photographs by Marci Lambert
Grassy dunes and palmettos are the signature of scenic South Carolina beaches.
To satisfy both our tween daughters’ pleas for a beach vacation, and our own desire to explore a new city, my wife, Marci, and I chose a different spring break destination this year: Charleston, South Carolina — and it was definitely a winner.
We teamed up with our best friends (a couple who also have a tween daughter) to rent a three-bedroom, beachfront house, and loaded up our minivan to make the 12-hour drive in a day.
With more than enough adventures to fill a week, Charleston has taken tremendous care to preserve its unique historic district, which dates to the arrival of English settlers in 1670. The district is clean, walkable, and very family-friendly. There are even free shuttle routes (search for “trolley”on ridecarta.com). We were concerned about how the three girls would handle all the history we had planned, but they had so much fun, they forgot to be bored.
Starting off with a carriage tour here is a must. Carriage drivers provide a wonderful overview of 300 years of history in just a half hour. Options range from ghost and pirate tours (in full costume with a live parrot) to culinary offerings — whatever your interest, you can probably find a matching tour. Both Groupon.com and LivingSocial.com offer periodic discounts.
The number of historic homes and plantations worth a visit is too long to list but we saw several. (Package deals will help you save on admissions.)
The Edmonston-Alston House was my favorite. It’s a historic treasure overlooking the harbor that has been restored to its antebellum glory. Ask your guide for their I-spy game booklet. It will keep the kids on the lookout for certain antique oddities during your tour.
The Calhoun Mansion (1876) isn’t very old by Charleston standards but with more than 24,000 square feet, it’s the city’s largest private residence. More interestingly, the house is literally jammed to the ceilings with a strangely eclectic accumulation of heirlooms. Imagine an episode of Hoarders, only with a millionaire art-collector who loves every piece he sees and has a giant house to fill.
At Boone Hall Plantation (filming location for The Notebook and North and South), original brick slave cabins have been carefully converted to mini-museums that tell the story of the Gullah people, West Africans uprooted first to the Caribbean and then to rice plantations on the coastal margins of the South. I couldn’t help but feel their presence and think of their suffering and perseverance as I walked the grounds, shaded by 200-year-old live oaks draped with Spanish moss.
As the site of the first shots fired in the Civil War, Fort Sumter is obviously a bucket list stop for history buffs. Located in the center of the harbor, the experience takes about two hours including transit time. Board the ferry from Patriot’s Point and pair your Sumter tour with a visit to the U.S.S. Yorktown, a retired aircraft carrier that saw action in WWII and Vietnam. The ship now serves as a floating naval museum and home to a shrine honoring Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.
Charleston was among the more prominent cities of colonial times and the Heyward-Washington House (you guessed it — George Washington slept there) is different from most of the city’s restored mansions in that its decor and tour focuses on the Revolutionary era.
Keep going back in time all the way to 1670 at Charles Towne Landing, a lovely state park located on Charleston’s original settlement site. We really enjoyed the modern museum, small zoo, and scenic walk through the park with recreations of the palisade walls, quarters and even a real trading vessel docked in the river.
As for the beach aspect of the trip, we couldn’t have been happier. Our house was inside Wild Dunes, an upscale, gated resort with golf and private beaches just a 15-minute drive from Charleston’s downtown historic district. By splitting the rental fee with friends, the cost for our share of the expenses was about the same as it would have been for a three-star hotel in Charleston. Wild Dunes is just one beach option. Use sites like VRBO.com to find rentals on Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, and Folly Beach, too.
While the water in March was too cold for swimming, the girls didn’t care.
They enjoyed hunting for shells and squishing sand between their toes. We spent long stretches on the screened-in deck facing the water, just taking in the breeze and scanning for dolphins playing in the surf.
All us agreed that our week in Charleston was pretty close to perfect. Don’t forget about this Southern jewel when looking for your next family adventure.
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