WADMALAW ISLAND, S.C. - Green-yellow tea plants reach into the distance at the Charleston Tea Plantation as a green harvester slowly makes its way down one row, gently cutting the youngest leaves from atop the bushes to make them into American Classic tea.
The only commercial tea plantation in North America is again in production and on May 11, began officially welcoming visitors again to see how tea is processed.
"What we have here is a gem," said William Hall, a third-generation English-trained tea taster and partner in the plantation.
"I would hope that over time this will become a destination for a lot of tea drinkers and that it will bring a considerable number of people into Charleston," added David Bigelow, the co-chairman of the board of R.C. Bigelow Inc., the Connecticut tea company that purchased the plantation at auction in 2003.
Visitors are now able to take a tour though a spacious new production building where large-screen monitors explain how tea is processed from green leaves to finished product.
As many as 50,000 visitors are expected this year, Bigelow said.
The property on rural Wadmalaw Island is about 20 miles west of Charleston.
Hall has been with the plantation since 1987 and helped develop the American Classic brand after buying the plantation with a partner from Lipton, which operated the 127-acre property as an experimental station.
At one point, American Classic was sold in more than 1,000 retail outlets. But financial problems caused the plantation to suspend operations for about a year and a half.
Bigelow then purchased the property and has spent three years restructuring the plantation into both an operating plantation and a visitor attraction.
"We have the resources in this new facility to really make tea important in America," Hall said. "It would be a shame to see this plowed under and turned into condos."
The plantation now also has a a gift shop selling everything from videos on how tea is made to tea cups and tea pots. The company would also like to add a restaurant at the plantation, Bigelow said.
"We didn't buy it originally for tourism. We did buy it just to save it; we truly did. We just couldn't let the only tea plantation in America die," said Lori Bigelow, Bigelow's daughter and the company's co-president. "It was for the country and it was for the tea industry."
Tourism, she said, was a secondary goal.
"It just helps the business, and it doesn't affect our factory work at all," she said.
Bigelow, a family company that was started in Connecticut in 1945, is probably best-known for its "Constant Comment" tea, an orange-spice blend.
Tea at the Charleston plantation is harvested from late April through October, with the harvester gathering in a day what it would take 500 laborers to do by hand.
When tea is not being processed, visitors will still be able to walk through the production facility, see the equipment and watch the monitors to see how tea is made.
"The income that will come in from tourism will help to stabilize the finances here," David Bigelow said. "This is not necessarily going to be a profit-making venture."
"Making tea alone, just selling tea is not going to do it. So, the tourists are going to have to help us in bringing income in and helping us to pay for the costs of the farm" he added.
If You Go...
CHARLESTON TEA PLANTATION: Wadmalaw Island, S.C.; http://www.bigelowtea.com/act/ or 843- 559-0383. Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sundays, noon-4 p.m. Tours are free. American Classic tea can also be ordered from the Web site.
GETTING THERE: Wadmalaw Island is about 20 miles west of Charleston. Take the Ashley River Bridge (U.S. 17), stay left to Folly Road (S.C. 171), turn right onto Maybank Highway (S.C.700) for 18 miles, look for entrance sign on the left.
BIGELOW TEA: http://www.bigelowtea.com.