Channeling her inner Scarlett in Charleston

WAG Wanderer Debbi Kickham finds the South Carolina city a history lover’s delight.

I rock. Yes, I really do. Because the Belmond Charleston Place in Charleston, South Carolina, says so.

This luxury hotel’s “Do Not Disturb” sign is a little bag — which used to hold grits — and is now weighed down with a rock, for three reasons. One is to let you know about the hotel’s warm stone massages in the spa. Two is to keep the privacy bag in place when hung on the doorknob. And three is to congratulate you for making the rock-solid right choice of hotel in Charleston.

You not only rock when you visit the Belmond Charleston Place — you rule. This charming hotel features an exquisite Tara-like staircase in its lobby, its very presence signaling the height of Southern luxury to come in your stay. In other words, Scarlett O’Hara would have felt right at home here (especially since Charleston is where her husband, Rhett Butler, heads after he leaves her at the end of “Gone With the Wind”).

The grand staircase with an impressive chandelier made from hand-blown Murano glass. Photograph by Joe Vaughn. Courtesy Hotel Belmond Charleston.

“I’m going to Charleston, back where I belong” Clark Gable’s Rhett tells Vivien Leigh’s weeping Scarlett. “I want to see if somewhere there isn’t something left in life of charm and grace.” Charm and grace: We found that and more. 

At the Belmond, we were happily ensconced in a deluxe room featuring all modern luxuries and an extremely comfortable bed. We especially enjoyed staying on the seventh floor, which allows guest access to the Club Lounge. I encourage you to go for it: All day long there are food presentations, including a luscious spread for continental breakfast, snacks for lunch, great appetizers for dinnertime and, finally at 8 p.m., yummy desserts and cordials. Staying on a Club floor is well worth it (our room was about $499 for a double) and the service is incomparable.  (Make sure to order the delicious peach iced tea.)

When you can drag yourself away from the Belmond — which we found very hard to do — take a delightful “Charleston Strolls” history tour of the area ($25 per person). Actually, the hotel is located in a special section of Meeting Street that is called Museum Mile. It includes six museums, five historic houses, four parks and numerous historic houses of worship and public buildings. Our guide, Nancy, provided vivid descriptions of the area and was a walking encyclopedia of all things Charleston.

A brief history lesson: Charleston was settled in 1680 by English colonists on land granted by King Charles II and thus called Charles Towne. By the early 1800s, Charleston had become a very busy seaport and a desirable place to live and do business, almost as significant as New York. Charleston’s wealth and opulence bred an aristocratic society that had a lively interest in the arts. Even as early as the 1700s, in the first census of the city, nine of the 10 richest men in America lived there. And their homes showed it. Charleston boasts numerous mansions dressed with lustrous marble floors, fine chandeliers, silk draperies and prized furnishings. The first types of preservation laws were passed here. Not only is Charleston seen as the perfect 18th-century American city but it is also the number one wedding destination in the States (beating out Las Vegas) — even though a judge at the time described Charleston as “too small to be a republic but too large to be an insane asylum.” 

Exterior details. Photograph by Alex Fox. Courtesy Hotel Belmond Charleston.

In truth, Charleston is one of those rare cities, which has paid a lot of attention to preserving its past. The cobblestone streets immediately transport you back to another time. Look around, and you’ll see copper lanterns, hitching posts and other visual elements helping to create memorable streetscapes. Look for Carolopolis Award plaques, which have been awarded to owners who preserved or replicated historic properties. Inside and out, you’ll enjoy a visual feast of ornate plasterwork, period antiques, paneled ballrooms, formal gardens and more. It’s no wonder these reflections of colonial wealth helped position the downtown area to be designated a National Historic Landmark. 

My tour included a visit to the Nathaniel Russell House, designed by architect Robert Adam. At the time of its occupancy, living conditions were primitive: There was no heat, electricity or plumbing. But the house did have 22-karat-gold moldings, 14-foot ceilings and enough trompe l’oeil painting to keep many artists busy. The home’s prized possession is the large portrait of Mary Rutledge Smith, which was painted by one George Romney (yes, of that Romney family). Private tours here are at once $12 per person and priceless. 

After your tour, make sure to stroll down Tradd Street, which has been dubbed “America’s most perfect 18th-century street.” I also stopped at The Shops of Historic Charleston Foundation, which carries an abundance of local goodies, such as Benne sesame wafers (and yes, they are indeed delicious). You’ll also find the area’s noteworthy cheddar biscuits in addition to a plethora of home décor. And pineapple decorations everywhere, the fancy fruit being, after all, the trademark of hospitality. 

How else should you spend your time? You can browse the lovely shops in the hotel or schedule a horse-and-buggy ride to see the sights in a truly charming way. 

Can’t do it all in one afternoon? Don’t worry. As Scarlett herself would say, “Tomorrow is another day.”

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