Surrounded by the Sea Islands, this is South Carolina low country colonized by retired Northerners. These island areas on the coast have been developed as copies of various extremely successful developments on the famous Hilton Head Island.
We were visiting a friend who had “retired” to Bray’s Island, a shooting preserve very near to Beaufort, and took the opportunity to check out the area.
Beaufort, (pronounced “Byou’-furt” in contrast to Beaufort, North Carolina, which is pronounced “Bo’-furt”), is a charming old southern town, somewhat reminiscent of Savannah and somewhat reminiscent of Charleston, which I suppose is fitting, since it’s located between the two.
To avoid aping the lost-looking, escape-bound, hand-holding gray-haired couples, ankle over (as Ann La Farge would say) to one of the local bookstores. There you can engage your mind in the real world, or in a different escape pattern.
Try The Fire House Books and Espresso Bar at 706 Craven St., Beaufort, (843-522-BOOK). It’s a charming old brick building, right next to the library. They serve every sort of latte and espresso which Starbucks has taught you to expect, plus delicious muffins and cookies and a small but comforting number of lunch items (wraps, salads, deli sandwiches.) It has an extremely relaxing and inviting outdoor terrace. Next door, the public library has all sorts of newspapers and periodicals, and soft chairs, if you’re really missing The New York Times. They also have the Wall Street Journal for the past six months.
Pass an afternoon taking a long walk up and down the neatly laid-out streets, marvel at the variety of southern architectures styles, from grand mansions to revitalized slave shacks, now thought chic. (Make no mistake; Beaufort, like all southern coastal cities, still has its share of un-rehabilitated poor housing.)
There is a very accessible Waterfront Park along the water, just in front of several pleasant restaurants. We had lunch at PLUM’s, which has an outstanding river view, and was touted as a“ local favorite.” We had one of their gourmet sandwiches. I was able to avoid the homemade ice cream only by dint of great willpower, ‘cuz it sure looked good. A nice walk along the river was a mandatory after lunch activity.
The architecture, the trees and the lush spring breezes from the bay are the best of Beaufort. After you run out of shops to visit, you can visit some of the historic houses, so charming and evocative of another era. There are numerous excellent examples, and a walk around will remind you slightly of a walk around Nantucket town, or Edgartown, only with a distinct southern flavor.
It is the second oldest town in South Carolina, chartered in1711. Only Charleston is older. It was wealthy before the Civil War. Beaufort was occupied by Union troops during that entire war, so it was not touched by battles, burning or destruction.
Beaufort is protected from the ocean by several islands that surround it. The most famous is probably Parris Island, where many a marine recruit has trained. Also well known is St. Helena Island for its “Gullah” residents, who are descended from former slaves. Penn Center is located on St. Helena in a grove of Spanish moss hung trees. It was founded in 1862 as the first Quaker school for former slaves, and has now been restored as a center for Gullah culture. This traditional language, a mix of English and various African dialects, has been preserved by the isolation of these former slaves on these islands. No bridges were built to many of these barrier islands until this century when they became valuable for their vacation home possibilities.
Many northerners are also retired or winter at Dataw Island, which boasts two major golf courses. Hunting Island is way out on the ocean, and it boasts a long finely sanded beach. It is a major state park of some 5000 acres, including huge groves of tall palm trees. There is also a 19th century lighthouse that is a very popular landmark, which was formerly located approximately one-quarter mile from the shoreline. I found it quite intriguing that the sea has cut away the northern end of the island, which is what endangered the lighthouse, causing it to be disassembled and reconstructed one mile south of its old location. It is the only lighthouse in South Carolina that is open to the public. Sadly the same sea currents are continuing to erode the beach and undermine the tall palm trees. It’s still very much worth the long drive out from Beaufort.
I didn’t have time to take an island cruise, but there are such things in Beaufort, and I would certainly recommend one to seethe river and the wildlife and the salt marsh ecosystem.
In addition, if I were more of a fisherman, I’d be sure to try sport fishing, many kinds of which are available in these here parts. As a matter of fact, there are at least two locations where shrimp boat fleets are to be spotted. Remember FORRESTGUMP? It was filmed in this Beaufort area. It’s a great place to eat shrimp, so don’t miss that treat. In fact, the Gullah food is worth a try also, things like red beans and rice, shrimp burgers, and Frogmore stew. This latter is named after an area of St. Helena’s island.
There is a lot more to see in this area. I would dearly love to go back to see more shops, take a walking tour of historic Beaufort, walk on the beach, to see it all from the water, and of course to try more of the restaurants. Meanwhile, the male member of the family could tour Parris Island, which is more of a “guy” thing.
For a preview, try watching one of the following movies on video, which the local people proudly advertise as having been filmed in the area: CONRACK, THE GREAT SANTINI, THE BIG CHILL, THE PRINCE OF TIDES, FORREST GUMP, and G.I.JANE.
Betsy Shequine hopes that John Nelson puts Beaufort on his wish list, or at least watches all those movies.