A lush dip in the Sea Islands

Times Staff Writer

"Gator!" Our river guide, Scott Leonard, pointed to what looked like a bumpy log nestled amid the grasses along the banks of the Ashepoo River. If that was an alligator, it was huge.

So far, our kayaking trip down this placid South Carolina waterway had been serene. We had paddled leisurely through the dark green water, taking in the canopy of maple, cedar and live oak trees and the old rice fields that bordered the riverbank. The only wildlife we had spotted were dancing water bugs, a few turtles and several young blue herons flapping overhead.

But alligators were everywhere, Scott said, and assured us that we could safely approach them — as long as we were calm.

"They won't attack," he said. "They feel vulnerable out of the water, so they'll just dive back under."

Scott quickly paddled closer. My boyfriend, Jono, was right behind him. I followed warily.

The prehistoric-looking animal, close to 12 feet long, lay still as we drew near. I began to wonder if it were even alive. Then, as we got close enough to touch it with our paddles, it slid slowly, imperceptibly, into the depths of the glassy water — its jagged tail the last to disappear. I shivered.

*

A change of plans When Jono and I began planning a spring-break getaway, we weren't looking to kayak down an alligator-infested river. After a long, frigid winter on the East Coast, we were dreaming of green islands, snorkeling among rainbow-colored fishes, soaking up the sun on a white beach.

The Caribbean sounded perfect — until we looked at prices. Everything available in the first week of April, Jono's only break from law school, was more than we wanted to spend. We shifted gears.

I had always wanted to explore the Carolina coastline. After a little research, we settled on a four-day stay on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, a collection of more than 65 sandy outposts that hug the shoreline, crisscrossed with saltwater marshes and dotted with elegant antebellum houses. Hilton Head, the largest and most recognized of them, is popular among golfers and beach-goers. The rest of the region is not as well known but, as we discovered, is as steeped in history and natural beauty.

The Sea Islands form the southern edge of the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, made up of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers. The three waterways wind through former rice and indigo plantations before emptying out into St. Helena Sound.

The lush landscape, home to many shrimp and crab fishermen, has been featured in such movies as "The Prince of Tides," "Forrest Gump" and "The Big Chill." Despite Hollywood's arrival, much of the Sea Islands has managed to retain its small-town Southern charm, providing a relaxing antidote to the gaudiness of popular spots such as Myrtle Beach, farther north up the coast.

On Port Royal Island, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through Beaufort (pronounced BYOO-fort), the county seat, offering tours of the town's graceful old homes. Across the bridge, St. Helena Island has preserved much of the local Gullah culture. On this and other Sea Islands, West African slaves worked on isolated plantations, developing their own language, food and customs. Many descendants of those slaves still reside in the area.

Geography and history have helped the Sea Islands retain their character. Founded in 1710, Beaufort is the second oldest city in South Carolina, established 40 years after Charleston. During the Civil War, it was seized by Union soldiers, who occupied it throughout the war and, as a result, spared the town's rich stock of Colonial homes.

The area continues to have strong military ties. Parris Island, originally settled by the French, is now run by the Marines as a training depot. A Marine Corps air station north of Beaufort is home to a fleet of fighter jets, which we saw rocketing overhead several times. There's also a Naval hospital in Beaufort, and a National Cemetery that includes graves of Civil War soldiers.

The bridges that now connect many of the larger Sea Islands to the mainland weren't built until several decades ago, leaving several small towns untouched until recently. Since then, a burst of construction has deposited a slew of new retirement developments along stretches of the islands.

To get to the Sea Islands, we flew to Charleston, then drove about 1 1/2 hours south on U.S. Highway 17. I was unimpressed at our first glimpse of Beaufort: Big-box chain stores and fast-food restaurants lined the road. But moments later, we turned a bend into the historic downtown and were transported back in time.

Along the banks of the bay, large antebellum homes stood proudly, shaded by live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. On Bay Street, the town's quaint main avenue, we lunched on tasty grouper sandwiches on the back patio of Kathleen's Grille, facing the grassy waterfront park. Boats bobbed in the water. The town felt akin to a lazy, sun-drenched afternoon.

We decided to spend our first day exploring Hilton Head, about an hour from Beaufort by car because there is no direct route across the islands. Once dominated by large plantations, Hilton Head is now home to world-class golf courses and large beach resorts.

After a dispiriting drive past several of Hilton Head's famed planned communities, we reached a beach on the southeastern shore of the island. Although it was early April, the expanse of white sand was teeming with families and teenagers on spring break. A boom box blasted James Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind." It wasn't the escape we were looking for.

We rented two folding chairs from the lifeguard ($10 a pair for the afternoon). He asked us where in town we were staying. When we mentioned that, after a night in Hilton Head, we were headed back to Beaufort, he laughed.

"Beaufort?" he said. "No one goes there except Marines." Afraid of offending, he hastened to add, "It is very historical, if you like that kind of thing."

Jono and I exchanged amused glances. We couldn't wait to get back.

*

Island oasis We drove through Beaufort and crossed the bridge to St. Helena Island. In Frogmore, a small town at the island's western end, we browsed at Red Piano Too, an old roadside grocery store that has been converted into an art gallery featuring works of local African American artists. For $5, we picked up an illustrated map of historic sites on the island.

Down the road, we stopped at the Penn Center, a collection of cottages and farm buildings shaded by low-hanging live oak trees. Here, in 1862, two Philadelphia missionaries opened one of the first schools for freed slaves in the United States. The schoolhouse no longer exists, but there's a museum on site that details the history of the center, which served for a time as an agricultural and industrial school.

By late afternoon we were ready to find the beach — and eat. Unfortunately, the few local Gullah restaurants we spotted were closed. We had to settle for a diner, the Sea Island Cafe, which made me wish we had picked up sandwiches in Beaufort earlier in the day.

Soon we were on our way to yet another island, this one named after its use as a hunting club by colonial settlers.

The state now owns Hunting Island and has turned the barrier island's 5,000 acres of maritime forest and beaches into a public park. Just 15 minutes after leaving St. Helena, we crossed the bridge onto Hunting Island and found ourselves in a dense semitropical forest. I wasn't surprised to learn that Disney filmed its live-action remake of "The Jungle Book" here.

The beach was long, pristine and mostly empty. A few families walked along the shore, but otherwise we had the park to ourselves. Pine trees, palmettos and live oaks pressed right up against the sand, their proximity the result of erosion that reclaims about 15 feet of the beach every year. The island's black and white lighthouse had to be moved a mile inland in the late 1800s because of erosion. Now decommissioned, it stands in the middle of a grassy field.

Jono and I walked along the shore, taking in the untouched landscape and feeling worlds away from strip malls, condominiums and golf courses.

Back in Beaufort that night, we settled in a lovely room at the Beaufort Inn, one of the town's two four-star bed-and-breakfasts. The salmon-colored 1897 mansion, in the heart of the historic district, has a wide veranda facing the back garden and one of the best restaurants in town, which shares the name of the inn. Jono sampled its famous shrimp-and-grits, while I dined on delicious black grouper.

The next morning we were up early for our kayaking trip. We met up with Scott at a spot on the Ashepoo about 35 minutes north of Beaufort.

Scott is a longtime kayaker, so he knows the river well. At one point he showed us a submerged rice barge used by slaves in the 1700s to carry the grain downstream. He spoke expertly about the local flora and fauna. Toward the end of our three-hour trip, we spotted the alligator — definitely the highlight of the morning.

That afternoon, we drove to Port Royal, a small town 10 minutes from Beaufort. There, Capt. Bill Wilkes took us for a sail around Port Royal Sound, past the large plantation-style homes on Lady's Island and the Marine barracks on Parris Island. Bill, a Welshman who moved to Florence, S.C., for work years ago, makes frequent trips to the Sea Islands to teach sailing classes, as evidenced by his sun-reddened face.

"Welcome to paradise," he said with a grin.

We dined that night on the waterfront porch of Plums in downtown Beaufort, a casual locale known for its hearty meals and homemade ice cream. The sky dimmed as we sat there, contentedly, watching the lights of passing boats dancing on the bay.

The next day, before we left town, we hopped on one of the horse-drawn buggies. For nearly an hour, we toured the Point, an old neighborhood of sherbet-hued Colonial homes and grand white mansions along the marsh, tucked behind brightly colored azalea bushes and lush live oaks. A guide rattled off the history of each home, spinning tales of the local families.

As she spoke, several children on bicycles looped lazy circles around each other on the shady streets. Sunlight glinted off the marsh water. The afternoon felt fragrant, rich, endless.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bountiful Beaufort

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Continental, Delta, US Airways, United, Air Tran and Northwest offer connecting flights (change of plane) to Savannah, Ga., an hour from Beaufort. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $238.

WHERE TO STAY:

The Beaufort Inn, 809 Port Republic St.; (843) 521-9000, http://www.beaufortinn.com . This inn, rated four diamonds by AAA, in the heart of the historic district offers 21 guest rooms in the Colonial-style main house or adjacent cottages. Doubles from $145, including breakfast.

The Rhett House Inn, 1009 Craven St.; (888) 480-9530 or (843) 524-9030, http://www.rhetthouseinn.com . Antebellum plantation house has 18 rooms and is a block from the waterfront. Doubles from $185, including breakfast, afternoon tea and evening hors d'oeuvres.

The Cuthbert House Inn, 1203 Bay St.; (800) 327-9275 or (843) 521-1315, http://www.cuthberthouseinn.com . Federal-style mansion facing the Beaufort Bay was built in 1790. Union Gen. William T. Sherman stayed here during his march through the South. Doubles from $145, including full Southern breakfast, evening drinks and the use of bicycles.

WHERE TO EAT:

Plums, 904 1/2 Bay St.; (843) 525-1946. Casual dining with heated waterfront porch. Pasta, fresh fish and other entrees, $12-$26. Generous helpings of homemade ice cream, $4 a scoop.

The Beaufort Inn, 809 Port Republic St.; (843) 521-9000. Elegant Lowcountry cuisine and fresh seafood served in the inn's formal dining room. Entrees $19-$30. Reservations recommended.

The Mad Tea Party, 223 Scott St.; (843) 982-0832. A frilly atmosphere but great lunch. Sandwiches and salads are $8.95 and include mini-scones and dessert. Afternoon high tea, $15.95.

Firehouse Books and Espresso Bar, 706 Craven St.; (843) 522-2665. A cozy bookstore and coffeehouse in the town's old firehouse. Along with a great selection of regional books, you can get salads, quiches and wraps for lunch for $5.75-$6.95.

TO LEARN MORE:

ACE Basin Outpost, (800) 78-KAYAK (785-2925) http://www.SouthSportOnline.com . For canoe and kayak rentals and guided tours. Rentals $10 an hour; guided tours $45 a person.

Carolina Buggy Tours, (843) 525-1300, http://www.carolinabuggytours.com . Narrated 50-minute tours of Beaufort for $16 for adults, $7 children 6-12; 5 and under free.

Lowcountry & Resort Islands Tourism Commission, P.O. Box 615, Yemassee, SC, 29945; (800) 528-6870, http://www.SouthCarolinaLowcountry.com .

South Carolina Parks, Recreation & Tourism, 1205 Pendleton St., Columbia, SC 29201; (888) 727-6453, http://www.discoversouthcarolina.com .

— Matea Gold

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