Small-town charm, sleek surprises, and good eatin' in Beaufort 

An Easy Weekend

Charleston's a beautiful place, but sometimes even paradise can get a little monotonous. When the ennui hits, it's time to head out on a road trip — and you don't have to go far to enjoy a satisfying getaway. Our destination? Beaufort, S.C., about an hour and a half south of Charleston. Our expectations? Small-town charm and romantic relaxation. Our findings? A surprisingly progressive little city.

Sure, it's small enough that you can take in downtown's main drag in a matter of minutes. But Beaufort boasts a strong artistic community where Pecha Kucha, gallery strolls, and even a film festival fill the calendar. This artsy vibe is reflected in many of the town's establishments — you'll find big-city style all over this little place.

While visitors to Beaufort have their pick of historic, sprawling B&Bs, now there's a more modern option for your home base: City Loft Hotel, a brand spankin' new spot on Carteret Street, just a block north of Bay, downtown's main street. Well, we say new, but the hotel is actually a converted 1960s motor lodge. Rather than tear down the original outdated structure, owner Matt McAlhaney recognized its potential and spent 18 months reinventing it as a stylish and comfortable boutique hotel. The rooms have all the amenities you need — a cushy bed and chair, refrigerator, a small flat-screen TV, and a thoughtful goodie bag from the coffee shop downstairs, City Java & News. But the bathroom is the best part. Each one boasts an extra-deep bathtub with a small TV for ultimate relaxation, as well as a spacious walk-in shower. Soft robes are provided for the guests as well. Don't check in too early, or you might not want to leave your room.

Luckily, hunger usually wins out over laziness. There are two fabulous restaurants literally a few steps from City Loft. Before lunch, we took a peek at Breakwater, a brand-new restaurant next door that's currently only open for dinner. Formerly located a few streets away, the local favorite is now housed in a converted warehouse. Wine Director Terry Sweeney (a comedy writer who played Nancy Reagan on SNL back in the day) is quite the character, and Chef Gary Lang has created a menu of modern southern specialties using local ingredients — think hushpuppy bites with truffle blue cheese dipping sauce or deconstructed duck sausage. Entrées average around $18, while tapas are under $10. The restaurant also boasts a generous wine selection (including plenty by the glass) and a sleek bar.

Just across the street is Wren, where we made a beeline for lunch. Another stylish spot (the town's talented interior designers have really made their mark), Wren is a vision in French country chic: burlap bags, rope, and steel come together to create a space worthy of a magazine spread. We hear they're famous for their cranberry chicken salad, but we went for the grilled chicken club with applewood smoked bacon, fire roasted romas, fresh mozzarella, and provolone ($11) as well as a "Southwest Sally" salad with avocado, black beans, and tortilla chips ($13). Wren is open for dinner too, and a hot spot for game watching.

After lunch is prime shopping time — most of the shops are on Bay Street or within the Old Bay Marketplace. Lulu Burgess is full of kitschy gifts and knick-knacks, Bay Street Outfitters is big with fishermen and outdoorsy-types, and Beaufort Clothing Company boasts big-name labels like Nicole Miller, Trina Turk, and BCBG. Our favorite gem is McIntosh Book Shoppe, where we found a hoard of antique books for double-take prices, like an illustrated 1930s edition of Alice in Wonderland for $2.

After exploring the shops and galleries of Bay Street and strolling along the waterfront park, head back up to Old Point, downtown Beaufort's picturesque residential district. Filled with well-kept historic homes with colorful gardens, the neighborhood welcomes relaxed strolling or biking.

As the dinner hour approaches, take some time to relax in the hotel room (and maybe catch a quick map) while figuring out your dining game plan. You could check out Beaufort's nearby I'On-like community Habersham Marketplace for French restaurant Bistro Patois. Or just stay in town and visit one of the town's waterfront restaurants like Plum's, Panini's, or Saltus River Grill. We went with Saltus, based on the advice of several locals, as well as a glowing review in Southern Living. The ambiance is perfect for a romantic meal, especially outside by the fire if the weather's nice. They offer a small selection of sushi as well as several competent fish dishes, although the much-lauded flat-iron steak was a bit of a disappointment. Go with the fish at this River Grill.

After dinner, don't expect to find a hoppin' bar scene downtown. Quiet cocktails in a few bars seem more in line with Beaufort's nightlife.

Sunday morning, grab some breakfast at City Java, or head to Palm & Moon for homemade bagels and coffee. Get it to-go and head over the bridges, across the islands to Hunting Island. Just about 15 minutes from Beaufort, it's an incredibly scenic drive over the marshes, and once you hit the huge state park, it's like you've entered the land before time, sans dinosaurs. The forest is full of palms and tall pine trees, and it's also the site of the Hunting Island Lighthouse, which is the only public lighthouse in South Carolina. For $2, you can scale the 167 stairs and take in a breathtaking view of the Atlantic. Afterwards, take a stroll on the beach backed by the forest and scattered with naked old trees.

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Before heading home, stop at one of the seafood shacks on the way back from the beach. Word is that Gullah Grub and Shrimp Shack are good options, but we went with Johnson Creek Tavern, a little old place on the marsh with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. The interior is plastered with hundreds of signed dollar bills, and the staff is friendly and efficient — even when pathetically under-staffed, apparently. They specialize in classic fried seafood, and after a wind-blown excursion on the beach, a hot basket of fried shrimp, oysters, and scallops tastes like heaven ($9.95). Most choices are under $10 for lunch, including the shrimp burger and grouper sandwich.

Make sure to take a tiny detour once you get back on 17. Hang a left instead of a right, and in less than a mile you'll see the sign for the old Sheldon Church ruins. Pull over on the side of the road and take in the remains of a grand old country church in a clearing. We like to think of it as rural South Carolina's version of the Roman Coliseum.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed on a weekend getaway, as you work to cram in as many experiences as you can. We found Beaufort to be the perfect size to keep us entertained and impressed, while still allowing a relaxed vibe. Still, we know we didn't see (or taste) it all, so next time we need a little break from the everyday, Beaufort will be right at the top of our list.


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