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Duty stations: Charleston, South Carolina

I haven't ever done a blog post on the places we've lived, but I have been wanting to write one about Charleston, South Carolina. I've felt that most of the places we've lived were pretty straight forward. Charleston is a very unique city and it was an experience to get the opportunity to live there.

From the get-go, we heard how lucky we were to get stationed in Charleston. Everyone told us how beautiful the city was, how much the loved it, how it is their favorite place. We were excited to move there. As people who try to make the most of wherever the Navy brings us, we felt we had a leg up moving somewhere everyone loves. And then we got there and it was nothing like I expected.

I've done a lot of thinking about Charleston. I've even written a blog post about it is not my favorite duty station. I struggled for awhile when we lived there. I didn't have that "I belong here" feeling. Eventually I was able to buck up and make the most of it-- I mean, we only lived there for 1.5 years. However, part of what helped me was to let go of my expectations. Here is what we heard about Charleston and our experience with living in Charleston as a young family of 6.

1. "The city is beautiful."

Yes, Charleston is absolutely beautiful. But when we first moved to Charleston, my grandmother broke her hip and recovered at our house for months. Then I got pregnant with baby #4 and it was impossible to get around downtown with our brood. Our twins were 2-years old at the time-- too young to be running out of the stroller and me chasing them (while pregnant)-- and the cobblestone sidewalks were too narrow for even my fabulous double stroller. This left me with the option to either walk in the road downtown with 3 children (a 5-year old and 2-year old twins? No, thank you) or somehow manage wandering downtown with no stroller and 3 children (a 5-year old and 2-year old twins while pregnant? No, thank you). My husband doesn't enjoy meandering like I do-- especially in a crowd with young children-- and so it wasn't something I liked pushing on him, though I did insist on a few meandering Charleston walks. As someone who loves getting out with the kids and exploring, I found this to be a difficult city to navigate by myself with young children. Even if we could go back now, with a 6-year old, 4-year old twins, and a baby, I feel like I could navigate the city a bit better than I could when our twins were 2-years old.

2. "There is so much history and the plantations are a must-see."

Again, the city is absolutely beautiful and there is so much history there. It was also so expensive. It cost our family over $100 to do a carriage tour downtown. Admission to the plantations ran me about $35 at least (and often not including parking) just to get in the door-- and that was by myself with the children, as the only adult. Some of them ran even more than that. When I started adding up the prices for all the different plantations, it was staggering. Then there are the annual passes that you can buy to tour the plantations, which all add up because there isn't one pass that will get you in all the plantations. On top of this, we had a membership to the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry and the Charleston County Gold Pass Membership. I considered getting us an aquarium membership, which I thought we would use more than a plantation pass, but it was all starting to be a bit much since I really couldn't picture myself hitting those places up that often. When the summer came, I was excited to start going to the Charleston County Parks Whirlin' Waters Waterpark because we had bought the Gold Pass and-- guess what!-- you need a separate membership to get into that! Hitting up these places as a family of 6 without memberships starts getting really expensive and into the territory of we spend nearly as much on admission for one day as we would for an annual pass. In the end, I went on zero plantation tours (though we did do Thanksgiving at Middleton Place with all the kids and it was fabulous) and I just made the most out of the memberships that we had (highly recommend the Charleston County Gold Pass Membership!!!).

3. "The food is amazing!"

No denying it, Charleston has some amazing restaurants. We had so many restaurants that we wanted to eat at or that were recommended to us. Tell people you are moving to Charleston and you will immediately start hearing, "Oh! You have to go eat at..." or "I saw this place on Food Network..." or "Omigosh, my favorite restaurant is there! You must go..." Every alley you turn down in Charleston has yet another amazing restaurant tucked in it. But we had a 5-year old and 2-year old twins when we moved there; a 6-year old, 3-year old twins, and an infant when we moved away. There is no way we were going to Halls Chophouse and asking for 2 highchairs or waiting on the street for a table for 6 with 4 children at Hymans. A lot of the restaurants there do not take reservations and are only open during mealtimes (opens at lunch, closes between lunch and dinner, then opens for dinner), making it very hard to hit those places at off-peak times. We loved Monza Pizza downtown, but the only table that could seat us was the community table that had barstools. Yes, we sat at barstools with 2-year old twins... that was an adventure.

This was one of those times that I really noticed a difference between having a smaller number of kids and a larger number of kids. We had a restaurant recommended to us by a family of 3, but when we showed up at this tiny local dive, they had no clue when they could pull together a table for 6, "Maybe 45 minutes? Or an hour? Could you guys wait outside?" (It was not only raining, but also in the middle of winter.) Also, a meal that would have been fairly pricey for just my hubby and I to go to was extremely expensive taking all of our children, not to mention not always enjoyable because they had to get up to go potty, they didn't want to eat that, when are we going home, he took my crayon... on and on.

It took awhile, but we finally found a number of restaurants that worked for us. We like going to places where we don't feel we dominate the entire restaurant (places that are super small tend to be less friendly toward us and tend to rush us along). We also like places to be reasonably priced; we don't mind spending more for good food, but we also have to a balance what price is worth taking our entire family out. While many places in Charleston work on a no-reservations policy, we need places that we can comfortably wait at. Sitting on a narrow sidewalk downtown for 45 minutes is a no go for us. Most of all, we like good food and a good vibe. Here are the places that were our family favorites:
  • Page's Okra Grill
    This is our absolute family favorite; we love eating here. This place is perfect to bring out of town guests to as well because it gives a taste of Charleston while still being exceptionally family friendly.
  • Red's Ice House
    This was a really easy place to go to with our family. It is open all day so we could hit it at off peak times. It is also ideal if you plan on lingering for awhile since you can go to the dock on the back and watch dolphins jump by the paddle boarders in Shem Creek.
  • Charleston CafĂ©
    Delicious brunch spot! This place is in a strip mall, but they do have a comfortable sitting area out front. The line moves along quickly. They were short on high chairs, though they had decent chairs that worked fine for our 2-year olds. The staff was nice and attentive to our family, even though it is a pretty busy place.
  • Liberty Tap Room
    This place we found really late in the game, when we were getting ready to move. I was pretty disappointed we found it so late since my hubby and I love beer and family friendly. Delicious food, great beer, and really fun for all of us.
  • Poe's Tavern
    This is at Sullivan's Island. We sat outside on their big picnic tables and had an absolutely wonderful time. The boys loved people watching. My hubby and I loved hanging out all together. After we had our delicious burgers, we took a walk on the beach where we actually saw a shark in the surf-- no joke. This was quite possibly the most exciting beach trip for our boys.
Of course we ate at more restaurants than just this list. One of the small places downtown that we loved was Queology, a super small BBQ place that was not stroller friendly, though the food was great and the staff was so nice and accommodating. So there were other places we liked than this list, but these were the places we could count on when we wanted to go out to eat as a family-- that would have high chairs, that would have a decent wait, that would have a table that could seat us, that we wouldn't pay a fortune to eat at. My favorite meals were from S.N.O.B. We even took all of our kids there for lunch one day and I can tell you, that place is borderline when it comes to eating out with children. The staff was beyond amazing and friendly and warm, though I could tell that some of the patrons questioned why we were there with all our kids.

4. "There is so much to do there. The beaches are amazing!"

I admit, I pictured us moving somewhere similar to Hawaii where the beaches were almost at our back door. It was a little different than that. It took us about 35-40 minutes to get to the beach. We had a park pass and went to Isle of Palms beach as often as we could. I took us over to do beach walks, let the kids run, and for all day beach trips. I even loved going in the evenings in the summer, since it was usually much cooler and far less crowded. Even though it wasn't as quick of a drive as living in Hawaii, I loved Isle of Palms. This was a great beach for us because the parking lot is right on the beach; you never have to cross a road to get to the beach, perfect for managing a beach day with children. There are bathrooms. During the summer, there is a concession stand and a beach stand selling the basic necessities, like sunscreen and hats and shovels. There are vending machines and drinking fountains. The beach itself is mild enough for children and has a shelf, creating tide pools when the tide changes. We hunted for starfish on this beach. On the way to the beach, I would drive through Raising Cane's off Hwy 17 for sweet tea and chicken fingers. It was all perfect for taking 4 children to the beach (or 3 children while being pregnant). Because of the convenience of Isle of Palms, the only other beach we went to was Sullivan's Island with my hubby that one time. The other beaches were too much of a drive, didn't have bathrooms, had to cross the road... too many challenges for me to want to head over there with all the young children. In my defense, we were at Isle of Palms all the time though. (The one beach thing was also very different than Hawaii-- there are so many to choose from there!)

The Charleston County Park Gold Pass is a must have. It includes free beach parking, free admission to James Island Festival of Lights, and free admission to Wannamaker Park. Living in Goose Creek with young children, Wannamaker Park was our go-to place on any given weekday. During the summer we would time our Wannamaker Park trips so we could hit up Sonic's Happy Hour, which has half priced drinks. I would get all the boys small slushes after playing at the park. Wannamaker is so much fun because it has a great playground for all different aged kids, including woods (a favorite for our boys) and a hill, plus it has a splash pad, a pond, walking/bike trails, and a perfect picnic area. It was big enough to offer different activities each time we went and close enough to go all the time.

But there were a lot of other places that I just didn't get to. I never took the boys antiquing and while we did take them to the fountains downtown, it was stressful with the little boys having them running by the road. So I felt like we really had to seek out what worked best for us there, while I felt like it worked a lot better for some of our friends with less children or no children. We usually got out exploring when my hubby was off work or when family came to town and we had extra hands. Otherwise, it was just too much with the littles and me.

5. "Charleston is my favorite city."

I mentioned in my previous blog post how we made the choice to live close to power school and prototype by living on base instead of out in town. Everyone we spoke to recommended we live in Mt. Pleasant or West Ashley. We even had people say Summerville was nice. We took their input into consideration and decided that because we were living there for such a short time (it ended up being a year and a half) and because we were planning on having another baby there (we had baby #4 in Charleston) that we definitely wanted to live close to base. After living in Goose Creek for a year and a half, here are the two thoughts I have on Goose Creek:
  1. If we get stationed in Charleston again for a "real" tour (instead of going through the officer pipeline as a student), we will live out in town.
  2. I'm glad we lived in Goose Creek while going through the officer pipeline because we were so close to power school and prototype.
I had a hard time adjusting to Goose Creek after living in North Carolina where everything we wanted/needed was within 5 miles of our house. In Goose Creek we had...base. And that was it. It took me 15 minutes just to get off base. Everywhere I went was a 30-40 minute drive. Harris Teeter was a 30 minute drive in one direction and Costco a 30 minute drive in the other direction. I did so much online grocery shopping in North Carolina and it was really frustrating now not only shopping in store with 4 children, but also having an hour round trip for those outings. We did have a commissary close by and I loved that. We went there a lot, but the hours sometimes made it difficult. We also had our children's events on the calendar, like homeschool co-ops and sports classes. It was frustrating driving 30-40 minutes for a 30-40 minute soccer class or piano lesson only to drive the 30-40 minutes back home. It was a big change in our routine and any parent with a 2-year old knows what an hour round trip can do to a nap schedule.

What was great about where we lived was the housing was beautiful. I loved our house and I loved our lay out. The house suited us well and was the nicest place we've lived so far in my hubby's Navy career. I also loved how close we were to his schools. He came home often, especially in power school when he just wanted a break from studying. One day when he was at prototype I came down with a horrible migraine. I called him and told him I really needed him home (he was in studying, not on watch) and he was home 10 minutes after I called, including walking out of the school to the parking lot and riding his bike home. I loved the parks in our neighborhood and there was a great sense of community with our neighbors. In that regard, I do think that at that point in our lives, choosing the housing in Goose Creek was the right choice for us. Overall though, the location did skew my perspective towards Charleston and I do think I would find greater enjoyment living somewhere like Mt Pleasant that was more centrally located to the activities our family enjoys doing.

Since we have moved away from Charleston, I find myself missing a lot of things about the place. I loved the warm, mild weather. I loved our evenings spent on our driveway while the kids played. I loved Isle of Palms and Raising Cane's (the two will always go hand in hand for me! haha!). I loved the pineapple fountain downtown. I loved how often my hubby would take us downtown for ice cream at Kilwin's; it was one of our favorite treats. While Charleston was very different than I expected and had many challenges for our large family, there was a lot of good there too.

So that is my post on Charleston, South Carolina. Have you been stationed in Charleston? Did you enjoy it? Where did you live and what things did you like doing with your family? If you have a large family, what were some of your favorite "big family" hang outs?


Spring said…
Its funny how the number & age of our children affect how enjoyable a city can be. I LOVED Winston-Salem, where I was pregnant & where our boys were born but we left before the boys were old enough for us to get out & really enjoy what the city had to offer. Brunswick was ok in the Summer because of the islands/beaches & our boys were at a good age for me to take them by myself but other than that they had nothing to offer for toddler aged kids, no mommy groups, playgroups, mothers of multiples, not even an indoor playground or toddler gym. There was a couple of great playgrounds when the boys reached about 3 years old & didn't run off so much anymore, lol... So it was basically the beach when in season, the playgrounds &/or chick fil a for an indoor option. The local library was in a horrible part of town that I wasn't comfortable taking the boys to by myself.
I was so excited to move here because there was everything that was lacking in Brunswick but now at 4 , the boys are a smidge too old or at least they are the oldest kids at playgroup or the library story time & they hate the childcare area at the Y. So now we are on to sports, swim lessons & karate! I still love it here & that there is pretty much anything & everything accessible to us but it definitely wasn't what I was expecting in the beginning.

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