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Beaufort is a great choice for history, beaches and more

Megan Sexton Megan Sexton
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Beaufort, a waterfront gem on the coast south of Charleston and near Hilton Head, is the perfect family weekend getaway -- no matter what your children's interests.

A recent trip for our family included a bicycle tour through the historic downtown, a climb to the top of a lighthouse, a walk on an undeveloped beach, a stroll through a waterfront park and a visit to a Civil Rights landmark.

Here are the highlights from three of our stops:

Learn about history -- on two wheels.

Your kids might not even realize how much history they are soaking in as they pedal around downtown Beaufort, passing picturesque marshes, historic landmarks and stately homes.

But kids (and parents) will learn plenty -- and have a great time doing it. Maurice Ungaro will make sure of that.

The owner and operator of Sea Island Bike Tours, Ungaro combines his two passions -- cycling and history.

The result is a business that offers bicycle tours of historic downtown Beaufort (one hour, about 5 miles of easy riding), St. Helena Island and the Penn Center (2 to 3 hours, about 20-30 miles of lightly traveled flat roads) and Port Royal and Parris Island (2 and 3 hours, 20 to 30 miles of flat roads with two bridges that have bike lanes).

He'll even tailor a custom tour to your family's interests.

And the bicycle part is a definite hit with kids. Sea Island Bike Tours provides the bicycles, helmets and water bottles (you get to keep those).

We took the hour-long downtown tour on a recent Sunday morning. At stops along the way, Ungaro, who has a master's degree in historic preservation and has spent more than 25 years in the Lowcountry, offered up Revolutionary and Civil War history, along with pointing out homes that were featured in hit movies. (The Big Chill and Prince of Tides are just two of the movies filmed in Beaufort, and you'll see the houses where parts those films were shot.) We rode through the Beaufort National Cemetery (Where Pat Conroy's father -- The Great Santini -- along with hundreds of other military veterans are buried.) We hopped off the bikes at St. Helena's Church graveyard for a stroll and some stories about those buried there.

It's a perfect way to see the historic city -- and a perfectly fun way to expose your kids to history. And it sticks with them. (A week later our 13-year-old was talking about the tabby construction on the city's seawall. See, he WAS paying attention.)

The Penn Center

The Penn Center on 50 acres on St. Helena Island, just over the bridge from downtown Beaufort, offers a chance to step back in time.

Started as Penn School, the first school in the nation to teach freed slaves, it is now a cultural center, preserved for the past 100 years as a living reminder of the Gullah and Geeche Lowcountry culture.

It was one of several schools established on St. Helena Island as part of the Port Royal Experiment. The leaders of this experiment were primarily philanthropists, abolitionists and missionaries from Pennsylvania who came to the Beaufort area after Union soldiers took control of the Port Royal Sound and forced the Confederates to flee. They wanted to help former slaves prepare for freedom by teaching them how to read and make a living.

The school closed in the late 1940s, and the center's work was redirected toward social injustices. During the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would meet at the Penn Center, a rare spot where blacks and whites could meet peacefully without being threatened or harmed. Photographs in the museum show King meeting with others at Penn Center, and the home he stayed in (Gantt Cottage) sits quietly among the massive live oaks.

Make time to watch the short video in the museum; it offers an overview of the Penn Center's history. Also be sure to spend time in the museum, learning about the Penn School and other history that was made on these grounds.

Robert Middleton, a docent at Penn Center, showed us around the grounds. He actually attended school there as a child. A living piece of history you won't want to miss.

Get ready to climb.

Hunting Island State Park has always been one of our favorite South Carolina beaches.

The path from the entrance to the beach through a lush maritime forest is one of the best rides in the state. Then there's the undeveloped beach, with palmettos growing just beyond the dunes.

Kids love the beach. And they can't resist the lighthouse.

The Hunting Island historic lighthouse is the only lighthouse open to the public to climb in the state. It's $2 to get in and a 167-step climb to the top. But once you're up there, the views of the ocean, beach, marshes and tree tops can‘t be matched. It's open from 10 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. from March through October, and 10 a.m. until 3:45 from November through February.

The state park also includes a pier that juts more than 1,100 feet into Fripp Inlet. A perfect place to fish, or to sit and watch the sun go down over the marsh. Don't miss the Nature Center at the start of the pier, with its exhibits of wildlife and marine life.

Megan Sexton
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.