South Carolina is one of the top vacation destinations in the U.S., largely because it has a little bit of everything: resort beaches like the renowned Myrtle Beach and its crystal white sands, championship golf courses, fine seafood dining, award-winning museums, charming colonial towns, historic sites from the American Revolution and the Civil War, and outdoor State parks comprised of rolling hills, unspoiled forests, and glistening lakes that are great for hiking, boating, white water rafting, kayaking, scuba diving, and salt water fishing. But South Carolina is also an opportunity for tourists to explore and experience the charming and romantic allure of the antebellum Old South, perhaps best captured by the remains of its coastal plantations; their colonial mansions and beautifully-landscaped gardens retell of the fairy-tale life of its aristocratic elite owners.
South Carolina’s history has been far from fairy-tale, however, and the gloom of its role in the Confederacy during the Civil War still looms. European settlement of South Carolina began in the 1520s, when the state was explored by Spanish adventurers from present-day Dominican Republic who sailed up the coast. They tried to settle the area in 1526, but were unsuccessful due to a severe winter, disease, and skirmishes with the Indians. French Huguenots arrived in the 1560s and also tried to establish a settlement, but gave up too soon, sailing back to France not too long after being attacked by the Spanish at Charles Fort.
In the 1670s, the English were finally successful in establishing a European colony in South Carolina. King Charles II had recruited wealthy planters from the English colony at Barbados in the Caribbean. They arrived and established Charles Towne (present-day Charleston). Throughout the 18th century, they developed several plantations through the Low Country and Sea Islands of South Carolina, importing around 25,000 slaves from Barbados and Africa who helped their masters grow rice. By 1754, the colony was growing about 100,000 barrels of rice a year, making the few elite plantation owners of South Carolina the richest in the American colonies.
During the American Revolution, South Carolina took up the revolutionary cause with fervor. The plantation owners were wary about British grumblings over slavery, and British loyalists were paraded and humiliated through the streets. Key battles took place in Charleston and the Piedmont towns of Ninety Six and Gaffney.
During the Antebellum era, South Carolina began growing cotton after Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Short-fibered cotton was produced in bulk by the slave laborers and by the Civil War in 1861 South Carolina had grown more than 65.5 million pounds of it; the crop accounted for 57% of the entire American colonies’ exports back to Europe. Because of the state’s economic dependence on slavery and cotton, South Carolina was the most vigilant in the political fight against the Union and its attempts at ending slavery and taxing exports. It was first to secede from the Union in 1860, followed by 11 other states in 1861 to form the Confederacy thus triggering the Civil War; only a few major Civil War battles, however, ever took place in South Carolina but the state is nevertheless lined with historic Civil War markers.
Defeat of the South in the Civil War led to the collapse of slavery and the plantation system. South Carolina went into economic decline, especially after the 1922 boll weevil which devastated Sea Island cotton. A hurricane in 1911 also ended what was left of the few areas commercially producing rice. Many rural Carolinians abandoned their homes for opportunities elsewhere. The 20th century marked an era when South Carolina became one of the poorest, most illiterate, and racially segregated of the states.
In recent years, however, South Carolina has experienced an upsurge due to favorable tax rates. Agricultural production has diversified into tobacco, corn, oats, lumber, potatoes, soybeans, peaches, peanuts, and beef cattle. And damming of the Savannah, Santee, and Saluda rivers has allowed the state to commercially produce energy. Tourism has also become South Carolina’s second-largest industry.
South Carolina is divided into several regions. The Sea Islands are islands along South Carolina’s Atlantic coast that comprise half of the state’s 190-mile ocean shoreline stretching from the Charleston to the Savannah River. Some of these islands, like the Hilton Head Island, are world famous resorts. Seafood dining is first-rate in these islands, featuring some of the best shrimp dishes in the south. And beaches and golf courses are everywhere.
South Carolina’s coastal plantations, from Charleston to the Savannah River along the Atlantic, arouse those fascinated with the plantation culture of the Old South and the ideas of romance and fairy-tale conjured up by the academy-award winning movie, Gone with the Wind. The architectural grandeur of antebellum mansions and the sheer beauty of the many landscaped gardens make the plantations a worthwhile visit.
The Coastal Plain is a gentle terrain region that follows the routes of Interstate 20 from the Savannah River in the southeast to Columbia and Camden in the central area of the state. The region consists of red and sand hills and lower and upper pine belts. This is home of the state’s many textile mill towns and the agricultural heartland of South Carolina. The Coastal Plain is worth visiting for its old cotton towns and its state parks of rivers, forests, swamps, and wildlife refuges.
The Piedmont in South Carolina’s northwest consists of foothills and Appalachian mountains, home to the state’s manufacturing base. You’ll find many historic battle sites and inland freshwater coasts for camping, fishing, and swimming.
The Blue Ridge consists of six low mountains along South Carolina’s north and northwest. Most of the Blue Ridge is located within the Sumter National Forest. There are also several other Blue Ridge state parks like the Jones Gap, Caesar’s Head, and Table Rock, making the Blue Ridge a great region for outdoor adventures such as hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and rafting.