The region along the coast of South Carolina, suitably called lowcountry, is a fascinating place. Rich in history, geographically intriguing and culinary wise, offers some of the most soul satisfying food you will ever try.
Cruising around lowcountry is an attraction in and of itself. At low tide a sea of tall grasses shoot out of the muddy marshland for as far as the eye can see. At high tide the grasses disappear and the water fills in just about to street level like a sheet of glass.
A mix of lumber farms and palmettos line the highways and mossy oak trees and magnolias can be found in neighborhoods and along side streets.
The intercostal waterway provides channels, inlets and rivers that snake through dozens of sea islands. Oyster roasts and lowcountry boils (also known as Frogmore Stew) are common gatherings here. Crab nets hang off residential docks and cluster oysters can be harvested all along the muddy banks of the marshland.
My trip through this area started real low, working my way up the coast with a grand finale in Charleston eating some of the best soul food I’ve ever tried in my life. The trip looked like this….
St. Helena Island –
This is where my trip started. It’s known for its plantation homes, Gullah influence and the community of Frogmore (yes, like the stew). I was particularly weary walking around the ponds on this island, which were inhibited by very large alligators. The “no see ems” are relentless here so a daily dousing of bug spray is a must. But don’t let the gators and the bugs deter you, St. Helena Island is a lovely place to visit.
Port Royal Island –
At the farmers market you can find local vegetables like collard greens, and locquats, vendors selling everything from iced tea to periogis and chinese food and live music. My favorite food stand was Hank’s lowcountry. They sell local favorites like she crab soup, Charleston crab dip with saltine crackers and crab cakes the size of softballs.
The annual Soft Shell Crab Festival is where you’ll find deep fried soft shell crab, more local live music and an antique car show.
Located on Port Royal Island with its cannon lined shore is the town of Beaufort. Antebellum style mansions, horse drawn carriages and a few nice restaurants. But the town’s biggest commodity now days is local artwork.
Many films have been shot throughout the years in this region of South Carolina. The Great Santini, The Big Chill and The Prince of Tides were just a few that were filmed in Beaufort. Scenes from the movie Forrest Gump where shot all over Port Royal and St. Helena islands.
Folly Beach –
Probably one of the biggest and nicest piers I’ve ever been on. Come to fish, take a stroll or shop. There’s even a full bar. Down below is an enormous sandy beach and a lively main strip with fun little dive bars like Planet Follywood and the Sand Dollar Social Club that the local’s charmingly call “the dirty dollar”.
Come ready to walk and eat because you will want to do a lot of both here.
A particular highlight for me was The battery, a long stretch of historic mansions and parks all along the water. Start down at King St. and Murray blvd., walk all the way up Murray as it turns into East Battery and eventually into East Bay St. Weave in and out of museums if you like, eventually making a right on Exchange street and a left at Concord St. ending up at the infamous pineapple fountain.
If it’s a nice day another awesome thing to do is take the water taxi across the river. There are 4 stops the boat makes and there are things to see and do at each one. Although, I think the boat ride is enough in and of itself. The captain is a great guy and you will more than likely have a few dolphins swimming right along side you almost the entire time.
Catch the sunset at the Vendue rooftop bar. It’s a lovely way to wind down your day and get ready for the evening. There are 360 degree views of the city and the river from up there.
People are super friendly in Charleston. Small talk is encouraged and a “hi, how are you” to strangers is common when walking down the street. I had to laugh when a local complimented me on my “Gamecock tattoo”, the University of South Carolina’s basketball team mascot. I smiled and said thank you. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a Kauai rooster.
The food in Charleston is great, although at times a bit heavy. For a list of places to eat make sure to check out my top 10 best restaurants in Charleston SC list. I cover everything from lowcountry soul food to innovative Asian cuisine.
A final thought on Charleston. If you’re in the restaurant industry the industry shot here (surprisingly) is Grand Marnier. So, when someone offers you a “Grandma Shot” that’s what you’re in for. An awesome industry bar if you’re looking for one is The Recovery Room. This bar’s claim to fame is that they are the #1 seller of PBR in the country. I met one of the most talented bartenders I’ve ever seen in all my years of dive bar hopping there. He ran circles around the other bartender maintaining complete control while remembering multiple orders at a time, cracking jokes and swapping stories with customers from all sides of the large square bar. All while slamming back shots one after another. He was hysterical and had us entertained all night.
So whether you are a history buff or enjoy hanging out on a picnic table cracking crab, lowcountry has something for you. Just be careful if you are planning your trip during the summer. It’s hot as hell and you can cut the humidity with a knife. Spring or fall is the way to go!
Sarah Burchard is the author of The Healthy Locavore, a natural foods chef and experience host whose writing focuses on cooking, holistic health, supporting community and eating locally grown and made foods.