By Andrea Nordstrom Caughey
Seaside cities like Charleston and Myrtle Beach are staple destinations for travelers. However, you should definitely check out Georgetown, South Carolina, a lesser-known gem halfway in between along the Hammock Coast.
A few years ago USA Today named Georgetown “America’s Best Coastal Small Town.” Some describe it as Charleston in its infancy, with more historic mansions and more laid-back feel.
Georgetown is the state’s third oldest city and has a charm and personality all its own. In the late 1600s, rice was first planted here in the swampy lowlands, evolving into a significant crop after the Revolutionary War. Georgetown plantation owners amassed tremendous wealth cultivating rice, surpassing indigo, earning the town the distinction of the wealthiest county in the original colonies.
Shaded by majestic live oaks, downtown historic Georgetown and its lively Front Street are packed with quaint bistros, legendary seafood eateries and waterfront boutiques. Walkers and bikers delight in glimpses of yesteryear, with more than 50 100-year-old homes and bustling seaside scenes from the waterfront Harbor Walk. There are no chain stores here! The majority of shops are owned by locals, some featuring crafts by area artisans, books and art on coastal Carolinas and maritime antiques.
Water makes up a good bit Georgetown’s geography, including its uncrowded stretches of beach. The region also includes five major rivers that converge into Winyah Bay, creating a national reserve bathed by some of the east’s most pristine salt water.
In fact, nearly 123,000 acres of forested wetlands and 23,000 acres of tidal freshwater marshes are protected from development as a wildlife refuge for education and research uses. More natural beauty is but a 20-minute car ride away, including the renowned Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park.
Ocean and river buffs can charter a boat for a day or enjoy a coastal tour. Anglers can pick from several outfitters who coordinate surf fishing trips, nearer- to-shore trolling, bottom fishing and skinny water fly fishing.
For meals, cruising along Front Street can net some great options. Locals often congregate at The Big Tuna Restaurant and Raw Bar, with its scenic back deck overlooking river views. Seafood devotees also swear by Georgetown’s River Room Restaurant, with its casual Southern fare. Seeking nostalgia? The iconic Thomas Café has remained largely frozen in time for the last 75 years. Don’t let it’s humble history fool you, though. The chef is a Johnson and Wales grad and honed his craft at legendary Hilton Head and Sea Island, Georgia.
In addition to prominent hotel chains, overnighters can experience historic inns and bed and breakfasts. Re-created from a fully restored 1800s house, 620 Prince is one of these, offering luxury in a casual B&B format.
For a quirkier stay, test drive the country’s very first “Bed and Brew” at Baxter’s Brewhouse Inn. An array of craft beers from the brewmeister-innkeeper are free, along with root beer on tap!
To brush up on Georgetown’s fascinating past, stop by a few local museums walkable from downtown, including The Georgetown County History Museum, The Rice Museum, The South Carolina Maritime Museum, The Kaminski House Museum and The Gullah Museum. The Gullah Museum ranks as one of the world’s only museums focused on the rich culture of the Gullah.
There are also several historical walking tours, a ghost tour and the Swampfox Tram Tour. Francis Marion, aka the “Swamp Fox,” mustered up guerrilla maneuvers against the British in Revolutionary War times.
Seasonal gatherings of all types highlight Georgetown’s rich calendar of events. Drop in on theatrical performances by The Swamp Fox Players at The Strand Cinema year round. March brings the Mardi Gras Parade and April, The Blessing of the Fleet and The Shag Festival.
Visitors flock to the July 4th Fireworks and Kaminski House concert. October offers The Wooden Boat Show and The Bridge 2 Bridge Run, November, The Taste of Georgetown, and December, a Christmas Parade, Tree Lighting and Lighted Boat Parade.
Summer concerts often take place in Francis Marion Park on Front St, the Kaminski House Museum and the Winyah Bay Auditorium.