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The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014

From country music to herbal cocktails to horseshoe crabs to Rodin, our third annual list takes you to cultural gems worth mining

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7. Beaufort, SC

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(Shaw Nielsen)

"To describe...the low country of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell."

Or you could visit Beaufort, home to the fellow who wrote those lines, Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides. Between Savannah and Charleston, Beaufort is not quite on terra firma, secreted as it is along one of the ocean channels that form the Sea Islands, among them Fripp, Hunting, Parris and Port Royal, where Beaufort was founded in 1711.

It's pronounced "BYOO-furt," and the place is about as Southern as it gets; the state was not only the first to leave the Union, but the first meeting to draft the Ordinance of Secession, which made the state’s resistance official, took place in Beaufort at the Milton Maxey House, a white edifice with two levels of front porches and columns. Like many local 19th-century planters’ mansions, Milton Maxey still stands partly because the American historic preservation movement gained steam a century ago in South Carolina. Today the landmarks make up a National Historic Landmark District, shaded by oaks and glossy magnolias: a 1798 arsenal; the First African Baptist Church, in continuous use since the 1860s; the Federal-style Verdier House. The Center for the Arts at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort, brings plays, concerts, art exhibits and independent films.

Waterfront Park, with its Southern belle swings and flower beds, makes a handsome fringe. The greensward looks south across the wide, marshy Beaufort River, with views toward the Wood Memorial Bridge, taking vehicles from Port Royal to Lady's Island and swinging open once an hour to accommodate Intracoastal Waterway boat traffic.

Port Royal, south of town, arguably even more historic than Beaufort, is the site of Spanish and French forts that ultimately fell to the English, and home port of the trawlers that provision area shrimp shacks. Beyond, another bridge crosses to Parris Island and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where the Parris Island Museum is open to visitors, as are stirring graduation ceremonies at Peatross Parade Deck, with Marines in dress blue and flags waving.

There are plantations nearby (including the only plantation house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright outside the hamlet of Yemassee). But the Beaufort region speaks even more profoundly about the black experience in America as a center for the Gullah people.

Brought to Savannah and Charleston slave markets from West Africa, they have preserved their culture, history and singular language, an African word-laced English Creole. The Penn Center on St. Helena Island east of Beaufort, established in 1862 to educate freed blacks, preserves Gullah folkways and tells the story of the Port Royal Experiment, a federal program that enabled former slaves to work toward purchasing land abandoned by white planters.

Carry on from there to Hunting Island State Park, with its beaches, 1859 lighthouse, sea oats, salt marshes and tidal creeks. Bring a pocketknife in case you spot an oyster.

- SS

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