Good Life

Charleston’s long road to becoming a top destination city

Folly Beach is a popular tourist attraction in Charleston, S.C., which was named the top city in the world last year for Travel and Leisure Magazine.
Folly Beach is a popular tourist attraction in Charleston, S.C., which was named the top city in the world last year for Travel and Leisure Magazine. Tribune News Service

Whatever brings people to Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry — tourism, school, work or retirement — each leaves with a lasting impression. Maybe it’s golf on the Ocean Course, shrimp and grits served along Shem Creek, a day at historic rice plantations or surfing at Folly Beach. One visit is not enough — just a taste of the Lowcountry makes one want to return.

Native Americans came to the Atlantic Ocean and tidal rivers that lead to sand beaches, salt marshes and sea islands millennia ago to raise their families and enjoy the shrimp, oysters and lush lands of the Lowcountry. In the 1670s, they were displaced by the British, who built plantations that would make Charleston one of the wealthiest cities in the American Colonies. Merchants, planters, craftsmen, farmers and workers came together to buy, sell and trade. Slaves, brought from rice planting regions of West Africa for their skills and labor, were vital to the wealth of the region with its Carolina Gold.

Charleston’s economic success led to a sophisticated city known for its culture, religious freedom and prominence in political issues, such as those that shaped the American Revolution, the development of the United States Constitution and some of the causes of the American Civil War (the late unpleasantness).

Charleston’s fate turned as the political unrest in the South grew. The Civil War began in 1861 with shots fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Four years of bombardment leveled the city. Defeat and reconstruction kept it in poverty for decades. Plantations were ruined, rice wealth disappeared. Further blows included an earthquake in 1886, hurricanes, tornadoes, depression and two world wars. Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” which opened in 1935, showed a life far from reality for the descendants of slaves from rice plantations, the Gullah people of Charleston’s Catfish Row.

But times have changed. Poverty in Charleston left many Civil War era buildings “unimproved” and available. The first preservation society in America was created in 1920 to save Charleston’s history and last year, Travel and Leisure Magazine voted Charleston the No. 1 city in the world.The Gullah, descendants of slaves from rice plantations with their own unique language and culture, have become known as weavers of the sweetgrass baskets seen throughout the Lowcountry. The buildup for World War II brought a shipyard and naval base that closed in the mid-1990s, but the economy did not slump even through the great recession of 2007-08. Boeing built a large plant in 2009 that is expanding rapidly. New business startups are numerous, and tourism is at an all-time high.

Charleston is a beautiful city with a long history that defines its people, environment, culture and direction. Festivals, including Spoleto, are held throughout the year to appeal to any interest. Azalea season is not to be missed. Visiting plantations. Shopping on King Street. There are too many ways to experience Charleston to mention — each a taste of Charleston.

OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — will offer more than 130 courses this semester. Sandy Lopez will lead a course called “A Taste of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry.” To receive a free catalog for the spring semester, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit

Sandy Lopez lived in Charleston for 25 years and specialized as a sociologist in family and American culture before retiring.