Here's the exchange we heard from two pre-schoolers who were checking out the black bear in the animal forest at Charles Towne Landing
"I'm going to go see the elephant," one said.
"There's an elephant?" squealed her friend.
And they ran off down the trail, in search of an elephant.
No, there are no elephants at Charles Towne Landing, the State Historic Site a few miles from downtown Charleston that marks the site of the first permanent European settlement in South Carolina. But you will find animals that were native to the area in the 1670s, including bison, bears and big cats. And you'll find a beautifully restored history park that combines education with spectacular scenery and wildlife -- and plenty of space to roam.
"This is the place to get to know the history of Charleston
, because this is where it began, " said Rob Powell, park manager of Charles Towne Landing. "It has Charleston's only zoo. Charleston's only wooden sailing vessel. And there's space to walk, run, jog, ride your bike, picnic -- and learn the history of Charleston."
The site, on the marsh of the Ashley River, was renovated several years ago and reopened to the public in 2006. The 664-acre day-use park draws about 85,000 visitors a year, Powell said.
You can walk 6 miles on several trails (including the history, animal forest, English garden and nature trails), but typically visitors cover about 2 to 3 miles at a leisurely pace, spending two to eight hours at Charles Towne Landing.
I'd suggest at least one member of your group rent the headphones and player for the self-guided audio tour for the history trail, which offers information about the area's first settlers and other interesting facts about life in the 17th century.
Powell said the park is geared to children 5 and older, "but it's a great place to push a stroller around, too."
After spending a day at the park, here is what is on our "don't miss" list for families:
* The Animal Forest.
The 22-acre animal habitat is home to the animals settlers would have encountered in the 17th century. You'll see bison, otters (they were hiding on the day we visited), bears, puma, bobcat, elk, birds and other animals. Plus, a new exhibit for skunks is being developed.
* The Adventure
, a reproduction of a 17th century sailing ship known as a trading ketch. You can climb aboard the floating exhibit that is moored at the dock on Old Towne Creek and get a feel for what life was like on these wooden sailing ships.
* Landing Brave.
A wooden sculpture of a Native American stands just before the entrance to the Animal Forest. It was dedicated in 1977 and restored in 2005. It offers fun photo possibilities for kids.
* The stocks and pillory.
On the day we visited, kids couldn't pass up the chance to try out the stocks and pillory. Along with seeing what it feels like to have your head and arms "locked up," you can learn a little about crime and punishment in 1670s Charles Towne. Nearby, the reproduction of the indentured servants' quarters offers a chance to see how people lived at the time. (Outside, check out the "bowling alley.")
* The museum.
Kids might not be able to wait to explore outdoors, but don't miss the museum and exhibit hall in the Visitor Center. The 12-room interactive museum lets you get a feel for the first 10 years in the Charles Towne colony.
* The cannons.
The park's six 17th century replica cannons are fired during demonstrations
on the third Sunday of each month.
If you're going:
Charles Towne Landing is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $3.75 for S.C. seniors,, $3.50 ages 6-15, free for ages 5 and younger. The park is 3 miles north of Charleston on Old Towne Road (S.C. 171.)