Monday, March 17, 2008

I'm Back! Guess What I Did.

Charleston is my new favorite city. This was by far our best school trip so far. I did so many things and saw so much that I can't possibly tell you all of it, but I will try to give the short version. My one mistake is that I forgot my camera! Then again, if I did have it, I probably would have been so caught up in the moment that I'd have forgotten to take pictures anyway. Well, it just gives me an excuse to go back.

We left Wednesday from Newark (getting to that airport wasn't as bad an experience as I thought it would be, although I did have to wake up at 5:30 am, after having dreams about missing my flight!) and went from a gray cold New York morning to a warm sunny Charleston afternoon. I felt as if I'd entered the garden in "The Snow Queen" where it is perpetually summer. As soon as we arrived and checked into our hotel, I was out the door walking around downtown Charleston, falling in love with it. There were people sitting in doorways playing guitars, horsedrawn carriages going down cobblestone streets, hidden gardens visible through cast-iron gates, huge porches covered in flowering vines, camellias blooming everywhere, parks around every corner, fountains, Federal architecture, palm trees... you get the picture.

Our first group stop was at the Charleston Renaissance gallery, where we looked at southern art and empire furniture. Then we headed over to hear the keynote speaker for the opening of the Charleston Antiques Forum, a half-a-week long event with speakers every day on various topics within the antiques field. The keynote speaker happened to be the Countess of Arran, from England, who spoke for 2 hours about her house Castle Hill in Devonshire. She was very nice, but her slideshow included every single species of flower in her garden--she recited all their Latin names--and pictures of her children growing up, as well as her grandchild's first birthday party. But after that we had a delicous dinner and good rest.

Our hotel was very nice, within walking distance of everything that we needed to do. Plus, they served a wonderful continental breakfast as well as kept a tray of cookies out at all times during the afternoon for refreshment! On Thursday we spent the day touring early 19th century houses, such as the Nathaniel Russell house and the Aiken-Rhett house. Charleston is full of big beautiful houses that date from before the Civil War, when the Southerners were still rich. The reason that so many of these old houses survive to this day is because after the war the people were too poor to tear them down and build new things. Many of them have been passed down through Southern families and still contain many of their original furnishings, which make them fascinating to visit and study.

On Friday we attended one of the Antiques Forum lectures, which were held at Charleston's Gibbes Museum. Matthew Webster talked about Drayton Hall, a magnificent plantation house about an hour's drive from Charleston. He is the person in charge of the preservation and conservation of that historic home. After his talk we drove out to the house and Mr. Webster gave our class a private tour of the place, which is still gorgeous despite its state of disrepair. It was interesting to imagine what it must have been like when it was owned by one of the richest men in South Carolina, surrounded by rice fields (the major South Carolinian crop of the time) and furnished to the nines. Now it is empty, with peeling paint and bare floorboards, yet still retains its elegance.

The next stop, my favorite plantation on the trip, was Middleton Hall. Actually, the house no longer exists, as it was burned by the Yankees in the war, but one of its out-buildings has been restored and filled with objects from Middleton's history, including some of its furniture (Duncan Phyfe anyone?) and art. The plantation's magnificent gardens are kept up wonderfully, and the place has a functioning farm with sheep and a blacksmithy, where tourists can see what the old times were like. You can also tour the slave quarters, and have your mind boggle at the lives of these rich plantation owners, many of whom owned over a dozen plantations and thousands of slaves. But I loved the gardens here, which were extensive and seemed to go on forever. Here were the ancient live oaks (one was over 400 years old) dripping with Spanish moss, the reflecting pool with swans and ibises, grass so green it made us all want to do cartwheels, and a surprise around every turn, from an exquisite antique marble sculpture to a live alligator. Yes, there was actually a live alligator basking in the sun not a hundred feet from the garden path! But he didn't seem interested in us. The gnats were, though--I got more than a few bites...

I had the best Southern food at Jesstine's, and I'm just mad I didn't go back a second night during this trip, because it was SO good! The three things that make a great restaurant in my opinion are good napkins, lotion in the bathroom, and excellent really edible food. Jesstine's had all these qualities plus great prices and very nice service. I'll be back!

Another fun time was the Young Collector's Soiree which kicked off the Charleston Antiques Show (like the WAC only smaller and more Southern-oriented). It was more like a backyard wedding reception, held at a historic home, with an open bar and tons of appetizers. My classmates really had a blast with the drinks, and I just enjoyed watching them go crazy. We kind of formed our own section of the party, away from all the preppy pink-Lacoste-sweater-wearing Southern boys Lilly-Pulitzer-strapless-dress-wearing Southern girls. The best part: we all got gift bags with free Lancome makeup in them! The afterparty continued at the Rooftop Bar (I think it actually has a more elegant name than that) which had a pool, heated outdoor seating (the Charleston nights were chilly), a great view of the city, and terrible music. I went home at a decent hour, but apparently some of my classmates went to a church-turned-pub after that and danced into the wee hours.

But it was fine because we had all of Saturday to ourselves. I spent the morning at the Antiques Show, and at the art museum. They have a beautiful collection, a lot of portraits of Charleston's old and venerable citizens from years past. I was pleasantly surprised to see a portrait of Madame Gautreau (remember Madame X?) which she had painted after Sargent ruined her reputation. The painting isn't nearly as beautiful, but it was interesting to see how the artist used some of Sargent's same devices: her head in profile, one arm bent and the other straight. I can't remember right now who painted it, but I will check later.

I did some shopping, and found a great vintage clothing store, but I exercised restraint and didn't buy anything. I did, however, buy some yarn at a great store called Knit, which I wish was in New York! This was the best yarn store I've ever seen, and I think I found some stuff I can use to make one of my dresses. Hopefully. If not, I will make something fabulous out of it.

It was a beautiful day, but towards dusk the wind started to pick up and it rained, and before long there were tornado warnings in effect. Basically, there were tornados all around Charleston, but luckily none hit us! However, the next day there were trees down on the interstate, which made traffic terrible as we tried to drive to Millford Plantation. But the weather was back to being sunny and gorgeous, as if nothing had happened.

Millford Plantation was probably the most magnificent house we saw during the whole trip. But it's midnight and I'm really tired and so I think I'm going to finish this travelogue tomorrow...


Donnie Barnes said...

Our tourguide in Savannah, GA, on "spanish moss": "It is neither Spanish, nor moss..." I don't remember what it is, but I'll always remember what it isn't.

And on the restaurant thing...lotion?!? Seriously? Most folks I know prefer to pay for good food as well as service. Heck, I consider free after-dinner mints more important than lotion. But this might be one of those fundamental differences between boys and girls.

Sounds like a wonderful trip. I haven't been to Charleston since I was a fairly young child on a scout trip. Should definitely go back soon.

Lady Holiday said...

You are correct. "Spanish moss" is actually a bromeliad, not a moss at all. But if I were to talk about the Tillandsia usneoides hanging from the trees, nobody would know what I was talking about, except maybe the Duchess of Arran. :)

And I stick by my lotion criterion. I think bathrooms should have lotion, because you wash your hands and then they are all dry and uncomfortable. After dinner mints are okay in some situations, but if a restaurant is truly excellent, you will want to leave with the taste of dessert lingering in your mouth, not a peppermint candy.

Anyway, yes! Everyone should go to Charleston because it is a fantastic place. And if you go there, eat at Jesstine's and tell me what you think.

Donnie Barnes said...

Or you could have been really geeky and done "Spanish Moss." Wait, I'm the geeky one.

I agree on the dinner mints, but I often don't get dessert and in those situations I like the mint. Especially places that have quality mints. But I wasn't necessarily saying mints were a necessity, just that I put them higher on the ladder than lotion. Notice I did not argue about the napkin thing, however.