I’m at the Cypress Gardens swamp park (30 minutes drive from Charleston). The boat pulls slowly towards the dock radiating a familiar big band tune. Nice, we’re getting radio too. Nope, that was Frank, the boat guide. Even better, we will be serenaded thru the flowered bordered black water swamp meanders. Along the way I learn that Frank, besides being a guide during visiting hours, is also the foreman, a jack of all trades maintenance guy. He takes care of every boat, does the electric, plumbing, carpentry and everything else under sun that’s required to keep things smooth at the swamp. After spending 20 years working at the steel mill, being the foreman at Cypress Garden it’s “a lot of fun”.
I, along with a family group that includes grandma, mom and two young boys, get settled in one of the flat bottom boats. These were made of California redwood wine casks in 1930’s at the request of Mr. Kittredge, the swamp owner we can now all thank for the privilege to enjoy this masterpiece.
Frank tells us there are no flooding gate “‘cause the swamp was made as reservoir for the rice fields” at the Dean Hall Plantation in the 1700s. Rice was “Carolina’s Gold”, the main cash crop and undisputed queen of the Lowcountry that helped built most of Charleston’s beautiful townhouses, plantation homes and beach gateways, and even the furniture, like the city’s popular Thomas Elfe bed. “In my time, I only knew that you grow rice in China” says Frank with a wide smile.
“Look at all the floating hearts!” yells Nathaniel, the energetic little boy next to me. The “hearts” are Atamasco lilies; Cypress Garden boasts the largest concentration in the Southeast thanks to a popular inter-bellum challenge that gave young boys a penny for every lily bulb they would scour from the woods.
We are now in the middle of “Lizzie’s Garden” as Frank calls it fondly. You can tell he is very attached to the Kittredges. “These were good people, you know?…The day they built this garden they let everyone in to enjoy it…I mean everybody…like you and me…back then that was something special, you know?” Legend has it that Mr. Kittredge was mesmerized by a red maple tree striking reflection in the swamp’s famous black waters during one of his duck hunting trips. The rest is history and the garden was born.
We stroll pass the “wedding garden” a popular celebration area and site of “many lavish soirees” in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Frank gently avoids a flamboyant cypress knee. “This is my favorite spot…you can park your boat, take a nap and when the bell rings you know it’s time to go fishin’”. “You fish Frank?” I ask him politely. “Of course! Mr. Frank don’t watch no TV…with all that’s goin’ on I’ll end up like those folks on Judge Judy”. Then he points at a lone magnolia tree. “You should always plant your magnolia tree on the right side of the house. To make lots of money” chuckles he loudly…”when you go back to Charleston watch for all those trees…then you can tell who’s rich or claims [to be] so.”
On our way back it starts raining. Frank points out two shooting scenes from Mel Gibson’s movie “The Patriot”. The bridge is where the militia was hiding waiting for the Red Coats; the island is the location for the “Old Spanish mission in the black water swamp”. As we are getting out Frank is cheering us up with the “I’ll be traveling down the mountain” song. He sounds just like Elvis. We shake hands. Just like his smile, his hands are warm and familiar. Despite the dark clouds and bone chilling rain I feel great. I waive Frank good bye one more time.
He is special, you know?
Things to know before you go
• The adult ticket is only $10; seniors’ ticket is $9; children ages 6-12 is $5 and ones five and under get in for free. Berkeley county residents get free admission (from 9 to 12) on the 3rd Saturday of every month
• The guided tour lasts about half an hour give or take depending on how voluble Frank (or the other guide) is. Boats leave every hour on top of the hour. Don’t worry if you’re not Michael Phelps type swimmer. The swamp is only 3 feet deep and yes you will be provided with life vests.
• Unlike other swamps (i.e. Congaree National Park near Columbia) there are no mosquitoes at Cypress Garden, courtesy to the sap in the water that acts as a repellent.
• You can “safely lose the kids” at the Butterfly House, Aquarium, Reptile Center, Crocodile Isle and Aviary, or at the small replica of an inland rice field.
• There are 4 miles of walking paths and nature trails for outdoor enthusiasts. You should be on the lookout for alligators, the main animal attraction at the garden, although none will bother to venture out in the “freezing” 45 degrees winter temperature. Come May and is a whole different story; no “feeding or harassing” please.
• Besides “The Patriot” there were other famous movies shot here, like “North and South”, “The Notebook”, and “The Yearling”. In fact the SC State Museum in downtown Columbia is featuring an incredible exhibition about all the Hollywood movies shot in South Carolina.
• History lovers can spend more time at The Nesbitt House or the Dean Hall Plantation (just note the original is now in Beaufort SC). If time permits go visit the nearby Magnolia Plantation
• Locals eat at the Barony House few miles out in Moncks Corner, right pass Burger King
3030 Cypress Garden Road, Moncks Corner, SC 29461
For a calendar of events, passes and discounts, driving directions and more visit http://www.cypressgardens.info/ or call (843) 553-0515
Filed under: Charleston, Cypress Gardens, Historic Carolina Sites, Inspirational, Outdoor Activities | Tagged: activities under $10, Carolina Alligators, Charleston family attractions, Charleston historic sites, Charleston kids activities, Cypress Gardens, education, Hollywood, Hunley, Just for Kids, movies, Outdoor Carolina, SC family fun activities, swamp |