Beaufort, S.C. — "Gator!" Our river guide, Scott Leonard, pointed to what looked like a bumpy log nestled amid the grasses along the banks of the Ashepoo River. If that was an alligator, it was huge.
So far, our kayaking trip down this placid South Carolina waterway had been serene. We had paddled leisurely through the dark green water, taking in the canopy of maple, cedar and live oak trees and the old rice fields that bordered the riverbank. The only wildlife we had spotted were dancing water bugs, a few turtles and several young blue herons flapping overhead.
But alligators were everywhere, Scott said, and assured us that we could safely approach them -- as long as we were calm.
"They won't attack," he said. "They feel vulnerable out of the water, so they'll just dive back under."
Scott quickly paddled closer. My boyfriend, Jono, was right behind him. I followed warily.
The prehistoric-looking animal, close to 12 feet long, lay still as we drew near. I began to wonder if it were even alive. Then, as we got close enough to touch it with our paddles, it slid slowly, imperceptibly, into the depths of the glassy water -- its jagged tail the last to disappear. I shivered.
A change of plans
When Jono and I began planning a spring-break getaway, we weren't looking to kayak down an alligator-infested river. After a long, frigid winter on the East Coast, we were dreaming of green islands, snorkeling among rainbow-colored fishes, soaking up the sun on a white beach.
The Caribbean sounded perfect -- until we looked at prices. Everything available in the first week of April, Jono's only break from law school, was more than we wanted to spend. We shifted gears.
I had always wanted to explore the Carolina coastline. After a little research, we settled on a four-day stay on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, a collection of more than 65 sandy outposts that hug the shoreline, crisscrossed with saltwater marshes and dotted with elegant antebellum houses. Hilton Head, the largest and most recognized of them, is popular among golfers and beach-goers. The rest of the region is not as well known but, as we discovered, is as steeped in history and natural beauty.
The Sea Islands form the southern edge of the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, made up of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers. The three waterways wind through former rice and indigo plantations before emptying out into St. Helena Sound.
The lush landscape, home to many shrimp and crab fishermen, has been featured in such movies as "The Prince of Tides," "Forrest Gump" and "The Big Chill." Despite Hollywood's arrival, much of the Sea Islands has managed to retain its small-town Southern charm, providing a relaxing antidote to the gaudiness of popular spots such as Myrtle Beach, farther north up the coast.
On Port Royal Island, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through Beaufort (pronounced BYOO-fort), the county seat, offering tours of the town's graceful old homes. Across the bridge, St. Helena Island has preserved much of the local Gullah culture. On this and other Sea Islands, West African slaves worked on isolated plantations, developing their own language, food and customs. Many descendants of those slaves still reside in the area.
Geography and history have helped the Sea Islands retain their character. Founded in 1710, Beaufort is the second oldest city in South Carolina, established 40 years after Charleston. During the Civil War, it was seized by Union soldiers, who occupied it throughout the war and, as a result, spared the town's rich stock of Colonial homes.
The area continues to have strong military ties. Parris Island, originally settled by the French, is now run by the Marines as a training depot. A Marine Corps air station north of Beaufort is home to a fleet of fighter jets, which we saw rocketing overhead several times. There's also a Naval hospital in Beaufort, and a National Cemetery that includes graves of Civil War soldiers.
The bridges that now connect many of the larger Sea Islands to the mainland weren't built until several decades ago, leaving several small towns untouched until recently. Since then, a burst of construction has deposited a slew of new retirement developments along stretches of the islands.
To get to the Sea Islands, we flew to Charleston, then drove about 1 1/2 hours south on U.S. Highway 17. I was unimpressed at our first glimpse of Beaufort: Big-box chain stores and fast-food restaurants lined the road. But moments later, we turned a bend into the historic downtown and were transported back in time.
Along the banks of the bay, large antebellum homes stood proudly, shaded by live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. On Bay Street, the town's quaint main avenue, we lunched on tasty grouper sandwiches on the back patio of Kathleen's Grille, facing the grassy waterfront park. Boats bobbed in the water. The town felt akin to a lazy, sun-drenched afternoon.