It isn’t often one finds a destination like South Carolina’s low country. A land of diverse flora and fauna, its easy to find alligators, river frogs and spotted salamander as well as a profusion of birdlife all in one swampy marsh. The cultural/historical diversity here is equally fascinating spanning: revolution, secession, Jim Crow laws and civil rights activism all in one region.
It’s island time. Imagine being completely at ease and a warm breeze swirling off the sea and ruffling your hair as you lounge on a white, wooden porch sipping cool iced tea. You are starting to envisage low country life. South of the historic city of Charleston, live oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss still flourish on the multitude of sea islands that make up this part of the state.
Historic architecture prevails in towns such as Bluffton – the 1841 Heyward House – and also the city of Beaufort which appears, quite literally, to be frozen in a former time. Palm trees, magnolia blossoms and myrtle oak flourish in the sultry sub-tropical temperatures here. Though this region is possibly best known for its indigenous cuisine, popular beach/golf resorts and fishing; it is the Revolutionary and Civil War History and the struggle for freedom of enslaved Africans that will be the focus for history geeks.
Fascinatingly, this part of South Carolina has been designated as part of the Gullah-Geechee corridor, referring to descendants of formerly enslaved people who came from West Africa. The storytelling and recreations performed by local Gullah people, which frequently tell the tales and struggles of their ancestors, are moving and intimate stories. A performance by Aunt Pearlie Sue and the Gullah Kinfolk in Beaufort, had the audience spellbound.
The indigenous cooking of South Carolina draws people from far and wide to this part of the United States. The Low Country’s coastal waters are teeming with oysters, shrimp, lobsters, and tarpon while inland creeks are full of Speckled Trout and Redfish. This means fishing is a top pastime but also results in seafood being the basis for many of the area’s best dishes. The Boat to Table trend is nothing new but its popularity is on the rise.
Another staple of the cooking here is Carolina Gold Rice which has been cultivated for centuries. Before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, it was West African slaves who worked the surrounding marshy rice fields. The people who came from Sierra Leone and Angola brought with them expertise in rice cultivation.
Traditional dishes are many and varied: she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, biscuits with gravy, fried catfish. For those with a sweet tooth, the peach cobbler, pecan pie or coconut cake are indescribably good. Cajun cooking is also found in many restaurants with cornbread and gumbo frequently on the menu.
Civil War, cycling and sweetgrass
Hilton Head, 100 miles south of Charleston (a two-hour drive), is known for its 12 miles of pale sand beaches which fringe the island. Famous for its award-winning golf courses: Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, Harbor Town Golf Links and Sea Pines Resort are three that are well-known by enthusiasts and host prestigious events such as the PGA Tour. There are dozens of miles of biking and hiking trails. Surfing, parasailing and kayaking get visitors off-shore and experiencing the many water activities on offer.
Nature enthusiasts will find much to explore here. Hunting State Park on Hunting Island is home to an historic lighthouse and a spectacular beach. It’s worth keeping an eye out in this park’s many wetlands and ponds for heron and oyster catchers.
The history of the area is riveting, particularly for culture buffs. Hilton Head Island was one of the first spoils of war for the Union Army in the 1861 Battle of Port Royal. Some of the historic sites here include Fort Mitchel, Fort Howell and Fort Walker. Several others can be discovered on a heritage tour with the Coastal Discovery Museum.
The city of Beaufort in South Carolina was abandoned by plantation owners at the beginning of the war, and many never returned. If they did, it was nearly impossible for them re-claim their homes. Because the South’s economy collapsed after the skirmishes of the Civil War, many of these old houses are intact and have scarcely been altered since that period.
Mitchelville on Beach City Road is now a designated historic site known as Mitchelville Freedom Park. Designated as an historic landmark, it was the first Freedmen town in the United States. When the Union Army captured Hilton Head in 1861, the plantation owners fled, and the slaves that were left behind, became contraband of war. These freed men and women, along with their children worked for the Union Army and even served in the military. General Ormsby Mitchel gave them the former Drayton Plantation to create their own town which became known as Mitchelville.
Nearby St. Helena Island is the location of the important Penn Center which is now open to the public. This African American academy opened in the late 19th century and became renowned for offering academic subjects to a high standard as well as teaching technical skills. Also, an important craft taught here and practiced by the Gullah people was the weaving of beautifully designed baskets from wild, marsh sweetgrass. A Gullah language New Testament has been translated and published here and is available to purchase.
Put this truly fascinating part of the Deep South on your list for future travels. It will not disappoint.
I stayed at the Beaufort Inn, 809 Port Republic Street, Beaufort, South Carolina 29902, USA.
Tel: +1(843) 379-4667
From Charleston, take route 17 for about an hour, turn onto 21 Trask Parkway to Port Republic Street for Beaufort Inn.
Type of Hotel: Historic 5-Star Boutique Hotel with 48 rooms.
Insider Tip: On the second floor of the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa is virtually an entire museum dedicated to Gullah culture.
America As You Like It (www.americaasyoulikeit.com / +44 (0)20 8742 8299) has a 14 night Discover South Carolina fly-drive from £1709 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights on British Airways from Heathrow to Charleston, 14 days fully inclusive car hire, three nights in Charleston, three nights in Hilton Head at the Westin Hilton Head Resort and Spa and two nights in Beaufort at the Beaufort Inn.
Hunting Island State Park has several accommodation options including renting the old Ted Turner mansion, cabins or camping: www.huntingisland.com
Lynn Houghton is a London based travel writer and photographer.
Photographs courtesy of Beaufort Inn and by Lynn Houghton