December 8, 2014
Graceful and historic, South Carolina‘s second-oldest city is set on a coastal isle and surrounded by a backdrop of tidal creeks, old rice plantations and some of the state’s most dramatic moss-draped oak trees, which keep their leaves all winter.
Visit Beaufort and you’ll soon realise that half the fun of going is in the journey from Charleston. Travel along Highway 17 and edge past a mosaic of thick marine forests, tiny towns and salt marshes, cut by wide and glassy rivers, fringed with tall grass that goes from emerald green to gold as the weather cools. Don’t miss a stop at the ruins of the Old Sheldon Church, which was built in the 1740’s, burned to the ground during the Revolutionary War, rebuilt, then burned again, this time by Union forces during the Civil War.
Set a few blocks away from the downtown retail district, Beaufort Old Point neighbourhood is filled with homes built for wealthy 18th and 19th century planters who wanted to stay in town for the duration of the social season. One, the John Mark Verdier House Museum, is open to the public. From there, Bay Street’s shops, galleries, restaurants and Waterfront Park are just a short walk away.
Beaufort has become the epicentre of Gullah culture in the United States, and one of the best places to explore the unique society of African Americans whose sea-island origins and West African cultural traditions have been meticulously preserved over time. A visit to the Penn Center in St. Helena Island, originally founded by Quaker missionaries as a school for freed slaves in 1862, reveals the fascinating history of the Gullah heritage. The 50-acre site includes historic buildings (including the cottage where 1960’s civil rights activist Martin Luther King stayed) and old burial grounds; at the museum, you can listen to the recorded voices of students sharing their stories.
Sporty types will also want to visit Beaufort. Navigate the maze of rivers and tidal creeks from a kayak or open “john” boat and you’ll soon be eye to eye with alligators, dolphins and turtles as sea birds like bald eagles, snowy egrets and pelicans soar through the salty air. You’ll also skim past plantation ruins and abandoned rice fields, which are marked by partially submerged wooden gates that were raised and lowered to regulate the water levels within the fields. On nearby Hunting Island, a lighthouse overlooks a three-mile long beach that ends at a “boneyard” of dead trees bleached white by years of exposure to the elements.
Although Beaufort shares its culinary heritage with nearby Charleston, the region does have a few unique food specialties, including shrimp burgers, made of chopped shrimp patties that are fried and served on bun and Beaufort or Frogmore stew, which isn’t a stew at all. The local delicacy is made of a steamed mix of sausage, shrimp, corn on the cob, potatoes and onions. Or join the locals that flock to Griffin Market, where chef Laura Bonino infuses specialties from Italy’s Piedmont with locally sourced ingredients like wild boar sausage, cuttlefish and, of course, shrimp.
Header Image: Old Point Waterfront © Eric Smith/Captured Moments
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Written by Katie McElveen