Monday, August 08, 2005

Beaufort, North Carolina

In Search of Lost Time on the Carolina Coast

Picking up my son at Raleigh-Durham Airport, I stupidly left my copy of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrances of Things Past” on top of the automatic parking ticket machine which, at the time, seemed auspicious. My project for the summer could have been resurrected by Amazon but instead I put off reading Proust for yet another year. Still, my appetite for recapturing the past was more than satisfied during the week I spent in Beaufort, an historic seaport on the North Carolina coast which retains an authentic small town atmosphere despite the crush of modern tourism elsewhere on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Frankly, if I had the mass readership of a travel writer such as Rick Steves, I wouldn’t even be telling you about Beaufort, which I visit every summer. Beaufort is too unspoiled to share.

Established in 1709, the town was once the home of whalers, merchants, fishermen and even pirates, including the notorious Blackbeard. Over 100 historic homes remain which are beautifully preserved by the current residents. The streets are wide, shady and quiet. Gardens are lovingly maintained. Wild ponies can be seen grazing on Carrot Island and local children spend lazy afternoons jumping off the town dock. In fact, children are able to walk around Beaufort as children used to do, on foot or bikes or in boats, unsupervised and just happy to be out of school.

With children or without, it is fun to buy an ice cream from the General Store and walk along the bustling waterfront to soak up the nautical atmosphere. Some of the boats are pretty spectacular, huge yachts hailing from tax havens from around the world. There are ferries to isolated places to swim where, thanks to the Gulf Stream, the water temperature is a blissful 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Also on offer are harbour cruises, ecology cruises, parasailing, scuba diving, kayaking and a ride on a speed boat that looks like a shark, which the locals hate, but my 8 year old daughter finds thrilling. Deep sea fishing and bird watching are also popular.

Beaufort is also the perfect place to walk, jog and bicycle. The terrain is flat, the scenery is lovely and the other walkers, joggers and bicyclists are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet in your life. On my daily run from my parents’ house to the fish factory at the end of town, I would encounter rabbits, cranes, wild ponies and very little traffic. On the other hand, sitting on porches, sipping iced tea and doing absolutely nothing is also a perfectly respectable Beaufort pastime.

There is an active historic association which maintains a small but interesting collection of 18th and 19th century buildings you can visit as well as an historic graveyard, The Old Burying Ground, which looks like it is straight out of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. My daughter was fascinated by the grave of the girl in the rum barrel who died at sea while returning from England but was brought back to Beaufort in the barrel to be buried. Today, her grave, sheltered by 100 year old live oak trees, is covered in cult-like fashion with toys, trinkets, flags and coins which visitors have left. There is also the grave of a British officer who died on a ship in Beaufort harbour and was buried standing up “in rebel’s ground”.

Families will enjoy a visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum containing a mind blowing collection of shells, lots of interesting facts and stories about Blackbeard the Pirate and a wealth of information about preserving the fragile coastal ecosystem. Across the street, there is an historic boat building operation where the hardy and practical ships of the past are being lovingly recreated. During the summer, the Maritime Museum holds one day “Build Your Own Boat Workshops” for a child working with an adult. By the end of the day, participants take home proper seaworthy boats that work well and look great, having learned a tremendous amount about the art of ship making.

For such a small town, Beaufort has a good selection of restaurants. Informal sandwiches and local seafood can be found at the Beaufort Grocery Company (which becomes more formal in the evening) and Finz’s Grill while delicious, upscale dining is available at Stillwater with beautiful views over Beaufort Harbor, Blue Moon Café and and the recently opened Sharpies Grill. Your options for accommodations range from 2 inns, a number of good bed and breakfasts such as The Cedars and the Pecan Tree Inn and house rentals, which are a good deal if you are staying for at least a week. Check with Beaufort Realty for rentals.

Interesting shopping can be found in the local stores and boutiques which focus primarily on things nautical and aquatic and the best news of all is that there is not a Gap or Banana Republic in sight. The Rocking Chair Bookstore has a well thought out selection of bestsellers and books of local interest. There are several well patronised coffee shops but no Starbucks.

On the drive down from Washington, D.C. to Beaufort each year, I pass an increasing number of SUVs filled to bursting with families on their way to the beach. I see these hot and irritated folks at the horrible and crowded fast food restaurants which is the only food available on Interstate 95. But I don’t find these people or the frenetic atmosphere they create in Beaufort and that is why Beaufort is the best place I know to relax, recreate, visit, eat and play. It is very southern in a “step back in time kind of way” and has been described, with some justification, as "Nantucket with a southern drawl". It has none of the glitz or hype of its better known northern counterpart. In fact, this is still a lovely small town where friendly residents and tourists peacefully co-exist for a few months. The pace is slow, there is not much to do at night, it is hot during the day, yet after a holiday in Beaufort, I feel that I have successfully recaptured those endless summer days of my childhood where doing anything and nothing was always possible.

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