Romantic Magnolia Gardens.

Many moons ago, when I worked at a local advertising agency, I served as the editor in chief of South Carolina's tourism magazine, Smiles. Along with my editing duties, I also wrote many of the articles. I covered the beaches, pirate legends, destination weddings, a goat farm, and even a few gardens. However, I never visited one of South Carolina's most famous gardens until a month ago during spring break.

Boy. What a missed opportunity for a tourism article.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, located along the Ashley River in Charleston, is the quintessential example of southern charm.

Ancient oaks drip with Spanish moss and winding paths burst with azalea blossoms, making you feel like you've stepped back into a pre-Civil war era.

In fact, some sections of Magnolia Gardens are more than 325 years old, making them the "oldest unrestored gardens in America," according to their website.

Open to the public since 1870, the plantation remained in the hands of the Drayton family for three centuries, with each generation expanding the property. Today, the property includes many elements:

...a petting zoo to entertain the kids whose parents drag them along to look at flowers...

...formal gardens...

...a horticultural maze (where someone experienced a little panic when she couldn't find the exit)...

and statuary throughout.

The overall structure of the gardens, though, represents a cooperation with nature instead of a strict cultivation.

Designed to complement the natural ponds and landscape, as well as the river banks, the family desired to create a peaceful landscape where "humanity and nature are in harmony."

And harmonious it is. With graceful, winding paths leading through the property, visitors find themselves wandering aimlessly by centuries-old trees...

...while exploring native foliage and blooms.

Shady gazebos...

...hidden history...

...and wildlife provide the perfect tour for both garden writer, spouse, and children.

Even the pathway along the Ashley River, which was integral to transportation needs of the plantation, now features elaborately designed perennial and annual boarders that stretch for miles.

Because we visited on our way home from vacation, we didn't have time to take advantage of all of the tours, which you can find here.

We did, however, spend several hours investigating the Audubon Swamp Garden, which was the highlight of the day for the kids and Peter. (I loved it, too, but cursed myself for not having my good camera lens.) Since I've probably already broken your computer with so many photos, though, stay tuned for Part II: The Audubon Swamp Garden, coming soon! Nesting birds, hide-and-seek alligators, and beautiful blooms...oh my!

Happy garden touring!