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Don't be fooled by looks. Charleston's not just a place for grownups. Beyond the quaint cobblestone streets, vintage gas lamps, and magnolias, this old seaport has plenty of down-and-dirty kid stuff -- pirates, forts, battleships, big guns, and haunted houses.
Pirates played a starring role in Charleston's rough and tumble past. Take Blackbeard, for instance. In 1718, the city's most infamous high seas scoundrel anchored his ship near the mouth of the harbor, terrorizing the city for eight days. Later that year, dozens of pirates were publicly hanged at the waterfront Battery.
You'll learn all about these swashbuckling scalawags in "The Pirates of Charleston," a 1.5-mile walking tour of the harbor that includes the former tavern on Elliot Street, where the bad guys guzzled rum and "hatched their plots." (Guides will skip some of the gorier details for toddlers.) If pirate tales don't shiver your timbers, there's a "Ghosts of Charleston" tour, celebrating the old town's famous spirits and specters.
For another dose of pirate lore, tour the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. You'll hear tales about colorful pirate prisoners as well as George Washington's 1791 visit. Little treasure-seekers will enjoy the pirate scavenger hunt map of sites within a four-block radius of this museum.
Then, cruise the port the way Blackbeard did, aboard Schooner Pride, an 84-foot, pirate-like tall ship offering two-hour harbor tours. There are usually three sailings per day, but schedule and route change with the tides. Don't be surprised if the friendly crew enlists the help of your little sailors. Drinks are sold on board.
Had enough pirate stuff? Move on to the next big adventure at the Charleston Museum. The museum's Civil War exhibit is top-notch. And kids 3-11 will make a beeline for the Discover Me Room. Favorite features of this interactive play space are "Mr. Bones" (a full-sized moving skeleton on a bicycle), a giant polar bear, and discovery drawers full of fossils and shells.
Often the museum hosts themed programs for families. Depending on the date, you may end up making pottery or learning how to dance like an Egyptian.
For a dollop of history, head to Liberty Square. There, you'll catch the boat to Fort Sumter, the island citadel where Confederate soldiers fired the first gunshots of the Civil War in 1861. Allow two hours to cross the scenic harbor, tour the impressive old battlements, and cruise back.
Then, take a short stroll next door to the harbor's newest attraction, the South Carolina Aquarium. This $69 million, state-of-the-art complex opened in 2000 with the theme, "From the Mountains to the Sea." If it swims in a mountain waterfall, creeps in a blackwater swamp, or lurks in a coral reef, you'll find it here. Check out the otters, sharks, and seahorses, as well as the hands-on Toddler Exhibits.
If your kids liked Fort Sumter, they'll love the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. Reserve at least half a day to check out the big guns and ships docked at the world's largest naval museum.
The highlight: the USS Yorktown, the aircraft carrier that played a critical role in WWII Pacific battles. (Tip: Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for steep stairs and ladders. And don't worry about grub -- there's an onboard snack bar.)
Also, don't miss the Academy Award-winning documentary The Fighting Lady, shown on the ship throughout the day. It was shot in Technicolor during real battles from the deck of this mammoth vessel.
No visit to Charleston is complete without dropping in on several historic plantations along the Ashley River. Beautiful Drayton Hall, built in 1742, is the oldest plantation house open to the public. Professional guides lead 30-60 minute tours, explaining the workings of the plantation and house, with attention to the lives of all the inhabitants, including the African-American slaves.
Just down the road, 300-year-old Magnolia Plantation and Gardens boasts the country's oldest garden, a nature train, petting zoo, a Barbados Tropical Garden, biblical garden, and a maze.
Type of trip: Scenic, historic, outdoor adventure, boating, beach
Best for ages: 5 and up
Length of trip: Weekend to one week
Distance: Columbia, SC (114 miles), Raleigh, NC (280 miles), Atlanta (320 miles)
Best time to go: April or early May, for good weather and few crowds. If you're not an arts fan, skip the last week of May and first week of June, when the Spoleto Festival draws huge crowds.
Weather: Sub-tropical, with mild winters and steamy summers. 58/38 degrees in January; 90/73 in July. Upper 70s to low 80s spring and fall. In summer, beat the heat by sticking to the waterfront. In September and October, beware of hurricanes.
Squirm factor: Some -- be sure to mix plenty of outdoor activities with history tours to keep kids in line.
Charleston Visitor Reception and Transportation Center. 375 Meeting St., 800-868-8118.
Charleston Museum. 360 Meeting St., 843-722-2996.
Fort Sumter. 1214 Middle St., Sullivan's Island, 843-883-3123. Fort Sumter Tours (boat operator), 843-722-2628.
South Carolina Aquarium. 100 Aquarium Wharf, 843-577-3474.
Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. 40 Patriots Point Rd., Mount Pleasant, 843-884-2727.
"Pirates of Charleston" Walking Tour. Waterfront Park, located at the end of Vendue Range, 800-854-1670. Reservations required.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. 122 East Bay St., 843-727-2165.
Schooner Pride. 17 Lockwood Dr., 843-571-2486.
Drayton Hall. 3380 Ashley River Rd., 843-769-2600.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. 3550 Ashley River Rd., 800 367-3517. Separate admission to Historic House, Nature Train, and Audubon Swamp Garden. Children under 6 not admitted to Historic House.
Contact: Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-868-8118.
Favorite local spot: Charleston Crab House, 145 Wappoo Creek Dr., 843-795-1963. While other seafood-seeking tourists wait online outside Hyman's restaurant downtown, follow the locals to Charleston's, just 10 minutes south toward Folly Beach. The she-crab soup, a Low Country specialty, is second to none, and there's a patio for waterfront dining.
Best souvenirs: Pirate treasure coins (reproductions) and treasure maps at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon Gift Shop.
Local food: Benne Wafers, tasty sesame cookies found at almost any downtown gift or food shop. African slaves believed sesame brought luck, and these tasty cookies have been a favorite Low Country treat ever since.
Annual event: Spoleto Festival USA, the last week of May through early June, throughout town.
This world-class performing arts festival floods area stages with the finest music, opera, theater, and dance every year.
Weather alert: This is hurricane country, so check weather reports from late July through October.
Traffic alert: Finding a parking spot in Charleston is like hunting for buried treasure. Leave your car at the Visitors Center lot on Meeting Street and catch a DASH shuttle, which will whisk you to all major spots downtown. Tip: Buy the all-day pass. It's a bargain. It's also good for the CARTA city bus, which makes the 20-minute trip from the Visitors Center to the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum.
Folly Beach is the most popular spot for waterfront fun on Charleston's barrier islands. Located 20 minutes east of Charleston on Folly Island, the beach has everything: boardwalks, restrooms, showers, snack bars, and seasonal bike, beach chair, and boogie-board rentals.
Serious surfers come here for some of the best waves on the east coast. Hardcore fishing fans drop their lines from the end of a 1,000-foot pier jutting into the Atlantic. And families love the wide, clean, 600-foot lifeguard protected swimming area.
For wilder water adventure, head 20 minutes north of downtown Charleston to brand new Whirlin' Waters Adventure Water Park. This county-run park features a Big Splash Treehouse, with water jets, pinwheels, and giant buckets, the Tubular Twister, with 300-foot waterslides, and the Rollin' River, a lazy, 870-foot, inner tube route.
Folly Beach County Park, Ashley Ave., Folly Island, 843-588-2426. Whirling Waters, North Charleston Wannamaker County Park, 8888 University Blvd., 843-762-2172.
Reviewed April 2004.