One hundred and fifty years ago, this place was a hellhole. Screaming 200-pound shells packed with incendiary explosives were raining down on the quiet streets of this gracious southern town. Charleston was in the cross hairs of Union troops who were determined to take her captive.
Today, as we commemorate the Civil War's sesquicentennial, this South Carolina city attracts a new kind of attention. For two years running, Charleston has won Conde Nast's Top U.S. City Award, as well as being named Top World Destination in 2012.
Despite a four-year siege on her harbor, Charleston emerged from the war relatively unscathed. Much like Savannah, stately stucco and brick buildings dating back to the 1700s still line the cobblestone streets. Soaring steeples top masterfully ornate churches, and even the old Citadel has been reincarnated as an Embassy Suites.
Charleston's celebrated shopping district, King Street, is a brilliant marriage of antebellum architecture, trendy cafes and high-end merchants. Young and old stroll the sidewalks toting shopping bags touting labels from Juicy Couture and the Gap. Free shuttles rumble along the streets, bells clanging, as passengers pull the cord to signal their stop.
But Charleston's charm isn't just measured in its stately southern mansions and sprawling oaks laced with fingers of Spanish moss. This city embodies the term "Southern hospitality." From the celebrated restaurants to the richly appointed hotels and inns, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't say "yes, sir" and "yes, ma'am" with heartfelt exuberance. It's a display of manners reminiscent of Charleston's past as a place influenced by European high society.
Touring Charleston is as easy as driving to the downtown visitors' center and parking your car. From there, Gray Line takes you on a guided tour detailing 300 years of history and 100 places of interest. My daughter and I followed the Civil War track, adding Fort Sumter to our itinerary. As we walked the stone ruins, we began to feel what it must have been like to defend this critical military instillation. Charleston was the birthplace of secession, and Fort Sumter saw the opening shots of the Civil War.
Across Charleston Harbor we could see a second stronghold for the Confederate troops -- Fort Moultrie. For almost two years, federal forces bombarded Moultrie and the other harbor forts. The Confederates fought back with cannon and a new form of technology called a submarine -- little more than a death trap for the men who ran the hand-cranked propeller in what amounted to an old boiler.
Sumter and Moultrie survived the attacks and are powerful reminders of our nation's struggle to stay unified in the face of grave differences. And Charleston serves as a city of resilience -- her people ever gracious and acutely aware of the way history shaped her.
The Gray Line Tours website is http://www.graylineofcharleston.com.