by Carmel L. Mooney
We typically travel to the Carolinas at least once a year in search of family-friendly gems and this time we found a bunch.
Now Southwest Airlines flies from Sacramento to Charleston and Spartenburg which makes our Carolina vacations even easier.
This time we started our South Carolina family getaway in beautiful Santee State Park where we took a morning Wildlife Tour of the swamps and gorgeous Lake Marion. The kids loved spotting ospreys feeding their young in huge nests, egrets, herons, alligators, hyacinth, pungent water lilies, Jesus birds (they walk on water), snake birds, and other fascinating things like a dead alligator rotting on the banks of the swamp (talk about the stench from a 14-foot dead alligator lying in the sun)!!
When we finally got our appetites back we dined at a wonderful, authentic, VERY Southern, diner at Lone Star BBQ just outside the park. Here, like much of the south, BBQ is a NOUN, not a verb. They offered tantalizing grits and tomato pie, hush puppies, ribs, chicken, bread pudding, collard greens, hash… and so much more – truly the best southern cooking. It’s a wonderful old mercantile as well as a restaurant and well worth the stop. The kids found lots of souvenirs.
The next day, we drove to Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, and we enjoyed the South Carolina State Museum. Afterward, we checked into the Inn at USC, a beautiful hotel with exceptional service staffed by students who are learning hospitality and hotel studies. The service and hospitality both made the grade and deserved an A++.
Later we decided to sample yet another local BBQ called Little Pig’s BBQ, a must while in Columbia.
Columbia’s Zoo was outstanding with lovely gardens, and after a long day on foot we opted to relax on a sunset boat trip out on Lake Murray where thousands of purple martin birds congregate every night on “Bomb Island.” It’s a spectacle of nature to behold as thousands of birds perform as if on cue, to their wondrous ritual and internal time clock.
Our next stop was famous Myrtle Beach and its outlying areas. The Marina Grande Dunes provided us with a luxurious location from which to enjoy the area’s attractions and beaches. The pool was gorgeous and offered a great family respite at night, as did the property’s private beach for the kids to play on.
After a lovely sunrise, we enjoyed Ripley’s Aquarium, Broadway at the Beach, Brookgreen Gardens, and Huntington Beach State Park (affiliated with Huntington Beach in California) where we saw alligators in the marsh and where we also body surfed on the beach. So glad the gators stayed in the marsh and did not join us on the beach… I always say: “it’s better to eat lunch than be lunch!”
We drove to Carowinds, a unique Carolinas theme park, open year-round, whereas half the park lies in North Carolina and half lies in South Carolina. Our rustic yet cozy cabin at Camp Wilderness on the edge of the Carowinds property was the perfect place to stay while enjoying the park and the outlying areas. We even had a small kitchen, and the proximity to the attractions was very convenient.
In the morning we enjoyed a tour of South Carolina’s Old English Country and Historic Brattonsville, a colonial settlement, where the classic movie, Patriot, was filmed starring Mel Gibson. It was fabulous and the history was gripping. A fascinating woman, Miss Kitty, whose ancestors were the real slaves there on the actual plantation, gave us a period tour as well. The kids learned about the resident heirloom chickens, goats, and pigs that are endangered and are no longer farmed. It’s an actual working plantation even after 300 years.
So glad we followed the locals’ advice, we stopped in nearby, historic York for lunch afterward at The Brandon House. The chef trained at the Cordon Bleu in France. Everything was delicious and beautifully presented. The darling, small, historic building that houses the eatery only added to the ambiance.
Blending the old and the new, this South Carolina family vacation far exceeded our expectations.
Carmel L. Mooney is a travel columnist, author, and radio talk show host. She is the editor of Road Trips for Couples