It seems there’s a lot of interest in little Beaufort, South Carolina. Since my husband and I decided to buy a home there in 2015, we’ve immensely enjoyed settling in and learning about the area. When we come up for air in Eleuthera or Narragansett or who-knows-where, there is always that question brewing among our friends, family and acquaintances, “so, what’s Beaufort like?” Beaufort only has a population of around 14,000, so it’s not exactly a major metropolis. And, for the record, Beaufort is pronounced BYOO-fert, not the traditional French way, which would be the pronunciation of a like-named city in North Carolina. Simply put, Beaufort is old, lovely, influenced by the sea, gracious and growing.
Beaufort was chartered in 1711 and notably was not burned by Sherman during the Civil War. Actually I’m not sure how he missed it, but his oversight is our gain. There is a small historic district with a vibrant main street and business sector, adjacent to a residential section that features quiet streets lined with live oaks, draping Spanish moss, and stately antebellum homes. Named “The Old Point”, it reminds me a bit of the Garden District in New Orleans, except smaller and safer. The majority of the homes are single family dwellings, many of which have housed the same families for generations. It’s peaceful and fascinating to stroll the sidewalks and marvel at the architecture and landscaping. We looked at houses in Old Point and envisioned a step back in time with iced tea on the veranda and hoop skirts in the closet. Unfortunately reality hit, and we realized the small yards and close proximity of other houses would make us the scourge of Beaufort with our (then) six dogs in residence.
Thus we turned our attention to an area of Beaufort with a bit more available acreage and a totally different feel: Lady’s Island. Really all of the Beaufort area is a series of islands. If you look at a map, there’s a whole lot of water everywhere. Beaufort itself is on the Beaufort River, part of the U.S. Intracoastal Waterway, a saltwater river with dolphins and crabs and shrimp. Across the Beaufort River from downtown, accessed via a quaint swing bridge that opens on the hour for tall boats and ships, is Lady’s Island. One sees it misspelled quite a bit as Ladies Island (Apple and HP are particular offenders) but that must be a mistake of phonetic origin. Lady’s Island is the first island one reaches after crossing the river, followed by St. Helena Island and, eventually, Fripp Island at the end of the road bordering the Atlantic. The total mileage from the swing bridge to Fripp Island is only about 21 miles, but the road is two lanes and it seems further than that.
Lady’s Island is, unfortunately, something of a thrown-together place. It belongs to Beaufort County, but there’s a statute on the SC books that allows municipalities to annex anything that is separated from it by water. Therefore the City of Beaufort cherry-picked all the commercial and other valuable tax-producing properties on Lady’s Island and annexed them into Beaufort. There was no real plan and the residents of Lady’s Island don’t vote in City elections, so growth was a bit willy-nilly. It’s catching up to the Island now, and with the completion of a new Wal-Mart that was essentially okayed behind closed doors ten years before the public ever knew about it, there is a movement spearheaded by the Sea Island Corridor Coalition to improve transparency and support smart development. At this point that may be a bit like closing the barn door after the horses have run, but it’s certainly worth trying. As I briefly mentioned before, Beaufort is growing by leaps and bounds and there is plenty of change and development on the horizon that could benefit from urban planning.
Although Beaufort proper does have everyday shopping amenities, Lady’s Island has the nicest grocery (Publix), the most comprehensive liquor store (Bill’s), and a wonderful hardware/home accessory/tchotchke store (Grayco) that everyone is keeping their fingers crossed is not driven out of business by big bad Wal-Mart. The Sea Island Parkway that runs through Lady’s Island is not much to look at but is useful for all that living stuff one needs. There are fast food restaurants and a dry cleaner and a dog kennel…you get the idea. It’s not pretty or quaint. However, properties that face the water present a much different appeal. The property we purchased is across the street from a Dairy Queen and a dentist, but the driveway is long and once you reach the house it’s a different world.
Our property is just over two acres with a boathouse, detached two-car garage with guest apartment above it, the main house, and a deepwater dock with covered pierhead. The house itself is perfectly sized so that my husband and I use every room during the course of a week. The entire back of the house has floor to ceiling sliding doors and windows that allow the beautiful outside to come in. Beaufort is part of the S Carolina “lowcountry” and the marshes and water are gorgeous. Our particular view overlooks Factory Creek, aptly named for the oyster factory that once graced its shores. Factory Creek is deep, even at low tide, and can always accommodate a boat with up to, I believe, a six foot draft. It’s worth noting that the tides in Beaufort have a huge swing between high and low, often as much as an eight foot difference. Across Factory Creek is expansive marsh that teams with egrets, osprey and gulls, who swoop and fish alongside the friendly dolphin who meander the depths. Further still is the intracoastal waterway, the swing bridge, and downtown Beaufort. The marsh is magical in its ability to constantly change with even minor differences of light. At alternate times it glows and then broods and then sparks. We never tire of watching it.
As you may imagine with so much water everywhere, Beaufort is a boater’s paradise. Hilton Head is an hour away by boat; Savannah and Charleston a bit further but certainly accessible. Little tributaries branch off everywhere and it is an explorer’s dream. But boater beware!–most channels aren’t marked and the deep fertile bottom mud (called “pluff”) will suck a boat in and hold it tight until high tide comes along to free it. Everyone (yes, us included) has a story or two to tell about running aground and biding time, waiting for a higher tide. But even while you’re stranded, there’s so much to see! The water and marshes are alive with constant activity. Never a dull moment, as they say.
Beaufort is a military town, hosting both Parris Island (where all new Marine recruits go from the eastern half of the U.S.) and the Marine Corps Air Station, which has more than its fair share of F-35s. It’s pretty neat to look up and see a black stealthy plane zip by, usually accompanied by other black, stealthy jets. As a result of the two military presences, there are many military men and women in Beaufort, the great majority of whom are well traveled, bright and polite.
The other main presence in Beaufort are retirees. There’s a community just up the road on Dataw Island with 800+ homes. It’s not exclusively for retirees, but I would guess 90 % of the residents are over the age of 55. We belong to the Dataw Island Club as country club members and my husband enjoys playing tennis there. We also dine there on occasion and it’s a good way to meet other people who share like interests. There are a myriad of other retiree communities nearby too, on Callawassie Island, Brays Island, Hilton Head Island, and in Bluffton. I understand that Beaufort County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country, and our aging population seems to be a big contributing reason.
One of our most favorite outings is to downtown Beaufort itself. There are some very good restaurants there; some of our favorites are Breakwater, Saltus Grill, Old Bull Tavern, and a funny little Italian place without a sign called Griffin Market, where the food is scrumptious but the owners don’t want the secret to get out. Lunches are also fun and it’s always interesting to poke your head in the little shops that line the main drag of Bay Street. Some are touristy with the prerequisite t-shirts and snowball globes (do they really still make those?), but there’s also a nice outdoor gear shop, several good women’s clothing stores, fine art galleries, a shop that only sells pure olive oil, and a linens shop that’s better than most I’ve found elsewhere. If one needs to do serious shopping, Savannah is one hour away by car; Charleston is an hour and a half in the other direction.
There’s so much more I could write about Beaufort, and in fact I may just do so moving forward. I suppose ultimately Beaufort reminds me more than a bit of Eleuthera. About Eleuthera it’s said, “It’s not for everyone.” And I think that is true too of our new adopted city. Beaufort is not fast paced; it’s funky and drawling and glows under the hot sun while shimmering in the humidity. People smile at each other on the street and if you ask someone a question about fishing, you’re likely to end up with a new pal. There’s a lot of kayaking and paddleboarding, hundreds of crab traps and the best fresh shrimp you’ve ever tasted. As a friend commented, he likes the area because he “never needs to change out of his shorts and flip flops”. And that’s what we like about Beaufort too.