Driving along Beaufort’s historic Bay Street, with the Beaufort River on one side and grand antebellum homes on the other, is a visual treat. The second oldest South Carolina city, established by the British in 1711, was spared the same fate as Columbia during the Civil War because it was occupied by the Union early on; in fact, the Union occupation literally preserved Beaufort’s historical architecture and design. Although modern cars are parked along the sidewalk of the downtown and at the adjoining marina, Beaufort today harkens to a bygone era of simplicity, quaintness, and hospitality.
Where to Stay
Wealthy plantation owners constructed the grandest of the antebellum homes as in-town residences, including Cuthbert House Inn. Built circa 1810, the 10-room elaborate mansion was one of the first to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1960s.
Its claim to fame is that Gen. William T. Sherman stayed there Jan. 24, 1865, literally a few weeks before leading his troops to Columbia, which was burned Feb. 17. Innkeeper Shannon McKay, while giving us a home tour, showed us the portrait of Sherman in the foyer bathroom, “where he belongs,” she quipped. A glass case in the foyer also houses a photograph of Union soldiers posing on the Cuthbert House steps. She then checked us into a luxurious room with plush towels and robes as well as cloud-like beds. Everything was at our fingertips, including bath salts and lip balm.
The inn’s relatively new owners, Connie and Pierre-Edouard Binot, are obviously just as enamored with the home and town’s history as are guests. During the inn’s evening social hour, which includes wine or beer and a spread of hors d’oeuvres, the couple exuberantly shares historical facts.
Where to Dine
Equally as stately is the Anchorage 1770 Inn, just a saunter from Cuthbert. About a year ago, owners Amy and Frank Lesesne established the Ribaut Social Club restaurant, naming it for the young “gentlemen’s” group organized in the home in 1891. Dinner reservations are encouraged. We entered the candlelit interior with its centerpiece staircase, resplendent with intricate woodwork, and were advised to enjoy a cocktail on the third-floor heated porch to relax and peruse the menu while waiting to be called to dinner. Sumptuous upholstered wicker and the twinkling of boat lights on the water made it difficult to leave the sweeping porch and make our way to the first-floor formal dining room.
To start, Jessica brought us petite cloud-like flaky biscuits — the best I’ve ever enjoyed. The seasonal menu has a vegan flair; for example, the velvety mushroom soup includes no cream. We dined on frisse, spinach, dried blueberries, green apples, and pecan salad with cherry balsamic vinaigrette and a filet of beef outfitted with charred onions and sauce Choron, a tomato-spiked béarnaise sauce. We also chose the rich, yet complementary combination of smoked pork roulade with cranberry and apple chutney and shitake mushrooms. Jessica made the perfect libation suggestions of a Napa Valley Franciscan Chardonnay and a 2015 Oregon Elouan Pinot Noir for these meals. Fresh blueberry-topped chocolate and sea salt creme brulee finished the evening well, as did a visit from Amy, who vivaciously shared with us and other guests, “We want people to feel like they are celebrated guests in our home.” Achieved!
The next night featured a culinary delight as well. Breakwater Restaurant & Bar, a 10-plus-year-old establishment in the town’s heart, focuses on seasonal and local. On the menu, for example, was octopus “caught yesterday,” Laura told us, paired with duck-fat fingerling potatoes and kale chips. After enjoying The Prohibition, made with Gentry bourbon, house-made sugar simple syrup, and orange and cherry bitters, as well as Prince of Tides with Patron Silver, St. Germain, fresh lime, and honey syrup, we settled in with orange marmalade and buttermilk biscuits, a kale and arugula salad, curry-glazed local shrimp and vegetables with coconut wild rice, and shrimp tagliatelle with swiss chard, tomato, pumpkin, haricots verts, pine nuts, and an autumn pistou.
A plate of house-made brownies awaited us back at Cuthbert. The inn, in fact, provided its own exceptional breakfast experiences. In the mornings, we dined in the waterview breakfast room with soothing piano music, fine china, linen napkins, and French press coffee. We were treated to cream cheese and chives scrambled eggs, buttery grits, smoked sausage, and biscuits one morning and cinnamon apple pancakes with maple syrup and thick ham the next. We enjoyed lunch at the beautiful historic post office-turned Lowcountry Produce, which offered delicacies such as green tomato soup, chicken salad, crab bisque, and a classic BLT.
Our second day, we tried the Magnolia Bakery Café and enjoyed tomato Florentine soup, Turkey Club Panini (with bacon, Havarti, black pepper dijonnaise on house-made herb bread), fruit pie a la mode, and carrot cake. For one afternoon break, we scooted down a little side street and entered Common Grounds coffee/gelato shop. A half cafe mocha, made with Ghirardelli dark chocolate with just enough froth to substitute for any whipped cream, satisfied an afternoon hunger craving.
What to Do
A history and Hollywood van tour by historian Bill Reynolds loaded our minds and imaginations as we cruised slowly by the myriad of homes representing important state and national history, such as the “secession house,” where initial Confederate meetings transpired, and the John Mark Verdier house, where George Washington’s friend Gen. Marquis de Lafayette gave a farewell address to America and which is open to the public. Author Pat Conroy, with four books developed into films (two of which were filmed in Beaufort) was a huge part of Bill’s thorough tour. Everything from The Great Santini film house to Pat’s cemetery plot was pointed out. The tour ended after driving by the Literary Center that bears the author’s name. “You really can’t visit Beaufort without learning about Pat Conroy,” explains Bill. “He helped put the town on the map by writing about it.” After The Great Santini was filmed in 1979, the area became a destination spot for such flicks as The Big Chill, Forest Gump, GI Jane, Platoon, and many more.
After the tour, a massage awaited us at The Beaufort Day Spa, nestled in a cozy cottage. Natural greens envelope this soothing setting, owned by licensed massage therapists Jennifer Poole and Christina Chavarria Byrne, who also pamper their clients with body treatments, facials, manicures, and more.
Besides historical facts and movie mania, there is Hunting Island State Park and Lighthouse, beaches, homes to tour, museums, and the fun — and noisy — Kazoo Factory. Nearby St. Helena Island features a stable with private and guided horseback rides on the beach or through the moss-draped oak pathways of an old plantation.
Where to Shop
One day we walked a block or so from Cuthbert House Inn and another day we borrowed complimentary bikes, complete with a water bottle and map, to peruse the quality shops on Beaufort’s main street. It’s Me women’s boutique specializes in, as its motto conveys, “unique, affordable fashions.” The experience was all assistance and no pressure. At Olive the Above, dozens of flavor-infused balsamic vinegars and olive oils are on display. Cook on Bay opened in September 2017 and is a well-stocked store for primo home chefs and dabblers alike. A favorite find, just a few blocks off the main Bay Street, was the independent NeverMore Books. Owner Lorrie Anderson said that Hurricane Matthew moved them from another location to this historic firehouse, an architectural brick treasure with arched, decorative, wrought-iron-lined windows. The local icon, The Chocolate Tree, is the shop where Tom Hanks supposedly got his box of chocolates for some Forest Gump scenes. It features walls of celebrity photos and awards. Since 1980, the smell of chocolate has been wafting from this delightful spot.
As I packed up to return home, I felt as if I had just scratched the surface of all that there is to experience in this quintessentially Southern enclave and look forward to my next visit!