As a born-and-bred Southerner, I will admit that I am biased, but there’s nothing more delightful than springtime in the South. The dogwoods and azaleas start to burst into bloom as early as mid-March, and the weather turns deliciously warm and breezy. A spring sojourn here is an easy decision; what’s harder is narrowing down where to go.
Here are six of my favorite Southeastern getaways with kids. They’re at their best this time of year, in the sweet spot between drizzly winter and sticky summer, and each of them offers an enticing range of activities for kids of all ages. Above all, they embody the inimitable sense of place that makes this region so special.
Gracious and genteel, this coastal grande dame feels like nowhere else on earth. It’s heavenly in spring, with mild breezes blowing in from the sea and brilliant blossoms peeking from behind the palm trees.
Among the city’s most picturesque spots is the Charleston Battery, an old defensive seawall that’s now home to the most upper-crust mansions in town. Adjacent Battery Park offers plenty of room for kids to run and is dotted with cannons and cannonballs from the Civil War. The South Carolina Aquarium and the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry are can’t-miss favorites with little ones. Step back in time at an old plantation like Drayton Hall or Middleton Place, or learn about the first wartime shots fired at Fort Sumter.
Outside Charleston proper lies Patriots Point, site of the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, the USS Clamagore submarine, and more. The area is also home to several wonderful beach communities; my favorite is Folly Beach on James Island, a laid-back local favorite with a slightly bohemian vibe and a handful of great restaurants.
When it’s time to turn in for the night, choose a kid-friendly hotel in the historic district, such as Belmond Charleston Place or The Restoration on King. Or stay at one of the islands that are a short drive from the city — we love Kiawah Island as well as Wild Dunes Resort on Isle of Palms.
Just two hours down the coast from Charleston lies its sister (and rival) Savannah, equal parts Lowcountry charm and Southern Gothic. Savannah wears its past on its sleeve — weathered and evocative, it truly feels like one of the oldest cities in the U.S. At the heart of the historic district is Forsyth Park, with a glorious fountain and ample benches where parents can relax while the little ones run. Stroll down to the waterfront to see the ships in the harbor and take a short but fun water taxi ride on the Savannah River.
The city’s excellent Telfair Museums include the ArtZeum, an interactive space that allows kids to get hands-on with artwork. If there’s a Girl Scout in the family, a stop at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace is essential. Fancy a day at the beach? Drive over to Tybee Island, where kids can climb the lighthouse, try their hand at crabbing and explore 19th-century Fort Pulaski.
Savannah is chockablock with historic inns, and as a rule, they’re not especially geared toward kids. Instead, try The Brice, part of the Kimpton brand — a longtime CB! favorite for families. The younger set will love the Kimpton Kids amenities; parents will love the downtown location and the chic, sassy decor.
TIP: If St. Patrick’s Day falls during your spring break, be forewarned: Savannah puts on a huge, sometimes wild, St. Paddy’s celebration. Plan for crowds and noise, and book accommodations early.
When I was a kid, Scenic 30-A — a two-lane highway that hugs 30ish miles of Panhandle shoreline — was a humble stretch of scrub oaks and low-slung cottages. Fast-forward to now: A string of planned luxury communities such as Seaside and Rosemary Beach, plus the powdery white sand and clear emerald water, have vaulted it to the top of the Southeast beach scene. Spring is relatively quiet (summer is high season) and plenty warm enough to luxuriate in the sun, though the ocean can still be cool.
Although 30-A is a stone’s throw from the spring break chaos of Panama City, it feels light years away. Families flock here and it’s home to scores of upscale shops, galleries and restaurants. Outdoor activities reign, from biking and paddleboarding to boating and simply lounging on the sand. Sightseeing in the area is limited, but nearby Pensacola is home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, and you might be lucky enough to catch a Blue Angels air show.
There are almost no hotels on 30-A — vacation rentals are the norm, from one- and two-bedroom condos to lavish beachfront cottages. Rental agencies abound throughout the area; CB! Family Vacation consultants can help connect you with one that’s reputable.
Surprise: Georgia has islands! Off its southeastern coast lie clusters of beautiful isles, each with a different flavor. The poshest is Sea Island, home to famed luxury resort The Cloister — paradise for kids as well as parents. This sprawling property sits on a private beach and offers a huge variety of children’s programming, plus family-friendly accommodations that range from standard rooms to cottages and townhomes.
Saint Simons Island is rich in history, with a 19th-century lighthouse and Revolutionary War-era battle sites. Afterward, lighten up at Neptune Park Fun Zone, complete with putt-putt, waterpark, playground and more, then walk over to Moo Cow Ice Cream for a sweet treat. Sleep at the King and Prince, right on the beach and a stone’s throw from the island action.
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To my mind, the most special of all is Cumberland Island National Seashore, which had its 15 minutes as the place where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette got married. Serene and undeveloped, Cumberland has an otherworldly feel, enhanced by the ruins of an old mansion and the wild horses that roam the beaches and trot amid the trees. There are no cars, shops or restaurants and literally no amenities other than a restroom and a water fountain. Due to its isolation, Cumberland is not ideal for babies and toddlers, but with older kids it’s a spectacular spot to get off the grid and spend meaningful time together.
For accommodations, you have two choices: camping or, at the other end of the spectrum, the 19th-century Greyfield Inn, Cumberland’s one oasis of luxury. The Greyfield welcomes kids 6 and up. Be aware, though, that the overall ambiance is quiet and refined. If you’d like to explore the island but not stay there, base in nearby Fernandina Beach, Florida, and make a day trip.
Think there’s nothing but adult-oriented fun in NOLA? Think again: the Crescent City is an unsung gem for families. Spring is a fantastic time to visit, as Mardi Gras mayhem is over and summer’s swampy heat hasn’t settled in. Kick off your visit in the French Quarter, a raucous, totally unique blend of sounds and smells and colors that turns a simple walk into an adventure. (Just don’t let the kids wander down Bourbon Street, which is decidedly not family-friendly.)
Make time to visit at least one branch of the Audubon Nature Institute, which includes an aquarium, an insectarium and a wonderful zoo. City Park is home to the Louisiana Children’s Museum, plus fanciful playgrounds that will captivate little ones, and the National World War II museum is a must-see for school-age kids and up. Ride the streetcars through the picturesque Garden District down to Audubon Park, a perfect spot for kids to run and blow off steam. And, of course, everyone will have a blast eating their way through the city’s incredible restaurants.
Although I rarely suggest staying in the French Quarter with kids, I make an exception for Audubon Cottages, an upscale, intimate haven that feels a world away from the noise and crowds. Otherwise, stay in or near the quieter Central Business District — Loews New Orleans and Windsor Court Hotel are both excellent choices.
This riverfront belle embodies the South that most people dream of: wedding-cake antebellum mansions; Spanish moss drooping from live oaks; steamboats cruising the Mississippi. But don’t mistake it for an open-air time warp — arts and culture thrive here, and so does family fun.
Little history buffs will love Natchez. It’s thick with storied sites, from estates such as Stanton Hall and Monmouth Plantation to the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture. Kids who don’t mind a few goosebumps will eat up the city’s ghost tours and creepy old cemeteries. Take a leisurely drive down the Natchez Trace Parkway, which follows an ancient footpath first used by Native Americans; it’s at its blooming best in springtime. Or visit the Grand Dwelling of the Natchez Indians for an intriguing window into the area’s past.
Bed-and-breakfasts far outnumber conventional hotels — now’s your chance to sleep in one of those antebellum homes. Try Dunleith, an 1850s stunner with newly restored accommodations. The three-bedroom Dairy Barn, which includes a full kitchen, is perfect for families.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Lisa Frederick.
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