Beaufort is indeed beautiful. Spanish moss drapes from the trees all year long, shading the lanes and walkways of Beaufort, S.C. with a tinge of the mysterious. That visual sense of mystery hovers over much of the area, from the waterfront, to the woodlands, to the swamps and into the charming neighborhoods. You could even say the town is clothed in quaint as if arrayed by a master’s hand.
There are two Beauforts in the Carolinas. Both are on the coast and each one has a history dating back to Colonial times. They may be spelled the same, but don’t go mixing up how they’re pronounced. Up in North Carolina, they call their town “Bow-fort.” Down in South Carolina they put the emphasis on “beau” as in “beautiful.” This was the first thing I learned when I recently visited the scenic South Carolina town.
The history of Beaufort reflects that shroud of mystery. Established and abandoned first by the French as Charlesfort in 1562, then the Spanish as Santa Elena with Ft. San Felipe in 1566, it wasn’t until the English founded the Carolina colony a hundred years later did any kind of permanent settlement adhere. The coastal plains were perfect for rice and indigo production and it wasn’t long before British settlers built huge plantations and worked them with African slaves. The shadow of slavery lingers in the African-American communities that flourished despite the darkness of captivity into the brilliant and distinctive Gullah culture established in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
The people of Beaufort love their history. Over at the old Armory downtown you’ll find the Beaufort History Museum where you can explore 450 years of Beaufort, Port Royal and St. Helena area history. The new Santa Elena History Center chronicles the re-discovery of the Spanish Ft. Felipe established in 1566 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles and later abandoned 1587 when the British pushed southward into the New World. Likewise, the Parris Island Historical Museum curates much of the history within the Port Royal area, its indigenous people, European settlers, the geography of the surrounding Sea Islands, and the establishment of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot where more than a million U.S. Marines have been trained since 1915. Artifacts of both the French Charlesfort and the Spanish Ft. San Felipe have been found on Parris Island and are still under excavation and study.
The Penn Center on St. Helena Island is the granddame of Gullah history. First known as the Penn School, it was established even before the Civil War ended to educate and prepare the first freed slaves in South Carolina to integrate into a free lifestyle. More than 150 years later, The Penn Center is 16 buildings of historic significance where education, civil discourse, social justice and African-American history is preserved, studied and made available to thousands of visitors to the Beaufort area all year long.
Rich in a mélange of cultures, Beaufort boasts food, arts and outdoor experiences for people of all ages and background. The grassy marshlands of the Sea Islands make the Lowcountry coastline distinctive from South Carolina’s sandy beaches in the north. A watershed for fish, game and fowl, visitors here will find activities to nourish the soul, exercise the body and satisfy the palate.
Those who fish can stand on a pier and drop lines in all year long for redfish, speckled sea trout, cobia and others, while those who prefer active fishing don their gaiters and wade into the marshes to cast their flies for the same. Charter boats take visitors through waterways cut through the grasses and out into Port Royal Sound and even out to sea. Wild white shrimp and blue crab are plentiful for those who wish to lay nets and cages in the marshes and waters of the sound.
With such a heritage it’s no surprise the Lowcountry has cultivated its own cuisine from the agricultural abundance and the sea’s bounty. Don’t go to Beaufort without experiencing a feast of low country boil, a bowl of warm and smooth she-crab soup, and of course, Southern barbeque.
You’ll find restaurants serving traditional Gullah food such as Gullah Grub, which serves gumbo and various barbeque meats, as well as offers demos of Gullah cooking. Dockside on Lady’s Island satisfies the palate with a sumptuous array of seafood, including a traditional low country boil (frogmore stew) with shrimp, smoked sausage, potatoes, green peppers, onions and cobettes of corn seasoned with traditional Old Bay. Lest you think Beaufort offers only traditional fare, those looking for contemporary preparations of Lowcountry cuisine will find plenty of choices, including the award-winning Breakwater on Carteret Street.
I would be remiss were I not to mention that some of the world’s finest oysters are grown on Lady’s Island. Lady’s Island Oysters aren’t available during the summer, but the rest of the year you will find them in the finest restaurants throughout the Lowcountry, plus you can buy them fresh from the Beaufort Farmer’s Market on Saturdays.
Surrounded by water, cut-through by islands, Beaufort is paradise for active adults and families. Fishing boats can be chartered or rented, sightseeing boats roam throughout the sound all year long, and dolphin-sighting excursions are fun for the entire family. A number of outfitters in town rent personal watercraft, while kayaks are an ideal vehicle for exploring the many inlets and coves.
Large enough to support visitors all year long, Beaufort offers accommodation with a few recognizable hotel brands, but the majority of its lodging is refreshingly independent, with family friendly motels, boutique hotels, bed and breakfast inns, and a plentiful selection of rental homes. Those who wish the expansive resort experience can drive across the sound to Hilton Head, but for those who crave a reprieve from the frenzy of modern life will relish the unpretentious grace of Beaufort.