Indeed, Coastal Living magazine proclaimed Beaufort the nation's Happiest Seaside Town earlier this year, citing "Lowcountry friendliness and urban refinement … antebellum architecture, exquisite local cuisine, and rich African-American heritage."
In nominating towns, editors considered qualities such as rankings in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, as well as the number of sunny days, beach health, walkability and intangibles such as "coastal vibe."
Beaufort possesses all those attributes, though strictly speaking, it isn't seaside. It lies on Port Royal Sound and the banks of the brackish Beaufort River. Open water is 16 miles east of the historic town center, where Hunting Island State Park sports 3 miles of pristine beachfront, acres of woodland and a historic lighthouse.
Set in the heart of South Carolina's Sea Islands, Beaufort has a walkable downtown that boasts art galleries, bookstores and antiques shops. Restaurants serve fresh-off-the-boat seafood and classic Lowcountry cuisine such as thick, spicy gumbos and just-picked collard greens. And a sprawling waterfront park doubles as a stage for live concerts.
History here is as palpable as a Lowcountry breeze blowing through the salt marshes. Roots run deep in downtown Beaufort, designated a National Historic Landmark, as well as on nearby St. Helena Island, home to a rich Gullah heritage nurtured by slave descendents.
HISTORY GOES WAY, WAY BACK
The Spanish arrived in the early 1500s but failed to make a go of it. The French later met a similar fate. In 1711, the British established the first successful settlement, despite attacks from Yemasee Indians. (The town's oldest house, said to date to 1717, still has holes that supposedly were designed as rifle slots for defense against Indian attacks.)
But for all this layered history, it's the Civil War — or, "the recent unpleasantness," as McGowan calls it — that still resonates with many.
Beaufort was the first — and last — Confederate town occupied by Union troops during the war. They arrived in 1861, causing 1,400 residents — among them, wealthy owners of cotton plantations on nearby St. Helena Island — to flee. Ironically, the Northerners' long occupation helped ensure Beaufort's preservation. Some homes were confiscated and converted into Union hospitals. Of 7,500 casualties buried in the town's National Cemetery, just 117 are Confederates.
Across the Beaufort River on St. Helena Island, 55 cotton plantations were home to 10,000 enslaved Africans who became classified as "contraband" after Union troops arrived in Beaufort. Because they were largely left to themselves after — and even before — the owners fled, their language, a Creole English dialect called Gullah, survived, along with many of their West African tribal rituals.
Penn Center, one of the first schools for former slaves, was established in 1862. Today, the site is a 50-acre National Historic Landmark District with 19 original buildings. Its museum offers a fascinating view into the island's Gullah culture.
The spot also figures into civil rights history as a place where early movement leaders gathered, and where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote part of his "I Have a Dream" speech.
MADE IT IN THE MOVIES
Hollywood discovered Beaufort with the filming of The Great Santini, released in 1979. It was based on the novel by longtime resident Pat Conroy, who's still a fixture around town. Enough notable films — The Big Chill and Forrest Gump, among others — followed, to spark the creation of drive-by tours of on-location sites.
Other sorts of artists predate the movie makers' arrivals. Beaufort has been an art mecca since the late 1800s, notes J.W. Roane, executive director of the local arts council.
But is it a happy arts town?
It's special. People come to Beaufort because it's beautiful. And yes, you could say it's the happiest seaside place.