than 90 blocks of history fill Charleston. Cobblestone streets, pieced together from ballasts dumped on the coastline as merchant ships emptied the dead weight to carry goods to England, are just one of the tactile reminders of days when pirates terrorized open waters and Confederate soldiers fought to own slaves.
English colonists settled Charleston in 1670, and generations have kept the town’s rich history alive through storytelling. Charleston residents are so proud of their heritage that they avoid telling tall tales. Rather, every city guide — be it through a carriage ride, a harbor sail, a haunted tour, a culinary taste experience or a museum — must earn his or her license through rigorous tests for historical accuracy.
Clickity-clack horse hooves echo through the cobblestone streets as a spunky young guide from Palmetto Carriage Works lightheartedly informs visitors that locals refer to porches as “piazzas” because Charleston is a “fancy” town.
And fancy it is. Vail Valley residents will find plenty of excuses to leave the fleece at home and wear their finer shorts, shirts and skirts for not just a night, but also a morning out on the town.
Upscale stores line Charleston’s King Street Fashion District, which Forbes Traveler named one of the top 10 shopping districts in the nation. There, you’ll find handbags straight from Paris runways, European lingerie, designer shoes, rare antiques, priceless art, boutique hotels and renowned restaurants.
One of Charleston’s unique shopping experiences comes in the form of the Charleston City Market, an open-air browsing experience packed with local, handmade items, from jewelry, clothing and knickknacks to detailed, hand-woven sweetgrass baskets, the largest of which can take up to three months to make, which is why many boys in newer generations craft simple but delightful roses from reeds.
Dungeons, ghosts and war
In Charleston, shiny and new shopping co-exists with somber and enlightening history.
A tour of The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon brings to life both the light and the dark sides of Charleston’s early history.
The Exchange Building is one of the last formal structures the British government built in America, and its Georgian Palladian architecture reflects the former ruler’s elegant and regal nature. The second floor’s great hall ironically became the meeting place of Charleston citizens to protest the Tea Act in 1773. Of course, being a fancy town, residents didn’t dump the tea into the harbor like Bostonians but, rather, stored it in the cellar and later sold it to back the patriot cause.
In 1780, the cellar became a provost, which held Charleston citizens seized by the British within its dank, musty walls. The British used the dungeon for their prisoners for two years, until they fled the city. The building’s sorted history, ranging from the balcony where the Declaration of Independence was read to the place where slaves were sold, makes it a fascinating national historic landmark.
Tour Charleston’s Ghost and History Tours draw upon how settlers built homes over 10,000 buried bodies and how dead pirates hung in town squares as warnings. The town is thought to be highly haunted, which is why generations of Caribbean immigrants have painted their homes Haint Blue, a color believed to keep spirits at a distance.
Haunting history tours continue in the harbor, as boats transport visitors to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired April 12, 1861. Soldiers at Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later, and the Union attempted to take it back for nearly four years. After the Civil War, soldiers manned the restored fort in the Spanish American and World wars.
Anyone interested in military endeavors and heroes can spend a full day exploring Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. Professional docents and veterans are available to guide people through the enormous aircraft carriers, such as the Yorktown, which carried an air group of 90 planes during World War II, served in the Vietnam War and recovered the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968. The Apollo 8 Mission Exhibit allows visitors to strap into capsule seats and experience a simulated lunar orbit.
The museum reenacts part of the Vietnam War experience through artifacts, audios and current technology that nearly trigger nervous systems into fight-or-flight. Self-guided submarine tours pay tribute to naval men and women who served during the Cold War, from 1947 to 1989, and the hot, cramped quarters provide a feel for the sacrifices military men and women made.
Whether war and freedom stir your spirit, or tales of pirates and ghosts send shivers up your spine, Charleston’s deep history will haunt you in the most satisfying ways.