June 2008

Beaufort - A Love Story

Author: Natalie Daise | Photographer: Maggie Washo

I love Beaufort in an almost embarrassing way. I love the way the air smells in the spring. Even as I write, the scent of jasmine and salt makes me almost giddy with an adolescent-like crush. I love the way the marsh grass changes with the seasons: the gold brown of winter edging into the clean bright green of spring and transitioning soon, I know, into the heavy dull sage of a full hot summer. I tolerate the millions of bugs: ants termites, banana spiders as big as my thumb, mosquitoes, the famous no-see-ums and even the palmetto bugs who, in full defiance of the Orkin man, still manage to creep in from somewhere to die, belly up, at my guests feet. I tolerate them because they are part of this place, which is home to me. Even threat of hurricane and 99-degree days can’t turn my head. I’m hooked.

Beaufort is a city best experienced by foot. Akita (my walking buddy) and I often greet the day on sneakers and paws. We walk along Carteret St, which borders the Old Point, the oldest community in Beaufort, where 100-year old houses still sport gardens of antique camellias and roses and, despite the creep of new development, a spirit of antebellum Beaufort lingers, peering sometimes through warped glass windows. Many of the homes and the old oaks that shade them stood through the Civil War and hold between their walls and beneath their boughs stories we’ll never hear. I wander past the home of Robert Smalls, South Carolina’s first black congressman, and silently acknowledge his legacy. I look cautiously for the goblin ghosts said to haunt the old castle, currently home to Beaufort’s mayor. I never see the ghosts, of course. I’m too old. It’s said that children under 12 (and maybe dogs) can sometimes catch a glimpse of them.

In the pre-dawn light, we can just make out the mermaids who still linger in the neighborhood. Beaufort is a city that loves and supports art, and over the years has hosted many public art events and projects. The mermaids of my morning walk were part of the “Big Swim” public art project sponsored by the Arts Council of Northern Beaufort County. These particular sea nymphs decided not to swim away when the event was over. I’m glad they stayed.

Some mornings, Akita and I walk over the Woods Memorial Bridge to Lady’s Island. We cross the Intracoastal Waterway looking for dolphins, fishing birds and early morning boaters. On other days we walk through the Waterfront Park instead. The recently re-designed park is a great place to feel a part of Beaufort. Wooden swings line the waterfront, tables and chairs with sun umbrellas are placed around the green, and walkways lead to restaurants, shops and galleries. Everything from fine dining to sandwiches, sweet tea and a book to read while eating can be found just a short walk from the water. When I’m not with Akita, I stop in Common Ground for mocha and a bagel. It’s cozy and comfortable in there, and they knowI like soymilk in my chai but the real stuff in my coffee.

The galleries are closed when Akita and I are out, but I look in the windows of some of my favorite places: The Gallery in the old pink house, Eric and Suzanne Longo’s place full of their quirky, original, three-dimensional pieces (I own three!) and Ly Benson’s gallery featuring art of the African Diaspora, on the corner of Port Republic and Charles Streets. For me, time spent in a gallery is as good as a meal. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for both in my town. But in the early morning hours, the restaurants are closed. The big food delivery trucks fill the parking spaces on the otherwise empty streets. Akita and I walk down Newcastle Street, pausing to check on the goldfish in the St. Helena Episcopal Church pond. At the Pigeon Point Park, Akita stops to sniff the newly-placed shrubbery in the renovated playground. The swings are empty now, but by mid-day, the park will be full of children, parents with strollers, resting senior citizens and the occasional stray dog who dashed away from her owner (I won’t name names!).

We turn for home. The river is pink and coral with the sunrise. The birds are making a racket. It’s going to be a wonderful day.

Take a Tour of Beaufort
You can see Beaufort without getting back in your car. The Spirit of Old Beaufort (843-525-0459), located downtown on the Waterfront Park, offers historic walking tours of the Beaufort that used to be. Owned and operated by Eveline Stevens, the tours are conducted by guides in full historic dress who take guests, step by step, back to the antebellum period.

Horse and Buggy tours are another option. Both Carolina Buggy Tours and Southernrose Buggy Tours trot through historic Beaufort and share tales of the early days.

Or stop by the Chamber of Commerce office on the corner of Boundary and Carteret Street for a guide and map for your own walking tour and schedules for gallery walks and openings.

Love in the Gallery
From the House of Aahs on Boundary St, home of regional folk art, to the upscale galleries of Bay Street, there are many places to feed your passion. Ly Benson’s gallery, at 211 Charles St., features art of the African Diaspora from massive verdite carvings to primitive folk art. The Four Winds Gallery at 709 Bay displays iconic and religious art from around the world. The Gallery at 802 Bay St. presents an eclectic mix of national and local artists in all mediums; The Craftseller, just down the street, offers handmade items from ceramics to jewelry; and the canvases and pieces in Art and Soul, located in the Old Bay Marketplace, vibrate with color. From sweet grass sculptures to brushed aluminum palm trees, all can be found in Beaufort’s galleries.

Which Way to Gullah Gullah Island?
Okay. Gullah Gullah Island was a TV show. It’s not a real place. But the Gullah community continues to thrive amidst the new development. Get back in the car and drive over the bridges to St. Helena Island. There you can stop in the world-renowned Red Piano Too gallery, owned by Mary Mack. This red-doored gallery on the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and Sea Island Parkway carries the work of Gullah and folk artists from Sam Doyle to the more contemporary Jonathan Green and Diane Dunham. After leaving the gallery, drive a bit further down Martin Luther King Drive to the Penn Community Center (843-838-2432), the site of the first school in the South for freed Africans, started in 1862. You can park here and walk under the deeply rooted oaks. Visit the York W. Bailey Museum. Let the kids race across the lawns. Wander down to the dock next to the King Cottage, which was built for Martin Luther King, who wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech while on campus. You might share the grounds with a tour bus, or school kids, or a group who paddled in via kayak tour (try Kayak Farm, 843-838-2008, if you’re interested). For a deeper tour of the Gullah community, call Sereatha Tuttle at Gullah and Geechee Mahn tours (843-838-7516). Or come to the Gullah Festival, held annually on Memorial Day Weekend at the Waterfront Park in Beaufort.

Are We There Yet?
Your kids can’t stand one more gallery. That’s okay. Pick up an ice cream cone at Southern Sweets Ice Cream Parlor in the Old Bay Marketplace or at Plums on the waterfront, and let them play on the playground at the Waterfront Park. Or stop by Carolina Stamper, at 203 Carteret St., “where the bubbles” blow and make cool jewelry in the bead room. Or just drive out to Hunting Island to spend some time at the beach. Stop first at The Shrimp Shack for shrimp burgers and fries, and then head out to Hunting Island state park. Climb to the top of the lighthouse and look out at our changing coastline. Go to the interpretive center and meet some of the creatures who make the Lowcountry home. Walk out on the boardwalk and watch the dolphins show off. Go to the beach and toss a Frisbee or skip some waves. Come home with sand in your shorts and shells in your pockets.

I love eating good food that I don’t have to cook myself. My favorite for casual seafood is Dockside on 11th St. in the little town of Port Royal. The windows let in the sunset and the seafood is fresh from the water. No reservations here, so come early and be prepared to wait. For fine dining, Bateaux, also in Port Royal, is lovely with organic, locally grown produce throughout their menu. Saltus is an excellent option downtown. Yes, Thai Indeed! is an adorable little family owned restaurant located on Boundary St. They have great food, good service and a beautiful baby boy who greets guests in his parents’ or grandmother’s arms. If you’re looking for entertainment, there’s karaoke and blues at Kathleen’s on Bay St, country music and rock at Luther’s Rare and Well Done Steaks, just a little further down the street. Emily’s on Port Republic has jazz and blues to accompany their tapas menu, and Breakwater on West Street exudes a hip and bluesy beat even without live music.

The best gumbo in town can’t be found in a restaurant. It’s made and sold by We Island Gumbo, a traveling kitchen. Sometimes it can be found at Penn Center and sometimes in town. If you see the truck, definitely stop and get a bowl along with a side of sweet cornbread.

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