Once, Charleston plantations were the engine that drove the economy of the Lowcountry. They were enormous farms that grew multiple agricultural products and were driven by slave labor. They reached their height before the Civil War. Now, the grand homes showcase the foundations of our nation's history and the Gullah-Geechee culture that influenced the Lowcountry.
Visitors can stroll through majestic gardens, see original slave cabins and admire towering oak trees that have survived the centuries. From carefully manicured grounds to special events for the whole family, each plantation boasts a unique experience.
For a detailed history lesson, go to McLeod Plantation on James Island, the closest plantation to the Charleston peninsula. This 37-acre former Sea Island cotton plantation is not as well known among tourists but is well regarded among curators of African-American history. The grounds include a row of still intact original slave cabins, an antebellum house and the McLeod Oak that's thought to be more than 600 years old. Guided tours focus on the daily lives of enslaved people and the transition to freedom for the hundreds of African Americans who lived at the plantation.
For multiple tours in the plantation district on Ashley River Road, you have choices.
Architecture buffs will delight in touring the Georgian Palladian home of Drayton Hall, which dates to the mid-18th century and is considered the oldest preserved plantation house in America that's still open to the public. While the interior is unfurnished, visitors can view some of the Drayton family's artifacts on display at the plantation's Sally Reahard Visitor Center. The tours are best in the spring and the fall, as summer months can be hot.
There's plenty to see at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens on Ashley River Road, which is touted as America's oldest romantic-style garden and the oldest tourist site in the Lowcountry. Visitors will find the iconic white bridge, a swamp garden, exotic birds and a petting zoo - don't let the goats steal anything from your pockets! A children's garden set to open in the fall will appeal to the five senses and give kids a chance to get their hands dirty.
For views of breathtaking gardens any time of the year, visit Middleton Place, also on Ashley River Road. There's always something in bloom at this plantation that's home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the country. Wander the 65-acre gardens to find more than 4,000 camellias that bloom in the winter months and azaleas that burst with color in the spring. For a step back in time, tour the 18th-century home and the working stableyards. Before you leave, fill up on traditional Lowcountry fare at Middleton Place Restaurant.
Others to visit
Boone Hall Plantation
If you want to visit a plantation featured in TV shows and movies such as "The Notebook," head to Boone Hall in Mount Pleasant. A canopy of live oak trees draped with Spanish moss leads to the Georgian-designed mansion that was built in 1936 to replace the original house. Take a coach tour, see the brick slave quarters or plan your visit around one of Boone Hall's events, such as the annual oyster roast or the strawberry festival.
Tucked away in rural Santee Delta north of McClellanville, Hampton Plantation once prospered as a Colonial-era rice plantation. Its Georgian-style mansion and natural beauty remain. Tour the home, explore two miles of walking trails among the former rice fields and snap a photo of the mighty live oak that George Washington reportedly advised not cutting down in 1791.
If you visit Hampton Plantation, make the 10-minute trip north to Hopsewee Plantation near Georgetown. It's a former rice plantation and the birthplace of Thomas Lynch Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The 18th-century home overlooking the North Santee River is furnished with antiques, and though it is a private residence, it is open for tours.