Keeping it Low Key in the Low Country

South Carolina’s Low Country is stunning in its natural beauty, including the seemingly endless marshes of Hunting Island. It is hard not to fall in love with the land, the people, and their fabulous food.

Photo by Nathan Sparks

There is something special about the South Carolina Low Country; actually, there are a lot of somethings. As four of us enter the Beaufort city limits, I know we are near the end of our seven-hour drive. We’re headed to Harbor Island, South Carolina, just east of the city. Our goal is to make this the ultimate low-key family vacation for Angelique, Ethan, Troupe, and myself, an SUV so full of gear that I had to borrow a rooftop carrier, and of course our little feline friend Caviar the cat.  As we pass the old antebellum houses surrounded by live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, thoughts of the fast-paced world of magazine publishing become a distant memory—at least for a few days.

Harbor Island is located between St. Helena Island and Hunting Island State Park. It is not overrun by busy, touristy shops but rather is a quiet, serene setting in a gated community—perfect for a peaceful family retreat.

A Natural Retreat

Photo by Nathan Sparks

Our rental home, located at 150 N. Harbor, has been recently remodeled and features one on the few private pools on the island. Many of the homes are on the beachfront, as was ours, making for a different kind of beach experience. You are not actually on the ocean but rather just at the mouth of the Beaufort River. Just off the beach is a large flat, teeming with life. Shrimp boats trolled peacefully up and down the river, as did pods of bottle nosed dolphins. Children swam alongside fishermen and folks cast netting for shrimp while wading waist deep in the water. The people at the rental agency, Seaside Getaways Natural Retreats, couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful in getting our vacation arranged. We arrived to a well-maintained and well-stocked house. If you don’t want to make the 30 minute trip back to town, be sure to visit the grocery on the way to Harbor Island.

Photo by Nathan Sparks

There is quite a bit to do on the island: bike rentals, a community pool, tennis and basketball courts, and several public fishing areas. You can walk on the beach up to the ocean, where we met folks from the Audubon Society looking over great flocks of birds that migrate through the area each year.  This year, I was determined to catch some shrimp in my cast net and got to spend many peaceful hours in the surf hauling in little shrimp.

Pod after Pod

The dolphins were almost constantly coming by, swimming in pods and, I am sure, enjoying the abundant shrimp.  One day I got the bright idea to send Angelique after them in a kayak. It’s a good thing we were counting on her to make dinner that day! Once she got going, she wasn’t about to stop and disappeared up the river. I swear that girl is part fish herself.

Johnson Creek Tavern

Photo by Nathan Sparks

The island is also home to the only publicly accessible restaurant/watering hole within 15 miles. Johnson Creek Tavern is a true delight to visit. The food is excellent, the beer is cold, and the walls are covered in money.  Each year they take it all down and donate it to a charity.

Hunting Island

Just a few miles down the road is the  fabulous Hunting Island State Park. There are miles of woodland trails, enormous beaches, and an awe-inspiring lighthouse. This is one of the best state parks in South Carolina. I have been going there for over 45 years—watching the island change has been fascinating. Hunting Island also has a very large lagoon that is perfect for kayaking, paddle boarding, and at certain times of the year, fishing. I will never forget my time as a boy, watching the banks lined with people and everyone catching lots of fish; except us—we had the wrong bait. Off we went to town for bait. We were first  directed there by a local man: “Just take the double drive on up to Beaufort,” he said. I can still hear the beautiful southern drawl of his voice 49 years later. As soon as we had the right bait, the cooler began to fill with fish: croakers, spots, and even a few trout. Every time I visit, I try to make a point to spend at least an afternoon in the park—reminiscing about those wonderful childhood days.

Photo by Nathan Sparks

Across the street and up a bit is the Gay Fish Company. It is a wonderful journey back into time. I got to speak with Mr. Gay himself and was regaled with stories of the grand days of old when being a shrimper was a more glamourous pursuit. His docks, once filled with boats, now harbor only two; he plans to close, so his children will not be caught in the business like him.  If his place is  still open when you go, be sure to stop in.

Beaufort Proper

This trip wouldn’t be complete without some meals in Beaufort. There are so many wonderful, fun places to dine and shop. We took a nice walk one day through all the back streets to view the lovely old homes and ended up in a used bookstore. The delightful smell of leather bound works of literature was so sweet.  Then on to a great meal at Blackstone’s, just one of at least a dozen places I wish were here in Knoxville.

Beaufort is a wonderful place, nestled in South Carolina’s Low Country, featuring good food, wonderful outdoor sport, and the best fishing you could hope for. Take a vacation there soon. You will not regret it.

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