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By Thurston Hatcher

Before the serious summer humidity starts bearing down on Charleston, and locals flee to the beach and the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Spoleto Festival lands in the South Carolina Lowcountry like a second holiday season.

For residents, the electricity’s palpable as the international artists and arts enthusiasts descend on the city’s historic district for two weeks in May and June.

For visitors, Spoleto offers an enticing mix of everything from classic opera and chamber music to cutting-edge drama, dance, jazz and performance art, with this elegant city as its otherworldly backdrop. And nearly all the 120+ performances are within walking distance from the major Charleston hotels and restaurants.

The lineup for Spoleto 2008 — May 23 to June 8 — includes operas "Amistad" and "La Cenerentola" (by Rossini), the Boston Ballet, Laurie Anderson, London-based cabaret company 1927’s "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," and "Monkey: Journey to the West" by Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet — described as a cross between "The Lion King," Cirque du Soleil and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

If you’re aiming for a premium seat at the opera, prepare to pay upwards of $100 or more. But there are plenty of more affordable options across the Spoleto lineup.

Plus, the city of Charleston holds its own Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which simultaneously offers up a complementary a mix of local, regional and touring performances at even more affordable prices.

Even if you’re not that into the arts, it’s worth planning a Charleston vacation just to catch the Spoleto Finale, where you can relax on the lawn, sip a little wine, listen to the Spoleto Orchestra and catch some fireworks at Middleton Place, an awesome 18th-century plantation on the Ashley River.

For a few unforgettable hours, anyway, you can live like Charleston royalty.

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Thurston Hatcher is an Orbitz editor who lives in Chicago but spent 10 years in the Lowcountry — about six decades shy of qualifying as a true Charlestonian.

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