South Carolina’s Lowcountry conjures up images of lush marshlands blanketed with spartina grasses, the sounds of oysters and crabs making their homes as the tide rises and falls, and the scent of pluff mud mixed with the briny breeze. There’s also the antebellum architecture, Spanish moss-draped avenues shadowed by massive oaks and magnolias and the clippity-clop of horse hooves along the pavement as the carriage tours share the history of the area. Charleston may be the better known historic city on the South Carolina coast, but no place captures the heart of the Lowcountry quite like Beaufort.
Located on Port Royal Island in the heart of the Sea Islands that stretch from Jacksonville to Charleston, Beaufort is about 20 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, bordered by the Beaufort River and Battery Creek. It is a quintessential small Southern town, home to 13,000 people who were either born here and married to her sultry charms or found their way here for one reason or another and succumbed to her allure.
Established by the British in 1711, Beaufort (pronounced “Bew-fert,” versus the other Beaufort in the other Carolina, which is pronounced “Bow-fort”) is the second oldest city in South Carolina, behind Charleston. But about 200 years earlier, it was the site of the second European landing in North America and a settlement called Santa Elena, established by the Spanish in 1566, four decades before the English settled Jamestown.
Almost 150 years later, the British established Beaufort, which played key roles in the Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction era. After Union Army forces occupied the area following the 1861 Battle of Port Royal, slave-holding plantation owners fled and the area became one of the earliest supporters of slave emancipation, including the founding in 1862 of the Penn Center for the education of newly freed Gullah slaves on nearby St. Helena Island. The city continued to flourish after the war and into the early 20th century through phosphate mining, naval operations and the founding of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on nearby Parris Island. The latter half of the 20th century saw the birth of tourism, as visitors came to explore Beaufort’s rich historic legacy, antebellum architecture and waterfront activities.
With this historic pedigree, there are plenty of things to do and see in and around this charming city. It’s best to start at the beginning with an exploration of the Santa Elena History Center and relive America’s first — and mostly lost — century.
Newly established in 2017 by President Barack Obama, Reconstruction Era National Historic Park is currently being developed and is a work in progress. However, there are several ways to explore the history of this era now, starting at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. Here you can visit the original Penn School at Darrah Hall and the Brick Baptist Church, built in 1855 by enslaved people. Deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1974, the campus not only continues to fulfill its educational mission, but it also features a museum and gift shop, a cultural center and the site where Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Beaufort History Museum gives a glimpse into the role Beaufort played in American history. Located in the historic 1852 arsenal, the building was home to African-American militia units during Reconstruction and was used as the first post-Civil War voting station. Other Reconstruction era sites in the works include the Old Beaufort Firehouse, which will be converted into a National Park Visitor Center.
Beaufort’s charming downtown historic district is filled with a variety of sites, including the Mark Verdier House, circa 1804, a Federal-style mansion that belonged to the wealthy merchant and planter Mark Verdier. On site are a number of exhibits, including a scale model diorama of Bay Street in 1863, Civil War photos and an exhibit devoted to Robert Smalls, who was born into slavery in Beaufort and went on to become a Union naval hero during the Civil War and a South Carolina congressman during the Reconstruction era.
Many of the historic buildings along Bay Street contain shops and restaurants, and one block south lies Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, along the Beaufort River. Featuring an oyster tabby river walk, a bustling marina, swing benches, green space for picnicking and a playground for children, Waterfront Park is a popular gathering place for viewing sunrises and sunsets across the harbor.
The area is also home to the Pat Conroy Literary Center, which showcases the life and writings of the beloved Lowcountry author and hosts a variety of literary events year-round.
Because of Beaufort’s unparalleled beauty, its spectacular houses and waterfront locations have been featured in several major movies, including “The Big Chill,” “The Prince of Tides” and “Forrest Gump.” See them all on one of Beaufort Tours’ walking or van tours. Departing from the downtown marina, tours last from one to three hours, depending on the theme. Options include Civil War and Reconstruction, Pat Conroy’s Beaufort, and Sea Island Plantation and Gullah culture.
Beaufort doesn’t have a beach, but 15 miles south is beautiful Hunting Island State Park. With five miles of pristine Atlantic Ocean beaches, thousands of acres of marshland and maritime forest, plenty of wildlife and the state’s only accessible lighthouse, Hunting Island makes for a great outing. That is, if you can pull yourself away from the charms of Beaufort, heart of the Lowcountry.
IF YOU GO
Beaufort, South Carolina, is 260 miles southeast of Atlanta.
WHAT TO DO
Santa Elena History Center. Explore the first European colonial capital in the New World. 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 1501 Bay St. $5-$10. 843-379-1550, www.santa-elena.org
Penn Center. Established as a school for freed slaves in 1862, it continues to serve as a source of education and history. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $5-$7. 38 Penn Center Circle West, St. Helena Island. 843-838-2474, www.penncenter.com.
Beaufort History Museum. A museum displaying the history of Beaufort in an 1852 arsenal. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $7. 713 Craven St. 843-379-3079, www.beauforthistorymuseum.com.
Mark Verdier House. An architectural example of Beaufort’s moneyed class, along with several exhibits reflecting Beaufort’s history. 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Guided tours every hour on the half hour. Free. 801 Bay St. 843-379-6335, www.historicbeaufort.org/verdier-house.
Pat Conroy Literary Center. A cultural center dedicated to the life and works of author Pat Conroy. Noon-4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Free. 905 Port Republic St. 843-379-7025, www.patconroyliterarycenter.org.
Beaufort Tours. Walking and van tours of many of Beaufort’s attractions. $10-$60. 1006 Bay St. 843-838-2746, www.beauforttoursllc.com.
Hunting Island State Park. $3-$5. 2555 Sea Island Parkway, Hunting Island. 843-838-2011, www.southcarolinaparks.com/hunting-island
WHERE TO EAT
Saltus River Grill. Urban seafood grill. Opens 5 p.m. daily. $26-$38 entrees. 802 Bay St. 843-379-3474, www.saltusrivergrill.com.
The Foolish Frog. Authentic Lowcountry dining. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $16-$28 entrees. 846 Sea Island Parkway, St. Helena. 843-838-9300, www.thefoolishfrog.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Anchorage 1770. Historic luxury riverfront inn. $175-375 a night. 1103 Bay St. 877-951-1770, www.anchorage1770.com.
Beaufort Inn. Boutique hotel in the heart of the historic district. $215-$275 a night. 809 Port Republic St. 843-379-4667, www.beaufortinn.com.
First Friday. A celebration of downtown shops, restaurants, cultural venues, and community. First Friday of the month. Free. Bay Street and surrounding downtown streets. www.downtownbeaufortsc.org/first-friday.
Fall Festivals of Houses and Gardens. Tour private homes, kitchens, and gardens sponsored by the Beaufort Historic Foundation. Oct. 25-27. $45-$60. www.historicbeaufort.org/fall-festival.
Pat Conroy Literary Festival. A celebration of the life and works of author Pat Conroy. Nov. 1-3. Free-$45, depending upon the event. www.patconroyliteraryfestival.org.
Beaufort Home for the Holidays. Spreading Southern Christmas cheer on a walking tour of seven historic homes professionally decorated for the holidays by local interior designers and artists. Nov. 23-24. $30. www.beauforthomesfortheholidays.com.
Beaufort Area Visitor Center.713 Craven St. 843-525-8500, www.beaufortsc.org.
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