On our very first trip to Charleston, South Carolina way back in 2004 we visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Little did we know that 12 years later it would be “just down the road” from our son and daughter in law’s home. So after visiting Charleston numerous times we decided to revisited this gorgeous relic of the past on our most recent trip in May. We picked the perfect day to go because it was a weekday and slightly less crowded than on the weekends and the weather was perfect.
Our first tour was on The Nature Train which covered the grounds and introduced us to all of the flora and fauna on the plantation. It gave us a great overview and a good bit of history. All of the tour guides weave a wonderful tale of life on a plantation.
Founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, Magnolia Plantation has survived the centuries and witnessed the history of our nation unfold before it from the American Revolution through the Civil War and beyond. It is the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry, and the oldest public gardens in America, opening its doors to visitors in 1870 to view the thousands of beautiful flowers and plants in its famous gardens. There are actually 5 different tour opportunities and we took advantage of all of them. There were a few new things to see from our last visit so we were happy to spend the entire day there. We started with the Nature Train which was a 45 minute trip that took us passed the former rice fields where we saw a multitude of birds drying their feathers along with families of turtles and alligators basking the sunshine. It also took us past the slave cabins but we didn’t stop to visit them on this particular tour. We ended at the main house with its kitchen and cutting garden in front and a spectacular view of a lake with one of the most photographed bridges in the world. I felt like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind!
Our tour of the residence gave us some insight into the life of the plantation owners over the centuries. Fires and war destroyed the home and with each rebuild the house grew to its present size. Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann arrived from Barbados to the new English colony of Charles Towne and established Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River in 1676. Thomas and Ann were the first in a direct line of Magnolia family ownership that has lasted more than 300 years and continues to this day. It was lived in by descendants of the original owners until recently so there are only a total of ten rooms that are included in the tour, each with authentic glimpses into the everyday life of the plantation-era home, as well as its wealthy Charleston owners.
After a quick lunch at the picnic benches we departed on a journey dubbed the From Slavery to Freedom Tour. This gave a great deal of insight into the lives of the slaves living and working on the property. Though not free, they did lead a civilized life and were given cabins to live in and were treated fairly (or so we are told). A descendent of a slave who was the gardener is still living on the property and is the Head Gardener today! Now that’s loyalty. Of most interest to me were the stoves and cooking vessels. If the cabin was a bit larger there was a fireplace for heating and cooking but for some only an iron stove.
After that we took a leisurely stroll through the magnificent gardens before boarding The Nature Boat which showed us where the rice was produced back in the day. Carolina Gold rice is still grown in South Carolina but not on the plantation. It is prized for its rich taste and texture and is as expensive as gold. I can attest to the flavor because I have cooked with it on many occasions and it is definitely worth the extra money.
Our little jaunt to the Petting Zoo made us feel like kids! All sorts of creatures were roaming freely and very friendly to visitors. Deer who normally are very skittish were so calm that I could pet them. Geese and ducks waddled past us along with all sorts of other fowl including exquisite peacocks and their mates. The peacocks were quite happy to give us a spectacular show by fanning their tails all the way out. The colors were just breathtaking.
We ended our visit with a walking tour of the Audubon Swamp Gardens which was peaceful and serene with the one exception of a brief encounter with a baby alligator inches from our feet on the walking path. Fortunately it was more afraid of us than we were of it and it scampered off into the water pausing just long enough for me to get a photo.
If you are headed to Charleston I highly recommend planning a visit to the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. It is a fabulous learning experience and it is gorgeous as well!