Family Travel

Kerry Egan



6 museums where playing is the exhibit: Children's museums of South Carolina

Posted 2/15/2014 2:41:00 PM

When you think of great family activities with children, you might not think of going to a museum right away.

You might worry that big kids would be bored, little kids baffled, and parents terrified, as they imagine priceless pieces of art destroyed by the sticky embrace of an enthusiastic toddler, or the ceaseless drone of a 10 year-old who would rather be anywhere else.

But South Carolina is blessed with many museums that are fascinating, fun, and appropriate for both kids and parents. From natural history and science, to art, to living history, to dedicated children's museums, South Carolina has a museum for your family.

So let's start with the museums that are most obviously perfect for families: children's' museums. These are not museums as you might have known before, where you stand at a distance and look. Instead, children's museums are places where kids and parents are not just allowed, but invited and encouraged to touch and play and explore the exhibits.

These are museums that are made for playing, and South Carolina is lucky to have six:

1. EdVenture, in the state's capital of Columbia, is the largest children's museum in the southeast. It's also home EDDIE, the world's largest child. He's a huge sculpture of a child that kids can climb through, learning about lungs, kidneys, intestines and other organs as they go.

The museum’s newest exhibit is Maker Works, where inventors, tinkerers, and mini-innovators can create fantastic contraptions. Even a grown woman might find herself entranced while making giant marble runs on a magnetic board. From May through October, Blooming Butterflies fill the outside patio with thousands of gorgeous butterflies. And these are just the start of the exhibits in Edventure.

2. Children's Museum of the Upstate, in Greenville, is also a huge museum -- the seventh largest in the United States. What struck us is that, unlike many children's museums that are geared more towards toddlers and preschoolers, TCMU really appeals to older kids as well.

Though the museum states that it is geared for children 12 and younger, I could even see teenagers having a blast here, banging away on the crazy and rare instruments in the Garage Rock exhibit as they visit with their little siblings, or filming themselves in the WTCM studios. My 41 year-old husband certainly had a ball. The little ones will also find plenty to do, from huge water tables to a climbing structure that stretches to the ceiling to plenty of places to play pretened.

3. The Sandbox: An Interactive Children's Museum, on Hilton Head Island, is a lovely little museum for younger kids. It's a perfect respite from a sun that is just too hot for little ones, or from rain that threatens to wash out your beach day. Here, kids can literally climb the walls at the Track the T-Rex exhibit or create their own imaginary underwater kingdom at the Loggerhead Sandcastle.

4. Children's Museum of South Carolina in Myrtle Beach offers a child-friendly place to take a break from your beach vacation with very little ones, with exhibits like Famous Fraction Pizza Delivery Truck, the Kidz Medical Center and Dr. Molar's Dental Clinic Clinic, or Bubble Mania.

5. Children's Museum of the Lowcountry in Charleston welcomes kids to dress up like a Charleston pirate and climb aboard the museum's very own pirate ship. Or, they can travel back even farther and time, and explore the Medieval Creativity Castle, among several other exhibits. A perfect spot for your Charleston family vacation with little ones with active imaginations.

6. Main Street Children's Museum of Rock Hill is designed for young children, up to age 6. The design of this lovely museum, a place for children to imagine and dream, is inspired by the work of artist Vernon Grant, who lived in Rock Hill.

Check back for in-depth reviews as my children and I explore these South Carolina museums made for kids.

7 reasons to go to the beach in the winter

Posted 2/10/2014 11:46:00 AM

Now don't get me wrong -- I love going to the beach on a beautiful summer day. I love swimming in the ocean, and I love the hot sun drying the water off my skin. I love boogie-boarding with my children, and I love baking on the sand.

But I love the beach in winter more, and here’s why:

1. No crowds: There is something to be said about the energy of the beach in summer -- the rainbow umbrellas and towels strewn on the sand, the screams of children playing in the waves, the packs of teenagers flirting and preening. But holy cow--the beach is so much better when it's empty. The long stretches of empty beach to the right and left, the massive ocean stretching out in front. It all seems bigger and more majestic in the winter. Simply put, the beach is more beautiful in the winter.

2. No fear of the sun: I haven't had a really, horribly bad sunburn since I was 19. My boyfriend and I had fallen asleep on the beach. He just ended up a bit more tanned on one side. I ended up with lobster-red skin and blisters down the right side of my body. I've been a maniac about sunscreen ever since. And with kids, I'm even more on guard about the sun. But in the winter, when the sun is low and your arms and legs are covered, there's little need to worry. Just put sunscreen or moisturizer with SPF on your face, and you're good all day. And no slathering, no spraying, no chasing whining children claiming that you've blinded them with sunscreen. Doesn't that silence sound good, all you parents out there?

3. More wildlife: With fewer people, the animals come out. At South Carolina beaches in the winter, you can see an astonishing variety of birds, from tiny and rare piping plovers, to huge wood storks. At some beaches, you can spot dolphins in the waves and starfish in tidal pools. I'm not sure if there actually is more wildlife in the off-season, or if they're just easier to see. Maybe you just notice more. I think that's the key -- you notice more in the winter.

4. More shells: When you aren't competing against a thousand other people for the perfect shell, you're much more likely to find it. Add to that the winter storms that can wash up boatloads of shells onto beaches, and you're in beachcombing heaven. Even the littlest children can find treasures on the beach in winter.

5. You can stay longer: When you don't have to worry about sunburn or heat stroke for yourself or your little ones, you can stay all day. You can get there at 9 in the morning and leave at 5 that night, watching the sun travel across the sky and the shadows shrink and then grow again. A day at the beach can literally be ALL day at the beach. This is nice if you live by the beach, but if you have to travel a significant distance to get to the shore, this is key.

6. Feels less tame: In the summer, the beach often feels like an amusement park, full of people and color and noises. The gorgeous natural beauty of the dunes and shoreline can be lost in the cacophony. You can almost forget just how wild the beach can be. Not in the winter. When that big, open beach stretches on both sides of you, there's forgetting that you are out in nature.

7. The light is different: So this one is a little more esoteric, but it's my favorite part of the beach in winter. The sunshine is different. The light falls in a way that isn't just glaringly bright, as it is in the summer. It's softer, and seems to illuminate things from inside. Somehow it seems both bluer and more golden at the same time. If you've seen it, you will know exactly what I mean.

If you are a die-hard summer person, who lives for the days when you can bake in the sun and float on the waves all day, you might disagree. But just give to a try. Almost all the things you do in the summer at the beach, you can do on a beautiful, warm South Carolina winter day. Build sandcastles, play frisbee, read books, search for creatures, go for a walk -- you can do all that in the winter. Except that everything is even more beautiful. Spend a morning, or even an hour, at one of South Carolina's beaches. You might change your mind.

For more information on South Carolina beaches:
Myrtle Beach area
Charleston area
Hilton Head area


Sweet southern sledding

Posted 1/29/2014 7:05:00 PM

We waited all day Tuesday for the snow to start. The kids looked out the windows, and I checked weather obsessively.

We had our snacks all planned out and our obligatory milk and bread ready. When it got to bedtime, and then past bedtime, the kids put their pajamas on inside out and kept hoping that the freezing rain would turn white. I heard them opening the shutters on the windows to look outside from their beds.

And then, finally, after a whole day and night waiting, the magic started. The air filled, and white bloomed on the dead grass. It was snowing in South Carolina!

Snow is a rare event for most of the state, and so worth relishing. Who knows when it will happen again? Like so many things in life, its rarity makes the snow that much more precious.

The whole state seemed to pause today. It wasn't much snow in most parts, but it was just enough. The perfect amount.

This morning in Columbia, during a neighborhood snowball fight on our front lawn, we saw dozens of people out walking to marvel at the beauty. But after some hot chocolate, it was time to get serious and go sledding.

We headed to Memorial Park, on the corner of Washington and Gadsden streets, with some good friends. There, among the memorials to the men and women who served this country, we slid down the snow-covered hills.

Over the course of three hours, we were joined by families and college kids who had grabbed whatever they could to slide. There were tarps, boogie boards, plastic lids and even half of a folding table. Whatever works, right?

My son Jimmy and his friends built a jump. It was only about six inches high, but you could get some air going over the thing. Everyone cheered for each other and everyone shared their sleds. One young woman wanted to try to go down head first, on her belly, but the only gloves she could find in her apartment were the dishwashing kind. Her fingers would have frozen as they whipped through the snow as she held onto the sides of the sled. I lent her mine. Everyone becomes friends on a sledding hill.

One kind gentleman brought his snow shovel. As the snow wore away after so many rides down the hill and the grass started to poke through, he picked up great shovelfuls of snow from elsewhere and spread it out over the sled run. He said that for many years now he has been doing this every time it snows, bringing his shovel to help keep the scant snow just enough for the children to sled on.

It might not have been the biggest or longest or steepest sledding hill in America. Not even close. It might not have been much snow. In fact, by the early afternoon the hill was mostly grass again.

But it was surely one of the sweetest sledding hills in America. That’s what a snow day in South Carolina is like. It’s, as we like to say, just right.

South Carolina's castle: Mysterious and mesmerizing Atalaya

Posted 1/19/2014 5:08:00 PM

"Do you believe in ghosts?" my son asked. I thought he was referring to our spooky night with Williams Ghost Walks of Georgetown. But he then went on to say, "Because I think I felt one at that castle on the beach."

"Really? Atalaya Castle?" I asked. I was a bit shocked. This is the most radically rational child I've ever met. He told me the idea of the Easter Bunny was ridiculous when he was four, and the Tooth Fairy impossible before he even lost a tooth. Let's not even get started on what he thinks about Santa and his magical journey on Christmas Eve.

So for him to tell me he felt a ghost was, well, shocking.

"Did you feel like there was something there in that place?" he asked.

Well, actually, I did.

"It's like you could feel the feelings of the past there," he said. And it's true.

There is something strangely mesmerizing about Atalaya Castle, the 30 room mansion perched on the edge of the dunes and overlooking the ocean at Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet.

The park was once part of the estate of the renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, along with Brookgreen Gardens, the sculpture park right across U.S. 17. She and her husband, Archer Huntington, bought four former rice plantations and built Atalaya Castle, a Spanish-Moorish style compound. They used it as their winter getaway, a place where Anna Huntington could get some relief from her tuberculosis and work on her massive artwork in the bright sunshine.

The park's seemingly unending beach, abundant wildlife, and haunting castle made it the perfect place for Huntington to create her wild, eerie and beautiful sculptures.

It also makes the park a perfect place for wild, eerie and beautiful adventures for a family today.

Once we'd had our fill of the gorgeous marsh and inlet, we had planned to head over to the beach. But before we got there, we were pulled in by Atalaya Castle. The squat, sprawling building didn't strike me as particularly beautiful, but it is captivating.

You know this is a house like no other the moment you see it's foreboding walls from the outside, but what really sealed the deal that we'd entered a different world was the very first room we saw. Other mansions have ballrooms, but Atalaya has "Bear Pens."

Huntington's preferred subject were animals, and she had several large kennels, stables and pens attached to her massive indoor and outdoor studios. She worked in aluminum and bronze, and is perhaps most famous for her enormous equestrian statues. She needed a lot of space for her work.

The mansion has plenty of rooms for Huntingtons' work, space for bears, wild cats, monkeys, and stallions, and dozens of rooms for their legion of servants. But there are no extra bedrooms, no massive entry hall, no drawing rooms, no grand dining rooms. There's no room for guests, and the Huntingtons wanted it that way.

The castle is empty now, and it's interior brick walls seem to be melting. As you wander through the narrow hallways and past the windows, caged in green iron bars, all you hear is the ocean crashing and your footsteps echoing against the cold stone floors.

A person's home tells you something about who they are. And the more we wandered through Atalaya Castle, the more intriguing Anna and Archer Huntington became. Who would build such a foreboding fortress in a place so languidly lovely? They didn't seem to worry too much about social conventions or impressing others. I can only imagine what dedication and passion she must have had for her work. How fascinating they must have been. You know that old saying, "Let your freak flag fly?" This house felt like their freak flag.

It was a bright, blue-sky, sunshiny day outside, but I swear you could feel the ghosts of the past residents in Atalaya. Their presence was everywhere in the empty castle.

"Where did you feel the ghost?" I asked my son.

"In the man's bedroom. In the corner. It wasn't scary or anything. It was sad. It was kinda cool." He paused. "It's like that house pulls you in. I keep thinking about it."

The hair on the back of my neck went up. I know exactly where he meant, and I knew the feeling he felt.

Atalaya was built around a central, enclosed courtyard full of palm trees lined up in orderly rows. In the center, there's a short watchtower that gives the home its name. When we emerged into the sunshine, the kids ran on the grass as if to shake off the past. We headed to the beach, but kept looking back at one of the more mesmerizing houses I've been in.

Atalaya Castle is located within Huntington Beach State Park. It costs $2 to tour the building. Maps are available, and very helpful, to explain the different aspects of the building.

Insider Tip: Borrow a map for each member of your party. The kids really liked racing ahead to each room and using the map on their own to figure out where we were and what the room was once used for.

Summer isn't the only (or even the best) time to go to the beach

Posted 1/5/2014 5:24:00 PM

Just past the entrance to Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet, a sign reminds you not to stop suddenly on the causeway.

We weren't more than 40 feet across that causeway through the marsh, admiring the blue sky and sea grass stretching off to the horizon, when my husband slammed on the brakes. He threw his hands up in the air and screamed, "Holy God!"

The tires screeched and the kids and I shot forward against our seat belts. My husband jumped out, abandoning the car in the middle of the road, and ran (really, he was almost skipping) to the guard rail. He looked like a little kid.

On a clump of mud in the water, not far off the roadway, was a 12-foot long alligator sunning himself. Surrounding him, their eyes and snouts slowly circling the king of the mud-mound, were another three alligators.

So that explains the sign. Apparently, Alex wasn't the only person to have that reaction.

I got into the driver's seat, finished driving across the marsh and parked the car. As the kids and I walked back down the causeway, the trees in front of us where filled with at least 50 huge white wood storks and blue herons roosted in their branches. It looked like some Dr. Suessian display of enormous, giant-sized Christmas trees, decorated with living, moving ornaments that fluttered and stretched and squawked.

To our left lay Mullet Pond. Along the edge of the pond and causeway are rice trunks. These wooden gates are still used to control the flow of salt water into and out of the mostly freshwater pond. This makes for some wonderfully brackish water that alligators just love. We saw not just Greeny, the Alligator King of Mud Mountain (so named by my husband), but half a dozen others, some swimming just a few feet below us at the rice trunks.

Off to our right, the sun lit up the still water of the tidal inlet into a white blaze that stretches all the way to the horizon. Oystercatchers darted in the thick, black mud. White-as-snow egrets delicately walked around the jagged oyster beds shining in the sunlight.

There are lots of reasons for jaws to drop at Huntington Beach State Park. The wildlife who make it their home are just the beginning.

The visitor's center has a wonderful exhibit complete with touch tanks and live animals to see and pet. And then there's the castle. Yes, the park is home to the spooky, moldering, mysterious, Atalaya Castle. But I'll save that for another day.

Finally, past the lush marshes and dense, low forests that make tunnels in the dunes, we got to the beach. Oh, that beach. So magical in winter.

My favorite time of year at the beach has never been the summer. Now, don't get me wrong, I love floating on the swells of the ocean and diving through the crashing waves. I love the feeling of the water drying on my skin in the sun and the fine caking of salt in my hair and lips.

But when the summer is over, the sand is empty, and when the beach is no longer about the ocean -- this is my favorite time. And there are no better beaches in the winter than South Carolina beaches.

The wet sand at the water's edge was cold in between our bare feet, but the kids didn't seems to notice. The sun and air were warm enough that day, I guess. They plopped right down and began to dig with their hands.

Alex and I walked slowly down the shore. Plovers skittered ahead of us as they followed the waves crashing in and out. Pelicans flew low over the ocean, and occasionally dove in. The sun was hot but the wind and spray off the ocean felt like little pins on my cheek. The waves crashed and crashed and crashed, and I felt hypnotized.

Jimmy came running towards us at full speed, about to crash into his dad. At the last second, Alex pivoted, as he has at least a hundred times in the nine years of Jimmy's life, and Jimmy dove and rolled on the sand, as he has at least a hundred times. Mary Frances followed, twirling and leaping and dancing her way down the beach.

We returned to their giant ditch, and took turns leaping across it for an hour or more. We measured who jumped the farthest, the highest, the fastest. We discussed whose leaps were the most beautiful and most creative.

I don't often play with my kids when we're home. I'm too busy cooking dinner, or folding laundry, or paying bills. And even if I do play a game, to be perfectly honest, I'm usually thinking about doing those other things and feeling guilty about not doing them. But not at the beach. I'm also not looking for rip currents or worried about sunburn or slathering sunscreen or reminding them not to get too far from shore. Not when you go to the beach in winter.

We just completely focused on hurling ourselves through the air and across the water-filled pit. And when we were finally all exhausted, we gathered our shoes and walked slowly back to the car. On the way out, Greeny was no longer on his mound. The birds had left their roosts. Everyone was ready for a warm shower and some hot dinner. Alex and I returned to adulthood, and the kids fell asleep in the car.

Huntington Beach State Park is located at 16148 Ocean Highway in Murrells Inlet.