The late novelist Pat Conroy once said the reason he remained in the coastal South Carolina town of Beaufort was that, “It’s too beautiful to leave.”
The acclaimed author Conroy, who grew up a military brat, came here when he was 15. From the beginning, the awe-inspiring scenery of the natural coast never escaped him. He was said to have handwritten many of his best sellers on yellow legal pads, sitting at his desk overlooking the salt marshes that hug the island.
Beaufort is located on Port Royal Island, one of the many Sea Islands that line the South Carolina coast. It serves as the center of an urban cluster that embraces surrounding unincorporated islands, as well as the Marine Corps Air Station and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot for the Eastern Seaboard, located on neighboring Parris Island.
About a million visitors come each year, but the town is hardly touristy, save for a quaint downtown district with boutiques, restaurants, novelty shops and nearly a dozen art galleries along Bay Street alone.
Downtown backs up to a generous swath of greenspace, called the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, that includes a riverfront walkway perfect for turning cartwheels, a well-equipped playground, and the Downtown Marina. In the distance is the Woods Memorial Bridge, which serves as the gateway to the largely undisturbed Hunting Island with its iconic lighthouse, and St. Helena Island steeped in Gullah tradition.
Despite its history and diverse culture, Beaufort remains a mostly well-kept secret, having recently been named (perhaps for the good) the Most Underrated Town in South Carolina by House Method magazine.
Davis Folsom stands in front of a stately antebellum house in Beaufort. His excitement is hard to contain. The home in the background is that of Robert Smalls, a former slave who piloted a Confederate ship to freedom in Charleston and was later elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s one of many examples of Beaufort’s complex history as the second-oldest city in South Carolina, behind Charleston.
History excites Folsom. He’s a retired University of South Carolina Beaufort professor and history buff-turned-certified tour guide. He moved to the area in 1976 for a one-year oyster research study and never left. Since then, he has immersed himself in everything Beaufort – the natural beauty, the people, the Gullah culture, and the important role the area played during the Reconstruction Era.
Folsom’s knowledge of Beaufort is as vast as the marshy estuary. His delivery is as swift as the breeze, which, on this day, whips at gale force ahead of an early spring storm. Several days a week, he leads walking groups through old neighborhoods shaded under the canopy of Spanish moss-draped oaks. He stops along the way to point out the house where Pat Conroy penned his memoir, The Water is Wide, and the marsh-side mansion where parts of The Great Santini and The Big Chill were filmed. It’s like walking through a picture book.
“If you want someone to move to Beaufort,” Folsom says, “have them read the first two pages of The Prince of Tides.” The prologue is, no doubt, Conroy’s love letter to the Lowcountry. As such, it is no surprise that Beaufort is the home of the Pat Conroy Literary Center, a reading and writing community that honors the beloved author and seeks to spread his love for literature.
Some folks credit Conroy for putting Beaufort on the map. When his novels Prince of Tides and The Great Santini made it to the silver screen (bits of those movies were filmed here, too) sightings of Nick Nolte and Robert Duvall were reported around town. Even Tom Hanks made an appearance when he, portraying Forrest Gump in the movie by the same name, ran across the Woods Memorial Bridge that connects Beaufort with other Sea Islands. (However, the film portrayed it as a bridge over the Mississippi River.)
And then there’s Tidalholm, the circa-1853 Italianate home that is most often referred to as The Big Chill house, a movie that brought to town stars like Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt and Jeff Goldblum.
Bill Green emerges from the kitchen of Gullah Grub restaurant in St. Helena Island with a plate of collard greens, red rice, fried whiting and cornbread. “This is smiling food,” he says with a strong accent that leans toward Creole. “The only recipe they can’t get,” he says, “is the one in your heart.”
Green is part of the Gullah culture that is unique to Beaufort and the Sea Islands, one that has been handed down through the generations. The dialect is rooted in West African languages. The practice of cooking Gullah relies on locally sourced produce, meats and seafood. Much of the food served at Gullah Grub is grown just down the street at Marshview Community Organic Farm, where his wife, Sara, is preparing soil for an early spring planting.
The Gullah are known for preserving their African heritage more than any other African-American community, and Sara is doing her part to pass on the tradition to youth in St. Helena. She has organized the farm to serve as a teaching opportunity. Today, she is joined by Jhavynne Freeman, 14, and Antoine Patrick, 11. They are picking handfuls of bright green kale.
“I encourage them to taste everything we grow,” she says. “When you grow it yourself, it just tastes better.”
Gullah is celebrated in Beaufort, including during the annual Original Gullah Festival at Waterfront Park in Beaufort. But it is bittersweet, as the culture wouldn’t be as prevalent here had it not been for South Carolina’s role in the slave trade.
Up to half of the enslaved people brought to the U.S. from Africa came through ports in Charleston and Savannah. Many were put to work on rice or cotton plantations in the Sea Islands. During the Civil War, Union forces quickly occupied Beaufort and, as a result, Beaufort’s Sea Islands were the first place in the South where slaves were freed.
Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania moved to the area and opened dozens of schools for the newly emancipated slaves. The last remaining is the Penn Center in St. Helena Island. It is now a partner site of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park, which President Barack Obama established in Beaufort in January 2017.
Years later, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Penn Center became a peaceful gathering site for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Much of Beaufort’s past can be seen around St. Helena, like Brick Baptist Church, a church built in 1855 by slaves, and the Coffin Point Praise House, a simple one-room worship space built by slaves for slaves and named after the plantation that once occupied the land.
The most famous food in South Carolina is arguably Lowcountry Boil, essentially a steaming mound of shrimp, crawfish or crab, with potatoes, sausage and corn on the cob. It is sometimes referred to Frogmore Stew after the St. Helena community where it originated.
But, depending on the season, oysters are the center of attention here.
Beaufort’s flat coastline and rich estuaries create a perfect habitat for growing meaty, briny oysters. They can be found by the bushel at Sea Eagle Market in Beaufort or on the half shell at the weekly Fort Royal Farmers Market, where Jeff Beasley, the fifth-generation owner of Maggioni Oyster Company (his mother is a Maggioni), goes through as many as 500 in a day. His company is a provider of wild-harvested oysters. He is meticulous about thoroughly cultivating the beds during the off season to promote healthy reproduction.
“It’s been a successful year,” he says, “but everybody in the oyster industry is complaining about the same problem.” Warm waters, higher tides, and excessive winds have made harvesting oysters here more challenging. “Mother Nature can be brutal,” he says. “I’ve had to accept what I can’t control and just do my job best I can.”
Even more prized than the oysters are the soft shell crab. When blue crabs molt, their new shells are soft and entirely edible and rich in flavor. They are celebrated when they come into season each spring. Almost every local restaurant and market serves them in season.
The crab is so revered here that each year the Old Village Association in Port Royal hosts the Soft Shell Crab Festival, where vendors serve she-crab soup, crab cakes, and crab mac-and-cheese, among other seafood delights. But the most prized, of course, is the soft shell crab, a delicacy even Pat Conroy enjoyed.
“They are among the most vulnerable creatures in the sea,” he wrote in 2009’s The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life. “And one of the most delicious.”