The Low Country

Points of Interest

In South Carolina's Low Country and on the Georgia coast are some of the oldest communities in the United States. Charleston's origins can be traced to Spanish exploration in the mid-16th century, although the first "Charles Town" settlement was established in 1670 by the English. At the southern end of the region lies the second-oldest city in America, St. Marys. Between the two, other old towns, long country lanes, Gullah dialect and gospel choirs, Low Country shrimp feasts....

Charleston - One of my favorite things to do in Charleston is simply to walk. Yes, there are museums, historic sites, houses to tour, galleries and shops. But to know Charleston you must feel its brick sidewalks underfoot, stop and peer through a gate into a secluded, semi-tropical garden. Unlike some historic cities in the United States, Charleston has not turned itself into a theme park. The city began the process of restoration about 70 years ago, once some of the shock and debilitation of the Civil War began to subside. It honored tradition — Charleston respects tradition — by restoring and preserving its houses and commercial buildings authentically and practically. Charleston's old buildings are meant to be used, not just looked at!

A walk along Charleston's streets, to the Battery (and a glimpse of Ft. Sumter across the harbor,) and back through narrow lanes offers an up-close view of the old houses and commercial buildings. One and two centuries old, they seem older. How do some places gain an air of ancientness, even timelessness? Perhaps if it has survived war, slavery, freedom, hurricanes, magnificent wealth and dire poverty, the universe rewards it with an ageless ambiance. Charleston has been rewarded this way.

One Charleston highlight is the Spoleto Festival, held every May and June. Dozens of opera,theater, dance and music performances attract visitors from all over the world. Combine Spoleto with paddling Charleston Harbor, the nearby backwaters, or a visit to Ft. Moultrie National Monument on Sullivan's Island, and you have a great Low Country vacation.

Beaufort - Smaller than Charleston, to the north, or Savannah, to the south, and farther off the beaten path, Beaufort is a coastal jewel as precious as the others. Truth be told, Beaufort recently has caught up with its bigger cousins in some respects. Real estate developers discovered its paradisiacal qualities in the 1960s. And while it has always been home or second home to a few artists and writers, it has grown significantly as a vacation home destination. Hollywood discovered its grand old colonial and antebellum houses long before "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" put Savannah on the map. In Beaufort, look for familiar settings from "The Big Chill," "The Prince of Tides" and "Forrest Gump."

Genteely shabby for decades, Beaufort nowadays keeps itself freshly painted and prettied.Outdoor cafes overlook the water, and antique shops, bookstores and gift shops line the streets. A few highlights include the Beaufort Museum, St. Helena's Episcopal Church, built in 1724, and nearby, Hunting Island State Park, a deeply forested site with good beaches, a lighthouse and nature trails.

When you visit Beaufort, find out events going on at the Penn Center on nearby St. Helena Island. It was founded in 1862 as a school for freed slaves, and today offers a museum, gospel performances, community sings and other activities.

The Penn Center is a good place to learn about the Gullah language and culture. Gullah and the closelyrelated Geechee cultures survived among African slaves who came primarily from Angola and Sierra Leone. The isolation of the rice- and cotton-growing islands of the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida ensured Gullah's survival while other African tongues and customs were lost through assimilation. Descendants of the slaves keep Gullah culture alive today.

To learn more about the very early European history of the region, check out the Parris IslandMuseum. The famous Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot stands on the sites of Charlesfort, a French outpost established in 1562 and a Spanish village, Santa Elena, dating from 1566. You can learn about Marine boot camp, too.

Native American culture dates back 10,000 years in the Low Country. However, little physical evidence remains.

Savannah - In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt writes that whenhe first visited Savannah he felt "sealed off from a world that suddenly seemed a thousand milesaway." He saw things in Savannah he had never seen before: delicate Southern ladies packing pistols in their purses and practitioners of voodoo, not to mention rich playboy murder suspects. Berendt's "non-fiction novel" and the movie based on it brought that world to Savannah's doorstep.According to some reports, Berendt's book has been responsible for a 40-percent increase intourism there.

I never met any voodoo practitioners when I lived in Savannah, as Berendt did, but I did enjoy biking in the city's historic district. Like Charleston, there seems to be an unlimited number of old housesto tour and museums to visit, but Savannah's so pretty to look at from the outside, walking or biking is often more satisfying than touring interiors. The city is laid out in 21 squares, each with a lush garden or thick grass, dozens of azelea bushes, benches and fountains or statues.

Throughout the "Coastal Empire," as the Savannah area is known, there are great places to bikesuch as Skidaway Island and Skidaway Island State Park. For paddling, two popular destinations are Little Tybee Island and the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Drive to Tybee from Savannah and enjoy looking at the wide stretches of salt marsh along U.S. Highway 80. You can make a stop at Ft. Pulaski National Monument.

Sapelo Island - Sapelo is an important ecological research site, is 99-percent owned by the State of Georgia, with 1 percent in the hands of theresidents of Hog Hammock, a community of the descendants of slaves who worked SapeloIsland's plantations. To visit the island, makereservations through the Welcome Center at the Sapelo Island docks. The island is accessible onlyby boat.

St. Simons Island - Lined with enormous moss-draped live oak trees, St. Simons looks very much as it did when General James Oglethorpe landed there from England in 1733 to establish Georgia as the 13th colony. Highlights are Ft. Frederica National Monument and Christ Church, the heart of the colonists' community. The original church was destroyed by Union Troops during the Civil War and rebuilt in 1889. The best way to see St. Simons is by bicycle.

St. Marys, Georgia - St. Marys was a bustling seaport in the late 18th century. It is experiencing a renewal of energy and growth today. The town celebrates Mardi Gras, Independence Day and the other major holidays, and puts on a Rock Shrimp Seafood Festival in October. Interesting features of the town's historic district include the "Washington Oak," the only remaining tree of four oaks planted in 1799 on the day George Washington was buried. Check out the the 1808 Presbyterian Church, famous for its historic bell, which was cast by Paul and Joseph Warren Revere. The town is known as the gateway to Cumberland Island, a perfect base for kayaking.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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