Big City Tales

Belles of the Southern City Ball | April 24, 2018

There is no denying the rich culture and storied history of the Deep South in the United States that is proudly preserved in many quaint and charming locations. I “ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie” when I say that some of the finest belles of the southern city ball are found in the Carolinas and Georgia.

Granted, these states and their municipalities are regrettably also synonymous with the dark side of Dixieland, but a past tainted with slavery, segregation and racial tension has made way for a present and future based on freedom, integration, equal representation, and harmony.

Ethnic diversity is a definite hallmark of these regions that is reflected in opulent and grandiose architecture, quaint public squares and gardens, and succulent and delectable lip-smacking cuisines drawing upon European, Native American and African influences.

Visually stunning seaside and mountain locations and picturesque back road country trails also add to the southern charm.

Here’s a look at three of my favorite spots in the American South: Asheville, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia.

Asheville, North Carolina

With the Blue Ridge Mountains providing a majestic visual backdrop and serving up a pleasant climate, the city of Asheville, North Carolina has long had a magnetic effect on its visitors. It certainly captured the imagination of businessman and philanthropist, George Vanderbilt II, who basically fell in love with the place at first sight and subsequently set about to acquire a significant chunk of land to build a one-of-a-kind country home.

Vanderbilt envisioned a chateau-style French Renaissance estate complete with 250 rooms, formal gardens, water features, and a working village to support the day-to-day operation of the home and contribute to funding the family’s philanthropic efforts. He came up with the name Biltmore, which is derived of “Bildt,” the Vanderbilt’s place of origin in Holland, and “More”, Anglo-Saxon for open, rolling land.

Built in the late 1800s, Biltmore Estate remains the largest privately-owned home in the United States and features four acres of living space with 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces, along with an indoor heated swimming pool, bowling alley and a gymnasium. The lushly furnished and elaborately decorated interior was matched by the expansive grounds that originally encompassed 125,000 acres and included a large terrace to house the Vanderbilt statue collection, an Italian-themed formal garden, a bowling green, a conservatory for orchids and palm trees, and an outdoor tea room.

Following Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, his widow found it difficult to manage the estate on her own and her daughter and son-in-law stepped in to assist. At this time, a section of the grounds was sold to the government and turned into an undisturbed national forest. Later on during the Great Depression, the family was persuaded to open the estate to the public to help further defray operational costs and encourage tourism to the area. The idea worked and today Biltmore Estate is a cherished national historic landmark, and is one of Asheville’s most popular attractions.

Charleston, South Carolina

Founded in 1670, Charleston is the oldest city in South Carolina and is known for its rich history and unique culture and cuisine that draws upon English, French, West African, and regional southern influences. The city is home to America’s first landscaped gardens, first museum, first theater and first municipal college. Charleston is also where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

Historical landmarks include the United States Custom House, the Market Hall and Sheds, the Exchange and Provost, the Dock Street Theatre, the Calhoun Mansion, and Rainbow Row.  More recent city attractions include Waterfront Park and the Pineapple Fountain, and the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, which is the longest single cable-stayed bridge in North America.

Arts and architecture feature prominently in the city and Charleston prides itself that its skyline is laden with steeples vs. skyscrapers, earning it the nickname of ‘Holy City’. Some of the most well-known churches include the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the French Protestant Huguenot Church.

Charleston hosts many annual festivals, the most famous being the Spoleto Festival USA that is held in late spring and is internationally recognized as the best performing arts event in America.  The festival provides a venue for established and emerging artists to showcase their talents in the realms of opera, dance, theater, classical music, and jazz.

Southern comfort food is served up morning, noon and night in scrumptious dishes such as shrimp and grits, buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken, and She Crab Soup all washed down with a glass of sweet tea. Some brunch establishments also provide live Gospel music to entertain diners and allow time for proper digestion before indulging in the next southern treat.

Savannah, Georgia

Fans of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will undoubtedly be familiar with some of Savannah’s hot spots and quirky characteristics. It’s a city where cemeteries, voodoo priestesses and ghost stories come to life within the confines of America’s first planned city, and one of its most beautiful.

Part of what makes Savannah a ‘pretty city’ are the 22 squares that are located in the historic district. These mini-parks each have a distinct look and vary in size and purpose with some being playgrounds and others being home to monuments or fountains. Larger parks also add to the city’s green appeal. Forsyth Park consists of 30 acres and contains a Confederate Memorial statue, and a large French-inspired fountain. There are also plenty of walking paths, sports facilities and playing fields.

Other European influences found around the city include Bonaventure Cemetery, the Telfair Museum and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the latter of which is dubbed the ‘Sistine of the South’ and is lauded for its French Gothic architecture, massive murals and eye-catching stained glass windows.

Situated on the Savannah River, the city’s waterfront area brims with restaurants, shops and offers opportunities for a stroll along the cobblestone on River Street or a riverboat cruise aboard the grand old Georgia Queen. One of Savannah’s most famous statues, Florence Martus (or the ‘Waving Girl’) is located in Morrell Park along the waterfront. During her lifetime, Martus was known as the unofficial greeter of all ships coming into and leaving the Port of Savannah, and apparently did not miss a single vessel in 44 years of service.

Paula Deen is another of Savannah’s formidable females who made her mark in the culinary field, first as a lunch delivery and catering service provider and later as a restaurant owner. Lady & Sons on West Congress Street offers a daily Southern Buffet complete with fried okra, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, shrimp and grits, crab cakes, soft-shell crab gumbo, among other mouth-watering fixin’s.

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