Charleston - Boneyard Beach

One of the highlights of our trip was a boat trip out to Capers Island and Boneyard Beach.  The beach got its name from the large pieces of driftwood lying on the shore that look like the bones of some long forgotten prehistoric animal. 

The trip out to the island winds through tidal creeks where we saw dolphins, egrets, and osprey while we learned about the unique eco-system that exists in these waters. 

Our guide was fantastic and was a huge part of what made the trip so great.  A former school teacher, he took a real interest in the kids and explained everything clearly without dumbing it down.  He even stopped along the way and hauled in some crab traps, showing us both the difference between male and female and between the species that co-exist here on the ocean floor.

Once you arrive on the island, you are free to wander around on your own.  We walked along the shore playing in the waves and scaling the larger pieces of driftwood.

When it was time to return to the mainland, we did so reluctantly with a few treasures in hand.  Jack was thrilled to get the chance to pilot the boat part of the way home while Ava took the time to relax and grab a little nap.

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Charleston - Things to Do

While there is nothing wrong with heading straight to one of the many beaches in the Charleston area, there is a lot to tempt you away from the sand and surf.  Our first stop was Fort Sumter National Monument, located on a small island in the harbor.  The site of the first shots fired in the Civil War, this is a great mix of history and gorgeous scenery.  

Reached after a quick ferry ride, you can listen to a short ranger talk or immediately begin the self-guided tour, which takes about 45 minutes.  There is a museum which tells the story of the construction of the fort, the events leading up to the confrontation between Confederate and Union troops on April 12, 1861, and the fort's continued role in the conflict through the end of the Civil War.

After you've absorbed all the history you can at the fort, head back to shore and be sure to tour the museum at the Visitor Education Center.  It provides a broader look at the issues and disputes that caused the Civil War.   

If you go, remember to bring a light sweater as it can get chilly on the ferry and out in the harbor.  Also, be sure to register for the Junior Ranger program at the visitor center before heading out to the fort.  The kids complete a questionnaire while exploring the fort and return it to the ranger at the visitor center.  In return for their efforts, they are awarded a junior ranger badge.  Many national parks and sites offer this program and it is a great way to keep kids engaged and excited.

A short walk from the Visitors Center is the South Carolina Aquarium.  The aquarium is newly renovated and a great stop for anyone with kids.  There are many exhibits on offer:  Madagascar journey, with a close-up look at ring-tailed lemurs and other animals native to the island, a touch tank with wonderful educators on hand to answer questions, a 6,000-gallon stingray tank where you can purchase shrimp cups to feed the rays, and so much more. 

  Feeding the rays

Feeding the rays

The highlight of our visit was a trip to the aquarium's sea turtle hospital.  This is an add-on to the general admission ticket but well worth the price.  The hospital is home to many different types of sea turtles who are too sick or injured to survive in the wild.  Here they are nursed back to health until they are healthy enough to be released back into the ocean.  Seeing these creatures up close was fascinating and the kids talked about this for weeks after our visit. 

Just over the Ravenel Bridge in Mt. Pleasant, Patriot's Point is home to the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier, the USS Laffey, a destroyer and the USS Clamagore, the only Guppy III submarine preserved in the United States.  We spent the better part of a day here exploring all the ships as well as the aircraft still housed on the deck of the Yorktown.  You can tour each of the boats at your own pace, with or without an audio tour (available for an additional fee) and there are plenty of volunteers to answer any questions you have.  A cafeteria serving meals and snacks is on the Yorktown or you can bring a picnic and have lunch at one of the many tables provided overlooking the docked ships and the Ravenel Bridge.

Idea for Spring Break - Charleston

With a snowstorm bearing down this weekend, I've been dreaming of April and spring break.  One great trips we took as a family was a week in Charleston, South Carolina.  It was everything we work looking for:  warm, not too far from home (we drove), great food, and lots to do and see.  We broke the trip up and spent two nights in Williamsburg on the way down, but we loved Charleston so much we opted to change our return plans and spend an extra night there.

We had some Marriott points to use so we chose to stay at the Residence Inn, which is about a 5 minute drive from downtown Charleston.  The hotel was great and it had everything we needed for a long stay:  our room was a suite so the kids were in a separate room for sleeping, a hot breakfast was served every morning, there were laundry facilities on-site and best of all, a heated saltwater pool. 

Over the next few posts, I'll be highlighting what we did, where we ate, and a few great day trips we took. 

Spring Weekend in Williamsburg

A couple of years ago we stopped off in Williamsburg on our way down to Charleston for spring break.  We had just enough time to see a few of the highlights (and we didn't mention Busch Gardens to the kids).  Downtown Williamsburg is charming and we arrived in time to stroll through the local farmer's market and feed some of the locals before the historical site opened.  

It is free to walk the grounds (but you must pay to enter any of the buildings) and since it was such a beautiful day, that is what we chose to do.  

For lunch I had gotten a recommendation from the 36 Hours column in the NY Times (a great resource when you are planning a trip) for The Cheese Shop.  This spot is popular so be prepared to wait but it is so worth it.  I took the advice of the NY Times and had the Virginia ham on French bread and it was, as the article had predicted, one of the best sandwiches I've ever eaten.

For dinner, we wanted to eat at one of the many themed restaurants in Colonial Williamsburg.  We ate at Christiana Campbell's Tavern, reputedly George Washington's favorite place to dine when he visited.   The tavern is famous for its crab cakes and they did not disappoint.  Our waiter was great with the kids and used Jack as an example to all the diners in our area to explain why our napkins were the size of a small bath towel and the proper way to wear it.  

After dinner, we explored more of the grounds and did a little shopping.  We especially loved Mermaid Books, a used books store with a fantastic selection of kids books and regional cookbooks.  

There is much, much more to do here (in fact, after writing this I'm thinking we need to plan a return trip) and if you are looking for a quick getaway for Spring Break, this would be a great place to consider.  

Winter Car Trip Part III

Before heading out to our final stop of Asheville, we grabbed breakfast at Rise Biscuits and Donuts.  Tucked into a strip mall on the outskirts of Durham, they had delicious homemade biscuits with a variety of fillings and donuts with traditional flavors (glazed, chocolate glazed) to the more exotic such as creme brûlée and pomegranate glaze.  

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Once we got to Asheville, we found (somewhat unexpectedly) that this is a popular vacation spot during the holidays.  After being turned away from several places for lunch, we finally settled at Doc Chey's Noodle House.  The menu is expansive and the portions are huge so two kids could easily share an entree.  They also offer a nice kids menu if you prefer to go that route.  Everything we had was delicious and their emphasis is on locally-grown, organic ingredients (as is the case with most of the restaurants in Asheville).  

Just down the street is an Asheville institution, Mast General Store.  Founded in the 1940s, this store has everything you could want or need.  From clothing to toys to birdhouses to a huge selection of penny candy, you are sure to find a souvenir to take home in this place.  

The Grove Park Inn is a historic hotel which has seen many famous visitors, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris, and Barack Obama (twice).  Built in the early 20th century in the Arts and Crafts style, this is one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever visited.  Unfortunately we weren't spending the night; we were just there to view the annual gingerbread competition the hotel hosts each holiday season.  Next time I definitely want to sit in front of one of the huge fireplaces and enjoy a glass of wine or sit out on the porch and watch as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Looking at the website, there is plenty to keep you busy:  golfing, an outdoors center which offers guided rafting and hiking trips, and history tours of the inn.  They also offer both a children's day program and a kids' night out for parents who want a little adult time.  

The gingerbread competition was lots of fun.  We had gone to a local one in NJ before Christmas, but this was beyond all expectations.  It was hard to believe that some of these were made from just a little flour and sugar!  The competition was spread out throughout the inn so you could enjoy the views over the mountains and the beauty of the hotel as you went through the exhibit.

Towards the end there is a nice collection of shops.  The favorite of the group was The Pink Pig,  selling beautiful christmas ornaments and decorations, lots of sweet treats, and a nice coffee bar to boot.  

We took one last picture on the porch in Santa's sleigh and then reluctantly headed back to our car.  We thought about having dinner at the inn's newest restaurant, Edison, but decided to save that for next time.

The next day was cold and rainy and despite howls of protest from Jack, we set out early to tour the Biltmore EstateGeorge Vanderbilt's "vacation" home.  This had been on my to-see list for a long time and visiting it while it was decorated for the holidays was even better than I could have hoped.  We chose the self-guided tour with timed entry and then purchased the audio tour once we arrived at the house.  There is a special tour for kids narrated by one of the Vanderbilt's dogs, Cedric, which was a big hit with our two.  There are suggested itineraries for families on the website as well as helpful tips, particularly for those traveling with younger children.  For Downton Abbey fans, the exhibit we saw earlier this year of costumes from the series is coming here and will be on display February 5 - May 25.

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                                                           Image courtesy of Saturday Evening Post

                                                         Image courtesy of Saturday Evening Post

The kids loved the house and immediately wanted to move in.  They enjoyed looking for good hiding places and imagining how long it would take their friends to find them!  The tour is a little long at 90 minutes and we were all ready to head outside and explore the gardens once it ended.  Both the formal gardens and the surrounding countryside were designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who is also responsible for the design of Central Park in Manhattan and our family's beloved Prospect Park in Brooklyn.  

Because of the cold, we didn't get to walk around as much as would have liked.  Be sure to look out for the shops including a toy store and a confectionery as well as a restaurant and coffee bar adjacent to the house in what was formerly the stables.  This is a nice place to take a break after touring the house and before heading outside.  There is also a restaurant in Antler Hill Village which is on property but can only be reached by car once you have finished touring the main house.  Also at Antler Hill is a playground, farm yard, and winery.  

Take your time as your drive out and enjoy the beautiful views and landscapes courtesy of Mr. Olmsted.  

We headed back to downtown Asheville for lunch at Early Girl Eatery.  A great place with a funky atmosphere, they serve breakfast all day (a big draw for our kids) with a focus on local, organic ingredients. The kids had delicious multi-grain pancakes, but if that's not your thing there are salads, sandwiches, and a "protein and two sides" entree.

Later on we grabbed some ice cream at Ultimate Ice Cream.  On their menu are the usual suspects such as vanilla and chocolate but they aren't just ordinary vanilla and chocolate here.  No, it is Madagascar Vanilla Bean and Belgian Dark Chocolate and it is awesome!  There are also choices beyond the basics such as Kahlua Mocha Almond and White Chocolate with Raspberry Swirl.  They are known for one of their more unique flavors, Brown Sugar Maple and Bacon, but unfortunately this wasn't on the menu the night we visited.

Sadly, this ended our time in Asheville but we will definitely be back.  This area is so beautiful and has so much to offer it is impossible to do it justice in just two days!