Like most folks, I visit Beaufort to delight in its Lowcountry pleasures. Similar to its big sisters, Charleston to the north and Savannah to the south, the town entertains with memorable shopping, dining, and lodging amid handsome historic neighborhoods. But I also come to Beaufort because it embraces the distinctive charms of the coast. Unlike when I'm in those two larger bookend cities, I'm always aware of the water here, and I can almost always spot it wherever I roam. That's not too surprising, as Beaufort County has 64 sizable islands and some 2,000 tinier ones. It's a place where freshwater meets salt and where creeks, marshes, and rivers meld with sunshine, tides, and sea breezes.
Because of the winding nature of the delta, roads rarely run in straight lines; instead they follow the capricious paths of water. Driving here is not unlike taking a boat ride. Overhead, terns, ospreys, and herons course through April's blue skies, while twisted oaks spiked with furry resurrection ferns and dripping with moss shade narrow streets.
One of the best times to explore this watery land is in the springtime, when the blooms of loquats and mock oranges infuse the air with a fruity scent.
Where To Go and What To Do
Reserve most of a day to explore the shops along Bay and Carteret Street. You'll discover beautiful home accents at Grace & Glory; BellaVista Antiques, Home and Garden; The Gallery; The Craftseller; and Lulu Burgess. Look to The Oyster Cay Collection for period pieces from the Near and Far East. You can find treasures for less than $300 or invest in heirlooms surpassing $1,000.
Bay Street Outfitters supplies you with gear for outdoor activities. If you're looking for a fishing or kayaking guide, stop here first. Be sure not to miss the nostalgic Fordham Hardware on the corner of Bay and Carteret; it hasn't changed much during the past several decades. Rows of shelves stock every imaginable item, from penny nails to weather vanes. Another Beaufort institution, Lipsitz, is a 101-year-old locally owned department and shoe store.
Let loose of the shopping shuffle with a stroll alongside Waterfront Park, where boats creep in with the stunning sunsets.
A visit to Beaufort isn't complete without wandering around The Point, a dozen blocks of historic residences that have taken center stage in such movies as The Big Chill and The Prince of Tides. Range on foot or with a guided walking tour such as the Spirit of Old Beaufort ($12.50 adults;  525-0459). To see The Point as well as other historic landmarks by carriage, choose from Carolina Buggy Tours ($14.50 adults, $7 ages 6-12; 525-1300) or Southurn Rose ($14.50 adults, $7 ages 5-12;  524-2900).
Make time to ramble about on your own, and step into the churchyard at the tabby-walled St. Helena's Episcopal, established in 1712. There, junipers, sycamores, and sculpted myrtle branches watch over graves dating to the Revolutionary War. Inside, the nautically inspired altar was carved by sailors long ago.
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to get out on the water is with Capt. Dick's River Tours ($60 for up to six passengers;  524-4422 or  812-2804). A local English teacher named Richard Goodenough pilots a canopied pontoon boat in the sound. Dolphins follow his jaunts while he explains the cycle of sea life and its dependence on tidal waters.
Plan another day to drive over to St. Helena Island, where WhatsinStore, a fun gifts and furnishings emporium, fills a former sea island cotton exchange building. We think their selection of straw beach bags is the best we've encountered. Go across the street to Red Piano Too Art Gallery, a showroom featuring Lowcountry folk art. Then spend at least an hour at The Penn Center's York W. Bailey Museum, which is dedicated to celebrating the native Gullahs.
Another 10 minutes farther out, the Sea Island Parkway leads you to Hunting Island State Park, which provides 4 miles of beach as well as an extensive maritime forest and marsh. The climb up the 167 steps of its 1873 lighthouse costs 50 cents, but it's worth it. This the only historical lighthouse in South Carolina still open to the public.
Where To Eat
Beaufort serves up tasty renditions of Lowcountry favorites in locally owned restaurants, where most menus focus on seafood.
We always run out to The Shrimp Shack on St. Helena Island for the decadent Shrimpburger (deep-fried chopped shrimp cakes on a bun; $4.25) with sweet potato fingers. It's a tradition with locals and visitors alike. You'll not only rub elbows with moms lunching with kids, but you'll also see tourists on the way to the Harbor or Fripp Island vacation homes.
The 11th Street Dockside Restaurant is worth the drive to neighboring Port Royal. Ask for a table with a view of the sunset and the shrimpboats moored along Battery Creek. Order the fried green tomatoes ($3.95), fresh oysters ($9.95-$14.95), or Grouper Daufuskie ($17.95),baked grouper topped with lump crab and a light cream sauce.
In downtown Beaufort, sit on the patio at the Firehouse Books & Espresso Bar on Craven Street. The servers recommend tasty wrap sandwiches as well as the latest great read.
Locals will steer you toward the upscale dining at Bistro 205; it's quite satisfying. But if you have only one night to spend on a special dinner, opt for the Wine Bar at The Beaufort Inn. Although you can find fine shrimp and grits all over the Lowcountry, this is the best. The paneled walls, white tablecloths, and excellent service make for a romantic evening.
For breakfast, meet the locals at Blackstone's Cafe on Scott Street. In addition to typical morning fare, you can order shrimp and grits, crab cakes, or salmon omelets.
When all you want is a cool afternoon treat, slip into Plums on Bay Street for their locally made ice cream.
Where To Stay
One thing we've learned about making reservations in Beaufort is to check that you've secured the best price. Be sure to ask the clerk whether the quote is for the lowest rate. We've reduced ours 10 to 20% with this question.
For a romantic rendezvous, we opt for one of the 17 guestrooms at the Rhett House Inn, 1009 Craven Street; 1-888-480-9530 or www.rhetthouseinn.com. Rates from $145 include a full breakfast. This four-star, four-diamond inn offers antiques-furnished lodging with luxurious baths. The main house serves afternoon tea, evening hors d'oeuvres, and dessert after dinner. They also keep bicycles on hand for guest use.
The Best Western Sea Island Inn on Bay Street can position you in the middle of all the action with one of its 43 basic motel rooms. Rates from $139 include Continental breakfast; (843) 522-2090, 1-800-528-1234, or www.sea-island-inn.com.
Consider renting a condo on Harbor Island when your stay lasts longer than two nights. This barrier island between St. Helena and Hunting Island offers the best of life on the sound and the Atlantic. Harbor Island Rentals: 2123-B Sea Island Parkway, Harbor Island, SC 29920; 1-800-553-0251 or www.harborisland-sc.com. One-bedroom condos range $135-$175 in the springtime, while two-bedrooms range $150-$195. The condo resort includes 3 miles of beach, a tennis facility, and swimming pools.
For more information: Contact the Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce, 1106 Carteret Street, Beaufort, SC 29901; (843) 524-3163 or www.beaufortsc.org.
This article is from the April 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.