Compact, easily walkable, and culturally diverse, Charleston, South Carolina is one of the country's most sophisticated family-friendly destinations. Add an authentic antebellum atmosphere of narrow cobble-stone streets lined, gaslight coach lanterns, and elaborate wrought iron fences and gates, and historic "single houses," practically scream ghosts to children.
We find the northern end of downtown Charleston (not to be confused with North Charleston) is the ideal place to stay with younger children, largely because we spend most of our time at the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry (25 Ann St.; tel. 843/853-8962; www.explorecml.org), a play space with a focus on pretend play. One room is an elaborate castle filled with costumes, unicorns, thrones, and oversized animal legs; another a supermarket with functioning registers and computers; another a fishing boat. There is also a water play area to learn a bit about physics and a large art room.
There are three gourmet kid-friendly restaurants within one block of the museum. Our favorite, 39 Rue De Jean (39 John St.; tel. 843/722-8881; www.39ruedejean.com), has good basic French bistro food and a children's menu with slightly more sophisticated options as well as the basic grilled cheese and buttered pasta, most served with their addictive thin fries. Joe Pasta (428 King St.; tel. 843/965-5252) is basic Italian food with plenty of room for the kids to run around and a staff that loves kids. I haven't had a chance to eat at Monza's Pizza (451 King St.; tel. 843/720-8787; www.monzapizza.com) because every time we go the wait is too long, but every family we have met in Charleston has told us their pizza is exceptional.
From a kid's perspective, the most important part of the meal is also just steps away. Our daughter usually spends days debating in advance whether her first "treat" is going to be the vanilla cupcake with pink icing, the red velvet with white icing, or the mint chocolate chip gelato at Cupcake (433 King St.; tel. 843/853-8181; www.freshcupcakes.com) and Paolo's Gelato Italiano (41 John St.; tel. 843/577-0099; www.paolosgelatoitaliano.lbu.com), respectively.
When we've wrenched our daughter away from the museum (it's harder than it sounds) we do activities older children -- like her parents -- also enjoy. The Charleston Aquarium, a visit to Ft. Sumter where the Civil War began, and one of the town's oldest houses, the Edmondston-Alston House. A ghost tour or a trip to one of the three local waterparks (see listing below) keep us busy for several days.
Stay at the Hampton Inn Charleston-Historic District (345 Meeting St.; tel. 843/723-4000; www.hamptoninn.com). The rooms are pristinely clean, the staff are friendly and knowledgeable and its ideally located. It's literally across the street from the children's museum, next to 39 Rue De Jean and Paoli's gelato, across the street from a trolley stop and most of the other places mentioned in this piece, and just a block from the main street, King.
After a few days of city life, we head to the family version of beach paradise, Kiawah. Officially called The Kiawah Island Golf Resort (tel. 800/654-2924; www.kiawahresort.com), a quasi-private small island a few miles south of Charleston. It's the best of both worlds, adults have plenty of opportunity to do nothing in beautiful surrounds, and kids have plenty to do not involving video games or the TV.
During the day my daughter goes to a real kid's camp (with swimming, nature and sports, while my husband bikes on the 30 miles of paved trails, and I am completely immobile, save walking the few feet from pool to beach and back. For more active visitors there is a free tennis clinic for children and a family golf program.
Families who want together time can choose from the long list of daily activities. We've done most of them and highly recommend the Pluff Mud Paddle. Families kayak to the salt marsh with naturalists who point out bald eagles, fiddler crabs, and generally make marsh ecology fun for kids. This year we plan on doing the Dolphin Encounter, which employs a 24-foot motorboat to observe Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin in their natural habitat.
At night we usually do one of their many free family activities which rotate between a carnival, bingo/movie night, animal encounters, and make-your-own-sundae.
There are two types of accommodations on Kiawah. Families should stay in the villas near Night Heron Park, the center of Kiawah's kid activities. For the ultra-luxury experience, stay at The Sanctuary, a hotel that feels more the grand seaside home you'd own -- if your last name is Getty or Vanderbilt.
Charleston Area Water Parks
Splash Zone Waterpark
871 Riverland Dr.
Splash Island Waterpark
444 Needlebrush Pkwy.
Mt. Pleasant, SC
Whirlin' Waters Adventure Waterpark
8888 University Blvd.
North Charleston, SC
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