Beaufort and the Beautiful Sea Islands

The perfect immersion in life close to the sea

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

THE COASTLINE CHANGES. This much we have learned. On our travels from north to south – tightly hugging the Atlantic coastline from the tip of North Carolina to Florida – we have learned that each island, each region has a distinct flavour, ambience, landscape and history. It has been an amazing voyage and the perfect immersion in life close to the sea.

But Beaufort, South Carolina, well, that’s one community that stands out. At 300 years it’s the second oldest town in the state (Charleston takes number one) and it has all the antebellum charm and architecture of its older sister, on a much more accessible, easily walkable scale. Charleston is an amazing city. Beaufort is an equally amazing town. During the American Civil War Beaufort was never fired upon, so its antebellum architecture is intact.

zoomerbeaufort10

Silver Screen location scouts have fallen hard for Beaufort. It has what experts call “architecture in place.” The town paints a beautiful background in The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, The Big Chill, G.I. Jane and even stands in for Alabama and Vietnam in the blockbuster Forrest Gump. If you’ve got the time, the Beaufort Movie Tour would be a fun way to spend a few hours.

zoomerbeaufort13Beaufort was the perfect place for us to slow down and luxuriate in the surroundings. We parked by the beautifully landscaped waterfront (the city planners have insisted on maintaining views over the waterways), laced up our runners and got out and walked. And walked. Everything is within walking distance.

When we asked the locals about what drives their picture-perfect little town, this is what we heard: Waterfront, great restaurants, art galleries, boutique shops, fantastic views and a city with its core architecture in place.

zoomerbeaufort3AND THERE’S MORE. This region is often called the South Carolina Lowcountry – a very seductive place where marshes are visible at low tide and then disappear once the tide comes in. Where crabbing, lighthouses and sweeping sand dunes studded with swaying sea oats are part of the landscape. There are almost 150 small islands surrounding Beaufort – many of them separated by narrow tidal creeks and several connected by small causeways. But for many years this small collection of islands was isolated. There were no bridges, so the culture of the residents – the descendants of enslaved Africans known as the Gullah – remained protected. The Gullah people are known for their unique culture and traditions imported from West Africa, especially the weaving of beautiful sweetgrass baskets.

St. Helena Island (just minutes from Beaufort) is considered the centre of this beautiful culture, lovingly preserved and showcased at the Penn Center Historic District. The site is a place where transitions took place – first the liberation from slavery as the first school in the nation to provide formal education for freed African slaves, and then as a hub in the fight for civil rights and social justice. Now, the Center is a part of the National Park Service’s Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, preserving this rich African culture, tradition and heritage.

zoomerbeaufort8AND THEN THERE ARE THE BEACHES. No visit to the area would be complete without a stroll along the beaches at Hunting Island State Park, one of the most-visited parks in South Carolina. There’s a lighthouse to climb and long sweeps of (almost) deserted beach that are a perfect vantage point to catch the sunrise. The parkland also includes tidal marshlands and an excellent Marshlands Boardwalk. It’s where we parked our camper, rising every morning to catch the sunrise and walk the long beach.

zoomerbeaufort9

zoomerbeaufort15

GOT TO EAT SEAFOOD:

Gullah Grub Restaurant on St. Helena Island cooks traditional Gullah dishes like barbecue ribs and fried chicken, served with collards (doused with vinegar) and squares of warm cornbread.

Panini’s on the Waterfront in Beaufort drew us for three reasons: the view over the water, the fresh seafood and the dog-friendly patio (they even have a special menu for dogs). It’s where we noshed on Shrimp Cheese Steak sandwiches and were introduced to the Arnold Palmer, a delicious mix of sweet tea and lemonade.

Hands down, the freshest seafood is found at Gay Fish Co. Look for the shrimp boats tied up at the dock, right at the bridge from St. Helena Island to Hunting Island. Their docks stood in for the Alabama coastline in the filming of the shrimping scenes in Forrest Gump.

 

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW:

Beaufort has the only plastic kazoo factory in the United States.

Beaufort was named America’s Happiest Seaside Town 2013 by Coastal Living magazine.

 

zoomerbeaufort7Who’s writing

Our travel horizons keep expanding. For fall 2014, we’ve packed the camper van, taken along our easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and are exploring the Carolinas and Georgia. On the way down we’re looking for everything unique about life along the ocean coastline. And on our travels back north we’re taking the inland route, looking for food, culture and roots music. We’ve added a new website devoted to our travels: www.travelswithrigby.com with info on RV travel, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.