Friday, May 31, 2013

Huntington Beach State Park

After our long day in the sun on Bulls Island I didn’t have much planned for the following day. I figured we would wake up, see our friends off on whatever adventure they had planned for the day (you can read about their day trips to Myrtle Beach and in Charleston here) and see where the wind would take us. Another sunny day; our luck with the weather so far was holding. Although the beach house we had rented was comfortable with great views of the Intercoastal Waterway and coastal marshes, it seemed imperative to do something, we had driven all this way after all.

For McClellanville beach house rentals click here
We had thought to stop in Charleston on our way home that Sunday, and so instead chose to head north to Huntington Beach State Park. Another excellent beach, although this one was quite crowded compared to the experience of the previous day. The State Park boasts of its surf fishing and bird watching, and within the Park is a Moorish-style mansion, Atalaya, a National Historic Landmark which was the winter home of the Huntington family that also designed nearby Brookgreen Gardens.

We spent our time on the beach, building sand castles that one by one were swept away by the incoming tide. Mikus preferred the tidal ponds to the surf, but both boys squealed in delight when we took them into the waves. The beachgoers who had so carelessly set up their flotilla of chairs, umbrellas and gear blocking our view of the ocean hurriedly evacuated when the tide came lapping at their feet. We would have been content to laze all day, but by late afternoon the crackers, dried fruit and other snacks I had brought were not enough to keep hunger at bay.

Benefits of visiting Huntington Beach SP vs. Bulls Island are the amenities. It was nice to be able to rinse all the sand and saltwater off before jumping in the car, and a Nature Center and restrooms are available if needed.
On our way out we once more crossed the large freshwater lake, full of alligators sunning on the shores, egrets and herons doing their one-legged dance in the shallow waters. Continuing north on Highway 17 is Murrells Inlet, which is where we stopped for a late lunch, and just south of the Park are Litchfield and Pawleys Island, more beach communities, each with its own distinct flavor. Visitors to the area could also visit Myrtle Beach, however The Carolina’s largest motorcycle rally, Myrtle Beach Bike Week was ongoing. We opted to point our family sedan in the other direction.

After another relaxing evening spent hanging out with our friends we turned in for the night, already dreaming of the seafood we would eat the following day in Charleston…

Entrance to park: $5/adult, $3 each ages 6-15 and free for children under 5. There is a separate charge to take the tour of Atalaya.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bull Island, SC with children

Waking up to a bunch of wide-awake, active children when you’ve got a view over the Intercoastal Waterway is slightly easier than the daily routine…

We were up early despite having packed the night before in order to catch the first ferry to Bulls Island. Garris Landing in Awendaw was a good thirty minutes from our rental house, and the next ferry was only at 12:30pm, so we really couldn’t afford to miss this one. By the time we got the stroller and backpack carrier packed, the boys slathered in sunscreen and the rest of our gear ready, the passenger ferry was already boarding. We quickly headed down the long dock and climbed aboard for the 30 minute trip to Bulls Island.

Part of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, Bulls Island is a remote 5,000-acre barrier island. No cars are allowed and it is only accessible by boat, Coastal Expeditions being the only passenger ferry. I had wanted to visit the island since our stop at the Cape Romain Visitor Center a decade ago, but had not imagined I would be doing it with two kids ages one and three. The ferry drops you off on the marsh-side of the island, from where it is a 40 minute walk on a dirt road to the beach. The roads are rough, but not too rough for a stroller. Our Combi got stuck in a few sandier spots which is why I would recommend a fat-tired stroller if you have it, but we managed just fine by swinging it around and pulling it backwards through the rougher patches. We had decided to bring both the stroller and a backpack carrier just in case, and it ended up being a good choice, as we were able to pop Mikus in the carrier and let Lauris ride for a quick traverse of the island; the mosquitos did not encourage dawdling. From our research we had known to expect this, but this time of year is not as bad as later in the season, and once you get on the beach you’re in the clear.

Source: here
A short ways from the dock we passed Dominick House, a 1920's manor house that once in a while is opened to overnight stays. How incredible would it be to spend 3 days on the island, exploring the interior as well as spending time on the beach? An adventure for another time, perhaps sans children…

We crossed the impoundment that separates House Pond from Lower Summerhouse Pond and stretches through the marsh. It was there that we spotted the first alligator, having crawled up on a patch of land to bask in the sun. Easily 7-8 feet, it didn’t so much as flinch at the noise we made, and after pointing the reptile out to Lauris and snapping a few pictures we continued on. I would have loved to head farther inland to Alligator Alley, but this too would have to be saved for another time; one where I could slather myself in insect repellant and hike quickly. With about six hours on the island we had decided to spend our time on the beach, attempting to reach the Boneyard but leaving the rest of the island to another visit. Reasons being - we didn’t want to subject the boys to the mosquitos, we didn’t want to have to carry them everywhere and everything we had read about the beach seemed like there would be more than enough to keep us happy.

The last third of the way out to the beach was a bit difficult as the road was sandier (and therefore the stroller harder to push) and the mosquitos quite obnoxious once stopped. But as soon as we stepped out into the dunes they were gone, and with the tide out, the stroller was very easy to push over the hard-packed sand. There had been about 15 others on the ferry with us coming over, and half had already headed out to the Boneyard while the other half had stayed for the short naturalist hike offered by Coastal Expeditions or hit the interior roads on their bicycles… The beach was ours.

The boys were giddy with excitement, and I could hardly contain myself over their happiness. We had brought a few buckets and sand toys with (one of the benefits of bringing a stroller, we had transportation for all the stuff we wanted to bring!) and these were pulled out and played with extensively.

In addition to the sand toys we had packed a few beach towels, water, snacks, sunscreen and not much else. Keeping the boys hydrated and safe from the sun was a bit of a challenge, but not as hard as I had thought it might be. The sun was hot, but the day was not as warm as a summer scorcher will get, and the water was on hand to cool off. At one point both boys got too cold, and a time-out from the ocean was necessary while we wrapped up in towels and had a snack.

Taking frequent breaks to build sandcastles, hunt for seashells, dig holes and splash in the tidal pools we headed northeast along the beach with the goal of reaching Boneyard Beach. Named for the skeletons of trees dotting the three-mile stretch of beach, it is a perfect example of the ever-changing status of these barrier islands. The ocean is slowly eroding away at this end of the island, the saltwater killing the oaks, cedar and pines but leaving them behind to bleach in the sun.

We reached the first skeletons as the tide was coming back in, and taking the stroller farther would not have been bright; we would have had to lift it over downed trees and push it through the water in places, and so we decided to make camp. We set out a picnic in the shade of some shrubs, filling our stomachs but all the while anxious to return to our games in the sand.

Sunscreen reapplied, stomachs full, Lauris and Roberts set to digging while I tucked Mikus in for a nap. Our ferry captain had mentioned that the very first Leatherback sea turtle tracks had been found that morning, and I was eager to try and find them before the tide completely came in. I grabbed a water bottle and went for a solitary stroll, and with eyes on the ground I almost missed the pair of ospreys and their nest. The mother was feeding what must have been young, and seeing this amazing sight made up for missing the tracks. According to the captain it was a false crawl; the turtle had come up on land but had not nested and instead turned around and returned to the sea. I stared at the ocean imagining I might see one of the beasts approaching shore.

Cape Romain is managed for the protection of habitats for endangered and threatened species like the American Oystercatcher and Wood Stork.  In addition to nearly 300 species of migratory and resident bird species, Bulls Island is home to fox squirrels, otters, bobcats and the highest density of American alligators north of Florida. We saw pelicans, storks, herons and a variety of shorebirds in addition to the half-dozen alligators and the osprey. A few more surprises were yet to come…

Upon my return Mikus was still napping, but with the tide coming in and a long way to walk to catch the return ferry we started back towards Beach road. I filled a bucket with whelk shells, sand dollars and presents from Lauris, and before long we wound up at the entrance to our road. Another 30 minutes spent in the sun and sand proved too little before turning inland to make the run through mosquito country.

The insects were not as bad as they had been that morning, and we paused at the Dominick House picnic area to pass the time until the ferry was set for boarding. Live oaks dripping in Spanish moss provided an atmosphere straight out of a novel, and the boys happily snacked and explored while one by one, the rest of the ferry passengers reappeared from their explorations of the island.

The day was straight out of an advertisement for some glossy magazine of a beach resort island in the Caribbean… except for the alligators and mosquitos. I felt a sadness  that I would probably not experience this heavenly corner of the world again for quite some time, but as the ferry sped back towards Garris landing I let these thoughts blow away over the marsh, and was rewarded with several sightings of dolphins, one pair surfacing just off the side of the boat.

To top off what had already been an incredible day, just before docking we spotted a Bald Eagle. Perched at the top of a windblown red cedar, the bird of prey was no doubt keeping an eye out for dinner, and despite having been removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2007, I still feel that a blessing has been bestowed on me every time I catch a glimpse of one.

To visit the webpage for Cape Roman National Wildlife Refuge click here
To visit Coastal Expeditions for more information on the ferry and other programs, click here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Celebrate your wedding anniversary at Fort Sumter!

We had scheduled a vacation weekend months in advance, because we knew that if we waited something would come up as it always does. Together with some friends of ours we found a beach house in McClellanville, put down the deposit and started planning. My mom was in town until the very morning of our departure, and as she drove off towards Kentucky we headed southeast towards Charleston, to Fort Sumter National Monument.

The Fort is located on an island about three miles from Charleston, between Sullivan and James Islands in Charleston Harbor. Famous as the location where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, it is named for General Thomas Sumter of the Revolutionary War. Construction started in 1829 but was still unfinished when six days after the state of SC declared its secession from the Union U.S. Army Major Anderson abandoned the indefensible Fort Moultrie and relocated to Fort Sumter. Intended to house 650 men and 135 guns, at that point it only had a handful of operational cannons.

Ferries to the island run from two separate points, one from the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center just next to the Aquarium in downtown Charleston, and the second from Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. Depending on the time of year, between 3 to six shuttles take visitors out to the Fort; for a schedule and rates click here.

South Carolina and the Confederacy saw the occupation of Fort Sumter as an act of war, and after requests that the Fort be evacuated were repeatedly ignored and attempts to resupply rejected, on April 11, 1861, Brigadier General Beauregard sent three aides to demand the surrender of the fort. Major Anderson declined, and so on April 12, 1861 at 4:30 am, Confederate batteries opened fire, marking the beginning of the Civil War.

The bombardment continued for 34 hours. At first Fort Sumter didn’t even return fire, because they lacked fuses, and then when the cannons did begin to fire, it was at a slow pace. A fire started inside the fort, and ultimately the Union surrendered on April 13 after which the troops were evacuated to New York City. Interesting fact, it was during the official "100 gun salute" of surrender when the only casualty of the bombardment occurred, when a cannon prematurely fired - the salute was shortened to 50 shots.

A 30 minute boat ride takes you to the fort, and upon disembarking visitors are greeted by Park Service employees that also provide a history lesson for those interested. With a gift shop and museum on site in addition to the various cannons and of course the fort itself, there is plenty to explore during the one hour before the ferry takes you back. We helped Lauris complete a junior ranger program to earn a cool badge, I suggest taking advantage of this wonderful program anytime you visit a National Park.

Union efforts to retake Charleston Harbor began on April 7, 1863, but the first attack was unsuccessful, the USS Keokuk sinking off the southern tip of Morris Island. The Confederate army was rebuilding the fort, and was able to hold off another attack on September 8-9, 1863. Finally on February 17, 1865 General Sherman’s advance through South Carolina forced the Confederates to evacuate Charleston, and Fort Sumter was abandoned. The Federal government formally took possession of Fort Sumter on February 22, 1865 with a flag raising ceremony.

The Fort Sumter (Union) battle flag and the Palmetto Guard flag
The end of the war found the fort in ruins. The U.S. Army re-leveled the damaged walls to a lower height, resulting in the low profile visitors see today. From 1876 to 1897 it was used as a lighthouse station, but the start of the Spanish-American War prompted renewed military interest and a new massive concrete blockhouse-style installation was built in 1898 inside the original walls. The rebuilt fort never saw any action, however over 750,000 visitors step foot on the island each year.

Then and now: Fort Sumter 1861 photograph source here
After the visit we spent some additional time in the museum back in Charleston before continuing on to McClellanville. You can imagine the chaos that ensued; 5 energetic boys exploring the house while the adults tried to get dinner on the table! Eventually everything settled down, and Roberts and I were able to toast to our fourth wedding anniversary - what better way to celebrate than with a visit to Fort Sumter?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Grandparents in Greenville!

Once again I had a long list of things I hoped to accomplish, places to visit and errands to run while my parents were here. A couple of doctor’s appointments coincided with my mom’s visit (she stayed a bit longer than my dad), but otherwise it again felt like the week passed much too quickly and we didn’t accomplish much that I had hoped to. Luckily that Saturday the boys made it to the mountains to do the normal sightseeing circuit; as it was my father’s first time in Greenville I’m happy he was able to experience a little of the mountains in addition to exploring the town.

My sister got a similar tour during her visit, as have many other friends and family that have been to the area. For additional background and information on the various stops, visit the post Zinta and the Blue Ridge Escarpment. First up is Wildcat Branch Falls, a waterfall right off the highway.

Next stop is Bald Rock, the bare granite outcrop with spectacular views.

This is usually followed by a short hike at Caesars Head SP. A side note; exciting news for Greenville, a new section to the Palmetto Trail opened last week. Once complete, this hiking trail will stretch 425 miles across the state of South Carolina, but the newest section (the 13.9 mile Middle Saluda Passage) has a trail head in Caesars Head SP. I can’t wait to hike it, especially since the discovery (or more likely re-discovery) of a 150 foot waterfall during the relocation of Hospital Rock Trail. But the boys didn’t do any long distance hiking while there, only a quick walk to the lookout and then down through the crevice to see Caesar’s profile.

From their pictures I can tell that after a quick snack at one of the picnic tables Mikus fell asleep, but it looks like they also visited the chainsaw art guy, Pumpkintown for some ice cream and Table Rock SP for a few more grandiose views of the mountains.

(Meanwhile back in Greenville mom and grandmother were running a hundred errands to prepare for Lauris’s 3rd birthday  party the following day as well as all those things that need to get done and just don’t happen with two kids in tow.)

The day after the party I packed up the boys and brought my father back to downtown Greenville for some last sightseeing. We found the Mice on Main, as well as stopped in Coffee Underground for dessert and a coffee.

Even with this last minute tour, I still feel like we left so much undone… the boys didn’t have a chance to take grandfather to the Soda Shop for an ice cream, or to the zoo to see their favorite animals. Of course there is always next time, but these visits never seem long enough. Thankfully my mother was due to stay a couple more days, just long enough to re-plant the sunflowers that Mikus has pulled up, to spend a dozen more hours reading to the boys and to help with the cooking of a few more meals.

Come again soon vectētiņ and vecmamma!

* Photo credits go to Roberts and the grandparents

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


It was a fluke that I should have claimed as careful planning; not only were my parents able to time their visit to coincide with Lauris’s 3rd birthday, but by chance it was also during Artisphere, the Upstate’s art festival.

Birthday boy playing with his new trains
“ARTISPHERE is an annual signature event for Greenville, SC, showcasing the arts, reflecting the area’s international flair, and maximizing existing arts programs by providing a diverse menu of experiences that center around the arts visual and performing and Greenville’s multi-cultural offerings to appeal to visitors from throughout the world, as well as citizens throughout the region.”

Grandmother and grandfather take in the falls
Started in 2005, the festival has grown in size and popularity, this year featuring over 120 artists from across the country (and Canada) and attracting over 10,000 visitors. Booths were set up on Main Street from Broad to River Street with art ranging from sculpture to photography to woodwork, glass and metal. In addition to shopping, guests could chat with the artists and find out more about their purchases. Falls Park featured several live art performances and Broad Street culinary arts, with a silent auction occurring online for those who couldn’t make it downtown. There was truly something for everyone, with “Kidsphere” catering to younger artists and a demo stage to the DIYers.

It's all fun and games with the grandparents
The festival started on Friday, May 10th, but this worked out well for us because although my parents arrived Thursday, the day was a blur between a doctor’s appointment, the trip to the airport, the boys getting reacquainted and the parents getting settled (and of course dinner at Henry’s Smokehouse!). So on Friday we headed downtown, parked behind Falls Park and made it across Liberty Bridge just in time for the kickoff at 10am. The boys were captivated by a trio of aerial artists performing complicated maneuvers near the Main Street entrance to the park, and soon after we watched Brian Olsen and his “Art in Action.”

Revolve Aerial Dance from Mount Pleasant, SC
The big hit was the giant beech tree on Howe Street, whose bare roots are exposed at street level creating its own piece of art. Not part of Artisphere, one photographer has nicknamed the sight “Roots at Liberty”, and this is a must see if you’re ever visiting Falls Park. Just follow the Swamp Rabbit Trail over the little bridge and glance to the right across Howe St.

All that art worked up an appetite, and so we headed to Rick’s Deli & Market, the restaurant I had first visited with my little sister. The sandwiches were just as appetizing, and the place just as packed this time around, but we switched things up a little by ordering some macarons for dessert… YUM! Although I expected a lot due to the price tag, the sweets did not disappoint, even my spoiled palate was impressed. I really have to try my hand at making them at home. A side note: the choice to order the macarons was purely jubilārs vēlās, as the birthday boy specifically chose a lime green one to accompany his lunch.

The birthday kliņģeris that evening
Then back to the art! We watched live demonstrations of woodworking, glass blowing and metal forging and Lauris spent some time creating in the kids area. The day grew quite warm, and after several hours walking Mikus grew a little impatient with it all, signaling it was time to head home. This might have been my first visit to Artisphere but it surely will not be the last, as I was impressed by the quality of work present and happy with our time spent at the festival. We arrived home with just enough time to get everything prepared for a grand birthday dinner for Lauris, and the evening was spent eating, relaxing, opening presents and enjoying the company of family.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ūsiņdiena and Cinco de Mayo

The thing about being back in the States after living in France – commitments! We couldn’t fly back to the US for every christening, confirmation, wedding and funeral, and so our weekends were free for spur of the moment trips to Spain, hikes in the chain of volcanoes surrounding Clermont-Ferrand and relaxing jaunts to the country to visit friends. In contrast, now that we are back in Greenville every weekend from now until late summer is already booked, as it’s been since early spring. I managed to fit in that weekend in New York after my youngest sister’s visit, but then we were off to the christening in Ohio which was followed by a visit from my parents. This weekend we took a mini-vacation to the coast, but that is the sole family holiday we’ll have until much later this year, as the coming months are filled with exciting travel plans to confirmations and weddings, as well as commitments here in Greenville, visitors, seminars and festivals. You’ll have to pardon my sporadic posts, which will also be a tad outdated, as I’m already several weeks behind on our adventures.

"I call shotgun!"
We observed Ūsiņdiena, the Latvian holiday marking the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice (the beginning of summer). We celebrate because we gave Lauris the middle name of Ūsiņš, after the Latvian patron of horses, who symbolizes light and is said to bring spring. This was the first day livestock were put out to pasture, and many of the old traditions involve eggs (which symbolize life and the sun) and horses. For a great summary of some of these old rituals you can read the article “A primer on Ūsiņi, the start of summer” and then listen to Kad Ūsiņš jāj, as performed by the Melo-M Mega Orchestra.

Our celebration included a late evening trip to downtown for ice cream, as per the request of our little Ūsiņš. Although ice cream consumption was not limited to Lauris!

The following days were filled with activity; the North Main community meeting at the Soda Shop, the Arts Alive fundraiser for our nearby elementary school, plenty of time in the new sandbox and work in the old one (a.k.a. our raised vegetable beds) and trips to the zoo and Falls Park.

At the North Main community get-together with the local firetruck
The trip to Ohio was a whirlwind of driving, visiting and relatives, and it was great to be there for little Annalija’s christening. She has grown since we last saw her (as babies tend to do), and both boys showed a protective streak whenever she cried, Lauris even announcing he needs a baby sister...

Giving a kiss to little cousin Annalija
Roberts enjoyed some time with the guys, I got some time in the kitchen to bake a kliņģeris for the feast (quite an honor, thanks Asja and Brandon for asking me!) and the boys had plenty of attention and time with relatives. Oh, and we celebrated Cinco de Mayo with sombreros.

Annalija with her godfather, father and uncle
PS. We had this celebrity sighting on the way home – who knew Dolly Parton hung out in Kentucky rest areas?

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