Spanish moss wrapped around ancient oak trees lends a sleepy, lost-in-time texture to the elegant and historic city of Charleston, S.C., but there is nothing somnolent about this charming town that is currently booming with vitality — in a refined Southern way, of course.
The sightseeing choices are endless, particularly the architectural delights in the stunning residential district known as the Battery, where handsome homes reveal porticos, piazzas, staircases and doorways done in Italianate, Federal, Victorian, Adamesque, Georgian and Grecian styles– a true smorgasbord of designs.
Civil War-era cannons face Charlestown harbor, where visitors view the famous spot where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter. You can even take a boat ride out to the rocky island.
Through the Historic District, pedestrians wander through hidden alleys, stately homes, manicured gardens and tree-canopied streets, and discover how a bygone era exists comfortably with a vibrant present.
While Charleston is certainly a walking city, horse-drawn carriage rides are great fun as they clip-clop through the pleasant city streets; pedicabs, which can take two passengers through the historic district, are also available.
The open-air Old City Market, in the heart of town, is a shopper's delight, with even more stores and boutiques bordering both sides of the market (seagrass baskets are the regional specialty).
On King Street, former Philadelphian Ben Silver operates an upscale clothing store (and one in London), along with many other fine clothiers.
And the antebellum homes, so exquisitely preserved, are true gems to explore.
Outside of the city, Drayton Hall Mansion is in an architectural class by itself. Preserved from 1742, it is a magnificent 700-acre former rice plantation. Seven generations later, it is still without running water, electric lighting and central heating; yet in its day, it hosted some of the most important citizens in the New World.
It is the oldest surviving example of its kind in the American South. Close by, Middleton Place is another great plantation and boasts the nation's oldest landscaped gardens; it also has an inn and cozy restaurant.
Charlestonians — understandably proud of their historic city, established in 1670 — call those not born in this town "people from 'off.' " Nevertheless, it remains a community of warmth and intimacy that extends quickly to newcomers and visitors alike.
Perhaps that's why so many folks are buying second homes here, a relatively recent addition to Charleston and one that may, in fact, change its very fabric.
Typical of the cultured life of the city, in addition to fine galleries and museums, is the annual Spoleto Festival with dazzling, international performers creating an artistic mecca of civilized culture.
Interestingly, one of Charleston's many nicknames is the Holy City; it is understandable, as one sees the many churches and synagogues on nearly every corner.
A chance remark by a new acquaintance, resident Ellen Berger, planning her 13-year-old daughter's Bat Mitzvah, informed me that Charleston is acknowledged as the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States.
"You must speak with Jonathan Ray," I was advised by Ellen (considered a person from "off"), who knew I was anxious to learn about Jewish life in this interesting city. "He is the concierge at the Market Pavilion Hotel whose family came here many generations ago, and he really knows the Jewish community well."
I found Ray at his desk in the elegant, four-year-old hotel that serves as the newest jewel in downtown Charleston; the youthful-looking 48-year-old seemed to have all the answers for the sophisticated clientele that was always gathered around his area.
"There is a wonderful history of the Jewish population here in Charleston," he began, "and a quietly dynamic vitality here today. Did you know that there are over 6,000 Jews in this city? The community is very cohesive — very close-knit and an integral part of the Charleston scene.
"And our three synagogues are each very vital and interact all the time with the community at large."
For a Jewish traveler visiting Charleston in December, the choices of where to celebrate the joyful holiday of Chanukah can prove to be exciting, yet challenging.
Should it be Reform Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim joining with the Jewish Community Center in an East Cooper Jewish Community Dinner on Dec. 17? Or maybe the Conservative Congregation Emanu-El having a Chanukah dinner and "parlor party" with congregants participating in play-acting on Dec. 22? Or the Orthodox Congregation Brith Sholom Beth Israel presenting Shlock Rock, the music group, at a family-style dinner on Dec. 17?
And, of course, there is Dr. Martin Perlmutter, professor of Jewish studies at the College of Charleston, who will light the giant menorah at Marion Square near the striking Holocaust Memorial, also on Dec. 17.
With obvious pride, Ray spoke about his family's past: "My family can trace its heritage back to the Inquisition. Our name was Lazarus, and among the many Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492 from Spain, they traveled to France, Amsterdam and Barbados, arriving in Charles Town in 1712. There were more Jews here than in any other place in the states."
Ray's parents raised their three sons in Charleston. "Although I've lived all over the world," he said, "I've never seen such a warm, welcoming community as there is here — among Jews and non-Jews."
There is a comforting feeling in this serene, aristocratic city, which has many modern amenities yet retains an appealing old-world-style Southern charm in its personality.
Walking a few blocks from the Market Pavilion Hotel to Kahal Kadosh, I was was greeted by 92-year-old Harold Jacobs ("an icon in this city," I was told) who was waiting to join me at Shabbat services.
Standing in front of the handsome temple — fronted by a graceful iron fence dating from 1819 — a huge marble tablet proclaims the Shema in Hebrew.
According to Michael Feldburg, director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York, "Jewish Carolinians set the standard for Jews in America."
Several tour guides focus on Jewish life here. Rhetta Mendelsohn offers specialized tours, and Janice Kahn calls her private tours "Chai Y'All."
To learn more, call the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 843-853-8000.