Few regions in the United States pack in as much history, culture, and natural beauty as the Low Country—a 200-mile (322-kilometer) stretch of coastal South Carolina and Georgia.
A pungent, slightly salty smell permeates the air of the Low Country. Its source is the area's pluff mud: the dark marsh soil left behind after the tide recedes. That smell—and term—is one of the Low Country's many distinctive qualities. Other features that tend to leave lasting impressions on visitors include the wide, flat expanses of marsh grass, the shrill songs of tree frogs and katydids, the silhouettes of live oak trees, their long, arching limbs shrouded in silvery clumps of Spanish moss. Then there's the seemingly omnipresent water—tidal marshes, rivers, estuaries, and the Atlantic Ocean—often with at least one shrimp boat trawling. On a road trip through the Low Country, Charleston and Savannah make convenient bookends. Some backtracking is required in between—out to the islands, and then back to the main road—but that just gives you more time to absorb the scenery. After all, this trip should not be rushed, but made slowly, Southern style.
Start in Charleston
Precise boundaries for the Low Country are unclear, but Charleston is generally agreed to be its largest economic center. Begin your trip on the edge of the historic district with a stroll down East Bay Street; on one side you'll see some of Charleston's historic architecture, from Italianate to art deco, and on the other, across the harbor, Fort Sumter, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. For your first taste of the South, try the shrimp and grits fritters at High Cotton (www.mavericksouthernkitchens.com/highcotton) while live jazz plays.
Head out of Charleston on Route 17 south. After about 15 miles (24 kilometers), turn left on Main Road and continue eight miles (13 kilometers) to the Angel Oak, a 65-foot (20-meter)-tall live oak tree estimated to be around 300 years old. It's had enough time to grow a canopy that shades 17,000 square feet (1,579 square meters).
Continue south on Route 17 before turning left onto Highway 174, the live oak-lined road to Edisto Island. On this tranquil island, without a single traffic light, the most visible commerce for miles might be a roadside stand run by Gullah women—descendants of the Low Country's first black inhabitants—weaving and selling coiled sweetgrass baskets. Stop at the Serpentarium (edistoserpentarium.com) to see reptiles from the region and beyond in low-walled enclosures (not behind glass) for optimal viewing. Photos, old farm implements, and a reconstructed plantation room relate the island's past at the tiny Edisto Island Museum (www.edistomuseum.org). Eventually, Highway 174 loops around a quiet beach, a favorite of shell collectors; the southern end, where the ocean meets the South Edisto River, boasts the best sunset views.
Farther along Route 17 south, take Route 21 to Beaufort, South Carolina's second-oldest city (after Charleston), and, before the Civil War, perhaps one of the wealthiest towns of its size in the country. Check in at the Rhett House Inn (www.rhetthouseinn.com), an antebellum plantation home, and pedal one of their bikes around the waterfront and historic homes.
St. Helena Island
Route 21 south continues on to St. Helena Island and Penn Center (www.penncenter.com), the country's first school for African Americans. The 50-acre (20 hectare) campus is preserved as a National Historic Landmark; a small museum displays photos, letters, and Gullah artwork. Up the road is the Red Piano Too Art Gallery (www.redpianotoo.com), its rooms brimming with a collection of paintings, sculpture, woodwork, and jewelry by local artists. For local food, including she-crab soup and sweet potato pie, cross the street to Gullah Grub (www.gullahgrubs.com).
Hunting Island (www.huntingisland.com), home to a 5,000-acre (2,023-hectare) state park, is ten miles (16 kilometers) south on Route 21. The narrow road winding into the park squeezes through a forest (Forrest Gump's jungle scenes were shot here) that opens onto a three-mile (five-kilometer)-long beach. The lighthouse, built in 1859, destroyed during the Civil War, and rebuilt in 1875, is open to the public; it's 167 steps to the top.
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Retrace your path back toward Beaufort, but make a left turn to Route 802 and again on 170 to reach 278 east. Pull into the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares) of salt marsh and tidal creeks, where you can get a close-up look at marsh life by kayak. "We have a giant tide here—six to eight feet (two to three meters)—so we can travel way back into the salt marsh mazes," says David Fleming, co-owner of Water-Dog Outfitter (www.waterdogoutfitter.com). The area is home to hundreds of bird species, including herons. "There have been trips where I've had a dolphin on my left and an alligator on my right," Fleming says.
End your trip in Savannah by returning to 170 and following it south to meet Route 17. Much of the city survived the Civil War. Rather than burn it, General Sherman offered Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift, and historic preservation remains a priority. The 2.5-square-mile (6.5-square-kilometer) historic district features some 2,300 buildings, most of them restored, and an atmosphere that can be described as gothic. Savannah is said to be "built on its dead" because of the old cemeteries beneath it. Ghost tours are popular. Down at the waterfront, you can buy pralines from River Street Sweets (www.riverstreetsweets.com) and enjoy them by the river.
The best times to drive this route are spring or fall; summer is also fine, although the heat and humidity can be high. For local weather conditions, see www.weather.com. For general information about Charleston, S.C., see www.charlestoncvb.com/visitors; for general information about Beaufort, S.C., see www.beaufort.com; for general information about Savannah, Ga., see www.savannahvisit.com.
—Text by Suzanne Bopp, adapted from National Geographic Traveler