Hot Spots for History


Easily one-third of all the attractions in the Carolinas are historical, so incorporating a hands-on history lesson into a family vacation is easy to do. But how do you sneak history into your day trips and vacations without the family declaring mutiny? Here's how to unlock the amusing, adventuresome side of history during trips in North and South Carolina.

Big anniversaries
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War starts in 2011. During this major anniversary, historic sites "beef up" their exhibits.

For example at the Bennett Place State Historic Site, a Civil War spot in Durham, you can stand where the Civil War ended. Bennett Place State Historic Site is a simple farmhouse where two generals met in 1865 and signed surrender papers for the largest Southern armies to formally end the war. Re-enactment weekends are held about once a month, seasonally. Civil War movies are shown Saturday nights throughout the year. Be sure to ask for the Activity Book. If your kids complete it, they get a prize.

Battlegrounds and forts
Visit one of the most famous forts in U.S. history. One of the 13 original colonies, South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify The Constitution in 1788, the first to secede from the union in December 1860, and the site of the first shots fired in the Civil War, at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861.

Famous battlefields and old forts may look dull on a normal day, but add re-enactors in period attire and you'll get the kids' attention. Let your kids join the Army, where they will receive enlistment papers, be issued dummy muskets and learn how to march like soldiers. These items can be purchased at the Visitors Center.

Most young kids love "playing" around the fort property, so you'll probably hear complaints when it's time to board the boat back to the inland. The fort is only accessible by boat.

Living history
Take a stroll back 100 or 200 years. Go behind the scenes of the first airplane flight or an American Indian powwow. Period costumed townsfolk and park rangers share little-known secrets of inspired peoples. Often, the onsite gift shop sells wonderful little play figures that kids can purchase and use to re-enact scenes at home.

If you're looking for adventure with your history, try dune climbing in North Carolina. On one sand dune, you can relive the original flight at Kitty Hawk made by Wilbur and Orville at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Retrace those 12 seconds that changed the world, and get a bird's-eye view of the past. Be sure to sit in on a ranger talk at the Visitors Center. The park rangers are excellent storytellers, describing moment-by-moment details of the accomplishment that forever changed transportation.

Or visit the quaint town of New Bern and take the Trolley Tour followed by a stop at the Birthplace of Pepsi soda shop. You'll also find Tryon Palace, where Colonial history comes alive. (It's like a miniature Williamsburg.) The new North Carolina History Center exhibits create colorful immersion spaces (kind of Disney-does-history). History Navigator tours use portable interactive devices to make learning high-tech.

Another adventure waits on the other end of the Carolinas. American Indians roamed the mountains of North and South Carolina - and still do. Visit the Oconaluftee Indian Village and Unto These Hills Drama and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to learn more about the proud heritage of these Native Americans. As the keepers of tradition, Cherokee storytellers guide you through thousands of years of the Cherokee experience. Travel back to the time of mastodons and atlatls (spear-throwing tools), meet a dramatic chieftain, watch a medicine man create a potion, learn the Cherokee alphabet, or observe the making of blowguns from river cane.

No museums
Tell the kids you are going to a secret hidden place, like a gold mine, not a museum!

The Carolinas were full of gold embedded within rocks. Want to go to a "museum" to find them? Start at a castle! Castle McCulloch Gold Mill museum (off I-85 South in Jamestown) has a true medieval feeling with thick walls, a drawbridge, a moat and a 70-foot tower. Even a knight in shining armor greets you. You have to step over gold-mine pits to navigate the path to the castle.

South of Charlotte, you can relive days gone by at Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site museum. Learn how to pan for gold and explore a real gold mine underground.

Action tours
Arrange day or weekend trips along the Carolinas' coast that include fishing, crabbing, dolphin-watching or cruising at sunset. Our favorite activity: pirate tours!

The wreckage of legendary pirate Blackbeard's ships rest in the Atlantic's watery grave. An eccentric history steeped in legendary tales of swashbuckling pirate adventures and ghostly encounters is the feel of the Beaufort Historic Site tours in North Carolina and the Charleston Pirate Tours in South Carolina. Costumed guides narrate walking, boat or double-decker bus tours of the town's narrow streets and historic buildings. You'll hear stories of pirates, sea captains, star-crossed lovers and Confederate spies. Why did pirates wear eye patches? Which boat would you choose to use on a quest to find treasure? Just ask your guide.

So many excellent historic parks are just minutes from lakes, beaches and amusements to even out your trip. Your kids will have so much hands-on fun meeting such interesting characters they won't even know it's a history lesson.

Good to know
In observance of the Civil War sesquicentennial (, the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources ( has planned more than 200 events statewide.The New Bern Academy, North Carolina's first publicly chartered school (c. 1766), served as a Union hospital during the Civil War and, with the observance of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, will soon reopen as a Civil War Museum, interpreting life in New Bern during the Federal occupation, 1862-1865.

Hidden gems
Elmo's Diner (Durham) is an awesome pick by "Rachael Ray's $40 a Day." We call this a gourmet diner. Parents: Try the spicy meatloaf, quiche or hummus. Kids: Try anything off the $3 kids' menu.Have an aspiring author or poet in your family? Writers and actors have always found the North Carolina mountains inspiring. Author Thomas Wolfe made his home in Asheville, while historic Hendersonville and Flat Rock were home to poet Carl Sandburg. Both homes will engage your kids' literary senses, and maybe yours!In the mood for some strange stuff? If you're visiting the Triad of North Carolina, check out the Wake Forest University Museum of Anthropology's permanent exhibits of cultural objects from the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. The masks are big hits with kids. Learn how to make a kimono (with paper). Play a painted gourd or sleep on a wooden headrest.

If You Go
Bennett Place State Historic Site - 4409 Bennett Memorial Road, Durham. 919-383-4345, Free admission.

Fort Sumter - 340 Concord St., Liberty Square, Charleston, S.C. 843-883-3123, Free admission to fort and visitors center. Fee for ferry ride to fort.

Wright Brothers National Memorial. Kill Devil Hills. 252-441-7430, Admission: $4 adult (over 16), free for children.

Tryon Palace - 610 Pollock St., New Bern. 252-639-3500. Admission: $15 adult, $6 student (grades 1-12).

Oconaluftee Indian Village - 218 Drama Road, Cherokee. 828-497-2315, Admission: $15 adult, $6 child (6-13).

Castle McCulloch Gold Mill - 3925 Kivett Drive, Jamestown. 336-802-1962, Admission: $4.

Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site - 9621 Reed Mine Road, Midland. 704-721-4653 (GOLD), Admission: Free, $2 for gold panning.

Beaufort Historic Site Tours - 130 Turner St., Beaufort. 252-728-5225, Tours: $4-$8.

Charleston Pirate Tours - 79 Cumberland St., Charleston, S.C. 800-442-7299, Admission: $15-$18.

Family Travel Mom and best-selling author of "Kids Love the Carolinas", Michele Zavatsky has visited more than 800 kid-friendly places in North and South Carolina. Her travel journals are organized and ready for your family adventures.

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