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Visit St. Helena Island

Located just a few miles east of Beaufort, South Carolina, St. Helena Island showcases the rich fabric of rural Lowcountry life both path and present. St. Helena Island is one of the Sea Islands, a chain of over 100 islands off the coast of SC, Georgia, and Florida that includes Hilton Head, St. Simons, and Kiawah. If you’re planning a trip to Beaufort or Port Royal, SC, let Visit Beaufort help you include a stop at St. Helena Island.

History of St. Helena Island

The Sea Islands were occupied by Indigenous communities for thousands of years before the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 1500s. St. Helena Island was subsequently colonized by the French, reclaimed by the Spanish, and then by the English, who occupied the island until the American Revolution.

Throughout the colonial period, British and American plantation owners used enslaved Africans and Native Americans to produce rice, cotton, and other agricultural products. Isolated from other parts of the South, communities on St. Helena Island and other Sea Islands developed a unique Creole language and culture known as Gullah Geechee.

During the Civil War, St. Helena Island was occupied by Union forces after they declared victory in the Battle of Port Royal. White landowners fled, and thousands of enslaved people were suddenly freed. In 1862, abolitionists provided donations to set up the first school for African-Americans in the Southern United States.

Over time, the Penn School grew into a 50-acre campus with multiple buildings, some of which are still standing today. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made several visits to the campus, by then known as Penn Center. He composed his “I Have a Dream” speech while staying at one of the cottages onsite.

Today, Gullah culture continues to thrive on St. Helena Island. The passage of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act allocated $10 million in federal funding to preserve the history and culture of Gullah communities in the Carolinas and Florida.

About the Island

Just a short drive from downtown Beaufort, St. Helena Island has preserved its rural character. Agriculture, shrimping, and fishing continue, and some Lowcountry land is protected by conservation easements. Frogmore is the island’s commercial center, with a mix of charming shops and art galleries, as well as restaurants featuring authentic Lowcountry and Gullah cuisine.

Things to Do

St. Helena Island boasts a quiet, seaside setting and a slower pace of life, but there’s no shortage of things to do and see. Consider the following activities:

  • Historical Sites: Pay a visit to St. Helena Parish Chapel of Ease Ruins, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, or spend the day at Penn Center, now a museum and cultural institution. Military history buffs will enjoy Fort Fremont Preserve & History Center, one of the only surviving coastal fortifications from the Spanish-American War.
  • Outdoor Activities: Spend a day out on the water with a chartered fishing trip and try your luck at catching flounder, amberjack, or even barracuda. At the tip of the island, St. Helena’s Lands End Beach is secluded and peaceful, perfect for catching a sunset or splashing in the water.
  • Dining: On the island, you’ll find many small, family-owned eateries serving local produce and freshly- caught seafood. Popular dishes at St. Helena Island, SC restaurants include shrimp gumbo, fried fish, and Frogmore Stew, a traditional Lowcountry boil of corn, potatoes, shrimp, and sausage. For fresh produce, stop by one of the local farm stands that dot the highway.

Several companies offer tours highlighting the area’s history, culture, and nature.

Plan Your Getaway with Help from Visit Beaufort

St. Helena Island, SC, is just one of the many exciting day trips you can take while visiting Beaufort, Port Royal & Sea Islands. Let the experts at Visit Beaufort help you plan the vacation of your dreams. Whether you’re looking for kid-friendly activities, world-class dining, immersive historical experiences, or outdoor adventure, our team can provide expert advice and recommendations. Visit Beaufort is the official Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) for Beaufort, Port Royal, and the surrounding areas. For more information, contact us today.