Nature has been kind to the small South Carolina town of Summerville and its celebrated neighbor, the Woodlands Inn. They’ve both responded by having the good sense to tuck a sculpture here, a fountain there, but in general, leave nature to its own devices.
Visitors responding to the town’s beauty – and walkability – have made the annual Flowertown Festival (April 1-3) in the 45,000-population town one of the largest street festivals in the state. Musicians, artists, and vendors of all sorts entertain some 250,000 people wandering Azalea Park and several blocks of Main Street.
At other times, the 164-year-old town’s charm lies in its period homes and its block-long, historic downtown, where two rows of shops face each other across the trees and shrubs of Hutchinson Square. They include boutiques, a wine shop where visitors both buy and sip, a sports gift shop specializing in pool, darts and poker, the state’s oldest pharmacy (Guerin’s) with its period soda fountain, and several well-regarded restaurants including the venerable Eva’s.
Eva’s is where “Miss Eva” Hinson started serving up home-cooked breakfasts and lunches for the populace 66 years ago. One of her most faithful customers, Summerville Mayor Berlin G. Myers, says that at Eva’s, “You can get a really good meal.”
Myers, 94, started Berlin G. Myers Lumber Corp. in Summerville 72 years ago, and has served as mayor 39 years. “I think it’s God’s Country!” he says. “It’s the best town in the world.”
‘It’s very Southern’
A modest sign, banked azalea bushes and a sandy lane winding among pines are a visitor’s low-key introduction to The Woodlands Inn, one of the Southeast’s most highly regarded resorts.
Driving through the Lowcountry woods to the former private country home, “you could be going to a fishing hole. Hunting,” says General Manager Casey Lavin.
At the end of your journey through pines, palmettos, and live oaks hung with Spanish moss, however, you realize you’ve come to no ordinary destination. Before you in a landscaped setting is an imposing, three-story brick manor house built at the turn of the 20th century and added onto seamlessly when it became the Woodlands Inn in 1995.
Twenty-five miles northwest of Charleston, it’s the only Carolinas resort, and one of six in the U.S., to claim Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond ratings for both dining and lodging.
The Woodlands began in 1906, when Pennsylvania railroad baron Robert W. Parsons built it as a winter home. Several private owners later, it became an inn in 1986 and then, nearly a decade later, the Woodlands. The owners are Summerville residents Johnny Linton, an attorney, and his wife Pam.
Because it was originally a home, says Director of Public Relations Matt Owen, the layout is typical of that earlier era – large, high-ceilinged rooms interspersed with inviting nooks and crannies that are perfect for curling up with a good book or a glass of wine
If you’d rather relax in a front-porch rocker overlooking the front lawn, chances are someone will soon appear and ask if you’d like a cup of tea, says Owen. “It’s very Southern.”
Not so Southern that that the tea comes only iced and sweet, however. Instead, you can ask for a variety of hot teas including a peach tea infused in the Woodlands kitchen from South Carolina fruit.
Someday, you will likely be served tea from plants growing on the estate. Summerville was home to America’s first tea plantation, which later moved to nearby Wadlamaw Island and, as Charleston Tea Plantation, now produces American Classic, the country’s only native-grown tea. The Woodlands intends to bring back the practice for its guests.
Despite its international reputation – readers of [ital]Travel + Leisure[endital] magazine in 2010 put it in the top 25 of the “World’s Best Hotels” – in many ways the Woodlands is as rooted in South Carolina’s Lowcountry as the pines along the drive
Its soil gives rise to some of the elaborately prepared dishes you find on your plate. Woodlands diners have high expectations, says Lavin. “What better way (to meet them) than to pick the vegetables in our backyard?”
The 2-acre vegetable garden on the grounds was started by Chef Andrew Chadwick, a California native who came to Woodlands in November. Super-fresh veggies, he says, “make my job so much easier.”
A dilapidated 1847 chicken coop, the oldest building on the estate, is being made into an outdoor kitchen where Chadwick can demonstrate his talents to food-loving guests. And a lake is being built to provide fresh fish for dinner.
Besides the Lowcountry setting, the inn is also distinctive because of its size, says Lavin. At 21 guest rooms and suites, it’s small enough that its staff can get to know the guests and meet, even anticipate, their needs.
Guests who seek quiet and a respite from the clamor of the outside world can “get in the room. Turn the fireplace on. Enjoy a bottle of wine. The bed’s been turned down,” Lavin says.
Or, says Owen, you can “just kind of lose yourself in nature.” On the 42-acre wooded estate with more than 2,000 azalea plants, “you’re surrounded by a lot of trails.”
Your dog can even munch his natural-ingredient treats, made by the pastry chef, at a bowl near his bed in your room.
A base for exploration
For those who want to use the inn as home base for exploration, historic Summerville is a 1 ½-mile bike ride away. The inn offers shuttles to three plantations (Magnolia, Middleton and Drayton Hall), as well as downtown Charleston and the beach, 40 minutes away at Sullivan’s Island.
Longtime guests cherish and closely guard the secluded atmosphere, including the nondescript entrance road.
Although two rose gardens, the pool and the tennis court were recently renovated, those guests have let Lavin know, he says, that “they’ll stop coming the day I change the road.”
Want to go?
Flowertown Festival Azalea Park and Main Street April 1, 2 (Fri.-Sat.) 9 a.m.-5 p.m. April 3, (Sun.), 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission, Parking: Free www.summervilleymca.org/flowertown.
The Woodlands Inn 800-774-9999, 843-875-2600 www.woodlandsinn.com.
Greater Summerville Dorchester County Chamber 866-875-8535, 843-873-8535 www.visitsummerville.com.