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South Carolina's Lowcountry luxuries

One can gaze over the tin rooftops, parks and white steeples of Charleston to the sea beyond from the cupola of the elegant 19th Century Wentworth Mansion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One can gaze over the tin rooftops, parks and white steeples of Charleston to the sea beyond from the cupola of the elegant 19th Century Wentworth Mansion.

In nearby Summerville, the porch of the century-old Woodlands Inn provides a quiet respite as the wind brushes a glen edged with pine and oak and a cat named Spike curls up in the warm autumn sun.

To the south, one can sit amid antique furnishings looking out on the Atlantic from the grand lobby at the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, a hotel which conjures grand southern seaside homes of the past.

The feel and vistas from these elegant properties differs but the way guests are treated is the same - pampered from arrival to departure.

All three have earned five diamonds from AAA - as has the restaurant at the Woodlands - a cluster of top quality resorts in the South Carolina Lowcountry which now boasts more top-rated properties than entire states.

Only 93 hotels and an additional 58 restaurants earned the Five Diamond award for 2007 - less than a quarter of 1 percent of the 60,000 hotels and restaurants reviewed by the motor club's tourism editors.

Only 22 states and the District of Columbia have five diamond properties and only eight states have more than the Charleston area.

Five diamond hotels must be "world-class properties exhibiting an exceptionally high degree of service; striking, luxurious facilities and many extra amenities," according to the motor club.

"It's a pretty incredible story to think that there are three just in this area," said Linn Lesesne, who with her husband operates Charming Inns, which owns the Wentworth as well as five other historic inns.

"It speaks volumes for Charleston," agreed Marty Wall, general manager at the Woodlands. "Tourism is such an economic engine in Charleston that it is not surprising these options exist."

Tourism is South Carolina's largest industry, generating $15 billion for the economy a year.

But Vijay Singh, the manager of the Sanctuary, said the Charleston area is still a bit of a secret among travelers.

"Will more (luxury) hotels come to Charleston because we have four five-diamonds? Probably not," he said. "I think we will be a hidden target for five or ten more years, but it adds legitimacy to what we do."

Being among the best of the best was a goal of all three properties.

Lesesne and her husband Rick Widman acquired the Wentworth in the late 1990s and sank $10 million into renovating the 24,000-square-foot mansion originally built by a wealthy cotton merchant.

The four-story red brick structure with its mansard roof has the feel of an elegant home - the rooms finished in mahogany, oak and walnut with high ceilings and intricate moldings.

Guests can share afternoon tea in the parlor as the light filters through Tiffany stained glass windows. Throughout the inn are carvings of owls on mantels and woodwork. Its original owner of the Wentworth helped create Charleston's first paid fire department and would watch for fires from the cupola.

"The atmosphere? It's not that important to me," said Don Tribus, 69, of Vero Beach, Fla., who with his wife has visited Charleston frequently but stayed at the Wentworth for the first time last month.

"What's important to me is service. I really feel after being here for three days there's a tremendous family atmosphere," he said. "Right now ... I feel this is going to be our home in Charleston."

The Woodlands, located about 20 miles northwest in Summerville. was built a century ago by a wealthy northeastern railroad executive as a winter home.

It was a private residence through the 1980s, then operated as an inn for a few years before the current owners acquired it 11 years ago. They added a wing to each side as well as the restaurant, pool, tennis courts and a conference center.

With 18 rooms and a cottage, The Woodlands has held the five diamond rating since 1998; its restaurant for a decade. It is also rated five stars by Mobil.

The atmosphere is that of a country home, not a hotel, with each room decorated in different colors and textures, so no two are the same.

Then there are the little touches, things like heated towel racks, a half bottle of wine upon arrival and even the simple pleasure of chocolate covered nuts in each room.

The Winter Garden, designed so the windows catch the warming sun throughout the day in the winter, is a popular spot for afternoon tea or drinks.

The restaurant, offering Lowcountry cuisine drawing on foods from the fields and waters along the coast, is always working to develop new dishes, said executive chief Tarver King.

"We try to take advantage of the kitchen being filled with excellent cooks and all sorts of opinions," he said. "If you get the opinion 10 palates, you can get one really pleasing dish."

Whether at a restaurant or a hotel, service sets the best apart.

"You can create the facility and provide the amenities and all of the things a guest is looking for," Wall said. "But the ultimate component in achieving with people is service - providing a level of service that is beyond all others."

That was the goal when oceanfront Sanctuary, the newest of the properties, opened just two years ago. With a price tag of $125 million, it cost nearly $500,000 per room.

While the hotel thought about awards in the planning, the real focus has always been the guests, Singh said.

"Above achieving the five diamond and beyond everything else was that the guest experience would be unparalleled," he said.

From the plush rooms to the avenue of oaks you drive along to reach the hotel, The Sanctuary paid attention to the smallest details.

The floors in the lobby are new wood but crafted and distressed to appear old, as though the hotel were built years ago. In some places, the joints in the wood are wider than normal to add to the aged look.

Grand staircases lead to the second floor and guests pass floor-to ceiling murals of the marsh and sky of Kiawah Island. The mural on the east wing appears as if the sun were rising; that on the west is in evening light.

The properties have attracted their share of celebrities.

Bruce Willis and Richard Gere have found their way to the Woodlands, while Reese Witherspoon has stayed at the Wentworth where, a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the joint chiefs of staff of the United States, England, France and Germany rented the entire inn.

This fall, the Republican National Committee held fundraisers at The Sanctuary which brought Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush on successive nights.

After gaining five diamond recognition, the challenge is maintaining it.

"The added pressure we put on ourselves is to look at that one guest who is right in front of us and make sure that guest is absolutely taken care of," Singh said. "If the stars and diamonds follow then that's good."

It all starts with service, Wall agreed. "It's a constant, constant battle to stay on top," he said.

"We want to give guests an experience that will last a lifetime - an experience they will take home and remember forever," Lesesne added.