Beaufort: A Unique South Carolina Reunion Location


Filmed in Beaufort, South Carolina and released in 1983, The Big Chill is known for the performances of young Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum and William Hurt. Based around a weekend reunion of college friends, the film’s popularity was boosted by its soundtrack, which went platinum less than a year after its release. Over thirty years later, friends, families, military and other groups are finding that reunions in this charming Southern city are still just as memorable.

Located on Port Royal Island, Beaufort’s downtown area has been designated a historic district by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A carriage, bus or walking tour is the perfect introduction to a town rich in history and filled with pre-Civil War mansions.

When the heat and insects (known at the time as the “bad air”) became unbearable on the barrier island plantations, the wealthy owners simply moved to town. It appears that each home constructed was an attempt to outshine the previous one.

Throughout the downtown area your group will discover shopping from boutiques to antiques. The picture-perfect setting is naturally conducive to art and art galleries. Filmmakers have also found Beaufort to be a perfect setting for their art.

If movies are your group’s thing, spend the day touring locations used in Forrest Gump, The Great Santini, GI Jane, Platoon, Forces of Nature and, of course, The Big Chill. It’s reported that the Shrimp Shack near the Harbor River Bridge on St. Helena Island was a favorite of Tom Hanks. Real film buffs arrive every February for the Beaufort International Film Festival, which features independent films and screenplays.

Every tour or reunion planner at one time or another will hear, “What’s to eat?” Downtown Beaufort and its group-friendly restaurants have the answer. Emily’s Restaurant and Tapas Bar has a truly diverse dinner menu and features fresh, local seafood. Regardless of the main course selected, do have the best gumbo ever and save room for a slice of real key lime pie. Ideal for lunch or dinner, Panini’s Cafe overlooks Beaufort’s Waterfront Park. Although a signature of the restaurant is Stone Baked Pizza, a full menu of Italian and Mediterranean delights is sure to please even the pickiest in your reunion group.

With a diverse selection of Beaufort area lodging options, you’re sure to find the perfect accommodations for your reunion members. More than a dozen bed & breakfast inns are found in historic antebellum homes. The Rhett House Inn, a Four Diamond recipient, stands out for unsurpassed elegance and true Southern hospitality. From national flag properties to locally owned venues, your choice of hotels and motels is extensive. The centrally located Hilton Garden Inn provides comfortable accommodations and a warm breakfast to start your day. A variety of homes and condominiums, many of them on waterfront, and the Point South KOA in nearby Yemassee, S.C. complete a full set of accommodation options.

A short drive from downtown Beaufort is St. Helena Island, the center of African-American Gullah language and culture. In the very heart are the Penn Center and 50-acre Penn School Historic Landmark District. Founded in 1862 as Penn School during the Union occupation of Beaufort and the area’s Sea Islands, it was one of the nation’s first schools dedicated to the education of freed slaves. In the early 1900s Penn School began operating as a normal, agricultural and industrial education school. In 1948 Penn School closed, but the state of South Carolina continued using the facility until the last class graduated in 1953.

After the school’s closing, the newly established Penn Center focused on community development and adopted a mission statement: To Promote and Preserve the Sea Islands’ History and Culture. Issues and programs range from history and culture to land use and environmental education. Early childhood and daycare services and accompanying academic and cultural offerings are an important part of the center’s commitment.

The contributions of Penn Center are deep. Between 1963 and 1967 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. held strategic planning sessions on the campus for the civil rights movement. It’s believed that King penned his “I Have a Dream” speech while staying at Penn Center. With racial tensions at a fever pitch during the mid-’60s and few places in the South accepting multi-racial retreats and meetings, Penn Center became a location of choice.

In the 1970s and ’80s the Peace Corps trained volunteers in the agricultural skills they would need. The culture of the inhabitants and climate of the Sea Islands were indicative of what they would experience in the African nations they would be serving.

The history of Penn School and Penn Center is preserved in the York W. Bailey Museum, named in honor of a Penn School graduate who returned as the first African-American doctor attending to the needs of the Sea Islands’ residents. Allow ample time for a short video that tells the story of Penn School. A leisurely stroll through exhibits with period photographs further defines this special place.

Today, Penn Center continues to welcome groups from reunions and tours to weddings and meetings. With four lodging facilities accommodating up to 85 guests and a waterfront Retreat House, originally built to host Dr. King, the center is an ideal destination in itself. Although food preparation is not permitted in the guesthouses in the 50-acre National Historic Landmark District, the Emory S. Campbell Dining Hall features a complete dining service featuring many Gullah dishes.

A short drive from St. Helena on U.S. 21 is Hunting Island State Park. From the entrance to the visitors center, admire the varieties of indigenous palm trees. Home to the only South Carolina lighthouse open to the public, the park also has nature trails, a nature center and fishing pier. The beach is also open to the public.

Welcoming more than 120,000 visitors annually, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island (MCRDPI) is one of the most visited destinations in the Lowcountry. MCRDPI trains recruits from east of the Mississippi River and all female recruits. After 13 weeks on Parris Island the new Marines continue elsewhere with specialized training.

Anotherunique South Carolina reunion location is the Parris Island Museum. From the site of French and Spanish colonies between 1562 and 1587 to the Marine Corps’ role today in the global war on terror and peacekeeping missions, it’s all here. Dedicate time to view the short film on recruit training and the final phase, The Crucible, a grueling 52-hour exercise.

Following the museum visit, a windshield tour would be worthwhile. The drive is well mapped and highlighted with “Iron Mike” signage. The official statue, known as the “Monument to U.S. Marines,” is second on your drive and dedicated to Parris Island Marines who gave their lives during World War I. Your first stop should be the Douglas Visitor’s Center, named for Illinois Sen. Paul H. Douglas, a 50-year-old 1942 recruit.

As you continue the drive, you’ll experience the Historic District, the remains of the Parris Island Dry Dock, the Drill Instructor School, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, Purple Heart Monument and Iwo Jima Monument. Located near The Legends at Parris Island golf course are the Charlesfort-Santa Elena National Historic Landmark, along with the Nature and History Trail.

The golf course itself is a treat and provides a wonderful recreational facility for both Marines and the general public. Plans are in the works for a new clubhouse to include a larger pro shop and snack bar. PGA professional Andy Hinson welcomes groups and has hosted beginners to juniors to professionals at The Legends. With five sets of tees the venue is perfect for military and family reunions, as well as golf and tour groups.

Each hole is dedicated to a Marine legend with baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente gracing Hole 3. Although not particularly long, the course can grow when winds come off Port Royal Sound. However, shot making is still the required skill. Case in point is Hole 9, the No. 1 handicap and a good front nine finishing hole.

Shot making continues to be the way to go on the back nine with Holes 11, 14 and 16 being special. Keep an eye out for alligators and it just seems appropriate that a bald eagle made an appearance on Parris Island.

Beaufort is a great destination to begin exploring the history and culture of the Sea Islands and Lowcountry of South Carolina. Begin planning for reunions and group tours by visiting online at

−By Dave Bodle

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