A ROYAL TREAT
South Carolina's Port Royal Sound offers
endless cruising opportunities
South Carolina's Port Royal Sound stretches from quiet St. Phillips Island in the northeast to the resort island of Hilton Head in the southwest, offering a varied cruising to ground to satisfy any taste. Solitude can be found in the sound's expansive salt marshes and the tranquil islets of St. Helena and Parris Island, while those seeking full-service marinas, interesting eateries and shore side diversions will also get their fill.
The Broad, Chechesee, Beaufort, and Colleton rivers meet in Port Royal Sound and lead to various island ports. The Intracoastal Waterway also winds through the sound, passing the ports of Beaufort, Port Royal and Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island.
Navigation in Port Royal Sound is as varied as its boating destinations. "One needs a good updated chart of local waters," says Capt. Wally Phinney, who runs Sea Wolf Charters out of Port Royal Landing Marina. "Port Royal Sound can get pretty nasty if the tide is going out against the offshore wind, which blows hard from the southwest right up on the sound."
Except for a few malicious sandbars, the large, natural harbor is quite deep, more than 60 feet in some places, and Capt. Wally raves about the great boating community, anchorages and abundant fishing found in the area.
Located north of the sound on the Beaufort River, the quaint city of Beaufort (the one pronounced Beeu-fort) is a beautiful spot to spend some time. Once docked at the full-service Downtown Marina, which accommodates transient vessels up to 175 feet, take a stroll to the bustling waterfront park. Arrive here in December, and you're smack in the middle of the historic district's Christmas festivities. Adjacent Bay Street has great shopping. Bay Street Jewelers sells the original Beaufort Hook Bracelet, a symbol of the historic town and region. Bay Street is also home to several restaurants with views over the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park and the Beaufort River. Plums serves up creative seafood dishes, while Luther's (located in an old pharmacy and general store) is known for tasty steaks.
Other sights to check out in Beaufort include the Federal-style John Mark Verdier House Museum; the Beaufort Arsenal Museum; and lots of private historic homes. For a more in-depth view, excellent guided tours are available through The Spirit of Old Beaufort and Jon's Walking History Tour. For those craving a night off the boat, the Rhett House Inn and the Beaufort Inn are charming lodges in the heart of the historic district.
Head south of Beaufort to Ladies Island and onto St. Helena Island, home to the Penn Center, the site of one of the country's first schools for freed slaves. At the turn for Penn Center, look for Gullah Grub restaurant, the place for some seriously local dishes such as barbecue ribs, fish chowder and lowcountry crab soup.
Penn Center houses a fascinating collection of 19 restored buildings, including Grant Cottage where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stayed, a nature trail and the York W. Bailey Museum.
While boating in the Hunting Island area is not recommended due to difficult conditions, it's a pretty drive down to the island, and well worth a visit to Hunting Island State Park. Consistently ranked as the states most popular state park, it attracts more than one million visitors annually, though it is still east to find secluded spots in the sprawling grounds. Visitors can spend a night or more in one of the park's cabins.
The barrier island features five miles of beach, thousands of acres of marshland, tidal creeks, a maritime forest, a saltwater lagoon, and an ocean inlet (a popular fishing hole for those in-the-know). Dating back to the 1870s, the 170-foot Hunting Island Lighthouse is the states only publicly accessible historic lighthouse. It can be climbed for a couple of bucks and offers phenomenal views of the South Carolina coast.
Southwest of Beaufort, the town of Port Royal is another solid sound destination. Port Loyal Landing Marina makes a good base for exploring the Old Village of Port Royal and nearby Parris Island with accommodations for vessels up to 150 feet. The Marina offers rentals for visiting blue-water cruisers wishing to explore in a small skiff or a kayak.
Located a few miles south of the marina where the Beaufort River meets Battery Creek, the Old Village of Port Royal offers food, shopping, and quaint lodging, such as the Beaulieu Guest House. The 11th Street Dockside restaurant is a locals favorite, while Port Royal Seafood next door is the place to buy fresh fish to prepare back on the boat.
Parris Island is the base for the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where more than 20,000 new Marines graduate annually. The Parris Island Museum charts military history dating back to the 16th century.
While the port of Bluffton doesn't offer a full-service marina, it still makes for a pleasant day trip. Cruisers can anchor in the May River and dinghy into town or dock at the elegant Inn at Palmetto Bluff, which offers dockage but not a full-service marina (a meal and an overnight stay are highly recommended). Stop by the Heyward House Historic Center to pick up their helpful walking tour map, which will direct you to historic sites such as the Fripp House and the waterfront Church of the Cross.
Established in 1899, the Bluffton Oyster Company features fresh May River oysters in-season. Ask about docking at the Oyster Company for a few hours in exchange for a seafood purchase. Dinner, entertainment and local flavor can be found at Pepper's Porch located in an old tobacco-drying barn on May River Road--go early for some local color at the back Bar. Down the street, Squat & Gobble is another favorite.
Any Port Royal Sound exploration isn't complete without a stop at famed Hilton Head Island. One of the many allures of Hilton Head is the number of world-class marinas. "Boaters have a choice of eight marinas," says Leslie Whitener, Assistant Harbormaster at Harbour Town Yacht Basin for the past 25 years. "The island is extremely environmentally sensitive, with numerous nature preserves, public parks, and fifty-plus miles of nature trails and public pathways."
Shelter Cove Marina at Palmetto Dunes Resort is another ideal base. The full-service marina, which accommodates transient vessels up to 150 feet, in in close proximity to world-class dining, shopping, bike rentals, and all of the amenities and activities of the beautiful 2,000-plus-acre Palmetto Dunes Resort. Each year, the resort hosts Harborfest from June through August with events and live entertainment.
Once docked, there's lots to see and do on Hilton Head. Some unique possibilities include kayaking through the 11-mile saltwater lagoon system at Palmetto Dunes, horseback riding with Lawton Stables in the Sea Pines Nature Preserve, climbing the red-and-white Harbor Town Lighthouse, and exploring peaceful Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge, which feature several nice anchorages.
The island's Coastal Discovery Museum features hands-on exhibits, tours, and educational programs that highlight the cultural heritage and natural history of the Lowcountry.
Port royal Sound's historic seaside towns, scenic anchorages, friendly full-service marinas, and fresh seafood restaurants provide crusiers a royal welcome to this South Carolina boating destination--and with a stately southern accent to boot.