Regarding Beaufort, South Carolina, I’m tempted to be a bit selfish. To the unattuned, this charming Lowcountry gem may appear like any other Southern coastal town. It has the historic columned homes, the mom-and-pop seafood shops, and the romantic marsh scenes that stretch for miles unending. But to a sympathetic soul, and clearly to its inhabitants, Beaufort is unmistakably magical. It welcomes with the unassuming allure of a place content in its own skin, oozing authenticity in its quiet resistance to the coastal consumerism that has engulfed many beach towns.
Which, truthfully, is why I’d rather not tell you all about it. I want to keep Beaufort’s charming secrets to myself. I want it to stay exactly as it was when my husband and I walked down Bay Street for the first time. The wind was sashaying through the swamp grass along the bluff, and I caught the sweet wafts of Carolina jessamine trailing off the garden fences. For a new spring day, it was a bit dreary, but when we hopped on a carriage tour, our guide quickly passed out blankets. Not only were we given a thorough history of The Point—a neighborhood brimming with wide porches, elegant gardens, and century-old homes showcased in movies like The Prince of Tides and Forrest Gump—but when we stopped at various spots, our guide spoke louder so sidewalk bystanders could catch what she was saying.
And then there was the warm hospitality of Connie and Ed Binot at The Cuthbert House Inn. More than two centuries old, the antebellum inn maintains its Old World charm, though not lacking in modern amenities. Our suite offered a comfortable four-poster king, a claw-foot tub, and a lovely view of the old oaks along the Beaufort River. The Cuthbert is one of several historic homes turned into boutique hotels, like The Rhett House Inn and Anchorage 1770, an original tabby structure (constructed of oyster shells and mud) with the best vistas of the marsh from its top deck lounge.
Even the town’s walkability reflects a commitment to a simpler way. A brief morning stroll quickly became a longer adventure, as we popped into the eclectic mix of shops and museums. Along Craven Street we happened upon NeverMore Books, a former fire station with wide windows and plenty of nooks and crannies to lose oneself in a good hardback. The clerk directed us to the Reconstruction National Monument a few doors down, which tributes the work of Robert Smalls, a former slave whose successful political career after the Civil War provided substantial gains for freedmen until the election of Wade Hampton and the loss of Federal troop protection in 1877. Smalls was Gullah, a group of Sea Islanders that maintained specific aspects of their West African heritage during enslavement, including a unique dialect.
Many Gullah people still inhabit the islands around Beaufort, including St. Helena, just across the Woods Memorial Bridge. We traveled this way on our excursion to Hunting Island State Park, and stopped by The Penn Center, where we were welcomed by Robert Middleton, an elderly guide who attended the center’s school as a young boy. The Penn Center documents the rich legacy of Gullah culture, as the first educational institution for freedmen in the area and the site of Civil Rights–era retreats with Martin Luther King Jr.
This depth of culture permeates the island, a warm presence I felt from the lady at the Shrimp Shack, who called me “Shuga’” when handing over a (very delicious) shrimp burger. I felt it from the Hunting Island Lighthouse volunteer, who kindly explained the impact of hurricanes like Matthew on the area’s wildlife. I felt it even from the land itself, the sprawling, untouched spaces and the roadside vegetable stands along Highway 21.
That evening we dined at the Ribaut Social Club, Anchorage 1770’s in-house restaurant. Chef Byron’s attention to local flavor and seasonal pairings accentuated each bite (my favorite being the seared scallops with peas and rice in a white wine butter sauce), and when the inn’s co-owner Amy Lesesne joined us for a cherry bounce (bourbon and marinated cherries) afterwards, her care for the town and the restoration of the historic tabby house was palpable. The following morning was bright and blue, and Irene Goodnight of Beaufort Lands End Tours led us down the river in kayaks. Her colloquial tales about celebrities, like Tom Hanks and Pat Conroy, only added to the wildlife entertainment—we spotted egrets and otters and waterfowl during our trip through the marsh.
On our way to the Interstate, we made one final stop at the Old Sheldon Church Ruins. The thick brick pillars, surrounded by old oaks, seemed to stand as a testament to the magic of the region, the wind whispering through the moss of a simple, quieter way of living. A secret that can only be known through experience, through the warm sharing of its natives, an essence so eloquently captured by Beaufort’s own literary son, Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides:
To describe our growing up in the low country of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocket-knife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’
The Cuthbert House Inn A two-story antebellum home converted into a boutique hotel, The Cuthbert sports balconies with excellent views of the river. Don’t miss complimentary social hour at 5pm; 1203 Bay St
Anchorage 1770 This old tabby structure was the historic home of Admiral Lester Beardslee, who built secret compartments in the walls to hide his liquor from his disapproving wife. Dining at the Ribaut Social Club is a must; make sure to catch the views from the top deck lounge; 1103 Bay St
Old Bull Tavern A hoppin’ gastropub with specialty craft cocktails and a red telephone booth—you won’t regret sipping on the Snoop Juice; 205 West St
Common Ground Coffeehouse and Market Café An excellent spot along the Waterfront Park to sip java and watch the boats along the river. Try the sausage and egg quiche, with fresh pineapple on the side; 102 Beaufort St
Saltus River Grill Fresh seafood is abundant at this upscale grill. Try the catch-of-the-day paired with a wine from an extensive list, and end the evening with the lavender panna cotta with lemon olive oil cake; 802 Bay St
Pat Conroy Literary Center A tribute to the late Lowcountry writer, the center seeks to continue Conroy’s legacy of encouraging people of all walks to tell their stories through literature. A definite must-stop for Conroy fans; 905 Port Republic St
The Penn Center Once an educational haven for formerly enslaved people, today The Penn Center richly preserves Gullah culture. Several of its buildings are part of the Reconstruction Era National Monument. 16 Penn Center Circle, St Helena Island