Southern Comfortable

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 22, 2000

When it comes to the mechanically cooled contemporary American South, this may be close to blasphemy. But here goes: Some of us do not like central air. Indoor breezes are indoor breezes, if you ask me. You might be in a mall, or at the movies, or driving around in your car.

But if you want to catch the seasonal thickness of a late summer night, you find yourself rolling through South Carolina with the windows down, or propping open the door of your motel. You search and search for towns near the coast that have a mix of saltiness and farminess in the air, and were laid out to breathe in this elixir, not freeze-dry in it.

And you are very happy to find Beaufort, S.C.

Once known as the "Newport of the South" because of the mansions built here by wealthy planters of rice and cotton, and famous more recently as a sort of Hollywood South ("The Prince of Tides," "Forrest Gump" and "The Big Chill" were all filmed here), Beaufort is famous for its carefully preserved pre-Civil War homes, outfitted with two-story, colonnaded porches and southeast frontages to make the best of the available winds. And although Beaufort is about halfway between Charleston and Savannah, Ga., when you visit you feel as if you are in a separate seaside dominion with its own, sometimes lavish, local atmosphere.

Everywhere you turn there are live oaks with dangling shreds of Spanish moss and inlets edged with soft-looking marsh grass that changes from a light green to gold as summer moves toward fall. Small boats promenade up and down the Intracoastal Waterway, and you can sometimes see groups of bottle-nosed dolphins close to shore as they use the tidal eddies in an attempt to outwit schools of fish.

Beaufort (pronounced BEW-fort, unlike North Carolina's Beaufort, which is pronounced BOE-fort) is a friendly place where people like to use each other's name as often as they can. ("Roger, is it March when soft-shell crabs get on local menus?" "Well, Eric, I think that's right.") It is also the semiofficial headquarters of South Carolina's Sea Islands, which include such well-known destinations as Hilton Head and Parris Island – with its Marine Corps basic training center – but also hundreds of barely charted, Gilligan-size places.

Lady's Island, Cat Island, Cane Island, Coosaw Island, Distant Island, Spring Island. On some of these you find full-scale resorts, and on others fishing shacks on stilts, minor crossroads and, you begin to think, more herons than human inhabitants. But here and there, you can discover Gullah communities that are partly made up of slave descendants who were brought here from Africa's west coast, and that are infused with a distinctive African American culture and dialect.

Gullah settlements on St. Helena Island – such as, Wallace, Capers and Coffin Point – tend not to show up on signs, so you may not know you are nearby unless you ask or, perhaps, unless you have heard Sea Island words and phrases mixed into speech. For instance, a Gullah speaker might ask, "Hah onnah da do?" instead of "How are you doing?"

One of the area's points of pride is that the Emancipation Proclamation was first applied in Beaufort and the islands on Jan. 1, 1863, since, at that point, it was the only major chunk of the South occupied by Union troops. During the Civil War, Philadelphia missionaries set up the nation's first school for freed slaves – the Penn Normal School on St. Helena – and you can visit it in its present incarnation, the Penn Center, where during the early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. and his staff were said to have drawn up plans for the March on Washington.

I liked Beaufort the minute I saw that it was surrounded by fried chicken restaurants and small-scale roadside diners instead of Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's. Although well-heeled retirees have discovered the area and kicked off a housing and retail boom, there's a lot less sprawl than you might think.

Roads leading in and out of Beaufort are still a bit sleepy, with the occasional Piggly Wiggly supermarket or Huddle House coffee shop popping up at a busy corner. Mostly, though, you find dense, prehistoric-looking forest on both sides and fresh vegetable and fruit stands advertising such edibles as cherry-peach cider and hot boiled peanuts.

The region's staple crops used to be indigo and cotton, but now there are melons and strawberries and green peppers and extraordinary dark red tomatoes. Some of these are picked early and trucked out of state, but a few are allowed to ripen. You can look them over and squeeze them (just to see if they're real) at establishments like Dempsey's along Sea Island Parkway on St. Helena, where you can pick your own produce right off the vines, or from the stands at the unassuming Barefoot Farms, a few miles down the same road.

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