Most visitors to Charleston, SC, have no idea that the waterfront town of Mount Pleasant is just over the soaring Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge. A sojourn to the town’s Old Village, with its narrow, oak-lined streets, and colonial and antebellum homes, feels like a step back in time, thanks to the beautiful neighborhoods within the town’s 30 blocks and the picture-perfect vistas of Charleston Harbor.
When my friend Bo—who docks his boat in Mount Pleasant—suggested we cross the bridge from Charleston for breakfast at one of the small town’s diners, I wondered what he knew that I didn’t. But after spending a couple of days in Mount Pleasant, then enjoying two more visits to the town that Money magazine named as the “number one place to live in South Carolina,” it became very clear.
In addition to its low crime rate, friendly residents, slow Southern pace, waterfront activities and proximity to downtown Charleston, Mount Pleasant possesses a unique historic vibe all of its own. For more than three centuries, the town—formed in the 19th century when five small English settlements joined together—has played a major role in both South Carolina and U.S. history. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, Mount Pleasant always had its own identity and remained a “Victorian village” due to its isolation from the outside world—it is accessible only by ferry.
According to the 1997 book by Mary-Julia C. Royall, Mount Pleasant, The Victorian Village, its growth rate rose beginning in 1929 when the Grace Memorial Bridge (today, it’s the Ravenel) opened over the Cooper River. The venerable bridge linked cities to the north and south via what was then Highway 40 (now 17), opening the area to tourism and business while creating local access to Charleston. In those early days, Mount Pleasant was a summer resort where Plantation owners would come seeking a healthier climate and wealthy Charleston residents would vacation at their elegant summer cottages. The natural beauty of the shoreline was a huge attraction then, and remains so today. Today, tourists are drawn to Mount Pleasant for its relaxed pace and proximity to Charleston, with its historic neighborhoods, museums, galleries and shopping, offering the best of both worlds.
Charleston, which can be a day-trip destination while visiting Mount Pleasant, also offers horse-drawn carriage rides, gourmet dining and fine shopping around downtown’s King St. which is chock-a-block with little known stores—including several newer boutiques from England—along with headliners like Gucci, St. John and Louis Vuitton. (For those who prefer to stay in Charleston, try the new King 583, a Bluegreen Vacations property in the heart of downtown. Charming and with sleek decor, it mixes and matches modern design with traditional elements endemic to Charleston.) The city offers its annual Spoleto Festival USA later this month (May 24–June 9, an international extravaganza of the arts that features more than 150 operas, theater, dance, classical music and jazz performances throughout the town, is a one-of-a kind experience. There is nothing else like it in the U.S. and it’s a must-attend festival for culture lovers.
But Mount Pleasant has plenty to keep a traveler content any time of the year. Choose from two lovely hotels if you go—one more city-side and the other on the water, but both conveniently located. The boutique-style Hotel Indigo’s modern sensibility sings with authentic Low Country art and furnishings that are fresh and appropriate for the area, and a tony lobby restaurant called Eliza’s that serves farm-to-table meals prepared with local ingredients and attracts a vibrant bar crowd at night. For a more laid-back vibe, The Cottages on Charleston Harbor is a relaxing colony of 10 cozy, fully equipped cottages smack-dab on the water, where guests can sit on the front porch, drink in the view of the peaceful harbor and watch boats skim past atop the water. A light breakfast is served each morning in the reception cottage, providing a lovely opportunity to linger a bit before starting the day.
If you want to be active, there are plenty of water sports available, from paddle boarding, kayaking and fishing charters to dolphin watching and exploring saltwater marshes, but landlubbers can enjoy themselves as well by indulging in golf and sight-seeing tours. Of the latter, Patriots Point is worth visiting; created in 1970 to house a naval and maritime museum on Charleston Harbor and home of the WWII aircraft carrier the USS Yorktown, Patriots Point houses a museum, a fleet of National Historic Landmark ships, the Cold War Memorial, the only Vietnam Experience Exhibit in the country, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the agency’s official Medal of Honor Museum. In fact, Patriots Point is one of South Carolina’s most popular tourist attractions, drawing more than 300,000 visitors a year. And if you want to send your child to an educational overnight camp, the Yorktown offers an experience that is nationally respected.
While touring, don’t miss Alhambra Hall in the historic district, an erstwhile ferry station overlooking Charleston Harbor that now functions mainly as an events and weddings space. Then devote a couple of hours for touring Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens (circa 1681) in Mount Pleasant, one of the country’s oldest working farms. Once known for cotton and pecans, it now produces strawberries, tomatoes and peaches, among other produce. The antique-filled house has been open to the public since 1956 and is still owned by the McRae family, who bought it in 1955. Be sure and also make a stop at the Boon Hall Farms Market for a selection of fruits and vegetables, seafood straight from the docks, specialty meats and prepared foods. There’s also a market cafe offering a variety of selections for dining on the spot. Shem Creek bisects the city and features restaurants and fishing boats. Those in the know stop at Tavern & Table for the snazzy rum cocktails and dine at Saltwater Cowboys on the dock, renowned for its house-smoked pulled pork and deviled eggs. Other good restaurants in Mount Pleasant include Langdon’s, a contemporary stunner with modern takes on Southern cuisine, Grace & Grit with its freshly sourced food and grits bowls, and Woodward Tavern for casual burgers, shakes and tacos. After dinner, take in a concert at the Mount Pleasant Pier, which offers live music, dancing and drinks on warm summer nights. It’s the perfect way to wrap up any day spent in this slow-paced town, within a short trip from South Florida but in so many ways, so far away from the madding pace of home. And that’s a good thing.