Beaufort, South Carolina, is a literary and film lover’s dream as the adopted home of author Pat Conroy and one of America’s 20 best small towns to visit this year.
Located between Savannah and Charleston, Beaufort, South Carolina, is part of Port Royal Island, one of the largest sea islands along the southeast Atlantic coast. Filled with mansions built by wealthy plantation owners before the Civil War, Beaufort is also one of a handful of towns to have its entire downtown designated a historic district. The seaside location, picturesque homes and general friendliness of Beaufort have attracted the movie industry over the years, along with bestselling author Pat Conroy, who made the town his home at age 15.
The Smithsonian Magazine named Beaufort to its “20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014” list earlier this year, but you’d never know it from visiting. Life in Beaufort moves at the same pace it always has, and although locals have plenty of stories about run-ins with Conroy and some big-name movie stars, they remain down to earth in their little corner of paradise.
Founded in 1711, Beaufort has plenty of tales to tell, ranging from those about the war, movie industry coming to town in the 1980s and more recent ones involving the waterfront park, where the annual Shrimp Festival is held. The best part is they’re all intermingled, so you’ll get a dose of history with your small town lore. A good place to start is Rhett House Inn. You may assume the name comes from Scarlett O’Hara’s tumultuous beau, but the opposite is true. Margaret Mitchell named her character of Rhett Butler after the prominent Rhett family of Beaufort and Charleston.
The inn’s 6,000-square-foot Greek Revival mansion was built by Thomas Rhett just a block from the Beaufort River. Today, it houses 10 rooms across three floors, in addition to a cottage across the street with seven more rooms. Don’t miss afternoon cocktails and snacks on the front gallery or after-dinner drinks and dessert by the fire in the parlor. These social hours are a great time to quiz the innkeeper about Barbra Streisand’s short stay there during filming of “The Prince of Tides,” as well as Blythe Danner’s visit to the inn during filming. (You’ll find framed photos of both of the stars in the parlor.)
From Rhett House, walk on down to the riverfront and take in the view of Woods Memorial Bridge (a stand-in for the Mississippi River Bridge in the movie version of “Forrest Gump”). Get an even closer look by booking an evening cruise with Captain Dick aboard The Prince of Tides. Leaving from the downtown marina, the 24-passenger boat travels under the bridge and past the historic Point neighborhood. Captain Dick is a wealth of information about the historic homes along the way, who summers in Beaufort (apparently Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, did) and general life on the water.
After docking, it’s just a short walk to Saltus River Grill, serving cutting-edge seafood since 2001 at the hands of native Chef Brian Waters. Start with The Jenny cocktail, a mix of Meyer lemon-infused vodka, sweet tea with lemon and a sugar rim, then sample the raw bar, entrees like the Sea Island Shrimp and Grits or a spicy tuna roll from the sushi menu. On cool evenings, the outdoor firepit with a view of the water is a great late-night spot, but don’t forget that dessert waiting for you back at Rhett House.
Now that you’ve caught a glimpse of the historic homes of the Point by water and had a good night’s sleep in a four-poster bed, you’ll want to see them up close by foot. Fuel up for a walking tour at Lowcountry Produce Market & Cafe for breakfast. Then, let Beaufort Touring Company lead you through the neighborhood Pat Conroy called home in Beaufort. A cannon along the waterfront serves as a reminder of the war’s impact, and it’s on the corner of this row of Bay Street houses that you’ll find the one used for Tom’s mother’s home in “The Prince of Tides.” (Like I said, history mixed with lore.) Down the street is the home Barbra Streisand moved to after wearing out her welcome at Rhett House, and at the water you’ll find one of the district’s most notorious homes dubbed The Castle (pictured below). Recognizable from the Sandra Bullock movie “Forces of Nature,” this beauty is also where Sally Field stayed during the filming of “Forrest Gump.”
Just as notable is The Big Chill house, also on the waterfront. This owner maintains her privacy so getting a good view is difficult from the street, but a kayak tour will get you up close. More movie lore in The Point includes the oak tree where Robert Duvall passed out in “The Great Santini,” and the Pat Conroy stories continue as you pass the house (pictured below) he lived in when most of his earlier works were penned. Lasting about an hour and a half, the walking tour is a wealth of information. Like most Beaufort locals, tour guide Collin Davidson has stories of his dad playing tennis with Robert Duvall when he was in town filming and his mom and great-grandmother serving as extras for “The Big Chill.”
You may want to make time to stroll back through The Point on your own later or even book a movie tour to see more famous filming spots in town.
At the end of the tour, you’ll find yourself downtown once again and could shop around, stop in at Rhett Gallery (yes, the family makes art too) or McIntosh Book Shoppe for that signed first edition of The Prince of Tides before lunch. If it’s more Pat Conroy you’re after, then consider Griffin Market, his favorite spot for lunch. Open at 11:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, this taste of Italy in the lowcountry serves up bruschetta, handmade pasta, paninis and polentas, with tiramisu and panna cotta for dessert. “Its food is glorious and it is, by a long shot, the best Italian food ever served in South Carolina,” wrote Conroy in a review of the restaurant in Low Country Weekly.
Wren is also a charming spot for lunch and a glass of wine. A neighborhood bistro and bar, Wren serves lunch Monday through Saturday, with lighter fare including the Lowcountry Cobb salad and heartier sandwiches like the Southern Tier stacked with fried green tomatoes, goat cheese, bacon, mayo and charred tomato relish on sourdough bread.
Consider venturing out of Beaufort for the afternoon and taking a drive to Hunting Island just over the bridge. In fact, a drive is a great way to orient yourself among this strip of islands and get a glimpse of the Gullah influence. You’ll pass through Lady’s Island, Distant Island, St. Helena, Harbor Island and eventually Hunting and Fripp Island, where Conroy now makes his home. Driving into the state park on Hunting Island feels like a scene out of “Jurassic Park,” with towering palms forming a canopy over the roadway. Climb the lighthouse and get a view of the beach below, a stand-in for Vietnam in “Forrest Gump” or just enjoy the view from a picnic table near the beach.
On the way back to Beaufort, take the opportunity to drive through St. Helena and see a slice of Gullah culture. The descendants of enslaved Africans who lived in the lowcountry, the Gullah people help flavor life in the sea islands through their sweetgrass basket making, cuisine and language. A detour through St. Helena affords a view of the historic Penn Center, the first school in the nation dedicated to the education of freed slaves, and the remains of the Chapel of Ease, an excellent example of tabby architecture dating to 1740. Red Piano Too Gallery at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive is a great spot to view and purchase local art, but you’ll also want to cross the street to Gullah Grub for some authentic cuisine and folk artist Jery B. Taylor’s widely collected sweetgrass baskets and paintings and prints.
Right before crossing the bridge back to Beaufort, you’ll spot L.T.’s Home Cooked Meals on the left side of the road, a no frills spot for plate lunches and delicious shrimp burgers. Tom Hanks may have made local news for eating a shrimp burger at The Shrimp Shack, but L.T.’s is a favorite of Taylor’s.
We suggest wrapping up your trip back on the water in a kayak led by Irene Goodnight of Lands End Tours. You’ll find Irene, a native who returned home three years ago, living on her sailboat at the marina part-time and out on Sea Island Parkway the rest of the time. She embodies what life is about in Beaufort and will guide you below the bridge and into your own private channel along the famous houses of The Point, telling stories about singing on the set of “Forrest Gump” and getting married at The Castle during filming for “Forces of Nature.”
Like most Beaufort locals, Irene’s life is dictated by the tides. “My favorite spot at high tide is going under the bridge and into the marsh in downtown Beaufort,” she says. “At low tide, it’s the sandbar.”
WHEN TO GO
The Beaufort Homegrown Music Fest is happening this weekend, June 6-7, downtown, and Irene Goodnight is scheduled to sing on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The Beaufort Shrimp Festival marks its 20th anniversary this year during the first weekend in October.
Fall Festival of Houses and Gardens October 24-26 is a great time to get a peek inside the historic homes of the Point.
Heritage Days on St. Helena is scheduled for November 6-9 and celebrates the Gullah heritage.
The Beaufort International Film Festival takes place each February and is a great way to celebrate the city’s past and future in film.
Rhett House Inn – A AAA 4-Diamond property, Rhett House has 10 rooms in the mansion and seven in a cottage across the street. Newcastle House with two bedrooms and baths is also available for rent on the grounds. Amenities include a glass of champagne upon arrival, breakfast, evening hors d’oeuvres, a library of books and DVDs set in the area, free wifi and lots more. Rooms range from $169-$289 a night.
The Beaufort Inn – Stay in this Victorian mansion and bed and breakfast (pictured) in the historic district. The house has 30 guest rooms, and two cottages are also available. Amenities include wet bars, soaking tubs, breakfast, free wifi and afternoon refreshments. The inn also offers the Beaufort Day Spa and Southern Graces Bistro, which features afternoon tea and pastries. Rates start at $134 per night.
City Loft Hotel – A boutique hotel located right downtown, City Loft offers 23 guest rooms, a newstand and coffeeshop and fitness center. Amenities include soaking tubs, free wifi, flat-screen televisions, work stations and pet-friendly rooms. Rooms start at $139 a night.
Saltus River Grill – Overlooking the Beaufort River, this upscale restaurant features fresh seafood, grilled items and sushi. Open for dinner Sunday-Saturday from 5 p.m.-until, with sushi and cocktails available starting at 4 p.m. “Forrest Gump” fans should order The Jenny cocktail.
Griffin Market – Pat Conroy’s favorite lunch spot, this unassuming little spot on Carteret Street offers a traditional Italian menu. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and dinner from 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Wren – A neighborhood bistro and bar on Carteret Street, Wren serves fresh salads and sandwiches, burgers on Thursday nights and a full bar with wine and cocktails. Lunch is served from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and dinner from 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Emily’s Restaurant & Tapas Bar – Stop by Emily’s on Republic Street downtown for small plates and drinks or order from the dinner menu, which ranges from steak to chicken, seafood and pasta dishes. The kitchen is open nightly from 4-10 p.m., with the bar open until last call.
Gullah Grub – Located on Sea Island Parkway in St. Helena, about 10 minutes from Beaufort, this restaurant serves traditional Gullah cuisine, ranging from lowcountry crab soup to fried shrimp and fish, gumbo and peach cobbler for dessert. Open Monday and Tuesday from noon-6 p.m., Wednesday-Friday from noon-7:30 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Saturdays for worship.
L.T.’s Home Cooked Meals – For burgers, seafood and plate lunches, this little diner on Sea Island Parkway just over the bridge from Beaufort serves lunch Monday-Saturday and breakfast on Sunday. We recommend the shrimp burger.
Sweetgrass Baskets – Sold all over the lowcountry, sweetgrass baskets are no longer a secret — or a good deal. Ranging from about $30 for a tiny basket to $500 for a large one, they are a pricey but collectible souvenir. Folk artist and weaver Jery B. Taylor is renowned for her styles and can be found outside Gullah Grub selling her baskets and folk art.
Signed Pat Conroy first edition from Macintosh Book Shoppe – Stop in at Beaufort’s independent book shop for the latest Pat Conroy or a signed first edition of one of his classics. In March, a copy of The Prince of Tides was going for $85.
Chocolate from The Chocolate Tree – A favorite of Tom Hanks when he was in town filming “Forrest Gump,” chocolate from this Carteret Street shop comes in different assortments, along with toffee, fudge, truffles and brittle. The owner is said to ship a box to Hanks each year on his birthday, so you could always just ask for the Tom Hanks special.
Forrest Gump – Celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer, the film that coined the phrases “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get” and “Run Forrest, Run” was filmed in and around Beaufort. Keep an eye out for Woods Memorial Bridge, a stand-in for the Mississippi River bridge during Forrest’s cross-country run.
Forces of Nature – Beaufort’s Castle house in the Point neighborhood is the real star of this 1999 film, but Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck came to town as well. The movie’s hurricane wedding scene was man-made, but a real hurricane did hit during filming.
The Prince of Tides – Based on Pat Conroy’s best-selling novel, this family drama brought Barbra Streisand, Nick Nolte and Blythe Danner to town in 1991. The film includes some beautiful shots of the Beaufort River and marsh, as well as one of the historic homes along Bay Street and a beachouse on Fripp Island.
The Big Chill – This 1983 film is still a classic, as is the big white house on the Beaufort River that stars Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt and Kevin Kline shot their scenes in. The movie’s funeral route also winds its way through Beaufort.
The Great Santini – Another movie based on a Pat Conroy novel, this was one of the first big Hollywood films to come to Beaufort and starred Robert Duvall and Blythe Danner. The film shares a setting with The Big Chill house.
Photo credits, from top: Marsh and shrimp boats courtesy of Visit Beaufort; Rhett House, homes of The Point by water, The Jenny cocktail, cannon and Woods Memorial Bridge, The Castle, Pat Conroy house, Hunting Island lighthouse, Chapel of Ease, Jery B. Taylor’s sweetgrass baskets and L.T.’s shrimp burger by Deep South; kayaking by The Castle from Lands End Tours, The Beaufort Inn from Beaufort Inn Facebook page and Gullah Grub by Deep South.
Thanks to Visit Beaufort, The Rhett House and everyone else who hosted me in March for a getaway weekend to Beaufort. Your hospitality was incredible, and I hope I’ve done justice to your lovely coastal town. This trip, which also included Tybee Island, Savannah, Hilton Head and Charleston, is tagged #DSGetaway. See all the pics and updates on Facebook and Twitter by searching for the hashtag, and read a review of The Rhett House on Getaways for Grownups here.