Ins & Outs: Charleston's Ashley River plantations
More than 4 million people visit Charleston every year, but only a fraction of them travel less than half an hour north of the city to the legendary plantations along the Ashley River. Of the three surviving plantations, Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, offers the most complete picture of 18th- and 19th-century plantation life: the rice culture, its dependence upon slave labor, and the opulence to which the Carolina planter families grew accustomed.
Middleton Place has a variety of admission packages depending on how much you want to spend and how long you think your legs will hold out. A full day includes tours of the gardens, house, stable yards, and the African American Focus Tour, which begins at Eliza's House and includes the rice fields, mill, plantation chapel, and slave cemetery. Then, climb aboard a 12-person, horse-drawn carriage and sit down for an hour's ride through woodlands and bamboo groves. All of this is yours for $39 per person. Each is also priced separately, and this summer there's a family special: Children under 15 are admitted to the garden free. Middleton Place: 4300 Ashley River Road, Charleston, S.C. 29414; (800) 782-3608. (www.middletonplace.org.)
For a lovely few days in the gorgeous Carolina countryside, or if you plan to visit all three plantations, you will want to stay on the Ashley River Road. The modern, luxurious Inn at Middleton Place is a counterpoint to the plantation itself. Its 55 rooms are tucked away in three buildings in the woods. Each room has a wood-burning fireplace, floor-to-ceiling windows, European baths, refrigerators, and coffeemakers. A full breakfast is served each morning, and admission to Middleton Place is included in the room rental, as is a wine-and-cheese reception at the Outdoor Center. Better yet: Take your own bottle of wine and drink it watching the sun slip slowly into the Ashley.
Room rates range from $139 to $199 per night, depending on the season and day of the week (spring weekends are the most costly). There's a two-night minimum on weekends. If you plan to go in spring, make reservations months in advance. The Inn: 4290 Ashley River Road, Charleston, S.C. 29414; telephone: (800) 543-4774; fax (843) 556-5673. To make reservations online contact: Reservations@TheInnatMiddletonPlace.com. (sites.slicker.com).
Drayton Hall, about 8 miles south of Middleton on the Ashley River Road, was built by John Drayton in 1742; it is possibly the oldest example of Georgian Palladian architecture in the United States. Now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Drayton is an architectural museumthere are no furnishings. Professionally guided house tours begin on the hour.
Each December, Drayton Hall hosts African-American spiritual concerts by candlelight in the great hall of the house, a rare opportunity to hear music sung centuries ago in the fields and "praise houses" that surrounded Drayton Hall. Concert tickets include a catered reception and informal tours of the house. Tickets are $35 for adults and $30 for Friends of Drayton Hall. Call 843-769-2605 for information and reservations. Drayton Hall: 3380 Ashley River Road, Charleston, S.C. 29414; phone: (843) 769-2600. Open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults. For a schedule of special events go to: www.draytonhall.org.
Magnolia Plantation, just north of Drayton Hall, is noted for its 50-acre 19th-century garden. The house, rebuilt after the Civil War, contains antiques and portraits, as well as an art gallery and gift shop. Basic admission is $14 for adults; the house tour, boat or tram ride, and the cypress swamp are all an additional $7 each, or $42 for the package. Grounds are open from 8 a.m. to dusk, 365 days a year. Magnolia Plantation and Its Gardens: 3550 Ashley River Road, Charleston, S.C. 29414; phone: (800) 367-3517 or (843) 571-1266. (www.magnoliaplantation.com) -Amanda Spake