While there is nothing wrong with heading straight to one of the many beaches in the Charleston area, there is a lot to tempt you away from the sand and surf. Our first stop was Fort Sumter National Monument, located on a small island in the harbor. The site of the first shots fired in the Civil War, this is a great mix of history and gorgeous scenery.
Reached after a quick ferry ride, you can listen to a short ranger talk or immediately begin the self-guided tour, which takes about 45 minutes. There is a museum which tells the story of the construction of the fort, the events leading up to the confrontation between Confederate and Union troops on April 12, 1861, and the fort's continued role in the conflict through the end of the Civil War.
After you've absorbed all the history you can at the fort, head back to shore and be sure to tour the museum at the Visitor Education Center. It provides a broader look at the issues and disputes that caused the Civil War.
If you go, remember to bring a light sweater as it can get chilly on the ferry and out in the harbor. Also, be sure to register for the Junior Ranger program at the visitor center before heading out to the fort. The kids complete a questionnaire while exploring the fort and return it to the ranger at the visitor center. In return for their efforts, they are awarded a junior ranger badge. Many national parks and sites offer this program and it is a great way to keep kids engaged and excited.
A short walk from the Visitors Center is the South Carolina Aquarium. The aquarium is newly renovated and a great stop for anyone with kids. There are many exhibits on offer: Madagascar journey, with a close-up look at ring-tailed lemurs and other animals native to the island, a touch tank with wonderful educators on hand to answer questions, a 6,000-gallon stingray tank where you can purchase shrimp cups to feed the rays, and so much more.
The highlight of our visit was a trip to the aquarium's sea turtle hospital. This is an add-on to the general admission ticket but well worth the price. The hospital is home to many different types of sea turtles who are too sick or injured to survive in the wild. Here they are nursed back to health until they are healthy enough to be released back into the ocean. Seeing these creatures up close was fascinating and the kids talked about this for weeks after our visit.
Just over the Ravenel Bridge in Mt. Pleasant, Patriot's Point is home to the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier, the USS Laffey, a destroyer and the USS Clamagore, the only Guppy III submarine preserved in the United States. We spent the better part of a day here exploring all the ships as well as the aircraft still housed on the deck of the Yorktown. You can tour each of the boats at your own pace, with or without an audio tour (available for an additional fee) and there are plenty of volunteers to answer any questions you have. A cafeteria serving meals and snacks is on the Yorktown or you can bring a picnic and have lunch at one of the many tables provided overlooking the docked ships and the Ravenel Bridge.