Charleston's elite planters accrued their considerable fortunes on cotton, rice, and indigo crops, a legacy revealed in several magnificent plantations that have been converted to living-history museums. Among these expansive estates, Boone Hall Plantation (1235 Long Point Rd., Mount Pleasant, 843-884-4371, $17.50, http://boonehallplantation.com) is particularly notable for its graceful gardens of centuries-old heirloom roses, exhibits and daily theatrical presentations that interpret local Gullah culture, and striking "allee of oaks" - a half-mile driveway framed by 260-year-old oak trees draped with live moss.
You'll find several other worthy plantations along Ashley River Road. Magnolia Plantation (3550 Ashley River Rd., 800-367-3517, $15, www.magnoliaplantation.com) stands out for its turreted mansion and ancient swamp garden, boat tours through a flooded former rice plain, and a petting zoo and nature center. The architectural gem among the group, Middleton Place (4300 Ashley River Rd., 800-782-3608, $25, www.middletonplace.org) comprises a 1755 redbrick house-museum and 65 acres of ornamental ponds and flower gardens. You can also stay at a posh, contemporary hotel - the Inn at Middleton Place - which adjoins the plantation property, and dine on outstanding Lowcountry cuisine at Middleton Place Restaurant.
One of America's five largest and wealthiest cities during the Colonial era, dignified and well-preserved Charleston rewards you with history that you actually want to see: antebellum art and architecture as well as important sites related to the Revolutionary and Civil wars and the nation's early commercial and maritime histories.
At the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, this city of 125,000 is flanked by a series of barrier beach communities abundant with swanky golf and spa resorts. This is the heart of South Carolina's fabled Lowcountry, a sweeping coastal landscape of undulating sand dunes and reedy salt marshes that's noted for its African-American Gullah culture and a beloved seafood-driven cuisine that combines Caribbean, African, and Southern traditions.
Charleston has won another travel honor.
Travel + Leisure Magazine on Monday named Charleston the friendliest city in the nation. The magazine also named the city tops in bed and breakfasts, inns and antique stores.
Last month, Charleston was listed among the nation's top destinations by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Charleston placed second behind San Francisco.
About 4 million people visit Charleston each year.
Charleston and the rest of the South Carolina coast are the heart of the state's $18 billion tourism industry.