Waves of wanderers, boats of Beaufort

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley

Summer is peak tourist season at any stop near the beach, and beautiful seaside Beaufort NC is no exception. Vacationers are drawn in from nearby Atlantic Beach, Morehead City, Salter Path and Emerald Isle, and in large droves they buy ice cream cones, stroll the boardwalk, eat at the eateries and shop the shops.

Beaufort is a magnet for adventure seekers who come to parasail, do some wreck diving, rent a kayak, go dolphin watching, do some fly-fishing or charter a private Cessna airplane for an aerial tour of Cape Lookout and Harkers Island. A lot of toned and tanned young bodies can be seen strolling the waterfront in the summertime.

The spring and fall months are also busy times in Beaufort, when a lesser known species of people flock to the area. Sometimes known as "snowbirds," this breed lights out of its northern homes prior to the first sign of a snowflake, and heads south to a more temperate climate for the winter months. Many can be seen motoring up and down I-95 in Winnebagos, but a significant number of them travel by boat along the Intracoastal Waterway — also known as a "floating I-95."

The Intracoastal Waterway is a series of linked rivers, canals and bays that today amounts to a 1,300-mile north-south passage. It was first envisioned by Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Albert Gallatin, and over the years it has developed in some ways similar to the nation's highways and byways. Wayside attractions have sprung up to accommodate throngs of passing travelers, sojourners and wayfarers on their way to somewhere else.

By contrast with the highway motorists, boaters stopping in Beaufort NC have seen no colorful billboards along the way and have not come to expect neon lights and video arcades. Actually there are no hotels whatsoever in Beaufort, and the annual snowbird migration either stays on its boats or seeks out gracious Southern hospitality in a small number of quaint bed-and-breakfast establishments.

When the snowbirds swarm ashore they are hungry, thirsty, and in search of gifts, groceries, supplies and souvenirs. Vintage storefronts line the waterfront district, flanked on three sides by blocks of gracious and historic Southern-style homes, some of these available for short-term rentals.

The marinas charge dockage fees based on the size of the boat and might even throw in the use of a car to get to the big grocery stores over in Morehead City. A coin-operated laundry in the General Store on Front Street is a prime destination, well within walking distance from the docks, and near the washers and dryers is a spot where the long-distance boaters can pick up a used paperback left by the last guy and leave a stack of magazines for the next guy.

Various historic tours take visitors through the waterfront district, pointing out its distinctive architectural features. Some homes are built on foundations made of ballast stones — used to weight the large boats and keep them from capsizing—and another standard feature seen all over town is the widow's walk.

Houses were built with rooftop platforms and handrails, affording an often windy but panoramic view of Beaufort Inlet. For centuries the sailors who embarked from this port went out to sea for weeks, months, often years, leaving their wives to look for their return from this vantage point, shading their eyes with their hands, straining to see a familiar mast on the distant horizon. Sometimes they never saw their husbands again.

Pronunciation and other tips

Beaufort in North Carolina is pronounced bow-furt, while the other Beaufort in South Carolina is pronounced byew-furt. Both Beauforts are picture-postcard scenes of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, beautifully sculpted gardens and seaside shopping and dining venues infused with aromatic ocean breezes riffling through the magnolias.

Both Beauforts sit on inland waterways—Taylor's Creek in the case of Beaufort NC—where a gentle lapping and splashing against the docks is all that's left of the ocean's mighty waves, some short distance away. Both Beauforts lure the beach crowd away from nearby beaches, with the promise of good food and shopping.

It might help to think of the North Carolina town as boat-furt. Or maybe there's a chance it could change its name to bird-furt, either in honor of the snowbirds or the real birds, the pelicans and seagulls that spiral overhead.

Beaufort, NC has also become the historic headquarters for Blackbeard following the discovery on November 21, 1996, of the wreckage of what is believed to be Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, sunk in 1718 in Beaufort Inlet.

An exhibit of alleged QAR artifacts hauled up from the deep is mounted at the North Carolina Maritime Museum (315 Front Street, 252-728-7317) across the street from the Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center, both of them right on the big old boardwalk that lines Front Street.

Walk these planks, as the pirates would have you do, and you're likely to discover a pirate's trove of historical treasures.

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