Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Charleston charms for a family vacation

This was originally published on The Chicago Moms.

During Winter Break, we wanted to take our girls out of the cold for a few days. We talked about heading to Charleston, South Carolina, as we had heard it was just beautiful at Christmas. We didn’t end up in Charleston for the holidays, but we did make it there for Spring Break.

In many ways, Charleston is both a sophisticated city and a beach town. Our trip lasted six nights, but we planned it as if we had two long weekends – a city weekend and a beach weekend. For the first three nights, we stayed just outside Charleston so we’d be close to the city. There were many events going on, including Fashion Week, so the hotels were packed. What was interesting was that for all the activity, Charleston didn’t seem crowded. We easily found restaurant tables and tour availability. Some of our favorite, family-friendly, activities included:

Fort Sumter combined a water tour with an island tour.  When we arrived the National Park Service tour guide laughed at us and said, “We warned you about the bugs.” Well, I’d say they sort of warned us about the bugs. A bunch of gnats was one things. These bugs were biting machines.  The fort was an interesting look at how wars were fought before airplanes and drones. The museum had so much information we barely finished reading before we had to leave. We recommended the tour to others, with a reminder to bring  the bug spray.

The Hunley tour of the world’s first successful combat submarine was fascinating for all ages. The conservation center where the Hunley is being studied doesn’t look like much as you drive up to it. Once you’re in, you could stay for hours. The docents were simply walking encyclopedias on all things related to the Hunley from military history to conservation to archeology. Our girls weren’t thrilled about going, but then they didn’t want to leave. You can only tour the Hunley on weekends, so this was the only tour reservation we made before arriving in Charleston.

The Old City Market was a magnet for our girls. The three sheds span several blocks with a mix of handmade items, jewelry, clothing, souvenirs and snacks. We wandered the market the first day picking up charms, spice mixes, a Christmas ornament and snacks. We walked through it again just because our girls were certain they missed something during the first visit.

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon was high on our girls’ to do list. They really wanted to go down into the dungeon. The docent provided a tour with just the right amount of information for families. There were some adults who asked about specific points, and he happily answered those questions. The girls were a bit disappointed by the dungeon because it was clean, well-lit and completely presentable. I didn’t realize until we were in the dungeon that they were hoping it would be dark and dank, like the dungeons in books. Of course, if it had been dark and dank, they wouldn’t have wanted to really be there.

There were several carriage tours, but we found Palmetto Carriage Works and were able to purchase tickets for the next tour. We learned that carriage tours functioned under a lottery system. Each carriage received a random destination at the main checkpoint before heading out. This meant we couldn’t request a specific tour, but we didn’t care. Our horse-loving daughters couldn’t stop talking to the tour guide about the mules carrying us through Charleston. The rest of us were enchanted by his charm and knowledge.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church was probably not on everyone else’s list, but it was on mine. As we packed, I made sure we had appropriate clothes to wear to church as worship was a bit more formal in the South. I chose St. Michael’s because it hosted so many dignitaries through its history, including President George Washington. The church was a great example of something we learned on our carriage tour. Families in the old South used to purchase a box where they worshipped every week. St. Michael’s still had those boxes. We sat in Box 43, which was the dignitary’s box. The usher told us it was the same box President Washington used. Our girls were happy to have that story to tell after the service ended.

The South Carolina Aquarium made our list, even though we have an amazing aquarium in Chicago. We really liked the way the South Carolina Aquarium focused on native water systems. You started at the top of the museum and worked your way through all the different water forms from rain forests to swamps to oceans. Shortly after we watched the divers in the big tank, an aquarium employee came up and asked us if we wanted to see the big tank from the top. He said the employees randomly asked families if they’d like a behind the scenes tour. We immediately followed him to the top of the tank where he patiently answered our questions and told us about the animals. Our daughters thought it was funny that the big turtle had to go on “time-out” when the staff fed the sharks. It turns out the turtle liked to eat the sharks’ food. It was so interesting to find out what happened back stage. As we left we stopped on the aquarium deck where we saw dolphins playing in the bay.

We spent three full days in Charleston, but we could have spent several more.  One of the great things about Charleston was that it was so easy to get there. The plane made it from Midway to Charleston in fewer than two hours. We picked up a rental car and started our Charleston experience before lunch. 

Charleston is a great option for families seeking a summer getaway. You can spend a long weekend or a longer time enjoying the local charms. We’re planning to go back soon. It’s so close and so charming that once you visit, you can’t wait to return.

Disclosure:  We paid for everything, with some discount coupons for some attractions. Be sure to visit the visitor’s center to find discount coupons when you visit.

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