Beaufort SC: A 300 Year Old Jewel Box of History, Culture, Seafood and Fun

BEAUFORT ( John C. Williams ) Everywhere you turn in Beaufort, South Carolina, history calls out – from the gracefully restored antebellum homes to the centuries-old live oaks, from the fish-filled waters to the quiet graveyards and Sea Island cotton.  These are just a few reasons why I love my city.
You’ve probably seen South Carolina’s Beaufort and not known it: The city served as backdrops to blockbuster films including The Prince of Tides, The Big Chill, Forrest Gump and The Great Santini. Tucked away on the South Carolina Atlantic coast midway between Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA, Beaufort features a jewel-box National Historic Landmark District, a waterfront park lined with shops and restaurant and easy access to the beach.
Throughout 2011, Beaufort celebrates a special and historic birthday – its 300th. That’s a lot of candles and a lot of cake – but the Tricentennial is a lot of years.
“For a community that celebrates our unique history and culture on an almost daily basis, 300 years is a huge benchmark,” Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. Next up in the year-long party: An historical parade through downtown on September 17 to highlight different periods of Beaufort’s history, from the lows to the highs.
Beaufort was founded in 1711 by the English, although its beginnings date back to Spanish explorers in 1514. Beaufort was named for Englishman Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort (1684-1714), one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina.
At one time the city was among the most prosperous in the Colonies due to its highest quality Sea Island cotton, indigo production and location midway between Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.   Union occupation early in the War Between the States helped preserve its homes and shops.  After the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction brought change and economic turmoil followed by a devastating hurricane that lashed the area in the late 1800’s.  The area’s phosphate mining industry brought renewed wealth, if only briefly, while farming and the seafood industry kept things afloat, and the military, tourism and retirement resorts have helped boost the entire Low country since the 1970’s.
With a strong commitment to historic preservation, many of Beaufort’s centuries-old homes have been carefully restored, from the waterfront mansions and nearby plantation homes to smaller cottages in the Northwest Quadrant.
A few streets away from popular Bay Street are hidden gardens, old churches with even older graveyards and a rich mix of shops that cater to locals and tourists alike.
Today, here’s the must-do list for Beaufort and you’ll see why I love my city:
Tour Bay Street’s shops and restaurants, then relax in the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park overlooking the Beaufort River, which is part of  the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway
Take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the city’s historic district and hear the “inside story” about 200+ year-old homes and which ones were used in the Hollywood flicks
Hungry? Top picks include Plums on Bay Street for casual lunch, Dockside in nearby Port Royal for great seafood and even more amazing waterfront views at the docks, and Saltus or Breakwater downtown for upscale dinner with an emphasis on local grown/local caught items
Pack a picnic lunch and head east to Hunting Island State Park, about a 20-minute ride, to enjoy three miles of pristine ocean beach and maritime forest. Climb the lighthouse, look for shells or cast a fishing line – or just soak in the sun. On the way home, stop at the Shrimp Shack for some of the freshest seafood available, caught by trawlers visible across the street. Recommended: the Shrimp Burger and the fresh fried flounder basket
Try a gallery walk – you’ll find an eclectic offering of traditional watercolors and abstract art and sculpture, and some pricy but collectible offerings from nearby native-son Jonathan Green
Local bookstores feature works by acclaimed novelist Pat Conroy, who graduated from Beaufort High School, went to The Citadel and then returned to Beaufort County to teach elementary students, which gave him material for what became his first major book, The Water is Wide. Ask the bookshop if they have any signed editions – Pat lives in downtown Beaufort so there’s a chance he recently dropped by to sign a few copies.
As Beaufort celebrates its Tricentennial, city leaders are looking to the next century with a Civic Master Plan based on recreating the economically vibrant and walkable town from the past century. For more about this, visit www.beaufortcivicinvestment.org.
Beaufort is a perfect vacation getaway, or even a day trip from as far away as Jacksonville, Florida (2 hours) or Columbia, South Carolina (2 hours). The usual hotel chains plus unique bed and breakfast sites offer accommodations, along with some condominium rentals (we call them “villas” down South) at Harbor and Fripp islands. Charlotte and Atlanta are both about a five-hour drive. The Savannah-Hilton Head Airport (SAV) is 45 minutes away via I-95; most flights connect through Atlanta or Charlotte.
For more information about the Beaufort Tricentennial, visit www.cityofbeaufort.org or www.beaufortchamber.org

CONTRIBUTOR
John C. Williams is president of Williams Group PR, a South Carolina-based full-service public relations and marketing firm. He is accredited in public relations, an international certification he has held since 2002.

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