It was late on a chilly Thursday evening in February when I spontaneously decided I needed a weekend getaway. With a world of possibilities and only three days to enjoy it, where would I go? I wanted to visit someplace I’d never been, that had more than enough to keep me occupied for a weekend, and was just as exciting at night as by day. As soon as I considered Beaufort, South Carolina I knew I had found my weekend getaway.
Beaufort is the perfect blend of modern commercial and historic antebellum America. Driving down Robert Smalls Parkway on one side of town I found myself surrounded by all the currently popular big box retailers, chain restaurants, and department stores. But driving down the four lane Boundary Street, watching it merge down to just two lanes, following the sharp bend in the road to the right, I found myself surrounded by giant oak trees littered with hanging Spanish moss, antebellum-era historical homes, and quaint locally owned businesses. I’d stepped through the magical wardrobe, but this wasn’t the land of Narnia. It was historic downtown Beaufort.
Despite the cozy feel of downtown, the majestic oak trees, and the ample parking, I drove through Beaufort and across the Woods Memorial Bridge heading toward the Sea Islands. Technically speaking the Sea Islands are a collection of barrier islands spanning from Georgetown, South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida. But the term Sea Islands is most widely used here to describe the barrier islands protecting Beaufort from the Atlantic Ocean, including Lady’s Island, Saint Helena Island, Dataw Island, Hunting Island, and Fripp Island.
My first destination on the Sea Islands was one of South Carolina’s most popular state parks: Hunting Island State Park. The park is nestled among a lush coastal forest, sandy beaches, and utter serenity. But I only had one place in mind to visit: Hunting Island Lighthouse (2555 Sea Island Parkway, Saint Helena Island, SC | 843-838-2011 | www.huntingisland.com/light.htm | $5 per person admission into the park, $2 per person to climb the lighthouse). The lighthouse stands like a towering beacon near the center of the park. Built in 1875 and moved to its current location in 1889, it is the only lighthouse in the state open for the public to explore inside. The 167 steps to the top were a bit arduous and left me breathless, but the view from the outdoor observation deck 110′ above sea level was worth the effort. Visitors can walk around the perimeter of the lighthouse for a stunning, unparalleled view of the local landscape as far as the horizon.
Additional reading: Climbing the Hunting Island Lighthouse in South Carolina
Saint Helena Island is the largest of the Sea Islands, just a few minutes from the lighthouse. As I drove down Seaside Road I found myself whisked away from any signs of city life, surrounded by a coastal wilderness and vast farmlands. People have worked these lands since before the country was founded, producing large amounts of rice and valuable Sea Island cotton. The area has never been highly developed, instead remaining a collection of private homes with large tracts of land along narrow roads.
Near the end of Seaside Road is the small, and appropriately named, Lands End community. Along with the private homes and sandy, undeveloped roads, the community is also known for Fort Fremont Historical Park (1126 Lands End Road, Saint Helena Island, SC | www.fortfremont.org | Free Admission). Built during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Fort Fremont was a massive concrete and steel coastal fortification meant to defend nearby Paris Island and Port Royal from attacks. Today the fort is abandoned, overgrown with massive oak trees, but in a rare treat still open to the public for cautious exploration. Visitors can walk along the top of the walls beneath the shade of the oak trees or they can step into one of the pitch black doorways into the underbelly of the structures. As I walked through these ruins I felt like Indiana Jones, exploring ancient ruins half a world away, looking for some hidden and valuable artifact surrounded by booby traps. But a few minutes later I returned to my car and shattered the fantasy.
Driving back toward Beaufort along Lands End Road I came upon the Chapel of Ease Ruins (25 Lands End Road, Saint Helena Island, SC | Free Admission for exploration). Built in 1740 by the slave families who lived on Saint Helena Island, the parish church was destroyed by a forest fire in 1886. All that remains of the church today are the four walls built with a mixture of concrete, sand, and oyster shells. Visitors are allowed to park beside the ruins, explore, and take photos. It’s a beautiful place to visit, a frequent location for weddings, but also comes with a sad moment in the form of two tombstones: one marks the death of Anna Catherine Pope in 1851 at the age of 10 months, the other the death of Sarah Jenkins Pope in 1853 at the age of 16 months. It’s a reminder that sometimes historical places that have become attractions for tourists were once a very real, serious place for the community.
The drive back to Beaufort felt long the first time I did it, but in fact it was only ten miles. The Historic Downtown Beaufort area covers a large are less than one hundred square blocks, but you’ll find the most to do, see, and eat along Bay Street and Carteret Street. The first place I visited was the Beaufort Regional Visitor’s Center (713 Craven Street, Beaufort, SC | 843-525-8500 | www.beaufortsc.org) located inside the castle-like fort at The Arsenal. Built in 1798, The Arsenal was home to the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery for decades. Today the tall, yellow concrete walls and wrought iron gates are home to a small, one-room visitor center with information about the local area.
Just three blocks away is the towering Parish Church of Saint Helena (507 Newcastle Street, Beaufort, SC | 843-522-1712 | www.sthelenas1712.org). The towering white brick church steeple stands out against the lush oak trees surrounding the building, which also provide shade to the large cemetery. Wrought iron fences, tombstones with etchings worn over by time, oak trees filled with Spanish moss, and propane powered street lanterns make this a beautifully historic place to visit. People are allowed to walk the grounds outside the church throughout the week and, of course, you’re invited to their Sunday service.
It was getting late, the sun had set, and I had that need/want desire to eat. I asked the lady at my hotel for a dinner recommendation, and she barely had to think about it before saying, “Try Lady’s Island Dockside.” But I decided I wanted something downtown, so I parked at the marina and walked to Q on Bay (822 Bay Street, Beaufort, SC | 843-524-7771 | www.qonbay.com | $15-30). The narrow restaurant had a dining area in the front, back, and outdoor patio along with a full bar area, providing plenty of room for the busy dinner hour. Despite the low ceilings, brick walls, and real wood floors, the noise level inside was subdued and, along with the low lighting, created a cozy and intimate feel. I finished off half of a really nice Buffalo Chicken Dip appetizer, a few Buffalo Fried Shrimp that gave my uvula a solid roundhouse kick, and two Fish Tacos made with mouthwatering fried catfish.
I woke up Saturday morning feeling refreshed, rested, and ready for a day of exploration, shopping, and more local food. Beaufort is a small city with a population around 12,000 but it’s still a busy city as home to the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and nearby Marine Corps Recruit Depot Paris Island. It would be very easy to get tangled up with the busyness of the city, but the downtown area is somehow removed, quiet, and peaceful on the weekends. The streets and parking lots were full with vehicles, people quietly walked the sidewalks, and nearby I heard a seagull squawking loudly.
I started with a fantastic breakfast at the Palm and Moon Bagel Company (221 Scott Street, Beaufort, SC | 843-379-9300 | http://palmmoonbagels.blogspot.com | $5-8). The cozy little breakfast hot spot is locally owned and they make their own bagels fresh everyday (I counted fourteen different types of bagels in the large display case). The menu offers an array of breakfast bagels, specialty sandwiches, soups, and salads, all cooked to order. I grabbed a Sunrise Bagel: eggs and cheese, which I paired with a jalapeno bagel, all for just $5.
After a hearty breakfast I thought a hearty walk was in order. Bay Street is the de facto “Main Street” of the downtown historic district. The two lane street has parallel parking on either side, wide sidewalks shaded by palm trees, and lots of locally owned shops to explore. The two or three story buildings blend seamlessly with the antebellum era historical homes on adjacent streets, with a few of the businesses featuring second story balconies overlooking the street.
As I languidly walked down Bay Street I found myself turning into an old, two story building. On the outside it appeared as most others: large picture windows with artwork on display and a double door entry. But on the inside I found the works of dozens of local artisans. The Fordham Market (701 Bay Street, Beaufort, SC | 843-524-3161 | http://fordhammarket.com) sells works on commission, giving each artist a booth inside the expansive building to set up a mini shop. The wares included arts, crafts, photography, clothing, and jewelry, all high quality and reasonably priced.
Just before lunch I took a short, twenty minute drive along Ribaut Road to Port Royal. Originally settled as a French colony, then a Spanish colony, and eventually a Scottish colony, the town is a mixture of cultures and style that makes it unique to the region. But as a photographer the most exciting and unique aspect I enjoyed about the town was the five story observation tower on the Henry Robinson Boardwalk at Sands Beach. A wooden boardwalk stretches out across the edge of where the water meets a marsh, taking visitors on a ten minute excursion to the tower. Standing five stories tall, the top floor is large enough for perhaps a dozen people to enjoy the stunning views of local landscape that includes nearby Paris Island.
On my way into town I had passed one of those old, one-room school houses in a small cluster of buildings. It wasn’t until I was driving back along Paris Avenue that I realized with excitement: this was a restaurant! Mikki’s Schoolhouse Diner (1638 Paris Avenue, Port Royal, SC | 843-379-4322 | www.facebook.com/MikkisPlace | $5-10) has been around for a few years now, the very definition of a family owned and operated business. Mikki and her husband Jeff prepare meals seven days a week in the small kitchen, while Jeff’s daughter Arastatia serves up the meals on enormous glass plates. An old fashioned chalkboard on one wall lists the daily specials and the wooden floors creak under your feet. When I asked about the food, all the locals agreed on one thing: you get such an enormous serving, you’ll end up taking half of it home. They were right.
After a long day of exploring historical ruins, sightseeing along coastal landscapes, and indulging fantastic local food, there was only one place left to visit: the Henry Chambers Waterfront Park. The waterfront park stretches four blocks from the marina at Newcastle Street to Carteret Street along the Beaufort River (parallel to Bay Street one block back). I parked at the marina just in time for an amazing sunset. Clouds partially covered the sky as the sun dipped below the horizon, turning the sky shades of orange. I enjoyed the view from a swinging bench facing the bobbing boats in the water. I wasn’t alone; a dozen others enjoyed the benches, stopped to gaze at the sunset, and leaned against the metal rail to get just an inch closer to the painting in the sky.
The waterfront park includes a wide paved path, lit by frequent street lights at night, and shaded by palm trees. Just inside the path is a large grassy area known for summer festivals, live music, picnics, and places to relax with a good book. The park runs along the backside of the buildings facing Bay Street, with covered outdoor patios of restaurants and bars offering plenty of places to stop and enjoy. Live music filled the air from two different restaurants and diners enjoyed the warm night air. My walk was a short distance, but took a long time, as I took a break every few minutes to enjoy the view across the water of the Woods Memorial Bridge.
I would spend my last morning in Beaufort enjoying a different view of the iconic swing bridge. As Bay Street crosses over Carteret Street at a traffic light, it becomes a one way road for one block before making a sharp turn. Here, nestled underneath a massive oak tree behind a handful of parallel parking spaces, is a single bench. It was a bit wobbly as I sat down with coffee and breakfast sandwich in hand, swaying left and right, but finally steadied as I took in the view. Sunday mornings are the most peaceful time of the week in Beaufort as many locals prepare for church, sleep off the fun from Saturday night, and try to enjoy the last day off before a long week ahead.
With a heavy heart I finally bade farewell to Beaufort. I had found a new place to love, a place to visit again, and a place I could write about with passion. For the past three days I had felt like I was in another world, far removed from time, held safe in a cozy cocoon of history, food, and local crafts. But as I left the peaceful historic district behind a smile crept across my face. I knew I would return one day because Beaufort and the Sea Islands of South Carolina deserved far more of my time than just three days.
Additional Reading: The Photographer and the Sheldon Ghost
Where to Eat
Beaufort has enough locally owned restaurants, bars, and delis to keep returning visitors fed for weeks without visiting the same place twice. Breakfast is great at the Palm and Moon Bagel Company in downtown. You can enjoy breakfast and lunch at the Magnolia Bakery Cafe. Mikki’s Schoolhouse Diner in Port Royal. You can also try the Lowcountry Produce Market and Cafe where you can shop for local produce and baked goods while also grabbing a sandwich. Dinner time is when Beaufort really shines on the culinary scene. For great local catch seafood (and plenty of room for the family or large group) try the Lady’s Island Dockside Restaurant and sit on the outdoor patio overlooking the Beaufort River. If you want to stay in downtown Beaufort try Q on Bay for an intimate, casual setting or maybe the Old Bull Tavern for something that blends well with the historical feel of the city.
Where to Shop
Bay Street is where the shopping action happens. The three block long, peaceful street corridor is lined with shops on both sides. The Fordham Market is a good place to start, a two story building that sells local artisan’s work on commission. You’ll also find places like Wined It Up, Sweetgrass Ladies Apparel, the I. Pinckney Simmons Gallery, and the Beaufort Clothing Company. At the opposite end of the street you’ll find an outdoor mall that runs through a building the size of a block and includes places like McIntosh Book Shoppe with used, new, and rare books, and Lulu Burgess with lots of gift ideas for any age.
What to See
For the history buff, Beaufort is a fantastic place to visit. Places like Fort Fremont Historical Park, the Chapel of Ease Ruins, and the Parish Church of Saint Helena are full of history, a beautiful place to visit, and all free. Visitors can also take a drive down the Avenue of the Oaks at Coffin Point Plantation on Saint Helena Island. The former plantation is now an informal subdivision with private residences, but the main thoroughfare through the community is still a quaint sandy road under a canopy of oak trees. If you enjoy getting out for a walk, you can try visiting Hunting Island State Park for hiking and biking trails, or head over to Port Royal for a short walk along the Robinson Boardwalk (and a stunning view from the observation tower). For a little drive out of town, visit the Old Sheldon Church Ruins in nearby Yemassee. The ruins are beautiful and frequently used for weddings and celebrations. If you really want a treat, come late in the evening an hour before sunset and linger around until after dark.
Where to Stay
You won’t have to search hard to find a good hotel in this city, and the same goes for amazing little B&B’s. Right in the heart of downtown is the Beaufort Inn, a beautiful little place to sleep at night and enjoy breakfast on the covered front porch in the mornings. The Anchorage 1770 sits on one end of Bay Street, making it one of the best places to park your car and forget about it for a weekend.