The little Berkeley County berg of Moncks Corner is actually named for a person, not a vocation. But nonetheless that’s where you’ll find a fully active, practicing Trappist monastery, Mepkin Abbey (1098 Mepkin Abbey Rd., Moncks Corner, 843/761-8509, www.mepkinabbey.org , Tues.–Fri. 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.–4 p.m., Sun. 1–4 p.m., free), notable for the fact that it’s not only open to visitors, but welcomes them.
The beautiful Mepkin Abbey and grounds on the Cooper River is on what was once the plantation of the great Carolina statesman Henry Laurens (whose ashes are buried here), and later the home of famous publisher Henry Luce and his wife Clare Boothe Luce. The focal point of natural beauty is the Luce-commissioned Mepkin Abbey Botanical Garden (closed Mon.), a 3,200-acre tract with a camellia garden designed by noted landscape architect Loutrel Briggs, a native New Yorker who made Charleston  his adopted home.
When they’re not in prayer, the monks generally observe silence. In accordance with the emphasis the order puts on the spiritual value of manual labor, farming is the main physical occupation, with the monks’ efforts producing eggs, honey, preserves, soap, and even compost from the gardens, all of which you can purchase in the Abbey gift shop in the reception center, which will always be your first stop. Tours of the Abbey itself are usually given at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. most days.
The majority of visitors to the Abbey are casual day visitors, eager to enjoy the relaxing quiet, the kiss of the river’s breeze, and the humming of the honeybees. But for those wanting a contemplative, quiet retreat of a distinctly Christian nature, the Abbey lets you stay up to six nights in one of their guesthouses (married couples can also take advantage of this).
As you’d imagine, the accommodations are Spartan—a bed, desk, and reading chair, with a private bathroom. Linens, towels, and soap are provided, but other than access to the library there’s no other modern stimulation. Retreatants eat together with the monks at the same time, enjoying the same strict vegetarian diet and the same strict mealtime silence (though at lunch a single monk reads aloud from a book). Monks will assist retreat guests in the protocols of the Abbey’s prayer schedule.
As part of their vows, Mepkin Abbey’s monks remain silent during the early and late parts of the day. Their daily schedule is very strict, as follows:
Silence begins as monks retire for the day.
Nature lovers can also enjoy Cypress Gardens (3030 Cypress Gardens Rd., Moncks Corner, 843/553-0515, www.cypressgardens.info , daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., last admission 4 p.m., $10 adults, $5 children 6–12), which carries with it a lot of the same quiet, meditative nature of the Abbey, though it’s entirely secular. One of the first nature preserves in the Lowcountry, Cypress Garden is the life’s work of Benjamin R. Kittredge and his son Benjamin, Jr. Together they brought back the former glory of the old Dean Hall plantation, which the elder Kittredge, a New Yorker married into a wealthy Charleston family, had bought in 1909.
Only instead of rice, the main crop was to be flowers. Millions of flowers, from azaleas to daffodils to camellias to wisteria to dogwoods to roses to lotus and then some. The old paddy system was made navigable for small boats—today they’re glass-bottomed—to
meander among the tall cypress trees. The city of Charleston acquired the tract from the family, and later Berkeley County would come into possession of it.
The current 170-acre park was heavily damaged during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, but has made quite a comeback, and its inspiring and calming natural beauty remains true to the vision of the Kittredges. The founders would certainly approve of a particularly modern addition, the “Butterfly House,” a 2,500-square-foot building packed full of butterflies, caterpillars, turtles, and birds. Just go in quietly, remain as quiet as you can, and the butterflies will find you, an unforgettable experience for child and adult alike.
You can also walk two nature trails and enjoy the flora and fauna of this area untouched by modern development. There’s a new “Crocodile Isle” exhibit with several rare species of the reptile. A freshwater Aquarium has 30 species of fish as well as about 20 species of reptiles and amphibians. Out on the water, you can enjoy one of those glass-bottomed boat rides on the blackwater or—and this is what I recommend—paddle yourself in a canoe (included in the admission price) amongst the gorgeous cypress trees.