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South Carolina’s Lowcountry holds a special place in history. Dating back to the colonial days in the 18th century, this area thrived on growing rice and blending that with the abundant seafood from the estuaries to create a culinary tradition closer to traditional Cajun cuisine than much of the Southern cooking that dominates the state and the Deep South.
You’ll find plenty of grits in restaurants and cafes all over the region. Plantations dominated both agriculture and the economy and some remain as historic sites to tour. The lands are quite flat; marshy grasslands singing with tree frogs, crickets, katydids, and more occasionally give way to a multitude of bays, waterways, and estuaries. The trees, including graceful Spanish moss that arch over narrow roadways, add beauty and serenity. Towns that trace their history back centuries offer charm, hospitality, and the aforementioned local cooking. So let’s check it out!
We’ll move generally south to north on this tour. So, a good place to begin if you’re coming in via I-95 or U.S. 17 is the area around the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, which is partially in Georgia and partially in South Carolina, on either side of the Savannah River. Sandhill ridges lie to the west; the Atlantic Ocean lies to the east. In between, you’ll find rich flora – especially in summer – and a huge variety of wildlife. Birding here is especially popular, since this area is a popular stop on the Atlantic Flyway. Ducks are prevalent in winter. You’ll find the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center along U.S. 17 in Jasper County just a few miles north of the Savannah River.
Just north of the refuge, follow SC Highway 170 northeast to U.S. 278; that will take you east onto Hilton Head Island, a popular golf and resort area with a rich history. The island was founded by Captain William Hilton, who sailed into the area in 1663 and named the island for himself. While about 38,000 people live full-time on the island, over a quarter million more visit during peak summer season… and the traffic congestion changes accordingly.
During the Civil War, Union forces took over the island and many ex-slaves settled on Hilton Head; some of their descendants, known as the Gullah, remain and amidst a thriving resort area retain much of their original culture, their African- and Creole-influenced language (called “Geechee”), and customs. A Gullah Heritage Tour can give you close-up insight. The oldest surviving structure on the island dates back just prior to the Civil War: the Baynard Mausoleum went up in 1846 and still sits in the Zion Cemetery, which has among its buried Sons of the American Revolution, former plantation owners, and early island settlers. It’s located right along U.S. 278.
A chunk of Hilton Head’s history is pretty recent: the town of Hilton Head didn’t even incorporate until 1983. The first resorts has gone up on the island several decades earlier, with the Sea Pines going up in 1956. Hilton Head’s first big foray into golf started in 1969 when the Heritage Golf Classic began its annual stop on the PGA Tour, which continues. Both resorts and golf courses have multiplied on the island since, as have gated communities.
There are some good cultural attractions on Hilton Head, too: the Coastal Discovery Museum features exhibitions illustrating the history of the Lowcountry. Other activities and exhibits abound, along with trails that take you through saltwater marshes, a butterfly habitat, and a variety of gardens. You can check out local artist works at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina or at the multitude of festivals that take place across the island over the course of the year.
The water and beaches are what draw many to Hilton Head. While sea turtles nest, fish explore, and dolphins frolic, stringrays add a potentially painful excitement for the swimmers and surfers who enter the water – so watch for stingray alerts at the various beaches. For more fun than just playing in the sand or taking a dip in the water, try parasailing, kayaking, or canoeing. Sailing is very popular in Hilton Head, and you have a choice of numerous excursions if you’d like to partake.
Many boat tours run out of Harbour Town, home of the striped Harbour Town Lighthouse and quite a few restaurants. You’ll find it by following Sea Pines Drive to Lighthouse Road all the way to the end… you’ll go past quite a few gated communities and golf courses along the way. You can climb the lighthouse for a very picturesque view of Harbour Town, Calibogue Sound and Intracoastal Waterway, and the golf courses and communities surrounding them.
Heading back out of Hilton Head Island on U.S. 278, you’ll pass by Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, a sister coastal refuge to Savannah from earlier. Meeting with Highway 170 again, head north towards Burton, where you can connect to Business U.S. 21 and head east into Beaufort.
Beaufort is the second oldest city in South Carolina, after Charleston (we’ll end up there later). Chartered in 1711, Beaufort’s location on Port Royal Island offers plenty of beautiful water views. The city’s downtown is filled with antebellum architecture, historic homes, and walkable streets filled with shops and galleries. The city consistently ranks among America’s “Top Art Towns”; Southern Living magazine named it “Best Small Southern Town.” About 300 acres of central Beaufort is designed a National Historic Landmark. Beaufort is popular for movies, too, including Forrest Gump, G.I. Jane, The Prince of Tides, and The Big Chill.
Speaking of, the “Big Chill House” is on Laurens Street. While it’s not open to the public, it’s a good photo op. More historic homes abound, and places like the Verdier House house museum collections of area artifacts, models of ships, Civil War-era items, and more. The Secession House went up in 1810; many meetings were held here regarding southern secession – the consensus was “yes” – hence the name of the house. It’s also known as the Milton Maxcy House.
Near these homes along Bay Street, which not coincidentally runs along the bay, you’ll find the Best Western Sea Island Inn. It’s a musical city too: home to Kazoobie Kazoos, the world’s largest distributor of kazoos, so it’s only fitting that The Kazoo Museum would be located here. The museum covers everything from the invention of the kazoo in the 1840s, to its manufacturing process (which you can observe), and over 200 kazoo-related items.
Beaufort is a major military town too. Nearby Parris Island, just to the south via U.S. 21, is home to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island (MCRD PI). It’s where male recruits from east of the Mississippi River and female recruits from across the country report to receive their initial Marine Corps training; they total about 17,000 each year. Just to the northwest (you’ll see the planes along U.S. 21) is the entrance to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The United States Naval Hospital Beaufort serves both installations.
East of the city and closer to the ocean – though not right on it – is St. Helena Island, which has retained much of its original rural character and culture. Similar to Hilton Head Island, the Gullah (descendants of slaves freed during the Civil War) residents preserve their heritage here. Penn Center features the Penn School, one of the first schools for freed slaves. In the same area is Gantt Cottage, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reportedly wrote up the draft of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. If you choose this side trip, U.S. 21 ends after crossing further east onto a barrier island at Hunting Island State Park. Then you really have no choice but to double back to Beaufort. We mean it this time.
Heading out of Beaufort, follow U.S. 21 north past the Marine Corps Air Station.
This whole area consists of island, saltwater marshes, large live oak and Spanish moss trees, and lowlands consistent with the Lowcountry. Whether on one of the islands, in Beaufort itself, or heading back north out of town on U.S. 21, you’ll see more of the marshes, live oak and Spanish moss trees characteristic of Lowcountry.
As you reach the junction of U.S. 17, take a quick left and then right onto Old Shelton Church Road. Just up the road, you’ll find the Old Shelton Church Ruins. The church ruins, adjacent to a graveyard dating back to the 1750s, have many of the walls remaining and the original Greek revival columns standing, all made of brick. The Ruins still host outdoor weddings amidst the columns, brick walls, and Spanish moss trees draping the area.
An epicenter for Lowcountry can be found heading north on US. 21 (which for a few miles is also south on U.S 17) to Ridgeland along I-95, home to the Best Western Point South. Next to it is the Frampton Plantation House. This stately home, built in 1868 to replace the original home, which was burned by General Sherman’s troops, also serves as the Lowcountry Visitors Center & Museum. Here, you can pick up plenty of information about the region while admiring the period furniture and samples from area museums on the inside along with the magnificent oaks, the Civil War earthworks, and stately architecture on the outside.
From Point South, open ‘er up a bit and hit I-95 for the ride about 20 miles north to Walterboro. If you want to stay purely on the two-lane roads, use US. 21 and Alternate U.S. 17 north, which parallel I-95 to the east.
Walterboro was founded as an early resort and retreat town in 1783. While in the heart of Lowcountry, Walterboro’s location on (relatively) higher ground made it a “retreat” for plantation owners and their families who needed an escape from the malaria-infested mosquitoes that were often ruthless in the fields. The town became the county seat and by 1822 the handsome Colleton County Courthouse opened. This stately structure was designed by South Carolinian architect Robert Mills, who went on to design the Washington Monument.
Over the Courthouse and downtown is the iconic Walterboro Water Tower, which rises 133 feet and has been towering above the Historic District since 1915. Being a “retreat” helped nurture an artistic community; being located on the main railroad between Columbia and Charleston and then later along I-95 nurtured growth as a transportation hub.
Trivia: At the base of Walterboro’s Old Water Tower, you’ll find three jail cells where stranded travelers from years ago who had no money were allowed to stay. They probably had to make their own beds, though.
During World War II, Walterboro Army Air Field was established to train fighter and bomber groups. It hosted a POW camp as well as the largest camouflage school in the country. In 1944, it became an advanced combat training base and was the next stop for over 500 of the famed Tuskegee Airmen after they left Tuskegee.
The Tuskegee Airman Monument stands today next to the airfield on the northeast side of town to commemorate their training, trailblazing (as the first African-American military aviators in the United States), and their success in World War II. The airfield lives on as a general aviation airport called Lowcountry Regional Airport, and a new exhibit in the entrance hall to the terminal showcases B-25 bomber artifacts, photos, and models pays homage to the plane and the 57th Bomb Wing, which played key roles in neutralizing infrastructure and manufacturing facilities for the Axis forces in World War II.
Walterboro’s downtown is well-preserved and features a wide variety of antique stores which draw visitors from all around. A drive down Washington Street, especially, offers up plenty of shopping opportunities. The Colleton Museum & Farmers Market on Washington Street offers local artist’ works, exhibits on county and local history, relics from the plantation era, and of course a farmers’ market (May through October).
Given that rice continues to be a major Lowcountry crop in the areas surrounding Walterboro, the town celebrates with the Rice Festival each year in late April. The arts heritage in Walterboro is also reflected with the South Carolina Artisans Center, which serves as the official Folk Art and Craft Center for the state. That’s on Wichman Street, where in the Historic District just east of downtown you’ll find the Little Library, constructed in 1820 and moved to this location in 1845, it’s a prime example of Federal style architecture, holds the Colleton County Historical & Preservation Society, and is just plain charming. Near the library on Church Street is the lovely old Bedon-Lucas House Museum, one of Walterboro’s “high houses” – named for its relative height off the ground, which was uncommon in 1820 when it was constructed.
Tuskegee Airman Monument
The original pine floors, many original furnishings, and much of the overall interior have all been preserved and it lives on as the Bedon-Lucas Museum. You can tour the house and museum Thursday-Saturday afternoons. A more somber reminder of history is the Slave Relics Museum, which focuses on the cultural history of enslaved African-Americans from 1750 to the 1860s. Actual artifacts made and/or used by slaves during that time are featured; traveling exhibits are frequently on display at the museum as well.
If communing with nature is in order, the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary is available during daylight hours for a stroll through over 800 acres of braided creek and hardwood flats, with plenty of Lowcountry wildlife to see, including beaver and duck ponds and a butterfly garden. The trails offer hiking and biking, and historically the area was part of the Savannah Stagecoach Road – the remnants of which you can follow. North of town, Colleton State Park is smaller at 35 acres but offers kayaking and canoe access to the Edisto River, which if you have the time can be followed for quite a ways via its state-sanctioned trail.
From Walterboro, follow South Carolina Highway 64 southeast out of town; in about 15 minutes, you’ll hook up with U.S. 17. Just prior to the junction is the Isaac Hayne State Historic Site. Isaac Hayne was a Revolutionary War-era plantation owner and patriot who, on August 4, 1781, was hanged by the British in one of the most controversial incidents in the war. The execution of Isaac Hayne was symbolic of Britain's failing military fortunes in the war, and in death Colonel Hayne became a martyr to the Patriot cause and is a subject of several books. He is buried at the family cemetery near Jacksonboro, accessible via dirt road off SC 64 less than two miles before the junction with U.S. 17.
When you reach U.S. 17, head North (technically east at this point) toward Charleston. Via South Carolina Highway 174 you can reach the Ace Basin National Wildlife Refuge and Edisto Beach State Park, which runs along the Atlantic coast twenty miles away. Less than that distance is the Charleston area, and U.S. 17 makes a four-lane highway beeline to it at this point.
Charleston is the oldest city in South Carolina (founded in 1670 as Charles Towne, honoring the King of England) and the second-largest city in the state, after Columbia. The Ashley and Cooper Rivers frame Charleston’s amazingly beautiful Historic District as they gradually meet up and merge into the Atlantic Ocean. Charleston’s setting, history, architecture, restaurants, and friendly reputation earns it constant accolades, from being named “America’s Most Friendly City” by Conde Nast Traveler, the “Most Polite and Hospitable City in America” by Southern Living, a top city for high-tech companies and entrepreneurs by a number of publications, and in 2013 Charleston was ranked #7 among “World’s Best Cities” by Travel + Leisure (Barcelona, Spain was #8 and Paris, France was #9 – this is serious company).
Historically, Charleston is a landmark for more than its age; this is home to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April, 1861. The Fort Sumter National Monument contains plenty of exhibits and information on the Civil War – and its maiden battle – including the original flag that was flying over the fort at the time (you can only see small sections of it in low-light glimpses… it needs to be handled very carefully).
The monument is also the launch point for a boat ride to the actual Fort Sumter, several miles away. It’s visible from the riverfront balconies; also visible upstream is one of the signs of new Charleston, the graceful Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge (also known as the New Cooper River Bridge), a white cable-stayed span that carries U.S. 17 over the Cooper River. In between on the west bank of the Cooper River, next door to the Fort Sumter National Monument, is the South Carolina Aquarium. Across the river at Patriots Point is the USS Yorktown, which is open for tours once you’re done with Charleston proper.
While the Civil War was rough on the city, Charleston has weathered some natural disasters too; an earthquake in 1886 nearly destroyed the city as it was struggling to rebuild from the war. When you realize that earthquake was felt as far away as Boston, Milwaukee, and New Orleans, it gives you an idea of how powerful it was – they estimate 7.3 on the Richter scale. To this day, you may find metal bolts that look like “plus” signs in some old masonry buildings; those are there to provide stability in the event of another earthquake. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 is much more recent and while it did $2.8 billion in damage to the city and locals will recall it like it was yesterday, the city and area recovered quickly. Today, it prospers.
It’s becoming a hub for high-tech businesses too, to the point where one of its nicknames is becoming “Silicon Harbor.” Another primary nickname for Charlestown, since it can be a casual place, is “Chucktown.” But faith in this city is strong, and the multitude of churches is a testament to the long-standing nickname the "Holy City.”
Following U.S. 17 past the Best Western Sweetgrass Inn over the Ashley River, you land in Charleston’s downtown area; the Historic District lies to the south, all the way to the end of the peninsula. It is HIGHLY recommended to fully explore this area. The aforementioned Fort Sumter National Monument and South Carolina Aquarium lie along the Cooper River side (along with that beautiful view of the cable-stayed, harp-like Ravenel Bridge – U.S. 17 – behind them), but any drive south brings you to and through beautiful neighborhoods, historic sites, shops and restaurants, and at the end of the peninsula, The Battery. Primary streets to check out include Market Street, Bay Street, Meeting Street, and King Street, which is home to the city’s burgeoning Fashion District. Many cobblestone side streets take you back to the days of old, even as the city embraces the future. The Charleston City Market on Meeting Street is a National Historic Landmark; the busy exchanging of goods takes place around historic Market Hall, which dates back to 1841, and the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum is also inside. The famous local sweet grass baskets, hand-woven in the region for centuries, often hold the works of art, crafts, food, jewelry, and other items being offered at the City Market. The Aiken-Rhett House, built in 1818, showcases life in antebellum Charleston; it’s right along King Street, not far from City Market and just north of today’s Fashion District.
Hungry? This is a place for unusual food combinations. Hit Sullivan’s Island off the peninsula and try a peanut butter burger at Poe’s Tavern (2210 Middle Street, 843-883-0083) or the Big Nasty Biscuit at the famous Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Avenue, 843-937-0930), which has been featured on numerous foodie shows. Shrimp & Grits are a local delicacy, as is She-Crab soup, which is made from female crabmeat. Places like the Hominy Grill, along with the Charleston Crab House (41 S. Market Street, 843-853-2900) and Hyman’s Seafood (215 Meeting Street, 843-723-6000) are great places to experience this unique dish. Enjoy one (or more) of eight local brews at the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse (161 E. Bay Street, 843-853-4677) and take a ride up the glass elevator to a terrific view of the whole harbor. For marshmallow-y dessert lovers, the Moon Pie General Store (48 N. Market Street, 843-724-3525) – one of several in the South – sits along Market Street; but you’ll find sweet treats, confectionaries, and delectable desserts in places throughout the Historic District.
Toward the end of the peninsula, check out Rainbow Row with its blocks of colorful homes that lead you toward Waterfront Park and The Battery, which once defended Charleston from military attacks and still helps protect the Historic District from the occasionally angry Atlantic. This lovely area is perfect for a walking tour or horse carriage ride. Ghost tours are also popular; with a history as rich as Charleston’s, there are plenty of haunted stories to share.
To get a sense of the Old South outside of the Historic District, a run up Plantation Row is a must. Head out of downtown Charleston and make your way via I-26 and I-526 to SC Highway 61, also known as Ashley River Road, and head north. Paralleling the Ashley River, this road takes you to several amazingly beautiful plantations and gardens. Drayton Hall is a National Trust Historic Site, featuring the only surviving colonial plantation house along the Ashley River. The land was originally acquired by John Drayton back in 1738 and it remains in the Drayton family’s hands today (there have been some upgrades since). Architecture fans will marvel at its Georgian Palladian design, considered one of the finest examples of its kind in the nation. Tours are available of the house and the grounds. The Magnolia Plantation & Gardens is next up the road, dates back even further: to 1676. Magnolia’s garden is the oldest “romantic garden” in the nation, but some of the work stays constantly new: it’s still a working plantation. You can tour the historic home museum, ride a nature train, and take a boat or boardwalk tour of the Audubon Swamp Garden, which is preserved marshland on the plantation grounds. Kids will love the Magnolia Zoo & Nature Center, and the Peacock Café and provide a food-and-drink pick-me-up for kids and adults alike. At 390 acres, there’s plenty of room to explore the grounds and work up an appetite.
Next up along the tree-lined, Spanish moss-laden Ashley River Road is Middleton Place. Another National Historic Landmark (circa 1741), Middleton Place features the nation’s oldest “landscaped gardens”, a large plantation house, and stable yards with plenty of activity. A nursery and market are on the grounds, and some regular wine-related events also happen here. The horticultural splendor in the gardens, designed on principles of French landscape architecture, make for a colorful and fun visit; original stone walls and other historic touches make this a very pleasant place to spend a chunk of the day.
Via I-26, you can also check out North Charleston and get refreshed at Whirlin' Waters Adventure Waterpark. The city has a long naval history, having been home to the Charleston Naval Base until it closed in 1996. The Greater Charleston Naval Base Memorial commemorates both the base’s history and the men and women who worked at the base and on the ships; be sure to check out the statues “The Lone Sailor” and “The Homecoming.” Some ships were subs, and the H.L. Hunley Submarine Museum is busily restoring this Civil War-era (yes, Civil War-era) submarine that, despite having been sunk early in its history, stands as the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy warship. It was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean floor in 1995 and is on display in a tank, where the restoration process is underway. The Best Western PLUS Airport Inn & Suites is right nearby, along the interestingly-named Ashley Phosphate Road.
So there you go: a comprehensive tour of the Lowcountry, from rice plantations and marshlands to towns brimming with history, nature, arts and culture, and fun things to see and do at every turn. Check it out and enjoy the Lowcountry of South Carolina!
Following U.S. 17 over the Ashley River, you land in Charleston’s downtown area; the Historic District lies to the south, all the way to the end of the peninsula. It is HIGHLY recommended.