Going Down to Carolina

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Any minute, Rhett Butler will be tipping his hat as we stroll past the restored historical homes that are impossibly perfect.

No wonder, with the clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriage on cobblestone streets in the Historic District, I'm lost in this antebellum daydream, hoop skirt and all. The azaleas, dogwoods and camellias are blooming, the sea breeze balmy. Graciousness permeates the air.

The kids aren't a bit impressed. They'd rather be back in rockin' Myrtle Beach, playing mini golf on one of the town's 42 courses with names like Dragon's Lair, Pirates Watch and Jurassic Golf, gobbling a burger, admiring their new sneaker bargains from the outlet malls, or casting their fishing poles from the end of the pier.

Don't get me wrong. Myrtle Beach is a kick, with all the golf (100 courses), fishing (seven piers and many private charter boats), theme restaurants (the Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, NASCAR Cafe and Easyriders Bikers Cafe among them), country music (Alabama to Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede show), water parks, bumper cars, and shopping any tourist -- junior or senior -- could want.

Of course, all that honkytonk is a big part of the charm -- and what makes the 60-mile Grand Strand along the Atlantic Coast a mecca for millions each year. It's one of the East Coast's top tourist draws, travel industry surveys show. (For Myrtle Beach area information, call the Chamber of Commerce at 800-356-3016 or visit the Web site at www.myrtlebeachlive.com)

But after all that Myrtle Beach action, here we are in one of the most charming and historic cities in the country and my kids are giving me that Can-We-Go-Now-Mom look that means they've had enough. The Charleston RiverDogs, the popular minor league baseball team weren't even playing! (Call 803-577-DOGS.)

River Dogs or not, I haven't had nearly enough of Charleston. I could stroll and browse all day amid all of the shops on King Street, stopping for a leisurely seafood lunch. I could take a historic house tour or learn all about Charleston's venerable ghosts. I could see the street that inspired Catfish Row in ``Porgy and Bess.'' (Call the Historic Charleston Foundation at 803-723-1623, Ghosts of Charleston tour at 800-854-1670, the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-868-8118 or visit the Web site www.charlestoncvb.com.

No dice.

We do stop at the Old Charleston Market where African American artisans are making and selling their sweetgrass baskets, made only in South Carolina. Made from marsh grass just as they were by slaves 300 years ago who used them to collect vegetables and store clothes, these baskets represent one of the oldest African arts in this country. The kids are intrigued by the basket making (probably more than at my efforts at bargaining to purchase one), so I figure I'll sneak in another history lesson.

We take a tour boat out three miles along Charleston's waterfront to see Fort Sumter where the Civil War began. (Call Fort Sumter Tours at 803-722-1691.) On the way, I explain to the kids that in 1861, after South Carolina's secession, Union soldiers occupied the fort at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Finally, on April 12, Confederate troops fired on the fort and after two days of fighting, won control. The fort remained a Confederate stronghold until 1865.

We were all glad we made the trek, I'm pleased to report, walking around the parade ground of the old brick fort where so much history was made, seeing where the soldiers lived and peering through canons. (We didn't make it to Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum to see the Aircraft Carrier Yorktown, however. World War II buffs should call 803-884-2727.

A short drive from Charleston, we got another Civil War lesson at Middleton Place Plantation, on the banks of the Ashley River.

Home to Henry Middleton, President of the First Continental Congress, and his son Arthur, who signed the Declaration of Independence, the house was burned by Sherman's army in 1865. Now it is completely restored and is an especially good bet to introduce children to low-country plantation life because of the birds and animals -- peacocks, black swans and sheep, among them -- and Stableyards, the outdoor living history museum where they'll see blacksmith, potters and weavers hard at work, and Eliza's House -- more like a shack -- where former slaves lived.

Many come here just to see the amazing gardens -- more than 65 manicured acres that are said to be the oldest landscaped gardens in the country. My gang was more impressed by the food: Ham biscuits, she-crab soup and hoppin' john (white rice cooked with peas and pork) at the Middleton Place restaurant. (Call Middleton Place at 800-782-3608 or visit the Web site at www.middletonplace.org

For other plantation and general South Carolina information, call the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at 803-734-1700 or visit the Web site at www.travelsc.com I hope I'm on a roll, I think in the evening, as I usher the skeptical kids into the small Charleston theater to see ``Low Country Legends,'' a musical that combines Charleston stories with the musical history of the low country and Gullah, the combination of English and African dialects spoken by many here. (Call 803-722-1829.)

Soon, we're all tapping our feet along with the music. Mini golf isn't everything -- even on vacation.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's new books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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