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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.

Owner Jackie Frazier is well known locally for the fact that he never wears shoes. ("There are no stones in this part of South Carolina," I was told, "so he doesn't need to.") But otherwise Frazier is a fount of innovation, growing all of his produce vertically on sturdy poles staked out in a greenhouse behind his stand and, for reasons I never completely understood, planting his strawberries inside what appeared to be individual serving-size cardboard crates.

Another local character you'll have to drive a bit farther to track down is Harold Peeples, who operates an unparalleled roadside attraction in the whistle-stop town of Yemassee, about 20 miles inland. It's known as Harold's Country Club, but there are no swimming pools here. Harold's is a hard-working, grease-spattered Exxon station that, without noticeably tidying up, turns into a family restaurant three nights a week.

On Wednesdays Harold's serves up hamburgers and hot dogs, on Thursdays "pot luck," and on Saturdays rib-eye steaks – all in the presence of hanging fan belts and stray cans of STP oil treatment. "You have to call in advance," one diner warned me, "to let him know how many steaks you'll want and how you'd like them done. But then if your party shows up and you eat fewer than you said, you still have to pay for them."

Downtown Beaufort is a good place to walk around, with its historic houses and inns packed side by side. Cotton and indigo money puffed Beaufort's buildings with plantation-style pride, and on roadways like Craven Street, you are surrounded by rooflines and balconies that are exotic, a little exaggerated and look like nothing up North.

There's a little park along the waterfront that ends in a promenade paved with "tabby" – an ancient Sea Island mixture of oyster shells, lime, sand and water. Thomas Fuller House at 1211 Bay St. (otherwise known as "Tabby Manse") was built from the same stuff back in the late 18th century, and with its double portico stands as a prototype for many breeze-catching Beaufort homes. Its almost spindly columns give it a rare airiness, and the terracotta-like front staircase seems to spread out in welcome.

Nearby Milton Maxey House ("Secession House") at 1113 Craven St. was constructed a bit later, in 1813, but is also worth a look because its Greek Revival upper floors were plunked on top of a Spanish-style foundation with arches the color of sea coral and intricate ironwork in between.

South Carolina's ordinance of secession from the Union was first drafted here, and graffiti scrawls by Union soldiers are still discernible on its basement walls. Because Union troops invaded and occupied Beaufort very early in the Civil War, most of the town's big houses became luxury quarters for Union officers or troop bivouacs, and ended up surviving the war pretty much intact.

Bay Street is Beaufort's Main Street, with its longstanding anchors like Lipsitz Department Store, selling straw boaters since 1903, and Fordham Hardware, dispensing tools since the mid-1940s. If you poke your head into Lipsitz, you will breathe the air of long-forgotten dry-goods places and five-and-dimes, even if owner Joe Lipsitz (who just turned 80) isn't around.

Lipsitz's sales floor is lined with wood and glass display cabinets from the '30s and '40s, and sun-faded cardboard advertising displays for Kedettes, Florsheim and Red Goose Shoes. "We keep some with the trends," explained Lucille Lipsitz, the owner's wife, "but mainly with the classics."

Lucille introduced me to Lippy III, a (mostly silent) myna bird in a prominently positioned cage, but I was told that Lippy's grandfather, the late Lippy I, took more of an interest in the customers. "You would walk in," Lucille recounted, "and Lippy'd say, 'What you want?' Then if you asked for shoes, he'd say, 'Stride-Rite?'‚"

Fordham Hardware, with its Texaco Fire Chief gas pump in the front window, is noted for its selection of aluminum pots and kettles designed for South Carolina-style outdoor cooking. The largest size allows you to deep-fry a turkey without cutting it up, and the medium one is about right for preparing Frogmore Stew – a caldron full of shrimp, sausage, ears of corn and Old Bay seasoning that is dumped out on a paper-covered picnic table and eaten with cocktail sauce and saltines on the side (see recipe at right).

What you want?

I want to try some of that stew, please. I want to walk in the morning under a ragged canopy of oaks, and listen to cicadas tuning up for the heat of the day. I want to breathe in Sea Island air, and bite into tomatoes that are as red inside as they are outside.

I want to stay in Beaufort, now that the marsh grass is changing from summer green to gold. It's just the time of year for opening windows. If you see curtains puffed out like sails, look for me there.

Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel on Halifax, Nova Scotia.

DETAILS Beaufort, S.C.

GETTING THERE: The closest major airports to Beaufort are Savannah, Ga. (about 45 miles) and Charleston (about 70 miles). The town is roughly halfway between these two cities and about 20 minutes from Highway 17 and Interstate 95. US Airways flies direct from the Washington area to Savannah for about $190 round trip and to Charleston for $160 round trip, with restrictions. Midway and United also fly nonstop to Charleston for about the same rate. By car, Beaufort is 525 miles away, about a nine-hour drive on I-95 south, off Exit 33.

WHERE TO STAY: Beaufort has many plantation-style, porch-fronted inns. Though less imposing than some, Craven Street Inn (1103 Craven St., 888-522-0250; $125 to $199 per night, includes breakfast and evening wine and cheese) is particularly charming, in part because it's furnished in an elegant but unfussy Sea Island style and because the young couple running it are attentive, friendly and fun to talk to.

The Cuthbert House Inn (1203 Bay St., 800-327-9275; $145 to $225) is perfectly situated, with views across Bay Street to the Beaufort River.

A bit more grandiose than either of the above, the Rhett House Inn (1009 Craven St., 888-480-9530; $125 to $225) is nevertheless a lovely place to stay, and the monumental double veranda all but insists that you sit and watch what walks by.

WHERE TO EAT: Steamed and battered seafood is king around these parts, and 11th Street Dockside (1699 11th St. W., Port Royal) may be the best all-around place to try Beaufort-area shrimp or oysters. Plus it's atmospheric: Since the restaurant is directly across the water from Marine exercise grounds on Parris Island, you can sometimes see tracer bullets flashing in the distance. Entrees start at $12.95.

Steamer (168 Sea Island Pkwy, Lady's Island) is the seafood joint everyone tells you about and the acknowledged local headquarters for Frogmore Stew. No frills but good, fragrant shellfish and rolls of paper towels for cleanup. Entrees start at $9.95.

Beaufort is not known for its "fine dining," but Bistro Dejong (205 West St.) has some interesting fusion-style dishes and an intimate dining room that is simple and bright. Big-city prices, though, with entrees starting at $17.

Plums (904½ Bay St.) is a crowded little place with a waterfront deck that seems to do almost everything well: spicy seafood soups, interesting sandwiches, fresh salads. I thought restaurants named after fruits were generally bad news, but I was wrong. Entrees start at $5.25.

WHAT TO DO: A couple of Sea Island bridges east of Beaufort on U.S. 21 is Hunting Island State Park (843-838-2011), with its white-sand beach, pine and palmetto forest, and storybook-quality 19th-century lighthouse you can climb. Because of beach erosion, Hunting Island offers the surprising spectacle of trees seeming to grow right up to the edge of the surf.

A good way to see the town from the water is on a brief Beaufort River cruise aboard the Islander (843-524-4000, $18), a small excursion boat that sails from Beaufort's Waterfront Park a couple of times a week. You'll see plenty of salt marshes, wading birds and, if you're lucky, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

St. Helena Island's Penn Center (843-838-2432, $4 for museum) is well worth visiting for the windows it opens on the lives and history of the Sea Islands' Gullah population. The museum and pleasant rural campus are at the site of the Penn Normal School, the nation's first school for freed slaves.

The Beaufort Museum (713 Craven St., 843-525-7077; $2) has rotating exhibits on area history and culture. One of the highlights is the old arsenal building in which the museum is housed, which resembles the military headquarters of some sun-bleached banana republic, complete with a harmless-looking iron cannon and row of palm trees standing at strict attention.

The nearby historic town of Port Royal is worthwhile, in particular because it's the home of the Lowcountry Repertory Theatre (809 Paris Ave., 843-525-0968). Instead of rehashing the old standards, the theater often features locally flavored musicals like the recent headliner, "The Wonderful Adventures of Brer Rabbit."

INFORMATION: South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, 803-734-1700, www.travelsc.com; Lowcountry Tourism Commission, 800-528-6870, www.lowcountry.org; or Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce, 843-524-3163, www.beaufortsc.org

Frogmore Stew

(6 to 10 servings)

This recipe is courtesy of Emory S. Campbell and the Penn Center, St. Helena Island.

½ cup hot red pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons seafood seasoning, such as Old Bay
5 pounds medium or large unpeeled shrimp
2 to 4 cups beer (any commercial brand will do: Coors, Schlitz, Budweiser) or water
2 onions, sliced into ¼-inch rings
2 pounds smoked pork or beef sausage, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 stalk celery, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced
6 to 10 ears of corn on the cob, corn shaved off, cobs discarded
10 to 12 medium-size white potatoes, peeled and diced (optional)

In a large bowl, combine ¼ cup of the pepper sauce, 1 tablespoon of the salt and the seafood seasoning. Add the shrimp and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 30 to 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large pot over medium-high heat, bring the beer or water to a boil. Add the onions, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the sausage and simmer until the juices are released, about 15 minutes. Add the remaining ¼ cup of the pepper sauce, celery and bell pepper and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the marinated shrimp, discarding the marinating liquid, the corn and, if desired, the potatoes, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

To serve, ladle into individual bowls.

Per serving (based on 10): 688 calories, 68 gm protein, 20 gm carbohydrates, 33 gm fat, 406 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 2,576 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

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