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Experience Heritage and High Tides at These Beach Destinations

Santa Barbara, California

Though most American history begins in the 17th century, in Santa Barbara evidence of human habitation reaches back 13,000 years. Archaeologists discovered some of the country’s oldest human remains near Santa Barbara, which sits alongside other Paleo-Indian artifacts at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Five Native American Chumash villages flourished in the area when Spanish missionaries and soldiers first built a permanent European settlement in 1782. The Spanish sought to fortify the region against expansion by England and Russia and convert the natives to Christianity.

“Santa Barbara was originally settled by the Chumash Native Americans,” said Michelle Carlen, director of sales. “The combination of Native Americans and Spanish settlers has led to some great storytelling throughout our town.”

Groups can hear some of those historic accounts at the Mission Santa Barbara, known as the Queen of Missions. Guests can wander through the mission’s 1800s garden, 17th-century art displays and re-creations of the mission’s living quarters with its original adobe wall.

The Royal Presidio of Santa Barbara, the last military outpost built by Spain in the New World, is also open for tours, with a museum and an active archaeological site. The original adobe structure, called El Cuartel, is the second-oldest surviving building in California.

For a glimpse of Santa Barbara’s maritime history, many visitors explore Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wharf in the state. The 1872 wharf holds a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center.

Even the city’s newer structures appear historic because of the prevalent Spanish Colonial architecture’s whitewashed buildings and red roofs.

After a day of busy historical tours, the stunning southern California beaches provide instant relaxation.

Newport, Rhode Island

It is no accident that Edith Wharton chose Newport, Rhode Island, as a setting in her novel “The Age of Innocence,” which is famous for capturing the opulence of the Gilded Age. Though the wealthy families referred to their collection of mammoth mansions along the Newport coast as “summer cottages,” the design aesthetic showcases grandiose luxury.

Many of these mansions, as well as some of the older Colonial structures in Newport’s Old Quarter downtown, are open for tours.

“Newport was involved in the American Revolution and then welcomed the Gilded Age’s elite,” said Andrea McHugh, marketing and communications manager for Discover Newport. “That’s when Newport mansions were built by names like Vanderbilt and Widener. Today, that footprint’s left behind, which leaves an architecturally fascinating city.”

At the Museum of Newport History, groups can find an overview of the city’s history, from its founding in 1639 to its use as a British naval base in the Revolutionary War and its 20th-century reputation as a resort getaway for the affluent. From there, visitors can tour the Colonial downtown with stops at the Whitehorne House, the Redwood Library and Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the country.

But even with all this impressive Colonial history, the real draw for groups remains the mansions along the Newport Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile walkway that borders the rocky coastline. Whether the group walks the entire route or 10 steps, the views of crashing waves on one side and famous gilded mansions on the other always impress. After looking at the imposing mansion exteriors, visitors can admire the adorned interiors on house tours of the Breakers, Rosecliff and Chateau-sur-Mer.

Newport has also attracted presidents throughout the years, including John F. Kennedy, who was married at St. Mary’s Church. The Return to Camelot tour lets guests relive the 1953 wedding day with film clips, a live musical performance and a reception at Hammersmith Farm, Jackie Kennedy’s childhood summer home.

Charleston, South Carolina

What do discarded oyster shells have to do with the development of Charleston, South Carolina? More than you might guess: Settlers in the area relocated in 1672 to a peninsula land called Oyster Point because of the mounds of shells left there by the Kiawah Indians. Settlers used these shells in the construction of Charleston, which soon grew because of its strategic location between the Cooper and Ashley rivers.

It seems fitting that a city known for culinary masterpieces would be built upon oyster shells. Today, groups can enjoy a history lesson by tasting the city’s well-known flavors influenced by Gullah, British and French cultures. Staple dishes such as gumbo, she-crab soup and fried oysters tell a story of the city’s past.

When not dining out, visitors can also explore the architectural marvels of the city. Charleston stands as a veritable living museum with preserved antebellum mansions and historic churches. Walking tours, carriage rides and cruises relate some of the most intriguing stories from the town’s 300-year history.

Outside of downtown, Fort Sumter is one of the most popular historic attractions: Confederate forces fired the first shot of the Civil War on the garrison. Park rangers explain the fort’s pivotal role in the war and lead guests to the site’s museum.

No stay in Charleston is complete without an excursion to one of its many enchanting historic plantations, among the most popular are Magnolia Plantation and Boone Hall Plantation.

Eliza Myers

Eliza Myers has worked for The Group Travel Leader since 2007. She is the online editor and associate editor for Select Traveler.

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