Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

In or Out: Southern setting combine the Great Outdoors with the indoors

Courtesy Virginia Tourism Corp.

After traipsing behind a guide through a black-water cypress swamp in search of alligators, visitors can walk inside to tour Middleton Place Plantation, a Southern plantation near Charleston, S.C. The juxtaposition of outdoor wilderness and indoor sophistication is prevalent throughout the South at historic homes with gardens, museums with nature preserves and parks with creative museums.

As much of the South beckons guests to step into the sunshine with long-lasting warm weather, it is easy to enjoy the spring flowers, summer forested walks and autumn eruptions of leaf colors. Besides, if it starts to rain, a site with both indoor and outdoor attractions will always leave groups with a plan B.

Middleton Place Plantation
Charleston, S.C.

Look for scales slicing through the water or the latest blooming flower at Middleton Place Plantation’s variety of outdoor attractions. The site offers a seasonal alligator walk in a cypress swamp and what is believed to be the oldest landscaped gardens in America.

       Courtesy Middleton Place Plantation

“Every season the garden takes on another look,” said Pat Kennedy, vice president of marketing for the site. “In the winter, the camellias bloom, and in the spring, the azaleas and dogwoods bloom, so both are very special times of the year. There is always a lot of color in the garden.”
The garden still retains the 1741 plan laid out by Henry Middleton, president of the First Continental Congress, with geometric shapes and vistas of the Ashley River.

To learn about the family that originally tended the garden, the House Museum showcases the 1755 gentlemen’s guest quarters, the only surviving portion of the original three-building residential complex. Guides tell stories of the family, the original 18th-century furniture and how the plantation survived the Revolution, the Civil War and an 1886 earthquake.
Once back outside, in the Plantation Stable Yards, visitors are introduced to the hard labor behind all the plantation grandeur. Interpreters demonstrate slave artisan skills such as blacksmithing, carpentry, potterymaking and wool spinning.

The Stable Yards house not only the traditional farmer’s animals, such as sheep, cows and horses, but also animals common to Colonial farms, such as water buffalo.

With advanced notice, the plantation can also let groups see the grounds with kayak excursions, horseback rides and other walking tours.

Museum of Arts and Sciences
Daytona Beach, Fla.

Within the walls of Daytona Beach’s Museum of Arts and Sciences hang acclaimed works of art from China, Cuba, America and beyond. Outside, 90 acres of virgin coastal forest protect numerous turtles, lizards and endangered species of flora and fauna.

     Courtesy Museum of Arts and Sciences

“The nature preserve is a Florida coastal hydric hammock, which is similar to a swamp but drier,” said Christina Lane, marketing and communications director for the museum. “We really focus on our plant life. We have all kinds of plant life, which you can read about at different interactive learning stations.”

Guests can wander the half-mile boardwalk trail to learn about the diverse vegetation and to scan the vistas at the many overlooks. The Sensory Garden and Sculpture Garden have a more landscaped feel with a butterfly garden, a pond waterfall and bronze-sculpted creations.

Inside the 100,000-square-foot museum, the 30,000 objects include American art, Chinese art and the largest collection of Cuban art outside of Cuba. Each gallery contains multidisciplinary works from that region, such as the 300-year span of Cuban art with maps, paintings and furniture.

A more scientific approach to the region’s heritage occurs at the Center for Florida History. A towering 13-foot-tall skeleton of a giant ground sloth introduces the exhibits and one of the most complete Florida fossil collections in the world.

Tryon Palace
New Bern, N.C.

From the home of the royal governor of North Carolina to the capitol of the conquering rebels in the American Revolution, Tryon Palace is filled with history and elegance throughout its seven main historic buildings and 14-acre themed gardens.

                Courtesy Tryon Palace

Coming this year, the 60,000-square-foot North Carolina History Education Center will further spotlight the Revolutionary War period with interactive exhibits about the area.

Most groups start their tour watching the Tryon Visitors Center’s orientation video before wandering outside past the historic homes, which present craft demonstrators and more than 6,500 period objects. The centerpiece of the collection remains the 1770 Georgian mansion designed after fashionable houses in London. Guides lead visitors through the former governors’ home filled with an extensive collection of 18th- to 20th-century British furnishings.

“The original palace burned in 1798, but when governor [William] Tryon went to New York [in 1771], he made a complete inventory of household goods, which we used when we reconstructed the building,” said Nancy Hawley, communications and marketing manager for Tryon Palace. “We were able to restore a lot of the furnishings and 90 percent of his original library. We have tried to be as accurate and as factual while representing the area as possible.”

The 13 themed gardens represent different horticultural styles, from the lavish Victorian displays to the more natural 20th-century Colonial-revival interpretations.

Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs, Ark.

Though it may not cure arthritis or rheumatic or gouty conditions as it was once thought to do, the hot spring water of Hot Springs National Park still relieves stress for visitors who go for a dip in the warm water, which averages 143 degrees Fahrenheit.

The 5,500-acre park keeps the inside activities as refreshing as the outdoor hikes at the National Historic Landmark District called Bathhouse Row. The scenery on the Grand Promenade half-mile walkway, which runs beside eight historic bathhouses, illustrates the elegant early-20th-century buildings, historic downtown Hot Springs and the sandstone cliffs of Hot Springs Mountain.

“The Grand Promenade is a historic brick walkway going by the bathhouses,” said Diane East, concessions specialist for the park. “It is a very short walk where they [visitors] can see the bathhouses and the Hot Springs Mountain. The other 25 miles of trails are a little more taxing up on the mountain.”

Many people considered the Fordyce Bathhouse, with its marble floors, stained-glass ceiling and ceramic fountain, the grandest bathhouse of its time. The 1915 three-floor bathhouse now serves as a visitors center and museum for the park, with modern exhibits inside the former dressing rooms and two videos about the park and the traditional bath routine.

The interior of other bathhouses include an art museum at the Ozark Bathhouse and traditional thermal mineral bath and Swedish-style massage offerings inside Buckstaff Bathhouse, the only continuously operating bathhouse within the park.

Museum of the Shenandoah Valley
Winchester, Va.

Walk through a tunnel of flowering crab apple trees, watch for golden trout in a lily-lined pond or rest by the decorative wood and stone Moon Gate at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. The museum complex consists of a historic home, a museum and six acres of inspiring gardens that tell the story of the original owners and the entire region.

From the time when James Wood settled Winchester in 1744 till the museum opened to the public in 1997, the Wood and Glass families were the site’s caretakers. They purchased the notable 18th- and 19th-century collection of furniture and fine art, including the tall 1795 case clock and the largest single collection of portraits by artist Edward Caledon Bruce.

After a guided tour of the home, groups can decide whether they wish to meander the garden’s roses and boxwoods alone or with a guide, who can speak about the horticultural significance of the different themed gardens.

“What is wonderful about the gardens is that we use them to inspire gardeners to create gardens of their own,” said Julie Armel, marketing and public relations director of the museum. “Obviously, the owner had resources others don’t have, such as a fountain made in Italy.

However, the plants are accessible to anyone here, so a lot of our lectures try to educate people on how they can plant a garden like it themselves. The gardens are such a beautiful escape.”
At the nearby museum, four major gallery spaces introduce visitors to the Shenandoah Valley with dioramas, multimedia and works of art.


Oglebay Resort and Park
Wheeling, W.Va.

When Earl W. Oglebay decided to leave his country estate to the city of Wheeling, he had no idea what a cornucopia of attractions and activities the land would become. Now called the Oglebay Resort and Park, the site has added a long list of recreational opportunities, including a glass museum, two golf courses, tennis courts, two pools, horseback riding stables, the famed Winter Festival of Lights and, most recently, in 2008, a 5,000-square-foot spa.

        Courtesy Oglebay Resort and Park

With such a wide-ranging assortment of choices, many groups buy packages to choose the activities in which they want to participate. One of the most popular attractions is the Good Zoo and Planetarium.

“We have a 35-acre zoo with about 30 different species from around the world,” said Caren Knoyer, marketing director for Oglebay. “Their newest exhibit is the Outback Exhibit with kangaroos and wallabies. You can also feed parrots right out of your hand at the Lorikeet Landing.”

Wild African dogs, river otters and red pandas also live at the zoo. The indoor Discovery Lab and Wonders of the Wetlands introduces more exotic creatures, such as the 18-foot reticulated python.

Many outdoor activities like hiking, fishing and Segway touring occur on Oglebay’s 1,700 acres of scenic woods, fields and Schenk Lake. Inside the House Museum where Ogebay once lived lie antiques and changing exhibits of the pioneer days of the state.

Adjacent to the House Museum, the Oglebay Institute Glass Museum showcases modern glass works, 19th-century glass masterpieces and glassblowing demonstrations.

Hummingbird Heaven

Photo courtesy Strawberry Plains Audubon Center

Thousands of fluttering ruby-throated hummingbirds weighing a tenth of an ounce take a short rest in the gardens at the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, Miss. These delicate birds swarm upon the 2,600-acre nature preserve just 45 minutes south of Memphis, Tenn., each September for the annual Hummingbird Migration Celebration.

While seated comfortably on the porch of the antebellum Davis House, groups can watch the hummingbirds and butterflies moving around the native gardens filled with coral honeysuckle, milkweed and asters used to attract these pollinators. Throughout the year, more than 200 bird species also fly through the preserve, such as the yellow-billed cuckoo, the wood thrush and the rose-breasted grosbeak.

Guided tours of the 1851 Federal-style mansion that Civil War Union soldiers repeatedly raided tell about the two sisters, Margaret Shackelford and Ruth Finley, who willed the property to the National Audubon Society for a wildlife sanctuary in 1983. Evidence that from the 1830s through the 1950s the land, now covered in hardwood forests and grasslands, held a cotton plantation still remains at sharecropper homes, outbuildings and a cemetery close to the mansion.

Guided hikes along the preserve’s 15 miles of trails look for signs of the birds, frogs, salamanders and snakes that roam Strawberry Plains.