South Carolina’s second-oldest city charms visitors with its historic homes and famed movie locations.
By Doreen Daily, F157939
Its scenery is enhanced by old Southern mansions, tree-lined boulevards, and an oceanside location. No wonder Beaufort (pronounced BEW-fert), a picturesque hamlet in South Carolina, has served as the setting for many motion pictures, including Forrest Gump.
Whether or not you’re lucky enough to see a movie being filmed when you visit, you’ll know that you’re in a special place with a rich heritage. Beaufort is South Carolina’s second-oldest town, after Charleston, and many of its mansions predate the Revolutionary War.
Your first stop should be the Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, which is housed in an 1870 former inn and funeral parlor at 1106 Carteret St. Rocking chairs still creak on the wooden porch as visitors take a little respite, Southern-style. Here, you can pick up a guide map of Beaufort, which is handy whether you plan to explore on foot or take one of the charming horse-drawn carriages “” or both.
Carriage drivers are very knowledgeable about the history of the town as well as current goings-on. The horses clip-clop past azaleas and waxy-leaved magnolias; they linger at raised arcaded structures framed by Spanish-moss-draped oaks and gardens lush with wisteria and crepe myrtle. Sailboats tack across Port Royal Sound, and a whispering breeze drifts through the leaves of the lush palmettos. You will see dozens of homes that are partly constructed of tabby (a lime, sand, and oyster shell cement). Carolina Buggy Tours (1002-B Bay St.; 843-525-1300) and SouthurnRose Buggy Tours (913 Boundary St., 843-524-2900) provide these tours. Guided walks are available also; inquire at the visitors center.
The compact, eight-block area along the Intracoastal Waterway, known as The Old Point, is a delightful place to explore on foot. The elegant mansions of this area were built when Beaufort was an important cotton port in the early 1800s. Now the homes are a reminder of Beaufort’s earlier prosperity. The town offers history at a relaxed pace and on a smaller scale than that of other Low Country destinations, such as Charleston. Here, you can rub elbows with the locals and take time to admire the vistas. The town is visitor-friendly with shimmering sights of the sound and its lush islands set aside for your pleasure. Some scenic open spaces are posted with signs that read, “This view preserved by City of Beaufort.”
Beaufort is located along Port Royal Sound, deep in what is known as Gullah land. Gullah refers to African Americans who live in this area and still speak their very own language, called Gullah or Geechee. It is thought to have its origins in West Africa’s Benta language, which features sing-song syntax, shouting, and rhythms. Their culture still thrives here on Lady’s Island and St. Helena Island. You can learn more about the Gullah people and their heritage at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. This National Historic Landmark once hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was the location of the first school for freed slaves in South Carolina. The center is open Monday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; phone (843) 838-2432 or visit www.penncenter.com for more information.
The renowned Gullah Festival will be held May 22 through 25 this year at Beaufort’s Waterfront Park. It provides even more ways to enjoy this West African experience, with arts and crafts exhibits, plays, music and dance performances, and delicious food. Visit www.gullahfestival.com for more information.
Beaufort celebrates its relationship to the sea with two festivals. The first is the Water Festival, now in its 48th year. From July 11 through 20, an exciting combination of dances, concerts, an antiques show, boat races, sporting events, a grand parade, and much more will be on tap. Phone (843) 524-0600 or visit www.waterfestival.com for more information. In addition, the annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival takes place this year on October 3 and 4 at Waterfront Park. Plenty of food; a 5-kilometer run/walk; and a colorful “blessing of the fleet” ceremony will be part of the celebration. For more information, phone (800) 638-3525 or visit www.beaufortsc.org.
Many historic homes in Beaufort are open to the public only during home tour events “” the Spring Tour of Beaufort’s Historic Homes in March and the Fall Festival of Houses & History in October. Typically, six houses are open for each tour. Of course, visitors can admire the homes’ exteriors whenever they visit. With that in mind, following are highlights of some of Beaufort’s most beloved historic homes.
The oldest home in the city is the Thomas Hepworth House (circa 1717), located at Port Republic and New streets. The home has a chimney that is seven feet square, and stories say that ventilation holes on the north side of the foundation were intended to be used as rifle slots.
The 1720 Elizabeth Hext House on Hancock Street; the John A. Cuthbert House (a lovely old hostelry) on Bay Street; the 1813 Milton Maxey House on Craven Street; and the 1853 Edward Means House on Pinckney Street, noted for its outstanding “floating” spiral staircase, also are popular stops during the home tours.
Graceful antebellum mansions, some three stories tall, face the sea lanes. The 1850s Edgar Fripp House on Laurens Street, also called “Tidalholm,” is where the movies The Great Santini with Robert Duvall, and The Big Chill, with Glenn Close, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, and Kevin Kline, were filmed. According to family legend, James Fripp, the home’s owner, fled the city when it was overtaken by the Union army during the Civil War, returned just as the home was being auctioned off by the government for taxes. He had no way to pay, and stood by weeping. A kindly Frenchman purchased the home and immediately handed over the deed to James.
Around the corner on Craven Street is the Joseph Johnson House, also known as “The Castle,” one of the most photographed homes in the United States. It was here that Forces of Nature, starring Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck, was filmed. This house occupies an entire city block and is surrounded by lush gardens of azaleas, camellias, and two olive trees from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. And on Laurens Street is the Paul Hamilton House, also called “The Oaks,” built in the 1850s by the grandson of our country’s third secretary of the Navy, who shared the same name.
Other homes are open for touring throughout the year. Everyone can visit the John Mark Verdier House Museum, a large, three-story Federal-style mansion on Bay Street. The house was built circa 1801 by a wealthy merchant. During the Civil War it was used by the Union as an officers’ headquarters. Eventually the home fell into disuse, and it was condemned in 1942. But local citizens formed a preservation project and purchased the home. Today the restored home serves as the headquarters for the Historic Beaufort Foundation. Inside are exhibits about Beaufort’s architectural heritage. The home is open Monday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
When these fantastic old houses are used in movies, they wear “makeup” strictly supervised by an architectural review board, along with the National Register of Historic Places and the state film office. These are just a sample of the beautiful homes you will see. There are many more “” so many, in fact, that Beaufort would have the highest per capita antebellum architecture preservation index in the South, if there were such a thing.
If you are a film buff, you’ll recognize several more movie locations in Beaufort. The bridge to Lady’s Island is where, in Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks set off on his cross-country run. The boat lanes where the Prince of Tides shrimp boats sailed, and the house facing Port Royal Sound where the woman playing Nick Nolte’s mother lived are also recognizable. You’ll see where Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte lived while filming The Prince of Tides and where Sally Field stayed during Forrest Gump. Portions of other films, including G.I. Jane; Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; Something to Talk About; Last Dance; and White Squall were filmed here. Even the area outside of town has been used. Its vast stretches of marshes, dense swaths of vegetation, and serpentine estuaries were ideal for the Vietnam scenes in Forrest Gump.
Much of the area’s history is displayed in the Beaufort Arsenal Museum, at 713 Craven St. Once home to the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery, it now houses American Indian artifacts; Revolutionary and Civil War memorabilia; and exhibits on local lore, art, and textiles. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; phone (843) 525-7077 for more information.
You also will want to prowl along Bay Street and visit the many shops. Then, take a break along Beaufort’s famous Waterfront Park, seven landscaped acres along the Beaufort River that feature a seawall promenade, a crafts market, and a marina. For a different perspective of Beaufort, take a cruise from Pier One.
On Parris Island, where the Parris Island Marine Corps Training Center is located, approximately 19,000 U.S. Marine Corps recruits are trained each year. The Parris Island Museum, located on base, is worth a stop. It depicts the history of the island, beginning with the French Huguenots, who landed there in 1562. The museum has many weapons on display and a Civil War exhibit with miniature battle scenes. The museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; phone (843) 228-2951 for more information.
Despite the destruction of other Southern communities during the Civil War, Beaufort remained in pristine condition. That’s because nearly everyone fled when a tipster warned of an 1861 invasion. The Union Army was left to deal with thousands of hungry slaves, and little else. They then set up a hospital town, using St. Helena’s Episcopal Church for surgeries. Gravestones were brought in to double as operating tables. The wooden altar was carved by the crew of the USS New Hampshire, which was stationed nearby during reconstruction. The church is open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
The Beaufort National Cemetery was established in 1863. Today the remains of more than 7,500 Civil War soldiers as well as those 6,500 other servicemen killed in action in subsequent wars are interred there. The cemetery is located at 1601 Boundary St.
Anglers will be happy to note that the best fishing in the area occurs between June and October, when giant king mackerel are regularly brought in, as are blue and white marlin that weigh 400 to 1,000 pounds.
While visiting Beaufort, you’ll notice the delicious aromas that waft on the salty breezes. You will smell the sea, the sensual fragrance of the floral gardens that adorn every mansion, the cinnamon buns, and the country ham and red-eye gravy sold in area restaurants.
For lunch, you will want to sample the local treat, Frogmore Stew. The name comes from a location on St. Helena’s Island, across from Beaufort. The stew does not contain frogs, but a combination of shrimp and sometimes other seafood, smoked sausage, corn on the cob, onions, and seasonings.
To the north of Beaufort is the ACE (Ashepoo, Combahee, Edisto rivers) Basin National Wildlife Refuge, where you can take a nature trail “” and photos “” in a semitropical wilderness. Bird-watchers will want to bring their life lists along to see how many species they can add. The area embraces the three rivers, and is so untouched that it gives one the impression that little has changed here since the Indians plied these rivers. The refuge office is a former rice plantation house built in 1828 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. For directions and more information, phone (843) 889-3084.
While you’re outside of town, stop west of Beaufort (between the towns of Yemassee and Gardens Corner) to see the ruins of Sheldon Church. Built in 1746, this house of worship was burned during the Revolutionary War; rebuilt; then destroyed again during the Civil War. The ruins indicate that this once was one of the most beautiful houses of worship in the South.
After you return to Beaufort, take time to stop by Plum’s Cafe on Bay Street, where Barbra Streisand ordered her own custom blend of chocolate-, coffee-, and macadamia nut-flavored ice cream. Then, watch the sun set over the marshes and reflect off the glassy surface of Port Royal Sound.
If You Go
Beaufort is 45 miles north of Savannah and 70 miles south of Charleston. Motorhome parking is available in town, but RVers should stop first at the visitors center for a pass. Ample parking is available for smaller vehicles, such as cars. For more information, contact:
Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center
1106 Carteret St.
Beaufort, SC 29901
The visitors center is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time. It is well-staffed and full of maps, historical exhibits, and information.
The following may not be a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMC’s “Business Directory” listing in the January and June issues, and online at www.fmca.com.
Hunting Island State Park
2555 Sea Island Parkway
Hunting Island, SC 29920
Hunting Island State Park offers exceptional ocean views and 190 sites with electric and water hookups. The campground includes two dump stations, showers, and rest rooms, and campground roads are paved. The 19th-century Hunting Island Lighthouse is the most accessible lighthouse to the public in South Carolina. The park is approximately 17 miles southeast of Beaufort via U.S. 21.
Outdoor Resorts Hilton Head Motorcoach Resort
133 Arrow Road
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928
This facility offers 401 sites with full hookups, a swimming pool, a fishing lake, cement pads, cable television, and laundry facilities. A 15 percent discount is offered to FMCA members when the rental fee is paid by check or cash. Type A and type C motorhomes only, minimum length 18 feet.
Point South KOA
P.O. Box 1760
Yemassee, SC 29945
This campground offers sites in a forested setting, and includes a hot tub, a swimming pool, and free fishing. Cable TV hookups, a modem dataport, and 50-amp service are available.
Tuck in the Wood Campground
22 Tuck in the Wood Lane
St. Helena Island, SC 29920-6011
This private campground offers 74 sites.