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Colonial Corners of the South

From a royal governor's estate to urbane preservations, a drive along America's southeastern coast traces three centuries of taste and history

April 23, 2000|DON LANGLEY | Don Langley is a writer in San Francisco

NEW BERN, N.C. — The two young women in their gingham gowns and cotton maids' caps greeted us in the kitchen with a smile and prepared to lay wood in the walk-in fireplace, just managing to avoid the hooks and hangers that pierced the space. This was the way folks cooked in the 18th century, they explained, and why the red brick kitchen was in a building of its own, separate from the rest of the governor's palace.

It was just the sort of living history scene you would expect in Colonial Williamsburg, in eastern Virginia. But this wasn't Williamsburg; it was colonial New Bern in coastal North Carolina. We were visiting Tryon Palace, home of the king's governor, William Tryon, in the early 1770s (and reconstructed in the 1950s). The Georgian manse, the English garden, the rich interior appointments were a reminder that the Southeast coast, an area Westerners tend to associate with the Civil War, was a lively corner of America in pre-Revolution days.

Between the icons of Williamsburg to the north and Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., to the south are dozens of small towns oozing charm and almost three centuries of history. They make a delightful driving trip, providing many variations on the colonial theme and some serendipitous surprises, as my wife, Judy, and I discovered on a weeklong ramble last November. (This was before the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People began an economic boycott of South Carolina to protest the flying of a Confederate flag over the capitol. A compromise was endorsed by the state Senate in mid-April, but the issue remains unresolved.)

Tryon enjoyed his palace for only a year before being transferred to New York. In 1798 a fire consumed all of Tryon Palace but the stables. When local citizens decided in 1959 that they should re-create their treasure, they found that Tryon had taken the plans and drawings to New York, where they reposed in the New-York Historical Society. All the interior furnishings--the furniture, china, crystal, books and art from England, even the mantels and the ornate carvings over the doors--were replaced by close matches found in England; the governor himself probably wouldn't notice the difference.

New Bern citizens have lavished the same love and pride on restoring other historic buildings around the palace. Among them is the Harvey Mansion (1797), now a B&B and restaurant. We felt fortunate to get reservations for Thanksgiving dinner, served in a formal dining room. It was so good that we ordered a dinner to go, to have a picnic of leftovers on the road the next day.

(Caution: The Carolinas are tobacco country. Smoking seems to be allowed just about everywhere, and some restaurants don't even have a nonsmoking section.)

We had come to New Bern after a drive down the Outer Banks islands. We'd been advised to take that route partly for the breathtaking ocean scenery, partly to avoid areas that had been swamped by Hurricane Floyd two months before.

Our first stop on the mainland was Beaufort, N.C. (pronounced bow-fert, not to be confused with Beaufort--bew-fert--S.C.).

Beaufort is about as old as New Bern, but where New Bern's historical treasures abut a down-at-the-heels section of a sizable town (pop. 17,000), Beaufort (pop. 3,800) is pristine, with a more authentic old-time atmosphere.

Most of the houses in the historic area are marked with name and date, so a self-guided walking or driving tour is an easy way to absorb it all in an hour or so.

A few locals, seeing the map in my hand, asked if we needed directions and spoke of the charms of the Old Burying Ground. It was impressive; the oldest legible headstone was dated 1756.

A couple running an antiques shop just a few doors off the waterfront told us they were from California and had spent two years searching for a place to live that was warm, safe, small, historic and on the water. Beaufort had it all.

Nobody in Beaufort locks doors, they said. One day, at their home around the corner, the wife was relaxing at the piano when a tourist burst in the front door and called back to his family, "Hey, this one's got music," and in they trooped.

U.S. 17 is the main coastal highway, curving inland around estuaries and marshlands. We crossed countless bridges and causeways; only after a closer look at the map did we realize that the two Beauforts and several other places we stopped at were on islands.

South Carolina's Beaufort is historic and has a pretty harbor. It also has a modern claim to tourism fame: The popular novel and movie "Prince of Tides" were set here, and it was a backdrop for "Forrest Gump," "The Big Chill" and "The Great Santini."

This Beaufort is not a museum, although the visitor center will happily provide maps to interesting old homes and commercial buildings. We needed only to stroll along some streets lined with old oak trees dripping Spanish moss to sense that we were in the Old South, preserved just as we had imagined it.

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