Visiting the magnificent “Belle of the South”—historic Charleston, South Carolina—has long been on my bucket list. So it is truly ironic that while I am finally experiencing its many charms that I receive an email that the prestigious Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s latest “Readers’ Choice” poll has just named it the number one destination city in the country and number two in the world, only behind Florence, Italy. (Yes, you read that right: Only Florence surpassed Charleston.) I heartily agree with those polled: This picturesque destination is one that should not be missed. In addition to its acclaimed culinary scene, the city’s historic downtown—situated on a peninsula formed by two rivers and buffered from the open ocean by several islands—is an architectural treasure. Foresighted historical preservation ordinances, height restrictions, and the fact that the area was captured in the Civil War without much damage to property have combined to create a skyline characterized primarily by church spires and few tall buildings where beautifully preserved examples of Colonial, Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian architecture abound on its cobblestone streets accented with copper gas-lit lanterns.
While here, we make our home away from home in the very posh, mansard-roofed Wentworth Mansion, an imposing structure that is thought to be the best example of Second Empire Style in the old city. A Member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World and Historic Hotels of America, this elegant inn makes us feel as if we were indeed living history—and in a grand style to which we become quickly accustomed. Built as the home of a wealthy cotton merchant in 1886, it underwent a painstaking restoration in the late 1990s in which many of the original architectural features, including Lewis Comfort Tiffany glass panels, matching crystal chandeliers from Europe, elaborate plasterwork, and pressed tin ceilings were maintained. Its guest rooms and suites are a lovely blend of the old—gas-lit fireplaces with original hand-carved marble mantels, king-size sleigh beds, and inlaid design floors and the new—whirlpool tubs, 27-inch flat screen, and iPod docking stations. The attentive staff and such thoughtful touches as fresh flowers, in-room refrigerators stocked with complimentary beverages and snacks, individually delivered morning newspapers with weather reports, and turn-down truffles combine to create Southern-style hospitality at its finest. These Yankees are charmed.
Explore: The Mansion’s location in the heart of the historic district is a pleasant stroll away from numerous attractions, eateries, and shopping on both King Street and at the unique City Market, one of the country’s oldest public markets where local wares and such handicrafts as the iconic sweetgrass baskets are made and sold. One afternoon we take a walking tour and another one via horse-drawn carriage to learn more about the marvelous old structures and the area’s fascinating history. Further afield, we spend an unforgettable day at the Magnolia Plantation touring the gardens, grand main house, and former slave quarters. Other outing options include visits to Fort Sumter and the South Carolina Aquarium. The Mansion’s 1,000-square-foot spa, housed in the former stables, provides a welcome respite after all that walking and touring. And do take some time to climb up to the inn’s rooftop cupola and watch the sun set from this unique spot offering splendid 360-degree views of the city and harbor.
Dine: This is not the place to watch your waistline—and fortunately, we do burn a lot of them walking around sightseeing each day. So we enjoy every last morsel—from the flaky fresh baked croissants and generously-sized pastries each morning in the parlor followed by the cooked-to-order breakfasts in Circa 1886, the inn’s restaurant, to the complimentary evening wine tasting on the porch with such delectable hors d’oeuvres as brie and pear brioche and steak tartar. Add in afternoon tea and lemonade plus complimentary sherry, port, and brandy in the parlor and we are hard pressed to make room for dinner—though very glad we do. Recipient of the prestigious DiRONA, AAA Four Diamond, and Forbes Four Star awards, Circa 1886, located in a former carriage house just across the lawn, presents an excellent innovative take on Southern cuisine. Hotel guests receive preferential seating and a special offer of three courses for $45 with paired wines that we enthusiastically recommend.
Insider Tips: The Mansion welcomes your furry family member in special dog-friendly accommodations with a package that includes a $25 gift card for lunch or brunch on the patio of a nearby eatery, homemade dog biscuits, and even a stylish Wentworth Mansion bandana. And if you can postpone your summer vacay to fall, October is the ideal month to visit Charleston; the weather is perfect and not too hot or humid.
Distance from NYC: 2 hour non-stop flight followed by a 25-minute drive (taxis are about $25) from Charleston International Airport. Details: Rates start at $390 per night and includes a Southern breakfast, afternoon tea and lemonade, and evening wine and hors d’oeuvres.
149 Wentworth St
(843) 853-1886 or (888) 466-1886; www.wentworthmansion.com