Overlooked and Underrated: Beaufort, South Carolina

It’s one of the South’s most beautiful cities, and one of its least known…

Where: The city of Beaufort is located on Port Royal Island, one of the Sea Islands along America’s southeast Atlantic coast. It’s about an hour’s drive from Charleston.

Why: With its antebellum mansions, streets shaded by mossy oaks, soft sea breezes and gracious residents, Beaufort (pronounced byoo-fort), South Carolina’s second-oldest city, has all the charm of Savannah and Charleston minus the crowds and high prices.

Must Do: Get to know Gullah, the unique culture of the African-Americans who have lived on the Sea Islands for several centuries. Some locals speak the Gullah language, an English-based dialect heavily influenced by West African languages. In the Sea Islands you’re either a “binyah” or a “comyah” — a native or a more recent arrival — and all comyahs should start off with a Gullah culture tour like the one offered by The Rev (AKA Joseph P. Bryant, pastor of the Third Macedonia Baptist Church, 843/838-3185), who will drive you around the islands and introduce you to local ways.

Also Worth Doing: This is one of the few places where trotting through town in a horse-drawn carriage doesn’t make you feel silly. Buggies depart from the marina on Bay Street and travel through The Point, a dozen blocks of historic residences, and beautiful downtown Beaufort. Whether you opt for a carriage ride or not, do take a stroll through the District, along Bay and Carteret Streets, wandering randomly into whatever small stores catch your fancy. Then watch the sun go down from Waterfront Park. Or get out on the water on a canopied pontoon boat piloted by Captain Dick (843/524-4422).

For a day trip, head across the bridge to St. Helena Island, the least developed of all the Sea Islands. Visit the Gullah Institute in the Penn Center National Historic District (843/838-2432), off US-21, which houses the first school for freed slaves. Penn Center celebrates Heritage Days in mid-November. This annual weekend festival features a fish fry, oyster roast, plenty of blues music, and Gullah art and crafts.

For a terrific photo opportunity while on St. Helena, head up US-21 to see the ruins of the Chapel of Ease. Only the brave will visit at night as spectral apparitions are often seen here. Keep a wary eye out for the decapitated soldier who reportedly wanders around Land’s End Road with a lantern, searching for his lost head. Right before the bridge to Hunting Island is the Shrimp Shack (open March-Dec, Mon-Sat, 843/838-2962), where you must devour a shrimp burger at one of the outdoor tables overlooking the marsh. If time permits, extend your stay and travel to Devil’s Fork, near Greenville, in Northwestern South Carolina. It’s a schlep, but worth the time.

Don’t Leave Town Without: Purchasing a sweetgrass basket, South Carolina’s most traditional craft. These baskets are true works of art and they smell fabulous. If you’d like to buy your basket directly from an artist, drive north along Hwy 17 and look for the roadside stands as you near Mt. Pleasant. While you’re in the Mount Pleasant area, take the ferry to Bull Island, part of the 62,000-acre Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge, a great place to collect shells and watch dolphins splash about.

Where to Stay: The Beaufort Inn is in the heart of the National Historic Landmark District. Rooms include fireplaces and soaking tubs as well as modern amenities such as high-speed internet access. You’ll probably have to be pried, kicking and screaming, out of your room at the end of your stay.

Where to Eat: The Beaufort Inn’s Veranda Restaurant is outstanding. For more casual and less pricey sustenance, try Blackstone’s Cafe (205 Scott St., 843/524-4330), which is covered from floor to ceiling with U.S. Marine and nautical memorabilia. Read the walls while you eat your shrimp and grits.

When to Go: Spring, if you have a hankering to frolic among the blooming cherry trees, azaleas, dogwood, mock oranges, and camellias. Autumn means gorgeous fall foliage. July is like living under a hot, wet towel, but the annual water festival might tempt you to brave the southern summer.

Getting there: From New York, take I-95 south, Exit 33 at Point South and connect to US 21, which runs through the center of Beaufort. Or take the scenic route; south on US 17 and exit onto US 21 at Gardens Corner.

–Michelle Delio

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