"Wait. What is that? That's beautiful," my 10-year-old son said, stretching his arms out to stop us as we wandered through the thick, green sunlight of the Governor's Mansion Gardens in Columbia, SC. "Do you smell that?"
"C'mon! We have to find where it's coming from," my eight-year-old daughter yelled. The two of them took off at a run.
I followed behind slowly, giving them a chance to find the source of the intense, almost painfully sweet smell. I could follow their trail easily, listening for their shouting and laughing, and following my nose.
It didn't take them too long to find where the smell bloomed. It was a long wooden arbor covered and dripping with tiny yellow roses.
Once we discovered the name of the plant -- Lady Banks' Rose -- the two of them were off again, running down the ancient paths.
"Mom! Mom! We found swings!"
"I can't believe how much I like this place," the other said when I joined them on a wooden pergola swing under thick falls of wisteria blooms.
The Governor's Mansions Gardens are a gem hidden in plain sight if ever there was one. Open to the public every weekday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (unless there's a private event or a state holiday), they're accessed through a small pedestrian gate next to enormous, and intimidatingly shut, wrought iron gates. But once you're inside, the gardens themselves are intimate and welcoming.
The land is set up in "garden rooms" that give the gardens a deliciously old-fashioned feel. Old maps of the city of Columbia show the land around the Governor's Mansion divided into squares and rectangles. It really does feel like you're wandering through an enormous outdoor, leafy mansion.
Each room is crisscrossed with sandy paths lined in bricks worn down to a smooth, soft pink. Sometimes there is a fountain in the middle, sometimes arbors or swings. Each garden room has a different mood and sense to it. Some are sunny and bright. Some have shade so dense, ivy so thick, and trees so enormous and old that you feel as though you're walking through a garden in Grimm's fairytales.
There's a feeling of being on a treasure hunt. You can hear gurgling fountains but cannot see them. You will be overwhelmed with a scent from flowers you can't see yet. You will turn a corner and be startled when you come face to face with a statue slowly melting from hundreds of rainstorms.
In a state with thousands of beautiful places, the Governor's Mansion Gardens feel like a tucked-away treasure from a children's book. They're a secret worth finding.
The SC Governor's Mansion is at 800 Richland St., Columbia. Tours are offered of the mansion on Tuesday, Wednesday and some Thursday mornings, and by appointment. Check the website for details. There is no charge.
The gardens are open year-round on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. unless there's a private event or a state holiday.
For more information on nature events and attractions in South Carolina, visit DiscoverSouthCarolina.com/nature.