The sound of owls calling from moss covered branches, birds chatting away both near and far, soft laps of water kissing the soft marsh, turtles sunbathing on fallen tree branches floating in a pond, alligators strolling along a grassy mound taking in the fresh air, and thick live oaks dating back to the revolutionary war…oh the affairs they’ve witnessed during their heartfelt tenure, the cradling of the human spirit over years and years has captured the heart of anyone who is willing to travel just outside of Charleston to visit the exquisite treasures of Berkeley County. Nature and wildlife abound just thirty minutes west of downtown Charleston. It doesn’t really matter which destination you fall upon. Whether it’s Cypress Garden, Old Santee Canal, Mepkin Abbey, or the tiny town of Strawberry, you need only to let the soft breeze lull you in. A short visit will leave you feeling refreshed and at peace.
CYPRESS GARDEN – Formerly known as Dean Hall Plantation colonized by Alexander Nisbett of Dean, Scotland before 1725, the historic sanctuary is located just off of Cypress Garden Road and Highway 52. Cypress Garden houses over 80 acres of swamp, blackwater bald cypress trees and gardens which can be enjoyed any time of the year. Miles of walking trails enveloped by the sounds of nature is soothing to the soul. Canoes are available for slow luxurious rides through the swamp where you will find an abundance of wildlife, camellias, azaleas, and tall willowy cypresses. A beautifully romantic setting, the park has been used for scenes from movies like Cold Mountain, The Notebook, North and South, and The Patriot just to name a few. The butterfly house is a fairy tale display of lush foliage and home to several varieties of butterflies as well as doves and button quails. A reptile exhibit is available for those who want to learn more about life in the day of a turtle or an alligator. Some longtime resident alligators are referred to by name and many hands on educational events are held each year for people of all ages who want to learn about South Carolina’s wildlife.
OLD SANTEE CANAL PARK – Also an educational retreat, Old Santee Canal Park provides respite from a hard day’s work. With four miles of walking trails along the Cooper River and Biggin Creek, lookout points for viewing a variety of wildlife including owls, hawks, turtles, alligators, as well as an abundance of plant life make it a nature filled haven. Although the canal was underway before 1800, it was at this time the canal began to operate as the safest possible route to help small cargo ships, many of which carried fruit, cotton, and indigo, navigate between the Santee and Cooper Rivers. So many had been lost making the transition from the mouth of the Santee to Charleston. This meant a years’ worth of labor was gone in an instant. Because so many precious lives were taken, the project was imperative to the safety of the laborers and the economic wellbeing of Charleston. Thus, the canal was born. The Interpretive Center displays artifacts dating back to 4000 B.C. and shows a beautiful narration of the canal’s construction history. Take a leisurely canoe stroll through the swamp for just a few dollars any time of the year. The scenery is captivating, lush and green, with hawks and other wildlife in plain view. If you enjoy crafts, many events are held throughout the year including candle and wreath making. It is not uncommon to witness a wedding taking place, barbecues, chili cook-offs, or the sight of picnickers enjoying a peaceful afternoon under the shade of live oaks.
MEPKIN ABBEY – Originally, the 3200 acre plantation was granted to one of the Lord’s Proprietors, Sir John Colleton, whose descendent sold the land to Henry Laurens, one of the largest slave traders in Charleston. In 1762 Henry set out to build his home and what was known as Mepkin Plantation. Remnants of the Laurens family can be felt by walking through the eerily quiet cotton field which still grows wildly in an open space amid unmarked slave graves overgrown foliage. You will also find a brick encased Laurens cemetery located just beyond a small creek covered bridge, a perfect setting for Halloween.
The property passed through several hands and ended up being purchased by the wealthy and philanthropic publisher Henry Luce, whose charismatic wife, Claire, commissioned a massive camellia and azalea garden overlooking the cooper river. So magnificent is this sight that it would surely please even the most discerning gardener. Claire was kind and generous, a woman ahead of her time and a force to be reckoned with when it came to politics and the literary world. Accolades and achievements range from famous playwright, editor of Vanity Fair, to Ambassador of Italy. She was known for her hospitality, inviting the likes of cargo ship workers carrying goods down the river to rest and stay the evening on the massive tree laced grounds. Holding title as publisher of Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, Henry and his lovely wife, Claire, were an unstoppable force until tragedy struck. Claire’s only daughter died in an automobile accident, affecting her so deeply that she ultimately bestowed the land to a community of Trappist Monks. The graves of the Luce family are located in the gardens overlooking the river.
The monks now care for the abbey with the help of volunteers and grow oyster mushrooms to help support their livelihood. Among the three hundred year old live oaks and serene walking paths, you will also find a walking labyrinth, several memorials and statues, a stately Columbarium, the Claire Boothe Luce Library, and a gift shop filled with works of local artisans, a warm and friendly place to start or end your journey at Mepkin Abbey. It is my favorite place to buy cards for loved ones for every occasion or no occasion at all. You can enjoy a silent retreat, a meal with the monks, a picnic surrounded by Camellias, or an educational tour of the chapel. Whatever you decide to do, you will walk away knowing that on this day, this historic monastic sanctuary is the place you were destined to be.
STRAWBERRY CHAPEL AT CHILDSBURY– A short distance from Mepkin Abbey, the grounds of Childsbury quietly prop the structure of Strawberry Chapel, the only building that remains of Childsbury. The grounds are private and although the church is not open, services are held four times a year. The town, founded by James Child in the early 1700’s, had a school, tavern, race track for thoroughbred horses, and a general store. Mr. Child initiated a ferry that took townspeople across the Cooper River to what is now known as highway 52, to get to Charleston. Remnants of the landing can still be seen near the water. The town was unable to thrive due to larger competing plantations growing nearby and eventually ceased to exist. The buildings that once occupied Childsbury were relocated to Strawberry Plantation which is where the name of the small precious chapel originated. A large majority of the graves are occupied by the Ball family with decedents dating back to the 1700’s. A tomb in which bodies were placed while their plots were being prepared is easy to see from the fence. While petty vandalism has taken its toll on the Chapel, I still find it one of the most peaceful little gems of history in the lowcountry.
All four of these historic heartfelt sites can be visited in one day, although I would suggest breaking them up a bit as it is easy to linger on the paths of history with no time constraints. What is wonderful is that visits can be made during any season of the year. Spring yields hundreds of Azalea’s and Camelia’s bloom vibrantly in cooler weather. Summer months bring mosquitoes and alligators, but you can sink your toes in lush green velvet carpets of grass. Winter is one of the best seasons to visit Old Santee Cooper Canal and Mepkin Abbey as both have renowned Christmas events. Is it crowded? Yes, but oh so worth it. In fact, it’s best to call ahead and reserve your visit during the Christmas season. I’ve spent many a day walking the trails at Santee Canal and many afternoons with my son enjoying a picnic at Mepkin Abbey. All four provide something unique to anyone who graces the grounds. Expect to come away with a sense of peace and clarity as these are perfect surroundings for meditation and reflection.