The town of Port Royal, located due south of Beaufort and just north of Parris Island, is a delightful and large Lowcountry community that combines genuine southern hospitality and living with a trickle of local attractions that will appeal to coastal and outdoor lovers of all varieties.
A town that prides itself on its prime boating, bird watching, and natural conservation efforts, visitors will find worlds to explore indoors and out, from the serene walking paths, to the historic but gorgeously landscaped streets along Port Royal's renowned downtown. Plan a day or two exploring this authentically charming destination, and see why this sorely overlooked town is a real find along the coastal South Carolina scene.
Port Royal has seen a surge in population in the past decade or so, expanding from just under 4,000 residents in the year 2000 to well more than 10,000 in 2010, and newcomers will quickly discover why. The scenic town has just as much charm as its coastal neighbors, Beaufort and Charleston, but also features a slightly slower pace, a maze of nature and water trails to explore, and fantastic water views in every direction which span across both Beaufort River and Battery Creek.
The town is relatively small, comprising of just 22 square miles, (which includes slightly more than 3.1 square miles of water), but features plenty of activity, including a quietly active downtown region that is a fun, long walking exploration on a sunny South Carolina day.
Port Royal's name stems from the neighboring Port Royal Sound, which was initially explored and then named by French pioneer Jean Ribaut in 1562. Port Royal was sparsely populated and explored in the years that followed, as the Spanish, English and French fought over control of the Sea Islands, but eventually became one of many hubs for the thriving regional rice, cotton and indigo trades.
The landscape changed dramatically during the Civil War, when it became the site of the Naval Battle of Port Royal, and then later became the locale for the "Port Royal Experiment," a program that allowed former slaves to work on the land that was abandoned by local plantation owners. After the war, the majority of white slave-owning residents fled, leaving 10,000 newly freed slaves behind, and through the "experiment" that followed, these residents were taught to care for and oversee the expansive farmlands, and as a result, became self-sufficient. In fact, folks can still visit the site of the Proclamation Tree in Port Royal, where the Emancipation Proclamation was originally read on Christmas Day in 1863, an act which lead more or less directly to the establishment of the Port Royal Experiment.
The Port Royal Experiment was ended in 1865 by President Andrew Johnson, who returned the land to the original owners, but shortly thereafter, Port Royal would gain an economic boost and regional notoriety in a new way, thanks to its local port. Port Royal boasted a naturally sheltered harbor, and as the phosphate mining industry blossomed following the war, the port thrived with railroads built to connect the town with Charleston, SC and Savanah, Georgia. This route for trade and commerce allowed Port Royal to grow dramatically, and the town was officially incorporated in 1874, more than 300 years after the region's initial settlement efforts.
The port continued operations well into the 20th century, even after the rest of the region was paralyzed by the great Hurricane of 1893. As Charleston's Harbor was dredged back to life, and the town's local port facility was closed in 2004, the perpetual development showed signs of slowing. However, recent efforts to showcase the region, including its deep historical roots and gorgeous natural terrain, have allowed the town to blossom as both a tourism destination and a great place to live.
History lovers will want to take a tour through Port Royal's Old Village, the heart of the town's historic district. The streets in this area are all named after the capitals of countries who, at one point or another, tried to claim the area, so visitors shouldn't be surprised to stroll along London, Paris, Madrid or even Edinburgh Streets during an extensive walking tour. Paris Avenue, the main road that cuts through Old Village, also hosts regular Street Music events throughout the year, and the region is also a prime destination during the annual Soft Shell Crab Festival in late April, a popular event for seafood lovers from all along the East Coast.
Visitors with a soft spot for natural outings and fantastic views will find plenty of local attractions to explore, starting with the Cypress Wetlands, a gorgeous slice of coastal environment that features snowy egrets, wood ducks, great blue herons, and a variety of other migrating shorebirds via a number of winding trails. The Sands Beach, with its extensive long wooden pier and small sandy beach, is a popular spot for amateur archeologists to dig for shark's teeth and other seaside treasures. A tower is also located on site, which is open for climbing visitors, and presents exceptional views of the Port Royal landscape. The Lowcountry Estuarium rounds out an outdoor excursion, with a spacious room filled with exhibits and aquariums, and regular tours of the coastal region.
Water lovers will also find a handful of fishing charters that launch from the area and happily take anglers out on inshore and offshore adventures, as well as a number of winding creeks and open harbors that are perfect for a little sunset kayaking.
Port Royal features nearly 20 restaurants, with a wide range of cuisine that includes Thai, Mexican, sandwich and seafood shacks, grills, and local BBQ joints. With authentic local flavors, and an abundance of fresh local seafood available at virtually every venue, visitors will find plenty of ways to satisfy their hunger for good home cooking.
For accommodations, visitors will find two smaller chain hotels, and a handful of vacation rentals that range from picturesque waterfront cottages to pretty in-town homes. Port Royal is a great destination for a day trip or overnight trip from the neighboring Sea Island destinations, although visitors in love with Lowcountry living many want to spend a full week or more to soak up the easy-going lifestyle.
From a morning of fishing along the waterfront to an afternoon filled with antiquing along Port Royal's downtown, there are a surprisingly large number of entertaining activities that are wide open for Port Royal's visitors. A gorgeous coastal locale that offers miles of views and plenty of laid back entertainment, South Carolina newcomers are sure to fall in love with this postcard-perfect and altogether charming Lowcountry town.