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Charleston: Adventure by the sea

Courtesy Barrier Island Eco-Tours

You know Charleston for its charming city streets and beautiful plantation homes. And although the place is scenic, its offerings go well beyond eye candy to include wonderful natural habitats and important sites in American history.

Youth groups traveling to Charleston will find an array of activity options that are both educational and entertaining. Eco-tours give opportunities to explore the area’s barrier islands, and cultural institutions such as museums and aquariums introduce fascinating historic and scientific concepts.

For some local flavor, historical perspective and a good time in the sun, this harborside city makes a memorable destination for youth and student groups.

First shots fired
The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, an island position in Charleston Harbor where Confederate troops overthrew the Union fortress. Today, the site is preserved as Fort Sumter National Monument.

There are a number of ways to see and learn about the fort during a visit to Charleston. Many harbor cruises go by the fortress, with narrators providing historical information to passengers. Groups that want a more in-depth experience can take a 20-minute ferry ride to explore the fort in person.

Most of the sights at the fort are outdoors, and rangers give a talk to each group that arrives at the fort by ferry. Walking through the fort, visitors will see the ruins of officers’ quarters and other buildings, as well as large cannons that helped defend the island during the war. A small on-site museum has exhibits with further information about the fort’s history and the battles that took place there.

Not all of Charleston’s beauty is found in man-made architecture. For an up-close look at one of the most beautiful natural areas along the coast, youth groups can take an excursion to Capers Island State Heritage Preserve.

Capers Island is an undeveloped barrier-island park, where an old-growth forest stands just on the edge of the pristine beach. Barrier Island Eco-Tours offers cruise tours to the island, during which naturalists lower crab traps and then bring the catch into touch tanks for passengers to see and feel. After arriving at the island, they help point out local wildlife such as dolphins and alligators.

During the summer, the excursion includes a visit to the island’s marshes, where guides teach people how to catch crabs with a piece of chicken on the end of a string. Barrier Island Eco-Tours also offers kayaking trips, cookouts and crab boils on Capers Island.

Patriots Point

Students can learn about aircraft carriers, battleships and other naval vessels at Patriots Point Military and Maritime Museum.

The museum is based around the USS Yorktown, a famed aircraft carrier that served in the Pacific theater of World War II and found its way to Charleston after being decommissioned in 1970.

Visitors can board the ship and explore its working and living quarters, and see numerous warplanes on display inside the onboard hangar and 888-foot-long flight deck. The Yorktown also houses the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum, which honors recipients of our country’s highest military award.

In addition to exploring the Yorktown, visitors can also tour the destroyer USS Lafey and the submarine Clagamore, both of which are moored in the harbor. Located landside is a replica of a Vietnam support base, as well as a monument to Cold War submarine sailors.

Tea party
Few things are more iconic in the South than sweet iced tea, and at the Charleston Tea Plantation, groups can see how the drink is made, from the farm to the glass.

The plantation is located on a 10-mile island that has perfect soil conditions for tea cultivation. Workers grow some 320 varieties of black and green teas on the 127-acre plantation and then package them into the commercially available America’s Classic Tea products.

During a visit, groups start by touring the outdoor portion of the plantation on a trolley, where they’ll hear about the history of the plantation and see some of the modern machinery used to harvest the crop. After that, a factory tour gives visitors a look at tea leaves being sorted, dried and prepared for sale. And at the end of the tour, guests are treated to as much sweet iced tea as they care to drink.

A hands-on aquarium

More than 6,000 animals and numerous hands-on exhibits have made the South Carolina Aquarium the most-visited group attraction in Charleston. The aquarium’s exhibits cover the breadth of wildlife in both fresh and salt waters along the Atlantic Coast; among them are sharks, sea turtles, jellyfish and many more creatures.

One of the biggest draws for groups is a series of behind-the-scenes tours. Participants can walk through restricted areas to see the tops of the aquarium’s tanks or observe as caretakers feed dangerous animals such as sharks and snakes.

Another tour gives groups an exclusive look at the aquarium’s extensive sea turtle rescue program, where injured sea turtles are nursed back to health and then reintroduced into the wild.

Last year, the aquarium opened Camp Carolina, a new exhibit that showcases some of the animals from the mountain regions of the state. The aquarium’s newest resident is a rare albino alligator, which is part of the newly renovated Blackwater Swamp exhibit.