Saturday, January 31

southern hospitality

I think I'm officially too old for hostels, or at least American hostels. Let's imagine your house, a 2500 square foot home perhaps. Proceed to jam every bedroom with at least three pairs of bunk beds, add some non-matching furniture that you picked up from someone's lawn because it was being thrown away, and don't clean the bathroom for a good five years. Needless to say, I look forward to getting out west and staying in cockroach motels with mattresses that sink a foot in the middle and boast color television as their top amenity.

Actually, the hostel in Charleston was not too bad, but I say that because late January is not tourist season and I had an eight bed room to myself.

Charleston, on the other hand, was an extremely charming city. You could easily get lost downtown just wandering the streets looking at historic homes and the many parks. The finely restored antebellum architecture was fascinating in and of itself, but what caught my eye was the lushness of the landscaping. Trees, flowers and shrubbery were everywhere: on the sidewalks, in the alleys, even parking lots looked like garden paradises. Everything was a dark shade of green which was a beautiful contrast with the surrounding architecture.

Despite the foreboding skies, I thoroughly enjoyed my morning strolling the cobblestone streets. Small parks would invite you in with a sort of dark intimacy created by dense vegetation and trees whose branches weaved a roof of leaves, nearly blocking out the sky. The cemeteries were just as welcoming, small clusters of headstones surrounded on three sides by buildings whose walls would rise up only inches away from the outer graves. And if, for a minute, you thought the city couldn't be more charming, nearly every restaurant and hotel had little gas lamps adorning the walls. If there is a Utopian city, Charleston is about as close as you get. It didn't matter that I am a twenty-something from Michigan, I had a strong feeling of nostalgia for pre-war southern life.

I traveled next to Magnolia Plantation, established in 1676 by the Drayton family and said to be the oldest plantation in the south (It has remained in the Drayton family for 15 generations). The site is primarily known for its gardens, which Reverend John Drayton created after he inherited the property in 1840. Following the Confederacy's defeat and the burning of his house by freed slaves, a bankrupt Reverend was forced to open the plantation to tourists, allegedly making it the first man-made tourist attraction in the United States.

The property is beautiful and its most defining feature is the exquisite garden surrounded by Oak trees covered in Spanish Moss. Unfortunately, the dark skies and winter conspired to make all my pictures give the impression I was in a desolate place far from any civilization.

While the sheer variety of fauna in the gardens was incredible, I found the whole experience a little haunting and slightly detached from reality. Less than seventy years ago, the gardens were tended by the descendants of slaves and before that, hundreds of slaves toiled in the rice fields. Following a day standing in the footsteps of people who, despite all odds, contributed to the success of this country, I was now walking through fields once occupied by the men and women upon whose backs the country was built. Today the primary gardeners are white men with mullets and camouflage cargo pants who stand up as they ride ATVs around the plantation. A tour of the property certainly didn't add to the perception I already had that the south may never get over its' history rooted in slavery.

The plantation grounds house approximately fifty alligators, a fact pointed out nearly a dozen times by the tour guide. I was hoping to get some history of the place--because the brochures offered squat--but we must have spent thirty minutes talking about alligators and stopping to let the other tourists take pictures of alligator after alligator. How many pictures of inanimate alligators can you take before they all look the same? When you're retired with a camera and nothing else better to do the answer is a million. In any case, after a lengthy discussion of the eating habits of alligators we headed towards the cabins where the slaves used to live. We were on a tram and as we turned the corner and came into view of the cabins, the guide actually sped up and quickly said, "AndHereAreWhereSlavesLivedUntil1940...Who wants to see more alligators!" Everyone let up a cheer and we zoomed by the cabins. Not one person took a picture. And with that I left and began the short drive to Savannah.

Savannah was everything Charleston was not: boring and uninspiring. The visitor center claimed that Savannah was the first "planned" city and the past few years have been spent restoring a square-mile historic district. Granted, many of the squares containing statues to Southern Civil War heroes were nice places to sit and avoid the commotion of the city streets. However, similar squares exist in a million other cities and nothing about Savannah really endeared it in my mind as unique. Even the famed Riverfront, while better than Detroit's equal, looked out upon factories coughing up black smoke and barges moving supplies up the Savannah River. I promptly left for Atlanta.

More pictures here.


  1. Hey Erik,
    Thoroughly enjoying your blog, particularly the oddball stories of hostels, retirees, etc. Don't know if you recall, but we all visited Ft. Sumter in Charleston when you were about 10 or 12 years old. Somehow, we missed seeing all the interesting stuff you saw and just to a boat out to the fort and back. Of course, it was one of those trips where we drove a "gas-guzzling minivan that looked like a cereal box on wheels". lol

  2. I agree with Pops. Great pictures and I love the personal touches. I enjoy the commentary through your perspective. Remember all the epic sandcastles! I'm glad the traveling bug finally bit you. Your grandpa Tunstall would be envious. ..Perhaps a budding Bill Bryson! You’ve got his biting sense of humor. Keep it up!
    Love ya, theltkid

  3. I didn't know you where traveling through Charleston! Henry and I fell in love with that city two years ago. Even had several personal encounters with those alligators at Magnolia Plantation though we had not been warned about them by the tour guides. We just came across them in our walks. Scared me to death when it was a few feet away. To make them less scary, we started naming them. That was Laverne and Shirley that you got to see there.

    Can't wait to read about what else you are visiting! We are heading to Vegas ourselves next month. Happy travels!