People often ask, "Which Charleston plantation is the best? Which one should we visit on our vacation?"
Honestly, it's an impossible question to answer. The four historic plantations just outside Charleston that are open to visitors-Boone Hall, Drayton Hall, Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens-are each spectacular, and each worth your time to visit.
They are also quite different, in feel, in history, in the experience you'll have there. Comparing them is like comparing apples to oranges to bananas to strawberries. Each has some amazing things that set them apart, things you can see no where else.
Knowing what to look for and expect can help you plan your visit. Or, just maybe, it will convince you to visit all four.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is justifiably famous for its gorgeous, enormous, mesmerizing romantic-style gardens. These are gardens are both the largest and the last of the grand-scale romantic gardens in the US. They look and feel like something you dreamed up in childhood. Azaleas twice your height covered in pink, white and purple blooms, centuries-old camellias, cypress trees standing in glossy black water crisscrossed by white wooden bridges that look like something from a fairy tale. And all laced with meandering gravel walking paths that lead you from one breathtaking view to the next.
Oh, and alligators. Yes, big dinosaur-like reptilian alligators all over the place, peaking their beady little eyes out of the lime-green duckweed floating on the water. Don't worry, they won't bother you. They're exceedingly shy.
What? Your daydream gardens don't contain alligators? Well, that's why you should head to Magnolia. You'll see that they can both be part of the dream.
Behind the ruins of what was once an enormous house, on the other side of the sweeping meadow, the lawn steps down to the river like a staircase made for a giant. At its base, two lakes, mirror images of each other, reflect the blue sky.
Middleton Place's famous terraced lawn and Butterfly Lakes are renowned for a reason. They might be the most beautiful earthworks in the entire world. You really have to see it to believe it. Yes, that's a cliche. But it also happens to be true in this case.
The draw at Drayton Hall is the house itself. It's the only main plantation house that survived Gen. Sherman's march to the sea at the end of the Civil War. Houses at the other plantations were either built after the war or are one of the smaller out buildings that survived.
And what a house Drayton Hall is. Built in 1738, the house is being preserved in its original state. That means no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no air conditioning, no screens on the windows, no Sheetrock on the walls. It's also the finest example of Palladian architecture in America. A tour, by one of the truly fantastic tour guides, is a trip back in time. Never thought you could be this fascinated by architecture before? You'll be a fan by the end of the tour. Make sure you look for the Drayton family's growth chart, stretching back over 100 years and etched in pencil on a door jamb, and the luxurious 8-seat brick outhouse. (Your teenage boys will particularly love that.)
Boone Hall is one of the oldest continually operated farm in America, growing food for more than 320 years. But it isn't the food grown there, as delicious as it may be, that makes Boone Hall amazing. It's the trees.
Boone Hall is home to the Avenue of Oaks, a ¾ -mile long stretch of driveway flanked by enormous live oaks first planted in 1743. The trees are now so big that they form an arching green canopy overhead. If you have a sense of deja vu driving down that allee, it might be because you actually have seen those trees before. They have been featured in movies and television shows, and some say they were the inspiration for the famed oak allee in Gone with the Wind. Right next to the oaks are nine intact slave cabins that once housed 18 enslaved families, the only brick "slave street" still in existence in the US.