The big difference is that Charleston is a little more reserved in manors and not as exuberant as the home of Mardi Gras is. Other than that, Charleston is still filled with delectable restaurants, interesting old homes, cobblestone streets, southern hospitality, and an almost overpowering sense of history. It's the historical angle that's the biggest hook for me...of course hundreds of world class restaurants don't hurt either.
History abounds in Charleston and its citizens are justifiably proud of it...at least most of it. Most of the city still looks exactly like it did that night almost 140 years ago when the residents of the Battery looked out their front doors to see the first shots of the Civil War being fired in the bay. A dungeon sits just blocks away from where slave traders set up shop. Workers digging in a parking lot uncover the old moat where dozens of pirates were left to rot after they were hung.
It's also this history that makes Charleston a challenge for those who use wheels instead of feet to get around. Since it is a very old city...many houses are two to three hundred years old...historical accuracy rules over disabled access. Don't despair, though, Charleston is still a very worthwhile city to visit.
First the bad news. The old sidewalks here are made of great slabs of slate making for a very bumpy ride on many of them. Not impossible, but just bumpy. No historical bed and breakfast I contacted in the city had an accessible accommodation. They may be there...I hope they are...but none that I personally found. Some restaurants are upstairs, notably the famous..and haunted...Poogan's Porch.
Many fine antebellum plantations are open to the public in the surrounding countryside. These are inaccessible. Magnolia Plantation does have extensive gardens and hiking trails that are wheelchair friendly. We shanghaied some kind strangers to help carry our chair up the steps, but keep in mind there is no other way into the house.
Now the good news. Many quality hotel chains have set up shop here bringing accessibility with them. Among them, Quality Suites, Embassy Suites, and Holiday Inn. We stayed at Quality Suites in North Charleston for $89 which included full breakfast, complementary cocktails, and a 2-room accessible suite. I also recommend the brand new Quality Suites at the other end of the bay bridge in Mount Pleasant...a quick bus or taxi ride over the bridge into Charleston.
Some truly superb restaurants are completely accessible. Listen to live entertainment while sipping freshly brewed beer and eating smothered pork chops or barbecue at the marvelous Southend Brewery and Smokehouse which has three stories...all connected via elevator. Try the local specialty...she-crab soup...at A.W. Shuck's which is ramped up to its perch above the old market (she-crab soup is a chowder made with local female crabs and roe). And the seafood boil at Captain Stack's is a delicious way to people-watch in one of their big accessible front window tables.
To get a sense of history, just start walking around. The mansions on the Battery date back to the 18th century. Signers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence lie in the many historic cemeteries here. Off shore, the first shots of both the Civil ans Revolutionary wars were fired near and at Fort Sumter. Signers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence lie underneath the city.
To delve in deeper, take one of the many accessible walking tours of the city. Tour companies specialize in African-American history, Civil War History, Murder Mysteries, and more. We chose a nighttime walk concerned with Charleston's darker side entitled the "Ghost Walk" that takes you to just some of Charleston's most famous haunts.
This tour starts in a gas-lighted Civil War era square (day time Ghost Walks are also available) and takes you to such sights as an alley where duelers would settle their differences; the courthouse where 19th century mass murderers were tried after killing more than 50 guests of their inn; the house of the "doctor to the dead"; and the highlight, a dark and spooky walk through the three century old Unitarian cemetery. Spooky, yes. Educational, very. Fun, definitely.
Of course, the biggest event in the rich tapestry that is Charleston's history is the night when Confederate troops at Forts Johnson and Moultry fired on Union Troops stationed at Fort Sumter starting the Civil War. Like visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you cannot visit Charleston without seeing Fort Sumter.
Fort Sumter, now a national monument, is completely accessible with lifts taking you to its several levels. Unfortunately, the ferry that takes you there is not. A stairway must be negotiated to get onto the boat. Because they are a park service concessionaire, the crew are obligated to get you on nonetheless and they will cheerfully do so.
The fort is on a small island in the bay and can easily be seen in the 90 minutes the ferry company allows you to explore. Rangers are on hand to point out and interpret the various features and lore. One bit of information was that the world's first submarine, used to sink a Union ship during the war, sits on the bottom of the bay not far from Fort Sumter (It's the Hunley. It has been recovered since our trip and now has its own museum - Ed).
Charleston is served by major airlines such as US Air, Amtrak, and Greyhound. We flew into Charlotte, North Carolina, rented a van, and drove in. Accessible public transportation is very good here. The DASH shuttle bus system serves the historic core with fares ranging from free to 75 cents.
Curb cuts abound and some access is peculiar, such as the Battery sea wall has a ramp on one end only, necessitating a return trip to your starting point. The U.S. District Courthouse provides superb centrally located accessible restrooms for tourists (most businesses only serve paying customers) letting you avoid the much less desirable facilities in the parks.
Charleston is a great destination and, with just a little patience, can reward the disabled tourist with its rich history and southern charm.
Copyright 2001 - Darryl Musick