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American Southern Charm

Buff Strickland A view of Old Walland Pond and its boathouse, at Blackberry Farm, outside Knoxville.

Photo: Buff Strickland

If you're from New York or Houston, say, or Los Angeles or Chicago, a trip to the South can be almost as exotic as a trip to New Delhi. In restaurants, men actually stand up when ladies leave the table. The veranda isn't just a place to park yourself in a rocker, it's a way of life. It can be tough, being judged by the creaminess of your camellias, but that's the South: another country.

The hotelscape is just as alien, but in the best possible way. If you check into any of these long-established, long-loved hotels and don't check out conquered by the culture of cordiality, the problem—Southerners are too polite, so I'll have to suggest it—is probably with you.

Woodlands Resort & Inn, Summerville, South Carolina

If the walls at Woodlands weren't so discreet, they'd tell a tale of antebellum grandeur, party-giving as civic duty, and romantic skulduggery. The 1906 neo-Georgian manse with a whiff of Tara was commissioned by Pennsylvania Railroad baron Robert Parsons as a winter home. He traveled to Summerville, 20 miles west of Charleston, by rail, naturally, and in high style, with dedicated cars for his horses, servants, and family.

Summerville was on Parsons's radar because of a medical congress that had taken place in Paris 20 years earlier, when physicians decreed it one of the two best places on the planet for consumptives. This was attributed to Summerville's lounging on a ridge of longleaf yellow pines (all that therapeutic airborne turpentine) at a sea breeze–catching elevation of 70 feet. Not that you had to be tubercular to appreciate Summerville. By Parsons's day it had also become a destination for people whose only malady was the desire to be considered fashionable.

One hundred years on, Summerville remains a hot spot, thanks to Woodlands' second act as a 19-room hotel in a quasi-country, quasi-suburban setting of forests and formal gardens. A stay at Woodlands is Southern, or rather Very Southern, and it's all good. At check-in, Sue Sanders—the grandmotherly, tack-sharp concierge—offers guests peach-infused iced tea, orange slices and simple syrup on the side. Men don't see donning a jacket and tie for dinner as a hardship. Pocket doors close off the common parlor. Every time you turn around, someone is offering you a biscuit. Actually, it's an herb-and-cheddar biscuit. How many biscuits is too many? At one lunch I stopped counting at seven. The most popular day trip is to a 17th-century plantation with a legendary collection of azaleas and camellias.

Personnel are good at solving problems, though it may take more than one try (four, in my case, to figure out the voice-mail system, three to switch off the AC). Until chef Scott Crawford left in December, the restaurant made mincemeat of those at the other two hotels in this story (at press time he had not been replaced). And while guest rooms are hardly models of anticipatory decorating, they basically get the look right: sleigh beds, cherry-blossom wallpaper, pineapple lamps, and moiré slipper chairs. Mattresses are custom-made by a fourth-generation family concern in Charleston.

But at these prices, ahem, don't people deserve digs that are in better nick and reflect a little more thinking? When the muntin on a window breaks, sometimes it's stuck back on with tape. Heaven help the guest who steps under the shower only to discover, dripping, that the soap's been set out across the room. I think I know the problem: AOS (Absentee Owner Syndrome). Woodlands' proprietor lives in England. Staffers say they've never laid eyes on him. In other words, there's no one minding the store. The hotel is gearing up for an expansion that will make it almost unrecognizable. But there is more urgent business, like test-driving the rooms to make sure they work.

In 1939, Robert Parsons sold Woodlands to botanist Alan White, who bequeathed it not to family but to local society powerhouse Ruth Gadsden. Townies describe the two as "friends," then clam up, which makes you think: red flag. Only Sue Sanders cut through the Southern niceties to insinuate that Gadsden's relationship with White was maybe too close, given that she was married.

"Ruth Gadsden is buried between Alan White and her husband," Sanders told me in a doesn't-that-say-it-all way. "I'm original to Woodlands, like that light fixture over there. They'll take me out feet first. I know where the bodies are buried."
125 Parsons Rd., Summerville, S.C.; 800/774-9999 or 843/875-2600; www.woodlandsinn.com; doubles from $295.

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