A Small City Big on Charm

Beaufort, S.C., lazes within reach of the Atlantic Coast in the historic and picturesque lowlands of the southeastern United States. The small, genteel city of 12,000 is steeped in history and drenched in Southern charm. To visit Beaufort, with its stunning plantation-style architecture, is to feel as if you have stepped into a movie set.
In fact, you might have.
Beaufort's beautiful old mansions, of which there are too many to count, have played key roles in several big-budget Hollywood films. More than 20 movies have been filmed here over the years. You might recognize the marshy swamplands and thick tropical thatches as the backdrop for the Vietnam war scenes in "Forrest Gump" and "Platoon," for example. Or the grand multi-balconied homes that were featured in "G.I. Jane," "Forces of Nature" and "The Great Santini."
When Barbra Streisand was scouting a locale for her directorial project, "The Prince of Tides," author Pat Conroy (a Beaufort favorite son) tried to convince her to film here. The actress was booked into five rooms at the historic 1846 Rhett House Inn in the heart of Beaufort for a visit. It took only one night for the old house, with its languid wide porches and lush gardens, to cast its spell. The movie was filmed there in 1991.
Perhaps the biggest star of all, however, is the Edgar Fripp House, a sweeping Italianate antebellum mansion, which was christened "Tidalholm" when it was built in 1853. It is known by almost everyone today as simply "'The Big Chill' house."
The 1983 cult classic movie starred Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Kline and Mary Kay Place. Legions of movie buffs make their way under the dripping branches hanging with Spanish moss to get a photo in front of the house's iconic wrought-iron front gate (seen several times in the film). The fact the home is a private residence hardly deters the hundreds who seek it out each year. During the filming of "The Big Chill," one of its stars, Tom Berenger, actually got married in real life on the expansive front lawn of the mansion. He still lives in Beaufort.
The city retains much of its Southern ambiance while catering to an ever-growing number of visitors. The downtown business district offers many fine art galleries and exhibition spaces. The main thoroughfare, Bay Street, is lined with antique stores, cafes, chocolatiers, boutiques, bookstores and specialty shops.
The U.S. military presence is important to Beaufort's economy. Parris Island Recruit Depot and its 17,000 Marine Corps recruits train on the city's doorstep. The Marine Corps Air Station also hosts more than 4,000 military personnel.
A popular Bay Street landmark for more than a quarter-century is Plums Restaurant.
"What we try to do at the Plum is create a casual home atmosphere for our eclectic customer base," said Chip Dinkins, director of operations. "We are known for our interesting and ever-changing menu and for our commitment to use only the best of the fine fresh local products from our region. ... We like to buy local at the Plum, and our customers appreciate that."
Dinkins was hard-pressed to offer a favorite item from his menu, but ultimately settled on the custom fried-tomato stack. "We thickly slice three locally grown green tomatoes, lightly dust them in corn meal, fry them in a skillet and then stack them up, interspersed with thick slices of roasted red beets and mozzarella cheese. We top the whole thing off with a couple of our famous fried shrimp and, believe me, you then have a real Beaufort favorite there," he laughed.
Another great landmark in town is the 1897 Beaufort Inn. This old Victorian "pink lady" is one of the city's busiest and fastest-growing inns.
"Beaufort is such a sweet little town that I knew I had to live here after the first time I visited," said Julie Myers, who keeps the inn with her husband, Mitch.
"Believe it or not," she sighed, her first trip was Sept. 11, 2001. She was visiting nearby Hilton Head Island when the World Trade Center was destroyed. "Amidst all the horror and confusion of that day, I just felt a great and powerful sense of calm and peacefulness here in Beaufort. I knew we belonged here," she said.
The Beaufort Inn, resplendent in fussiness, gingerbread, fancy handiwork and layers of bright pink paint, offers more services than just those of an inn. "We have a dining facility called Southern Graces on site, and have just opened up a fabulous day spa. We are trying to turn the inn into more of a destination venue rather than just an overnight stop.
"We have also recently begun to partner with the historic Arsenal Building a block away for events," said Myers, who is on the board of directors of the Convention and Tourism Bureau.
"The Arsenal Building is one of Beaufort's most important and historic sites," she said. It was built in 1798 as a military arsenal, and has been involved in every U.S. war since.
"The Beaufort Inn will host more than 50 full weddings in a year, and many of our guests now opt to have their ceremony in the uniquely stunning old courtyard of the Arsenal," she said.
Despite the much larger Charleston an hour north, and Savannah an hour south, little Beaufort takes a back seat to neither when it comes to history, beauty and delicious Southern cooking.
Chuck D'Imperio is a freelance writer in Oneonta.

If you go
Beaufort is located along the Atlantic Coast, four hours east of Atlanta, Ga.
The Beaufort Inn: 809 Port Republic St., (888) 522-0250, http://www.beaufort
Plums Restaurant: 904 Bay St., (843) 525-1946,
The Rhett House Inn, 1009 Craven St., (888) 480-9530,
The Beaufort Arsenal Museum, 713 Craven St, (843) 525-7077, closed Wednesday and Sunday
The "'Big Chill' House," 1 Laurens St. A private residence, but there are some nice photo opportunities for movie fans.

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