The second-oldest town in South Carolina, Beaufort (pop. 13,357; pronounced “BYOO-furd”) is a well-preserved antebellum town stretching along a fine natural harbor. Established in 1711, Beaufort stands on the largest of some 75 islands near the Georgia border; the town is perhaps best known as the gateway to the massive U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot at nearby Parris Island, where new Marines undergo their basic training. Dozens of colonial-era and antebellum homes line Beaufort’s quiet Bay Street waterfront, but only one, the Verdier House, is open to visitors. Perhaps the most significant home, once owned by slave-turned-Civil War naval hero and Reconstruction-era U. S. Congressman Robert Smalls, stands flanked by palmetto trees at 511 Prince Street; Smalls lived here as a slave, then later bought the house from his former owner. A memorial statue stands just north of downtown in the cemetery of Tabernacle Baptist Church (907 Craven St.), where Smalls is buried.
Beaufort is an enjoyable place to wander around and explore, and it has at least one great place to eat: Blackstone’s Café (205 Scott St., 843/524-4330), where fans of the shrimp and grits and corned beef hash include local writer Pat Conroy. Places to stay include the waterfront Best Western Sea Island Inn (1015 Bay St., 843/522-2090) and one of the state’s only recently awarded four-star B&Bs, the lovely Rhett House Inn (1009 Craven St., 843/524-9030, $169 and up), where the film The Prince of Tides was shot on location.
St. Helena Island
As recently as 1960, the population of South Carolina’s rural Sea Islands was predominantly African American—10 to 1 on average. Now, with all the recent “plantation-style” vacation resorts, the proportions have effectively been reversed. As a last defense against the resort developers, traditional African- American Gullah culture is celebrated in summer festivals and tourism literature promoting the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The centerpiece of Gullah cultural preservation is St. Helena Island, due east from Beaufort, where the Penn Center, a historic African-American educational center founded by abolitionists in 1862, was the first school in the Deep South dedicated to educating Black people, who were newly emancipated from slavery. Recently awarded federal support as part of the new Reconstruction Era National Monument, the Penn Center has remained a vital contributor to civil rights and social justice. The Penn Center is open to the public, but until the new national monument is developed, the best taste of St. Helena may well be the Gullah Grub Restaurant (877 Sea Island Parkway, 843/838-3841, lunch and early dinner Sun.-Fri.), across from the Penn Center entrance. Dishes often include unusual strains of rice and other rare produce, through which chef Bill Green highlights links between Gullah heritage and the 400-plus-year story of African-American enslavement, freedom, and creativity. Menu items feature the whole Gullah taxonomy: local seafood, cornbread, and collard greens as well as more familiar mac ’n’ cheese.
Hilton Head Island
From Beaufort, the easiest way south is to follow Hwy-170 all the way to Savannah or to detour east onto I-95. Otherwise, a pleasant but potentially confusing series of two-lane roads run around Hilton Head Island across the lowlands toward Georgia.
Near the southern tip of South Carolina, Hilton Head Island is the largest ocean island between Florida and New Jersey. It was first settled in 1663, but only since the late 1950s, when a bridge to the mainland was completed, has it really been on the map. The deluxe 60-guest room, 5,000-ac (2,023.4-ha) Sea Pines Resort (32 Greenwood Dr., 866/561-8802, $225 and up) is an international destination. Upscale golf courses and plantation-style estates abound around the island’s 30,000 ac (12,140 ha), as do mini-malls and all the trappings of suburban America. There’s also a popular family-friendly Disney’s Hilton Head Resort (22 Harbourside Lane, 843/341-4100, $151 and up).
The “success” of Hilton Head has caused developers to set their sights on the rest of the Lowcountry, as shown by the opening of the super-plush Montage Palmetto Bluff (843/706-6500, $340 and up) at nearby Bluffton, where each of the 44 waterfront or forest-view cottages is outfitted with LCD TVs and a Sub-Zero fridge for that quintessential Lowcountry experience.