When my wife, Brittany, and I decided to become foster parents, we also promised ourselves that we wouldn’t let parenthood derail our love for travel. And we have stayed true to that promise, though we have had to change our approach to our favorite hobby. Foster children, especially, usually don’t have much experience with travel. So we’ve found that short trips—ones that don’t require a ton of time in the car—are an easy family getaway.
This is why, last June, we packed up the car and drove a few hours to Charleston, West Virginia, to celebrate FestivALL. This two-week festival takes over the city each summer with tons of music, art, and other activities. All FestivALL events are family-friendly, and the majority of them are free. The FestivALL website also features an interactive calendar, making it super easy to plan your trip.
We drove into town on a Friday and checked into our downtown hotel, which was within walking distance to many of the events we planned to attend over the weekend. After dropping our bags and putting the kids’ iPads on charge in the hotel room, we set out toward Capitol Street. We snagged an outdoor table at Pies & Pints, a West Virginia-based chain primarily known for its gourmet pizzas. But our favorite thing on the menu is an appetizer: the pork and pepper nachos. You can’t come to Pies & Pints, however, without sampling one of the pizzas. The grape and gorgonzola pie is a personal favorite, but since our kids tend to be less adventurous in food choices, we went with a classic margherita. It was fresh from the oven, with a crispy crust, and topped with delicious Parmesan and fresh mozzarella—everything you want in a pizza. I had no complaints.
With our bellies full, we headed down the street to Taylor Books to compete in the Downtown Open. This is a FestivALL tradition that turns the streets of downtown Charleston into a miniature golf course. Each hole is sponsored, designed, and built by a different local business and organization. It’s free, and all you have to do to participate is pick up your putters, balls, and scorecard from a participating location like Taylor’s.
The Downtown Open is a great excuse to stroll around downtown while keeping kids entertained at the same time. In fact, they were sad when we reached the last hole. But morale quickly improved when we headed to Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream for dessert. I couldn’t pass up a scoop of espresso Oreo. Brittany, who prefers fruity flavors, went with lemon gelato.
It was getting late, so we decided to turn back to the hotel. But as we walked, we were lured to Charleston’s riverfront by the sounds of loud music. It was a free concert by the jazz group Ranky Tanky from the other Charleston (the one in South Carolina). These concerts happen every Friday night during the summer as part of the city’s Live on the Levee series at Haddad Riverfront Park. We couldn’t help but stay for a few songs before heading to the room. It was difficult to get the kids in bed from all the excitement, but we promised there would be even more fun the next day.
Saturday started off with a quick breakfast at the hotel before heading to the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences, Charleston’s world-class premiere performance hall and discovery museum. We took in a show in the planetarium, and then the kids spent some time scrambling up and down the three-story Ashton Climbing Sculpture in the main lobby. But their favorite was My Town, a kid-sized play area where they could pretend to work in a grocery store, veterinarian’s office, auto shop, pizza parlor, and more.
After a few hours at the Clay Center, we got lunch at the Capitol Market. This downtown farmers market is also home to some of the city’s best grub. The smell of The Fresh Seafood Co. & Market attracted me right away. The “big fish sandwich” was one of the best I’ve had anywhere, with crispy fish served on a buttery croissant. Brittany enjoyed their West Virginia-style hotdogs with chili, slaw, onion, and mustard. One of our kids got a chicken sandwich, which also looked delicious, while the other went for a plain hotdog. And we all agreed the french fries were top-notch.
The market has other dining options, too. There’s Sushi Garden, which offers a solid selection of sushi, dumplings, and other Asian favorites. Soho’s provides an upscale Italian vibe, and its outdoor dining area looked like a great place to spend a summer evening. The Purple Onion, in addition to their fresh produce and snacks, also had a grab-and-go bar as well as daily lunch specials. And there’s Mea Cuppa Coffee Bar for a quick latte or cup of tea.
From there, we headed to Charleston’s West Side for another FestivALL event, Ice Cream and the Arts. For obvious reasons, this was a hit with the kids. They got free vanilla ice cream from Ellen’s and Dancing Dog Ice Cream, they got to watch artists make amazing chalk murals on the sidewalks, and they got to do some art of their own at the various booths that were set up. One of our girls did a sponge painting of an ice cream scoop, while the other drew a little family portrait, which volunteers helpfully framed for us.
By now, the sun was sinking low, and we jumped in the car to go back downtown for a Charleston Dirty Birds baseball game. The modern ballpark has all the amenities of a major league stadium, just in a smaller, less stressful, and less expensive package.
The kids don’t really understand baseball, but they thoroughly enjoyed watching the between-inning antics on the jumbotron and chanting along with “Toast Man” behind home plate, a super-fan who jeers good-naturedly at opposing batters. The team even let all the kids in attendance run through the outfield after one inning. An amazing post-game fireworks display capped off our night, and we headed back to the room for some much-needed rest.
After a couple of action-packed days, we decided to take Sunday a little easier. We slept late, loaded up the car, and checked out of the hotel, then got brunch at Black Sheep Burritos and Brews. Everything on the menu looked tempting, but I ultimately decided on the Cee-Bee-Gee—fried chicken breaded in Honey Nut Cheerios on a buttermilk biscuit, topped with spicy gravy. Brittany thoroughly enjoyed her huevos rancheros, and the kids liked their breakfast sausage quesadillas so much I’m going to have to figure out how to make it at home.
By the time we finished brunch, the Capitol Street Art Fair was in full swing. We spent some time checking out the local artists who came to sell their wares and let the kids get their faces painted before piling back in the car and heading toward home.
We had one last stop just outside Charleston, though. J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works is located just south of Charleston in the small town of Malden. Despite its current landlocked status, this area was once home to a prehistoric ocean that left salt deposits deep underground. For more than 200 years, the Dickinson family has been pulling that salt from the ground and selling it to discerning customers worldwide.
After a quick tour of the greenhouses where they dry the salt, we picked up a few jars of their famous salt—and some of their delicious-looking caramel sauces—to take home as souvenirs.
The kids went home with plenty of souvenirs of their own. Each time a new foster child comes into our home, we give them a “memory box.” It’s a place to keep things that are special to them, both from their biological families and from the time they spend with us. While in Charleston, they each collected several items for their boxes: scorecards from the Downtown Open, their admission armbands from the Clay Center, their custom artwork from Ice Cream and the Arts—even a couple signed baseballs they got from Dirty Birds players following the game.
But our time in Charleston will be more than just a memory. On the way out of the hotel, I picked up a brochure for the recently relaunched Sternwheel Regatta—that looks like another weekend of free family fun and another reason to plan a quick trip to Charleston this summer.