Looking for a relaxing getaway? Head to South Carolina’s Hammock Coast. Its historic communities have welcomed visitors for generations with spacious beaches, pristine salt marshes, golfing, kayaking, sport fishing and more.
In recent years, the South Carolina Lowcountry has become one of my go-to places to relax and unwind. It helps that the region is blessed with an abundance of culture, good food, and pristine beaches.
This year, I pointed my car in the direction of historic Georgetown, the largest city along a stretch of South Carolina shoreline known as the Hammock Coast. (Other Hammock Coast destinations include Pawleys Island, Litchfield Beach, Murrells Inlet, Garden City and Andrews.)
With Myrtle Beach to the north and Charleston to the south, the Hammock Coast is a beach lover’s paradise. But it wasn’t the sand and surf that attracted me this year; no, I went in search of Black history.
Like the European explorers who once sought a faster route to the Far East, folks in the Charlotte area have long sought a quicker way to reach the South Carolina coast. Sorry; it simply doesn’t exist, so plan for a four-hour drive.
I left Charlotte around 9 a.m., driving along country roads that took me through small towns with names like Pageland, Timmonsville, Lake City and Conway. With an attitude of adventure, I took in the scenery.
Around 1 p.m., I arrived at the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast Visitor Center, and then on to Georgetown.
My home for the next two days would be Baxter’s Brewhouse Inn Bed & Brew, a historic home that’s been converted into a guest house. I parked along a quiet street lined with towering oaks and made my way inside. One of the first things I noticed was a row of beer taps, but more about that later.
1 p.m. – Lunch with a riparian view
Georgetown is South Carolina’s third-oldest city, a place where five major rivers converge into Winyah Bay. The city’s historic district is delightfully walkable, so you can park your car and forget it for a while. Hungry for lunch, I set out on foot.
Sandwiched between Front Street and the waterfront are a host of shops and restaurants. Most are accessible from Front Street, the historic district’s main commercial strip, or from the Harborwalk, a boardwalk that runs along the Sampit River.
I found a place called Buzz’s Roost and grabbed an outdoor seat with a view of the river. The grouper sandwich (I had mine blackened) was cooked to perfection ($14.99). A gentle sea breeze (and an ice-cold beer) only worked to enhance the experience.
I used this time to scan some of the brochures I got at the Visitors Center. I learned that Georgetown was founded in 1729 and was once one of the wealthiest counties in America, built on the export of sea island rice and the forced labor of enslaved Black people.
Today, Georgetown is part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a national heritage area established by Congress to recognize the unique culture of the Gullah-Geechee people, descendants of enslaved Africans who still inhabit some of the sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and take great pride in their culture and history of perseverance.
3 p.m. — The Gullah experience
Georgetown has five museums, all within an easy walk, and each focusing on a different aspect of the city’s history. I chose to start with the Gullah Museum on King Street — a fitting kickoff given the oversized role that African descendants played in Georgetown’s culture and history.
The Gullah Museum is small but houses a lot of history. It was founded in 1997 by the late Vermelle “Bunny” Smith Rodrigues and her husband Andrew. Its mission is to educate visitors about the Gullah/Geechee people, descendants of east Africans who were enslaved on the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Beatrice Rodrigues, a daughter of the founders who now runs the museum, said the Gullah culture survived because of the islands’ isolation. The museum displays quilts that tell of that culture.
The Gullah Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays.
6 p.m. — Sunsets over the Sampit River
After a long day, take a quiet stroll along Georgetown’s Harborwalk, a 10-foot-wide boardwalk that stretches four blocks along the waterfront, from the Kaminski House Museum to the Rice Museum/Town Clock.
Many of the shops and restaurants along Front Street are accessible from Harborwalk, so drop in and enjoy dinner or a cocktail. Or, sit and watch the sun as it sinks below the watery horizon. If you’re lucky, you may spot an alligator swimming in the Sampit River. Each October, Harborwalk attracts big crowds in town for the Georgetown Wooden Boat Show.
8 a.m. — Fuel up for a busy day
Coffee Break Cafe on Front Street was an easy walk from my bed & brew, and it came highly recommended. I ordered two eggs, orange juice and a waffle ($11.25). It’s exactly the kind of spot you might expect in a town of roughly 8,000 people — a classic breakfast served by a friendly staff. The menu boasts of something called “Yankee Grits” that co-owner Meghan Rader (raised up North) apparently takes great pride in making.
In addition to the food, the cafe doubles as an art gallery. Featured under the high ceilings you can find works by Georgetown artists. When Meghan and her husband Ron opened the restaurant in 2008, they wanted to do something to connect local artists with visitors traveling through. The art gallery was their way of building community.
10 a.m. — African American Heritage Tour
Summer is hot in Georgetown, so this roughly one-hour walking tour, one of the city’s newest attractions, is best done early.
The tour starts at historic Bethel AME Church (founded in 1865 by formerly enslaved residents) and continues for 12 stops through the heart of what was once a thriving community of emancipated families.
You’ll walk past the former home of Joseph Hayne Rainey, the first Black American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1870-1879). He also served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1868 and served two terms in the South Carolina Senate.
Only one of the 12 stops on the tour — the West End Heritage Center — is beyond the city’s historic district and requires a short drive.
An interesting fact about Bethel AME Church: Jim Robinson, Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandfather, was one of its early members, having been born into slavery around 1850. Although the church is now closed to tourists, I managed to get an inside glimpse.
Noon — A taste of soul
Aunny’s, a Black-owned restaurant in the historic district, offers a full menu of Southern cooking — smothered pork chops, mac & cheese, fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato pies and more.
On any given day, 12 places host locals and tourists alike. I ordered a veggie plate and a glass of sweet tea ($12.75).
The restaurant, which opened in 2009, was featured on the PBS series Backroad Bites, where owner Andrea Johnson talked about her love for cooking. “I’ve always had a desire to have my own restaurant,” she said. “The food here is Southern, down-home cooking, food your grandma, your great grandma, would cook.
2 p.m. — Stories of old
History lives on every street in Georgetown, so with stomach full, I headed up the block to Swamp Fox Tours. Established in 1978, it lays claim to being the city’s oldest tour company. If Georgetown had an official tour, this would be it. My hour-long tour made stops at many of the city’s historic homes and points of interest, with a heavier emphasis on Georgetown’s European history. I even heard some amusing ghost stories along the way.
Catch the blue and white tram on Front Street. It runs Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tickets must be purchased in advance: $15 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 12.
3:15 p.m. — Visit the Rice Museum
To understand the history of Georgetown, a visit to the Rice Museum is mandatory. Prior to the Civil War, half of all the rice produced in America came from Georgetown County, and about 85% of the county’s population was enslaved. The Rice Museum offers a 45-minute tour that tells the story of Carolina Gold and how it shaped a region and its people. The museum also contains an extensive exhibition that honors some of Georgtown’s Black residents who devoted their lives to the struggle for civil rights and racial equality.
The Rice Museum’s guided tours are available Tuesdays through Saturdays, starting at 11:15 a.m. and continuing on the quarter-hour until 3:15. Tickets ($9 for adults and $5 for students ages 6 to 21) can be purchased next door in the gift shop, which carries an extensive collection of Lowcountry art.
6 p.m. — Dinner at Litchfield
Litchfield By the Sea is a private development in the Litchfield community of Pawleys Island, about 16 miles northeast of Georgetown on the Atlantic Ocean. The beachfront community offers myriad vacation rental opportunities. The Litchfield Beach & Golf Resort is the key rental agency and operates a large resort check-in area, complete with a Starbucks and the Coastal Dish Restaurant.
Although access to the resort is restricted to owners and vacationers renting condos or homes, the Coastal Dish Restaurant is open to the public. Eager to see more of the Hammock Coast, I headed there for dinner. There are a series of excellent restaurants in this area of the Hammock Coast, such as Bistro 217, Rustic Table, Quigley’s, Local, bisQit , Hanser House, and more, but my time was limited, so I wanted to check out the resort because it’s centrally located.
Coastal Dish offers casual, lakefront dining — appetizers, salads, sandwiches and entrees — with an outdoor deck and a tiki-style bar. I ordered a seafood dish and a cold beer just as a cooling shower set in. As for the resort itself…it’s massive, hosting a variety of amenities and vacation rentals. The white sand beaches of Litchfield Beach and Pawleys Island, Litchfield’s famous and historic neighbor to the south, are simply spectacular.
10 a.m. — Gullah Roots
I decided to end my stay in Georgetown with a tour devoted specifically to Gullah culture and the city’s Black community. That meant the Gullah Roots Tour Company. Founded in 2000 by Marilyn Hemingway and Steve Williams, each with deep roots in the city’s Gullah community, the company offers step-on tours — meaning they step onto your bus or vehicle to provide onboard narrative.
I met Marilyn at Bethel AME Church in the heart of the historic district. Bethal was founded in 1865 by people who, months earlier, had been enslaved. Although the church is now closed to tours, we were allowed to go inside to view the historic and ornate sanctuary. As a member of the church and a Georgetown native, Marilyn offered observations no one else had given.
I spent the next two hours getting an insider’s view of Georgetown’s Black history, stopping in front of homes and churches that helped define the city’s Black culture, and listening to stories of gentrification in the historic district. We even visited a part of town called Maryville, a community formed by Black professionals starting in the 1960s.
The Gullah Roots Tour Company is by appointment only and costs $40 per person, but group discounts are offered. Call (843) 318-8644.
In August 2023, Hemingway will launch a website — GullahGeecheeSeafoodTrail.com — to spotlight Gullah-Geechee tourism along the Gullah-Geechee corridor. The website will feature creators, lodging, restaurants, museums, landmarks, experiences and events, she said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is funding the project.
Where to stay
The Hammock Coast has an abundance of vacation rental properties, so do your homework. What you won’t find are the large hotels that dominate some parts of the South Carolina coast. During my visit, workers were renovating a waterfront building that will eventually become The George, a 56-room boutique hotel with stunning views of the Sampit River. When it opens in the fall of 2023, it will be the city’s only hotel along the waterfront.
My stay at the Baxter’s Brewhouse was first-rate. The historic property offers three bedrooms that share two baths, hardwood floors, an upstairs snack bar and loads of charm. What defines Baxters Brewhouse, of course, is the beer. Guests are welcome to fill their mugs at any time from the three beer taps in the first-floor lobby.
The craft beer, which is self-serve and free to guests, is brewed on site. Joseph Baxter, one of the owners, said Baxter’s is one of a few brewhouses in the nation and the first in South Carolina.
“It’s like a bed and breakfast, but instead of breakfast — French toast and eggs and crap like that — it’s beer, which isn’t just for breakfast anymore,” he said one afternoon as we sat with his wife Tina to sample three of their brews.
Georgetown’s historic district will host the sculptured figure “Harriet Tubman — The Journey to Freedom” from Aug. 1, 2023, through Oct. 31, 2023. The monument will then be moved 20 miles north to Brookgreen Gardens from Nov. 1, 2023, through Jan. 31, 2024.
The 9-foot bronze by Wesley Wofford has been traveling the country since 2020, paying homage to the woman who led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
Although Tubman is not known to have visited Georgetown, her great-nephew, James Bowley, arrived in the town shortly after the Civil War and became commissioner of the county’s schools during the Reconstruction era. Local historians say Tubman raised money –about $20,000 in today’s currency — for books and supplies to support Bowley’s work.
Visit these websites to learn more about the Hammock Coast and historic Georgetown: