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.
AND 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.
AND 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.
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: