By David Wilkening • Photos courtesy of the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau
The Historical City of Firsts
• First decisive American victory during the Revolutionary War
• First regularly scheduled passenger train service in America
• First shot of the Civil War
• From Revolution to the Civil War
Charleston has long appealed to all-age family memberswith its Southern charm, history, recreation possibilities, and unique museums.
The single best reason to visit Charleston, South Carolina, is the area’s history which is particularly rich with Civil War monuments. But there are also good museums, some fine natural attractions, and much to do for the entire family, making it a great draw for an educational and recreational weekend vacation.
You can take in the first permanent English settlement in the Carolinas at the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site (843/852-4200). The 663-acre historic nature preserve offers an animal forest, an area where you can see what settlers’ life was like, and a natural habitat zoo.
There’s lots of plantation houses in the Charleston area, but don’t miss Drayton Hall (843/769-2600), the only plantation house remaining on the Ashley River that survived both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. It’s kid-friendly and also, for an additional fee, offers a new DVD-guided interactive tour entitled “Voices” that can lead your family through the grounds at your own pace. Admission includes a guided tour of the house and self-guided nature walks.
Fort Moultrie (832/883-31234) is where the Americans had their first victory over the British Navy on June 28, in that soul-testing year of 1778. The National Park Service interprets the palmetto log fort’s history. There’s also a 20-minute orientation film.
No visit to historic Civil War sites is complete without a trip to the Fort Sumter National Monument (843/883-3123), where the great and bloody conflict all began. Confederates occupied it and endured a dramatic two-year siege when 46,000 shells estimated at 7 million pounds were fired at the fort. Today, visitors take a private or ferry boat to see the fort.
For more military history, visit Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum (866/831-1720). It’s home to the famous (and immense) World War II aircraft carrier Yorktown, as well as other large ships such as destroyers and submarines.
The Citadel Museum (843/225-3294) on the Citadel Campus is also popular with all ages. It preserves the history of the military college from 1842 to the present with photographs, uniforms, and archival documents. If you’re here during the academic year, you might look for a Dress Parade by the South Carolina Corps of Cadets, held almost every Friday at 3:45 pm or 4:20 pm.
Touring the Old City
Charleston in some ways had a lucky turn of events that has led to its being perhaps the most preserved city in America, architecturally and historically speaking. After the Civil War, residents were too poor to remodel, so the city simply adapted the old buildings.
There are also upwards of a dozen walking tours that include homes and gardens, ghosts who have passed through here, and pirate-themed pathways. One of the best is The Story of Charleston/Tour Charleston, LLC (800/854-1670), with guides profiling the area’s legendary personalities and recounting the impact of wars and disasters.
There are dozens of restored historical homes to tour, most with furnishings that show life in the early 1800s. Tour guides or docents are among the best I’ve ever seen, but keep in mind that this subtropical coastal city can get pretty hot and humid, so you’ll want to plan breaks around each house tour. It’s also questionable how many of the gorgeous historic homes will be tolerated by youngsters who want more action. There are other historical structures that may interest them more, including the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (888/763-0448) where American patriots were held prisoner during the Revolutionary War.
The area is also well known for its lush gardens, parks, and sweeping plantations. One of the most popular is Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens (843/884-4371), which illustrates how cotton was grown. Adults will marvel at the majestic collection of moss-draped live oaks, one of the biggest anywhere in the south. School-age children will undoubtedly find the nine slave quarters, circa 1830, of at least some interest.
Exploring Indoors & Outside
Children of all ages love a chance to explore a shrimp boat, race golf balls, and find out what castle life is like at the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry (843/853-8962). It’s full of hands-on exhibits.
Summers are a particularly good time to visit the Charleston Museum (843/722-2996), which offers Kid Tours that allow children to participate in a craft project or other activity. Themes range from life during the Civil War to a look at prehistoric animals.
The South Carolina Aquarium (800/722-6455) has over 60 exhibits. Kids will love the educational touch pool in the interactive Discovery Lab. Ocean, saltmarsh, mountain forest, and even Amazon fish and other animals are also present. The newest exhibit, opened in early 2009, Penguin Planet, features four magellanic penguins.
The largest remaining virgin strand of bald cypress and tupelo trees in the world can be found at the 11,000-acre Audubon Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest (843/462-2150). Take the mile and a half boardwalk to see majestic swamplands where visitors see ancient trees, migrating birds and various wildflowers.
Fun Weekend Workouts
Start out an exercise-minded weekend with an easy bicycle ride across North America’s longest cable-stayed bridge. Visitors can rent Raleigh 7-speed bikes at Bike the Bridge Rentals (843/853-2453). They also will provide riders with their “EZ-Read” maps that show downtown areas of interest. Another option is the “Tour at Your Own Pace” historic guided tours.
Then head for the largest indoor ice skating facility in the Southeast. The Carolina Ice Palace (843/572-2717) includes a Virtual Reality Arcade. Here, a highlight is “Kids Can Save The Earth” from alien invaders atop a 100-foot robotic defender. Laser-guided weapons mow down the bad guys.
For more hands-on recreational activities, visit the 943-acre Palmetto Islands County Park (843/795-4386). Visitors can bike and picnic or fish from floating docks along tidal creeks and lagoons.
A variety of attractive islands usually within 20 minutes of downtown are worth exploring, particularly in the steamy summer. Kiawah Island, for one, has 10 miles of beaches. The island abounds in natural beauty with endless acres of marsh and thick pine forests. The oceanfront Sanctuary at Kiawah Island is among housing choices or you can stay at a privately owned home, villa or cottage. It you really want to get far from the crowd, a good choice is Folly Beach. This peaceful island, which might make you think you’re in Hawaii or Bermuda, is full of rare birds, historical sites, fishing and surfing.
Charleston Water Taxi (843-330-CWTX) links various attractions. This 49-passenger water taxi runs continuously from 10am to 7pm with extended hours on weekends. (Note that during the winter months there are some blackout dates when there is no service at all. Please check the website for specific closures). New to the area, this is sure to be an interesting way to get around. An all day unlimited pass for an adult is $12 and children under five years old ride for free.
One of the best times to visit Charleston is during the Holiday Festival of Lights. From November to early January, visitors can take a three-mile driving tour of the city ablaze with one million shimmering lights. But there’s more than lights. Winters are short and mild and magical, and at Christmas there’s a Holiday Village constructed by hand with 30 tons of sand. Gift shops and other Christmas-related displays are on hand. At the Winter Wonderland, there’s an 18-animal carousel ride to whirl children around.
When it comes to dining, Hyman’s Seafood (843/723-6000) is rightly famous for its excellent food at low prices, but be warned: you have to wait for a table even at non-peak times. Routinely chosen the best seafood restaurant in the state, Hyman’s usually offers up to 25 fish on its “daily board.” For authentic local food, Diana’s (843/534-0043) breakfast has a Cajun eye-opener, which is shrimp and crawfish etouffee served with creamy Carolina stone ground grits. It’s all topped with fried green tomatoes. More conservative diners can order an omelet.
Looking for a place to stay? The area is not exactly known for its bargain accommodations, so families might want to splurge at the 12-story Francis Marion Hotel (843/722-0600), which was the largest and grandest in the Carolinas when it opened in 1924. After a $12 million renovation in 1996, the hotel named after the famed “Swamp Fox” of the American Revolution is again among the grandest in town. Ask for an upper story room for a view of the waterfront.
Children as well as adults will enjoy the view from the RoofTop Bar and Restaurant at the Vendue Inn. It overlooks the Charleston Harbor and the city’s vast collection of picturesque rooftops and steeples. A lot of visitors make it a point to catch the sunset there. The Vendue Inn (800/845-7900 ) itself has charming rooms decorated with authentic antiques and 18th century reproductions. Some suites have gas fireplaces and marble baths. Though this property is also on the pricey side, think about what an introduction to history this hotel experience is! The inn is within easy walking distance of many shops and restaurants in the city’s historic district.
You might get a room for less than $100 at the Comfort Inn Riverview (843/577-2224), which is also located in the downtown historic district. Amenities include cable TV and an outdoor pool.
If you’re staying in Charleston, you might want to get out of town; a 30-minute drive will get you to the historic town of Summerville, where you can sample some of the best barbecue anywhere at Sticky Fingers Restaurants (843/871-742) or experience New American cuisine at the Woodlands Resort & Inn (866/365-5955). Sticky Fingers is a chain, but you won’t find better barbecue outside of Memphis. Woodlands is South Carolina’s only Mobil 5-Star, AAA Five Diamond award-winning dining room. Conde Nast Traveler gave it the only perfect food score in North America.
For even more information on what to do in the area, visit www.charlestonfamilyfun.com and www.charlestoncvb.com.
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