Southern Dream Towns
From lakeside retreats to coastal gems, our guide to the best small-town hideaways
Beaufort, South Carolina
Discover this riverside Lowcountry jewel
Why You Should Move Here Linger a while in Beaufort’s Waterfront Park and you’ll appreciate firsthand how a great, inviting public space can help revive a community. On any given day, moored sloops decorate the harbor, palmetto fronds clack in the breeze, and a late-afternoon round of mojitos at Saltus River Grill, one of the patioed eateries embracing the water, sounds like just the ticket. It rarely takes long for visitors to fall for this sultry charmer of a town, a small-plate counterpart to Charleston’s all-you-can-eat Lowcountry banquet. A stroll among Bay Street’s galleries and bookshops (no better place to find a Gullah Bible or an autographed Pat Conroy novel) usually starts the infatuation. By the time you meander through the hushed lanes of the adjacent Old Point neighborhood, gawking at block after block of grandly renovated antebellum homes under towering magnolias and moss-haunted live oaks, the hook is firmly set. When a screenplay calls for Southern and gorgeous, Hollywood location scouts have long known where to find it (see The Big Chill, Forrest Gump, and any film based on anything written by Conroy).
What’s Going On It’s hard to imagine anyone exhausting the cultural and sporting options in Beaufort and the outlying Sea Islands. The arts scene keeps things from getting too quiet, with upwards of a dozen galleries downtown alone, along with numerous studios, workshops, artists in residence, and a brimming calendar at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort’s Performing Arts Center. The venues for sea kayaking, sailing, and fishing are tantalizing, with a lifetime supply of flats, creeks, salt marshes, rivers, sounds, estuaries, and open water right out the back door (and in the nearby almost-12,000-acre ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge), along with miles of mostly uncrowded beaches. History lovers hardly know where to begin to explore the historic houses, churches, graveyards, and Gullah culture. There’s also an embarrassment of festivals—Water, Shrimp, International Film, and Gullah, to name a few.
Planting Your Roots Aspiring preservationists who don’t break out in a cold sweat at the sound of the words money pit can still get a piece of Beaufort’s downtown historic district, where down-at-the-heel, century-old cottages crying out for full-monty makeovers list for not much more than $100,000. At the other end of the spectrum, a waterside Revolution-era showpiece with breezy double piazzas, a proud historical pedigree, and a just-so renovation would most likely sell for north of $2 million. Within the vast in-between, well-kept three-bedrooms with water views and a private dock on one of the islands would probably sell for $350,000 or more.
Oriental, North Carolina
A Sailor’s Paradise on the Pamlico
Why You Should Move Here Denizens of this welcoming “Inner Banks” fishing village—tucked away at the remote junction of five creeks, the five-mile-wide Neuse River, and mammoth Pamlico Sound—brag that sailboats outnumber residents three to one. On Oriental’s working waterfront, gleaming yachts just in from the Intracoastal Waterway dock alongside shrimp boats. Several businesses survive by selling, repairing, chartering, provisioning, guiding, making sails for, or harvesting seafood from boats. You can stroll, pedal, or paddle to just about anywhere in Oriental, which should find a way to bottle its drowsy small-town charm.
What’s Going On It’s all about the water. Regattas take place year-round, weather permitting, and gunkholers, cruisers, and kayakers stake their claim to this playground, too. Oriental’s School of Sailing offers reputable tutoring at the tiller. You can even sign up for twice-weekly boat-building classes at the local community college, taught by a seasoned circumnavigator. Some 150 miles of tidal creek, river, and sound radiate out from town, and the fishing rarely disappoints. Not far away, the narrow barrier islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore attract admirers of wildlife (shorebirds, loggerhead turtles, even feral horses). Back in town, no one confuses Oriental with Orlando, but the Old Theater does stage some periodic culture (chamber music, bluegrass, local repertory productions), and the Oriental Express Bicycle Club sponsors group rides.
Planting Your Roots Sailors from far-flung ports constantly stop over at Mile Marker 182 on the Intracoastal, and some come back to stay. Three-bedroom houses with private docks on creeks have recently sold for well under $300,000; spacious newer homes with such accoutrements as multiple screened porches, multi-slip docks, boat lifts, and harbor views typically range between $400,000 and $650,000. A few miles outside of town, River Dunes, a swanky planned waterfront development, is marketing homes for $600,000 and up.
A Fishing Town with a Taste for Culture
Why You Should Move Here Let’s just say the whooping cranes are onto something. Every winter a colony of these endangered beauties—five feet tall and crowned in regal scarlet, with seven-foot wingspans—flies some twenty-five hundred miles from northwest Canada to the salt marshes of Texas’s Coastal Bend. But Rockport and Fulton, its twin village on Aransas Bay, are more than defrosting grounds for snowbirds. Creative types have also colonized these breezy shores for longer than a century, and more than two hundred working artists make their home here. You’re not apt to find an art town with better fishing, or a fishing town with better art.
What’s Going On The fishing is first-rate, whether it’s casting for reds from a kayak or chasing marlin during the summertime Deep Sea Roundup in nearby Port Aransas, the Gulf Coast’s oldest fish-off. Birders make pilgrimages here from all over, for the whoopers and for almost four hundred other species. The Art Center regularly stages noteworthy exhibits and offers all manner of workshops for aspiring potters, novelists, and plein air painters. Few towns of fewer than ten thousand residents could ever hope to match the area’s cultural calendar, with seasonal festivals that spotlight art, film, wine, oysters, and ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Planting Your Roots Compared with many other coastal retreats, Rockport still offers housing with bay views, or even actual waterfront, for surprisingly reasonable prices. In Key Allegro, an upscale bayfront precinct near downtown, you might find a two-bedroom townhouse with its own boat slip for less than $200,000. An oak-shaded, bluff-top house on two waterfront acres on Copano Bay—with guest cottage, stocked fish pond, and a 250-foot lighted pier—recently listed for just under $900,000.