Like South Carolina's coast, but want to stay away from crowds? I have the perfect spot: Georgetown.
Located at the meeting place of four rivers, Georgetown is practically surrounded by water: Winyah Bay and the Black, Pee Dee, Waccamaw and Sampit rivers.
The town is the third-oldest in South Carolina, behind Charleston and Beaufort (Nos. 1 and 2, respectively).
At one point, half the nation's rice was grown in Georgetown County. That rice economy created an enormous amount of wealth that spread to merchants and shippers before local crop production died out in the early 20th century. Many of the more than 100 rice plantations built during the heyday are still standing.
The growers' success was based primarily on slave labor to plant and harvest the crop, but also because the slaves, most from the west coast of Africa, knew better than the landowners how to cultivate rice.
As the crop became more and more important to the area economy, a local grower developed a water gate system to keep sea water out of the fields during low river-flow times. The brackish water could contaminate the fields, making them unusable for years.
During and after the U.S. Civil War, all agriculture suffered in South Carolina and the rice economy never recovered. Cultivation mostly ended in the early 20th century. Now Georgetown thrives on two major industrial locations, a paper mill and a steel mill, and on tourism.
Less traveled than the beaches to the north, Georgetown is a great place for families, couples and single travelers. Most of the accommodations in town are bed and breakfast style, though there are a few chain hotels.
Our favorite is the very small, very sweet Shaw House. Run by longtime Georgetown resident Mary Shaw, you will feel like you have been invited to stay in her home because that's exactly what you are doing. She has been running the B&B for more than 25 years and her experience shows. It really is like staying with family.
The back porch is ideal for sitting in the morning and evenings during hot months and all day long during the rest of the year. The rooms at the Shaw House are spacious and quiet. You hardly know there are any other guests in the house. At breakfast, you dine in the family room with a breakfast nook and plenty of comfy couches and chairs. There is a more formal dining area when the house is full (three rooms of guests).
Located in a quiet neighborhood overlooking former rice fields, the house is just a short stroll from Georgetown's Harborwalk and all its restaurants and attractions.
The Harborwalk is short (four blocks), but packed with places to eat, shop and see. There are parks at each block honoring famous figures from South Carolina's history, including Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, and two historic sites bookend the walk: the Kaminski House on the west and the Rice Museum on the east.
The Kaminski House was built in the mid- to late-1700s and was deeded to the city in 1972 by the family of one of the town's premier 19th century merchants, Heiman Kaminski. It was built by another merchant, Paul Trapier, who is sometimes called the "King of Georgetown." The house is filled with antiques furniture and decorative art. Guided tours are offered at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday. The museum shop is open from 10 a.m,. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. It is one of more than 60 antebellum homes in the city. (843) 546-7706.
The Rice Museum is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Located in the Old Market Building at the Town Clock, the museum tells Georgetown's story from the mid-1700s, when the city was the center of rice production for the colony, through the mid-1800s, when the county produced about half of the country's total rice crop. The museum tour includes a 17-minute film titled "The Garden of Gold." In addition to the story of rice, the museum also is home to the Maritime History Museum and the "Browns Ferry vessel" - the oldest known vessel to be built in the Colonies. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (843) 546-7423.
The museum building also includes a tribute to Miss Ruby Forsythe, who had a long career teaching African-American students in a one-room school at Pawleys Island. One of the highlights of the tour is being able to hear Miss Ruby tell her story and her philosophy in her own words. She was truly one of the most inspiring educators in South Carolina history.
In between the Kamniski House and the Rice Museum are a variety of wonderful restaurants. Alfresco Bistro offers lunch, dinner and a lovely Sunday brunch with seating inside the candlelit historic brick building or outside on linen-covered sidewalk tables in the shade of a live oak. Chef Eddy Chacon's cuisine includes such mouthwatering dishes as Risotto di Nero con Frutti di Mare. Local bands play in the bar weekend nights from 7 until closing. Alfresco Bistro, (843) 344-3869, 812 Front St.
We also enjoyed the River Room. In business for nearly 30 years, the River Room provides a great view of the Sampit River, cold beer and good food. We had the fried seafood platter and the shrimp and grits, which were served over a biscuit - a new one for us. Open for lunch (11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) and dinner (5-10 p.m.) Monday-Saturday, the River Room is a great place to stop to take a break from strolling. River Room, (843) 527-4110, 801 Front St.