Family fun in Charleston

Consistently ranked as a top ten travel destination in the U.S.,  Charleston, South Carolina, is renowned for its southern charm and hospitality, historic preservation, stately homes and gardens and, as we discovered one spring, a wealth of family-friendly activities.

James Island County Park

Cottages at James Island County Park, Charleston, SCOur first stop was James Island County Park, a 15 minute drive across the Ashley River from downtown Charleston. The Charleston area is naturally divided into distinct geographic regions by the many rivers and waterways that wind through the lowlands. Historic Charleston is located in a sheltered harbor off the Atlantic at the junction of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, a strategic location which accounts for its important role in so many key events in American history.

We checked into one of ten rustic vacation cottages available for rent at James Island County Park, ideal accommodations for nature lovers and campers. The kids were immediately distracted by the anoles sunning themselves on the side of our cottage and, so began what would become a major preoccupation of this leg of our trip— the quest for lizards.

Each cottage has three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bath and sleeps up to eight people. Two bedrooms have queen size beds and one small bedroom has just enough room for a bunk bed. Our cottage was clean and in good condition, furnished with heavy duty pine furniture and equipped with TV, telephone, cooking utensils, flatware, dishes, bed linens, blankets and bath towels. The cottages are built on stilts and overlook the Stono River marsh. Relaxing in the rocker on the screened porch, watching the sunset and the burnt orange, brown and golden sawgrass sweeping across the lowlands was the perfect end to the mild spring days. Our mornings usually began with a walk out on the dry marsh. The hard sand was perforated with small holes made by fiddler crabs and we found neat piles of oyster shells and tracks, telltale signs of a raccoon who had visited during the night.

The park facilities are superb and include several miles of walking and hiking trails, freshwater lagoons for boating and fishing, paved trails for rollerblading or biking, playgrounds and a spray play area, climbing wall, 18-hole disc golf course and Splash Zone seasonal water park. Bicycles, pedal boats and kayaks are all available for rent. The green trail from the cottages leads to a picturesque floating fishing/crabbing dock on the creek. The park also contains a full-service campground. Round trip shuttle service is available to the downtown Charleston Visitor’s Center, nearby Folly Beach County Park, and the Folly Beach Fishing Pier.

Folly Beach

Folly Beach Fishing Pier, Charleston, SCFolly Beach, at the west end of Folly Island just twenty minutes from downtown Charleston, is an offbeat, laid back beach town that bills itself as the “Edge of America.” The fishing pier, another facility operated by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, is an impressive sight, extending more than 1,045 feet into the Atlantic Ocean and rising 23 feet above sea level. Fishing passes, rods and shelter rentals are available. You can’t help but notice the unusual brown color of the ocean, particularly against the backdrop of a clear blue sky and white sand. We learned later this is always the case due to the silt flowing from the rivers, creeks and lowlands, and is a vital ingredient to the area’s ecology.

Kiawah Island

The posh, gated refuges of Seabrook and Kiawah Island are further down the coast. Most of the 10-mile-long barrier island is private, but luxury accommodations include 600 private villas and homes and The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, a 255-room oceanfront hotel and spa. An expertly designed community, Kiawah Island has won awards for conservation and use of the natural environment in its development. The stunning homes are hidden among the live oaks, pines and palmetto palms of the maritime forest. Kiawah Island’s golf courses along with those at Seabrook Island and Wild Dunes have established Charleston as a premier golf destination. Kiawah Island boasts five professional golf courses by Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Gary Player and Clyde Johnston. More than 30 miles of bike trails, marsh creek canoeing and kayaking and a nationally acclaimed tennis program are also available.

If you’re not staying at a villa or home here, you can catch a glimpse of them if you visit Beachwalker County Park, another Charleston County Park facility, providing public access to the island’s gorgeous, pristine beach.

Angel Oak

On your way to Kiawah and Seabrook Islands, a short detour to the Angel Oak is a worthwhile stop. Owned and operated by the City of Charleston Department of Parks, the Angel Oak is a live oak tree estimated to be 1,400 years old, America’s oldest living tree east of the Mississippi. Live oaks do not grow particularly tall, but have wide spreading canopies. The angel oak stands 65 feet high and provides 17,000 square feet of shade under its massive limbs that gracefully arch to the ground and are braced with metal bars. A small visitors center and gift shop are on site.

Mount Pleasant

Cooper River Bridge, Charleston, SCWe continued our tour of the area by crossing the Cooper River bridge connecting downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms to the north. The 3.5 mile bridge is the longest cable-stayed bridge span in North America and offers spectacular views of the harbor. Bike rentals are available accompanied by EZ-Read maps or take a “Tour at Your Own Pace” MP3 historic guided tour offered by the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum is just on the other side of the bridge in Mount Pleasant. The imposing 888-foot aircraft carrier Yorktown is the flagship of the battle group with a destroyer, Coast Guard cutter and submarine also on display along with 25 aircraft, Congressional Medal of Honor Museum and Cold War Submarine Memorial. Veterans lead guided tours of the museum.

Barrier Island Eco-Tours

Barrier Island Eco-Tours Capers Island, Charleston, SCOne of our family’s favorite activities was the Barrier Island Eco-Tours leaving from the Isle of Palms marina. Naturalist-guided boat excursions range from 2-5 hours and accommodate groups from 2-49 people. Fishing trips, blue crabbing clinics, kayak trips and dolphin discovery tours are options. We chose the Capers Island Wildlife Exploration which took us to Capers Island Heritage Preserve, the closest undeveloped barrier island to Charleston. Along the way, we cruised through a winding maze of salt marsh creeks and learned about the rich marine environment along the tidal creek beds. At high tide, the marsh meadows teem with fish, shrimp and crabs. As the tide ebbs, fish find shelter in the creeks and inlets, while scores of fiddler crabs scuttle across the exposed muddy flats. Oysters line the sides of the creek. Our naturalist/captain pulled a crab trap and net from the water and the kids clamored to see the marine creatures up close. Once at Capers Island, we walked an inland trail and passed a freshwater pond where an alligator pair and many babies lounged at water’s edge. Our naturalist pointed out evidence of a bobcat and otters and explained the unique maritime vegetation. He also noted that heat and bugs often prevent summer visitors from walking in the interior of the island. Past the forest and dunes, the trail opened onto a beautiful beach known as the “bone-yard,” named because of the old bleached tree skeletons and stumps rising up out of the smooth white sand.

On the way back to Charleston, Shems Creek in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village is a good stop for outdoor dining on fresh fish sandwiches or other seafood and watching the sunset and returning shrimp and fishing boat fleets.

Plantations

We would not have considered our trip to the old South complete without a visit to a plantation. There are several nearby that offer different degrees of preservation and focus. While the history of many plantations begins prior to the Revolutionary War, almost all plantation houses were burned down during the Civil War, so few structures are original today. Some of the area’s best preserved plantations are located west on Highway 61 on the Ashley River.

Drayton Hall is the only surviving plantation house. Hanging a small pox flag outside the house during the Civil War saved it from destruction. Today, the house, whose construction began in 1738, remains in nearly original condition, without running water, electric lighting or central heating. It is not furnished so its architectural elements are clearly visible. Admission includes a guided tour of the house, self-guided nature walks and an African-American focus program.

Middleton Place boasts America’s oldest formal landscaped gardens, with the original garden dating from 1776. A gentleman’s guest wing beside the family residence serves as a house museum. Carriage tours of the elaborate gardens and grounds, house tours, and craft demonstrations in the Plantation Stableyards are offered.

Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mount Pleasant is America’s only working plantation. Fruits and vegetables are still sold at the Farmers Market on Highway 17. Nine original slave cabins are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The current plantation house was built in 1936 and is open for tours.

Magnolia Plantation & Audubon Swamp Garden, Charleston, SCMagnolia Plantation and Gardens is still home to the Drayton family, now in its eleventh generation. Thirty-minute tours of the restored house are available as well as self-guided walking tours and tram tours of the grounds, Once a 500-acre rice plantation, it is now an incredible wildlife preserve abundant with alligators, turtles, herons, snowy egrets and lizards.

Entrance to the Audubon Swamp Garden, adjacent to Magnolia Plantation, is included in the Plantation’s admission fee. Visitors traverse the blackwater swamp over a series of boardwalks and bridges. Moss-draped cypress and tupelo gum trees rise up from the eerie blackwater which conceals an occasional alligator speckled with bright green algae. Binoculars come in handy here. You’ll see many nesting herons and egrets, alligators and keep an eye out for turtles and otters.

Historic Downtown Charleston

From the cottages at James Island, we moved to the moderately priced boutique-style Courtyard Charleston Historic District in downtown Charleston. There we could park the car for the next few days and just walk— by far the best way to explore the city’s historic neighborhoods, shops and hidden streets and alleys. Vendors at the City Market, an open air market on North and South Market Streets, sell everything from new merchandise to antiques, handmade art and crafts to sundries and souvenirs. There you can see local women weaving exquisite seagrass baskets, an art form passed down since Colonial times when the coiled baskets were used for winnowing rice. South of Broad Street you will find the city’s most affluent neighborhood, some of Charleston’s oldest and grandest houses and a good place to view the harbor. Downtown accommodations range from inns and bed and breakfasts to full-service hotels, but you won’t find any highrises here. Charleston retains its historic charm because visionary planners allowed nothing to be built higher than the many church steeples that dot the skyline, one of the reasons for Charleston’s nickname, “The Holy City.”

Originating in 1670, Charleston has a rich and colorful history and, today, everyone seems to be an eager guide. Local residents and professional tour guides alike share stories of the colony, plantations, wars, earthquake and hurricanes, architecture and food. You can choose from a boat, carriage or walking tour. Topics range from gullah tours which explore the history and stories of African-American Charlestonians to history, architecture, pirate and ghost tours. Our family chose a daytime ghost tour given by Tour Charleston LLC. Based on the local best selling book, The Ghosts of Charleston, the walking tour captivated even our 10- and 16-year-olds. Our theatrical tour guide recounted fascinating stories of strange happenings at historic buildings and graveyards all within an area of a few blocks.

If you are in Charleston in the spring, be sure to check out the Historic Charleston Foundation’s Annual Festival of Houses and Gardens, scheduled in March and April. The Historic Charleston Foundation has been instrumental in preserving the city’s architecture and historic treasures, largely through proceeds generated by the Festival tours. A month-long schedule of special events includes afternoon and candlelight evening walking tours, a rare opportunity to tour the interiors and gardens of approximately 150 historic private houses in twelve colonial and antebellum neighborhoods during the peak of the city’s blooming season. Each tour focuses on a different neighborhood or street, encompassing townhouses and mansions of all different architectural styles. Our tour focused on Tradd Street, one of the original carriage ways laid out in the 1680 “Grand Model” of Charles Town. Today, it holds the greatest concentration of early 18th century houses in the city. One home was more extraordinary than the next and it was fascinating to see how these historic buildings have been preserved outside while adapted to contemporary living inside. Well supervised children over the age of 6 are welcome on the house tours. The Historic Charleston Foundation on 40 E. Bay Street has a fine gift shop, books, brochures and maps for self-paced walking tours.

Another good stop for families is the South Carolina Aquarium, located in a complex on Charleston Harbor, also the site for the Fort Sumter Visitors Center and tours. Through interactive exhibits and a 350,000 gallon Great Ocean Tank, the Aquarium tells the story of South Carolina’s diverse aquatic habitats following a trail that begins with the water and ecology in mountain streams and travels down to piedmont rivers, coastal swamps and salt marshes into ocean waters.

There are so many outstanding restaurants in Charleston you will never be at a loss for a memorable meal. From kid-friendly barbecue at Sticky Fingers or outdoor dining at Fleet Landing on Charleston Harbor to down home southern cooking at the Hominy Grill or Jestine’s Kitchen to creative, gourmet fare by renowned chefs at Peninsula Grill, Fig, Charleston Grill, Hanks Seafood Restaurant and so many more, deciding where to eat may be your hardest decision of the day.

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