Written by: Katherine Robinson Published: 01 February 2020
In the spring of 1997, Frank Robinson surprised his lovely young bride – that would be me – with a wedding night detour to The Inn at Middleton Place. He knew his thoughtful gesture would be appreciated by his bride because she – me again – is a direct descendant of Henry Middleton.
Middleton Place is an easy day trip from many parts of the Carolinas, but a night at The Middleton Inn is not to be missed. Built in 1987, the Inn received the highest honor from the American Institute of Architects for its unique post-modern architectural style. While modern for its time, the Inn now exudes an air of vintage charm which blends seamlessly into the naturally elegant Lowcountry landscape. Guest are greeted by friendly staff and encouraged to arrive for happy hour which is held daily in the Lodge from 5-7pm. Seasonal craft cocktails and live music on the weekends may be enjoyed by the corner fireplace or along the Ashley River as the sun sets over a picturesque river view. The Inn has 55 guest rooms all with floor to ceiling windows with sweeping river, marsh, or wooded views. While spring is the most popular season to visit the Lowcountry, a winter escape to The Inn at Middleton Place may be the best kept secret in Charleston as each room is equipped with a cozy wood burning fireplace.
In 1741, Henry Middleton married Mary Williams, and received Middleton Place as part of her dowry. While trips to Middleton Place are not nearly as frequent as the Robinson family would like, time spent at this historic location is always special, and there is something new to be discovered with every visit.
A short walk along the river path or a quick car ride under the oaks down a torch lit drive will take you to the historic home and gardens, as well as the award-winning restaurant at Middleton Place. The restaurant is the legacy of famed chef and James Beard Award winning cookbook author, Edna Lewis. The dining experience today is a true taste of Lowcountry plantation cuisine and reflective of Charleston’s reputable culinary culture. The menu strives to include fresh local ingredients – ingredients as local as Middleton Place’s own organic farm. It is unpretentious, good food done well and includes a dessert menu of classic Charleston confections – think perfect pecan pie and Huguenot torte. With picturesque views of the mill pond and close proximity to the inn, this restaurant is as elegant and wonderful as anywhere in downtown Charleston without the drive, the crowds or the up-charge.
A new day brings new adventures at Middleton Place. One of the latest additions to the activities are the historical trail rides offered through the Middleton Place Equestrian Center. In recent years, Chalmers Poston and William Dunne have assumed management roles at the equestrian center adding the historical trail rides for visitors as well as offering boarding and training facilities to local equestrians. The equestrian center has enjoyed a long history. Established in 1974 by Charles Duell as part of the Middleton Place Foundation, the equestrian center has over 50 stalls with most boarders pursuing dressage, eventing, and fox hunting endeavors.
Boarder Rebecca Pryce, says “It’s a rare and special piece of serenity not to be taken for granted. I get a mini-vacation every morning I come out and ride.” The equestrian center is open to all visitors, but the best way to experience it is in the saddle. Jan Taylor, referred to as a local equestrian legend to those who know her, is one of several trial guides who take small groups of guests on the trail. “I can’t really call this a job,” says Jan, “taking groups into this breath-taking environment every day is such a gift.” Jan and her team take care of all the details, visitors only need to arrive a few minutes early and dress appropriately – long pants and closed toe shoes.
Visitors can expect an hour long leisurely and enjoyable walk through this historic property on seasoned and well-trained horses. Several of the fabulous trail horses are actually enjoying a second career as part of the L.E.A.R.N. horse rescue organization based in Charleston, SC. Once mounted, the trail winds through a wooded canopy of live oaks, loblolly pine, cypress, and a wide variety of native palm trees to a breathtaking overlook of the Middleton Place property. Trail guides give a brief history of the Middleton family, the landscape and many buildings as seen from the saddle. The trail continues through the woods to the edge of the Ashley River and overlooks one of the historic rice fields. Rice was the cash crop of the low country in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Knowledgeable trail guides provide a history of the natural surrounding as well as a history of the enslaved people who cultivated the fields; however, the beauty and awe of this trail is in the silence. The natural world seems to come alive on the banks of the Ashley River. Teaming with wildlife, each trip brings something new – alligators, herons, marsh hens, and other native birds welcome trail riders through all seasons. In a world with too much noise and a constant sense of urgency, a historical trail ride through the Middleton Place property is a wonderfully relaxing addition to the Charleston Planation experience.
Included in a night’s stay at the Inn is admission to the house, gardens, and stable yards of Middleton Place. It’s an entire day’s experience of history, landscapes, artisans, and fun for all ages. The gardens are the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States and reflect the principles established by Andre le Notre, the landscape architect of Louis XIV’s Versailles. Gorgeous with any seasons, Middleton Place is well known for both camellias in the winter and azaleas in the spring, the house museum gives more history and examples of planation life as well as Middleton treasures including family portraits by acclaimed portrait artist Benjamin West and exquisite items collected by Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, on his Grand Tour of Europe in the mid-18th century.
The highlight of the grounds is the interactive stable yard. Filled with historical artisans such as blacksmiths, candlemakers, and coopers – the artisans and the animals tell the rest of the Middleton story and truly bring history to life. The stable yard is home to the carriage horses as well as water buffalo which played an import role in the history of the plantation. Water Buffalo were imported to Middleton Place from Constantinople in the 1800’s to be used as draft animals to cultivate the rice fields. After the Civil War, the Union soldiers took three of Middleton’s water buffalo to the Central Park Zoo. Other livestock including goats, sheep, and chickens all call the Middleton Stable yard home. Just beyond the stable yard is Eliza’s house which includes the permanent exhibit, “Beyond the Fields,” which tells the story of the enslaved people who lived and worked at Middleton Place. There is so much to see and do and learn at Middleton Place. It is truly a destination in and of itself.
Whether planning a quick family adventure or romantic couples’ getaway – are you still reading Mr. Robinson? – Middleton Place sets the perfect backdrop for a Carolina low country vacation.