There is something entirely different about America’s southern states. It could be the extra coat of barbecue sauce lashed on their juicy rib ends, or the extra handful of cheese thrown in with the macaroni. It could be the way your Captain tips his hat and calls you “Ma’am” when he welcomes you aboard his Mississippi paddle wheeler. It could definitely be the music. Or it could be that what makes the Deep South so special is all of these things, thrown together in a huge mixing pot and dished up with a supersized side of southern hospitality.
It’s hard to know what factors come into consideration when you’re deciding exactly what makes somewhere ‘the world’s friendliest city’ but, whatever it is, Charleston seems to have it in spades. Each year the top ten is released and each year this South Carolina city scoops the top spot.
Walking through Charleston feels like a stroll through a bygone era, so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that this is America’s oldest city. The first shots of the Civil War were fired from Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour and the entire Charleston Historic District is a living museum of American life in decades gone by, spanning over 500 acres and encompassing over a thousand buildings. Even those who would rather leave the history books in the classroom can’t fail to be charmed by horse-drawn carriage tours of The Battery, the sugared almond houses of Rainbow Road, sunset sailings on the vintage-style Schooner Pride and local artisanal wares sold in the centuries old surroundings of a City Market established in 1807.
Antebellum mansions set in acres of plantation land are synonymous with the southern states and Charleston has some of the very best, including one set in the suitably charming sounding town of Mount Pleasant. An almost mile-long driveway lined with 270-year-old oak trees makes for a grand entrance to the Boone Hall Plantation, but there’s a sobering history behind one of the oldest plantations in America and the slave trade in which it once played a role.
Charleston may be one of America’s oldest cities, but it is in fact New Orleans which features more Historic Districts on the National Register than any other in the US. The ultimate ‘Old South’ experience can be found less than an hour from the destination’s popular French Quarter, and it is here that you will get a taste of Louisiana life. You can almost smell the sweet air and hear the rumble of wagon wheels as you meander along the River Road, where wealthy sugarcane planters built lavish homes on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Speaking of the French Quarter, few of its visitors realise that some of the best preserved 19th century architecture in the USA can be found here if you look beyond the bars. For example, Bourbon Street may be famed for its revelry, but it is a little known fact that the thoroughfare is as historic as it is hedonistic. That’s not to say you shouldn’t embrace the laissez-faire approach of a city made famous by the good times. They party hard here; endless barbecued food is consumed without a care for calories, the blues is loud – the jazz louder still – and the spirits in the cocktails are strong. The Louisiana state hosts over 600 festivals each year, including the legendary Mardi Gras, and the opportunities to let loose are endless.
For those who cruise the Gulf of Mexico, time spent on the barrier island of Galveston is almost inevitable pre or post-cruise. There’s relatively little here, aside from a visit-worthy historic downtown and the indoor tropical paradise of Moody Gardens, but it’s the waterside town’s close proximity to Houston that holds much of its appeal when it comes to extending your holiday.
A transfer of less than an hour will see you in the fourth-largest city in America and, whilst there’s an underlying oil-rich history to Houston, there’s not a hint of pretence to its favourite pastimes. This is the home of the World Barbecue Championships, the birthplace of Beyoncé and the host city of the 2017 Super Bowl. There’s a firm focus on fun in Houston. After all, can you even call yourself a Texan tourist if you haven’t experienced your first rodeo? And when you’re in the place which broadcast man’s first moments on the moon, why wouldn’t you want to meet an actual astronaut at the Space Center Houston, before moving on to the NASA Johnson Space Centre to watch the engineers at work on new satellites and space suits?
The James Turrell ‘Twilight Epiphany’ Skyspace has quickly become another of the city’s most popular attractions, with both tourists and locals heading to the Rice University campus for its sunrise and sunset light sequence displays. The art installation is mesmerising enough even to warrant the 5am wake-up call required in order to experience sunrise through the aperture of the hovering roof.
With a thriving foodie scene (one word – Tex-Mex!), a reputation as one of the world’s great arts hubs and a world-class Theater District that, dare we say may even rival New York’s Broadway, it’s time to dig out those cowboy boots.