Originally my plans and wishes were to visit Drayton Hall but as the saying goes, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and I didn’t make it there. I ended up visiting another Ashley River plantation close to Charleston instead and honestly, it turned out to be a worthy plan B.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is one of the oldest plantations in the American South and dates back to the late 1600s. It was originally a rice plantation (as were many plantations in the areas of South Carolina and Georgia that are known as the Low Country). At one time there were extensive earthworks of dams and dikes built in fields along the Ashley River for irrigating land for rice cultivation. However, today that is a thing of the past, although when turning off of Ashley River Road onto the plantation grounds, it’s easy to imagine the vast empty stretches of land once being filled with rice crops.
As was common throughout the Southern states when it was apparent that the Confederate Army would lose the Civil War, the original plantation house was burned down by Union soldiers. So the structure you see today dates from the late 19th century with additions being made in the early 20th century (I likened it to resembling a country club edifice). As such, touring the house is secondary to the real reason most people travel to Magnolia-its beautiful gardens.
At the end of the Civil War, the owner of Magnolia Plantation was destitute. His slaves were free and he had no other income. And so in 1870 he opened his beautiful gardens, ones he had spent decades cultivating and growing, to the public. They became so popular that boating excursions from Charleston were arranged, allowing guests to enjoy the gardens and picnicking before heading back. I can only imagine what a lovely pastime this would have been a century ago.
One of my favorite parts about the gardens was the section that reminded me of Monet’s gardens at Giverny (at least from the pictures I’ve seen). This is when you truly do want time and development to stop because how else can one ever enjoy beautiful moments like these?
Included in our tour was a ride on the nature tram. It’s basically a slow moving ride that allows you to see other areas of the plantation that are a bit further to walk to (in all, Magnolia comprises 464 acres). Our driver was great in pointing out the countless alligators that were all about the grounds (I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many gators in the wild at one time). While I wasn’t able to get any good shots, we also saw numerous exotic birds (at least to the South) and other beautiful flowers including the Cherokee Rose, the state flower of Georgia.
Magnolia actually offers special tours that are geared towards learning about the plantation’s slaves. Unfortunately all we got to see were the restored slave cabins. But if I had had more time, this is something I would have enjoyed partaking in.
While originally I was sad about missing out on seeing one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in the United States (Drayton Hall), when there are gorgeous flowers involved, you can’t really go wrong either. Due to its massive size and offerings, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens truly has a little bit of something for everyone. A visit here is a vivid reminder of how life once was for a select few.
Tips for visiting
If you have your own transportation, I’d recommend using it. This is a place where you don’t want to be rushed and can really spend as much or as little time as you want.
Photography inside the plantation house is unfortunately not allowed.
Be sure to apply sun block and especially insect repellent.
If you plan on walking the grounds, closed-toe shoes are recommended.