Life on Vacation: History keeps pace with the present in Charleston, S.C.

— -- It's hard to believe sleepy Charleston was once the nation's fifth-largest city, a bustling port town and trade epicenter of vital strategic importance during the American Revolution in the late 1700s. Nearly a century later, it would launch the Civil War, when the first shots were fired at a Union ship and Fort Sumter in Charleston's harbor.

Things have quieted down since then, and today visitors are unlikely to be attacked: Famed etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart named it the nation's "best mannered" city in 1995, a distinction it has held ever since.

Now the city personifies Southern hospitality, and the region oozes history, with a formidable array of preserved plantations, museums and historic sites, including Fort Sumter and the large Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum.

For most vacationers, the main attraction is the old city at the heart of Charleston, with its preserved antebellum architecture, multihued "rainbow" buildings, and cobblestone streets still lined with grand oaks draped in Spanish moss.

Downtown is why people fall in love with Charleston. And little wonder. Aside from the splendid old homes and endless shops, there are the many fine eateries specializing in regional "low country" cuisine, arguably the most unique indigenous style in the USA with offerings such as frogmore stew and shrimp and grits.

The downtown area, however, is so small and so protected from development that second-home options are few and far between. Also, for a city surrounded by water on three sides, Charleston has virtually no beach.

For these reasons, most visitors shopping for vacation property head straight to one of the golf-mad resort islands surrounding Charleston, all linked to the mainland with bridges and within 20 miles of downtown. While the city itself is home to only about 120,000 inhabitants, Greater Charleston has a population of 450,000 or more.

A look at three island neighborhoods:

• Kiawah Island. The 11 square miles consist of a public luxury golf resort and nearly 4,000 homes and condos; about 80% are owned by second-home buyers. The resort has five highly rated golf courses, including the Ocean Course, which is a Ryder Cup and PGA Championship venue. The private Kiawah Island Club offers two acclaimed courses. The island is lined with sandy beaches, and nearly half the interior is preserved as protected or open space. One-bedroom condos start in the mid $300,000s, while single-family houses begin at about $800,000 and climb to $17 million, says Chris Drury, president of Kiawah Island Real Estate.

• Daniel's Island. More village than resort in feel, the 4,000-acre island is the closest to downtown. The community of full-time and part-time residents includes schools, supermarkets and among sporting options, two golf courses by Rees Jones and Tom Fazio. Single-family houses run from about $500,000 to more than $3 million.

• Isle of Palms. The 5.6-square-mile island is more beach-oriented than its neighbors with bustling waterfront restaurants and water sports. The 1,600-acre Wild Dunes resort community includes a hotel, two Tom Fazio golf courses and extensive residential development. The newest addition is the Village at Wild Dunes, built around a commercial center. Throughout the community, prices for condo and houses range from $450,000 to $6 million, and in the Village from $450,000 to $2.75 million.