Like Johns Island, Wadmalaw Island is one of those lazy, scenic areas gradually becoming subsumed within Charleston’s growth. That said, there’s plenty of meandering, laid-back beauty to enjoy, and a couple of interesting sights.
Currently owned by the R.C. Bigelow Tea corporation, the Charleston Tea Plantation (6617 Maybank Hwy., 843/559-0383, www.bigelowtea.com, Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Sun. noon–4 p.m., free) is no cute living history exhibit: It’s a big, working tea plantation—the only one in the U.S.—with acre after acre of Camilla sinensis being worked by modern farm machinery.
Visitors get to see a sample of how the tea is made, “from the field to the cup,” as they put it here, first by a trolley tour of the “Back 40” ($10) and then at a viewing gallery of the processing machines at work. And of course there’s a gift shop where you can sample and buy all types of teas and tea-related products.
Unlike many agricultural sites in the area, the 127-acre Charleston Tea Plantation was never actually a plantation. It was first planted at the relatively late date of 1960, when the Lipton tea company moved some plants from Summerville, South Carolina, to its research facility on Wadmalaw Island.
Lipton decided the climate and high labor costs of the American South weren’t conducive to making money, so they sold the land to two employees, Mack Fleming and Bill Hall, in 1987. The two held onto the plantation until 2003, when R.C. Bigelow won it at auction for $1.28 million.
Growing season is from April through October. The tea bushes, direct descendants of plants brought over in the 1800s from India and China, “flush up” 2–3 inches every few weeks during growing season.
To get here from Charleston, take the Ashley River Bridge, stay left to Folly Road (S.C. Highway 171), turn right onto Maybank Highway for 18 miles, and look for the sign on your left.
The muscadine grape is the only varietal that dependably grows in South Carolina. That said, the state has several good wineries, among them Wadmalaw’s own Irvin House Vineyard (6775 Bears Bluff Rd., 843/559-6867, www.charlestonwine.com, Thurs.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.), the Charleston area’s only vineyard. Jim Irvin, a Kentucky boy, and his wife Anne, a Johns Island native, make several varieties of muscadine wine here, with tastings and a gift shop. They also give free tours of the fifty-acre grounds every Saturday at 2 p.m. There’s a Grape-Stomping Festival at the end of each August ($5 per car). To get here from town, go west on Maybank Highway about ten miles to Bears Bluff Road, veering right. The vineyard entrance is on your left after about eight miles.
Also on the Irvin vineyard grounds you’ll find Firefly Distillery (6775 Bears Bluff Rd., 843/559-6867, www.fireflyvodka.com), home of their signature Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. They offer tastings at the distillery ($6 per tasting) Wednesday–Saturday 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (closed Jan.).
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition