Beaufort, South Carolina, is characterized culturally, emotionally, and economically by the presence of water. And that is precisely what’s been celebrated, every year for the past six decades, at the Beaufort Water Festival. We drink it, paddle and sail upon it, and picnic and party beside it. Surely, water merits its own 10-day celebration.
Let’s set the stage with a glimpse of Beaufort as it presents itself during the 355 days of the year in which the festival is not going on. This quintessential Southern town is nestled along the Intracoastal Waterway with a downtown overlooking a tranquil bay. Working back from the water, the town’s streets wind alongside classic Antebellum homes, yards bedazzled with all manner of blooming shrubbery and shaded by ancient live oaks. Draped in fringes of Spanish moss, Beaufort is absolutely charming.
In July, the town’s beloved Water Festival kicks into gear for its 60th anniversary. This annual celebration combines big fun in a small-town way. It seems as though every man, woman, and child turns out sometime during the festival. That’s because organizers reliably schedule something to appeal to every appetite: from children’s “toad fishing” to a gala Commodore’s Ball; from nightly, rollicking live bands to dragon boat races with chiseled athletes vying for bragging rights.
When my children were younger, they enjoyed freewheeling strolls along the waterfront, ducking into vendor tents, and snagging sweet snacks from local purveyors. They loved watching the sailboats and picnicking under live oaks.
As we have grown older, we still enjoy those aspects, but now plan our visit to include one of the evening concerts. To keep suspense high, the headliner band isn’t announced until 10 days prior to the event. Rounding the bend at the mermaid (a sculptural fixture of downtown Beaufort) with our windows rolled down, we can catch the thump of a bass drum or a timpani trill. We park and follow the rhythm to find happy crowds gathered along and on the water, enjoying live music and the special kind of fellowship it fosters.
In the end, we appreciate the sense of sincere welcome that defines this town and this festival. There is room for everybody in today’s Beaufort. Maybe that’s because, historically speaking, Beaufort has been accustomed to accommodating people from across the globe. Settled originally by native tribes, Beaufort was “discovered” in 1520 by Spanish explorers who were later joined by the French, British, and African people, among others. Across all time, water has played a starring role on Beaufort’s stage. It transported new people and ideas to the town and still does.
Of course, we don’t think much about all that as we hoist a frosty beer skyward to call for an encore by Deas-Guyz, the classic Motown soul cover band. And we won’t spy many musketeers around the Paddle Battle, just an amazing array of flip-flops and bare arms. History lives in Beaufort, but on these festival days, fun takes the stage.
At my house, we’re already planning our annual visit to this little town by the sea. We know we’ll once again be besotted by the warm hospitality, gorgeous views, big city flavors, and small-town charm. It’s what keeps us all coming back down to the water, year after year.
Events to count on
Sports, games, and activities are a big draw, and we particularly love the corn hole tournament. There’s golf, volleyball and there are many other exciting diversions; but it’s hard to tee up or spike a ball with a drink in your hand. So we are drawn to this classic backyard, tailgate party game tossing bean bags onto an angled board in which a large hole has been cut. Do not be fooled: this is high stakes, performance-driven sport. Well, okay…maybe it’s just fun!
Festival evenings are defined by music, which rings out from nightly concerts in Waterfront Park. They feature a mix of patriotic, country, classic rock, or soulful covers. If you’re lucky, you’ll nab an invitation to listen from one of the boats parked out on the bay.
Hit the water! Channel your inner Forest Gump aboard a shrimp boat, cheer on the sailing regatta, and witness the charm of the Blessing of the Fleet. Every day features some way to play on Beaufort’s alluring water.