Much has been made of the burgeoning film industry in South Florida: "Cape Fear," "True Lies," "The Specialist," "Striptease."
But it's got nothing on Beaufort, S.C. This town of about 10,000 has been the setting of "The Great Santini," "The Big Chill," "The Prince of Tides," "Forrest Gump," "The Jungle Book" and "Something to Talk About." Another movie filmed here, "Last Dance," starring Sharon Stone and Rob Morrow, is expected to be released in a few months.
Beaufort (pronounced BEW-fort) is old, yet still lovely. And not just to filmmakers. Last year, 95,000 tourists passed through town.
Established in 1711, Beaufort is the second-oldest town in South Carolina. Its streets are lined with beautiful antebellum and pre-Revolutionary War mansions. The oldest home in town is the Thomas Hepworth House, built in 1717 -- 15 years before George Washington was born. Many of the quiet streets are shaded by massive oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
Beaufort is 70 miles southwest of Charleston, 40 miles northeast of Savannah. Its main thoroughfare, Bay Street, overlooks marshes and the Beaufort River. It looks as if it hasn't changed in decades.
On Bay Street you can drop by the Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce's visitor center and pick up a historic-district tour map.
The map lists two dozen historic homes that can be seen by walking, driving or taking a horse-drawn-carriage tour. The house that movie buffs want most to see is the James Fripp House, called Tidalholm.
Standing at the end of a dead-end street overlooking a marsh, Tidalholm is a handsome two-story white house built in 1850 and set back from the road amid stately oaks.
It was to this house that Robert Duvall's character moved his family in "The Great Santini," filmed in 1979.
Four years later, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline and others reunited here in "The Big Chill." Most of the movie takes place in the house. Like some of the other historic homes in town, Tidalholm is privately owned and not normally open for tours.
However, Beaufort does sponsor the Spring Tour of Homes one Friday and Saturday in March or April, and a fall tour of homes the second weekend in October.
Many of the homes have a history less glitzy but more historic than Tidalholm.
The Union army took over Beaufort during the Civil War, and several mansions, including the Joseph Johnson House (built in 1850), were used as hospitals by federal forces.
"Everything was confiscated," says Lydia Carter, who is in charge of the John Mark Verdier House Museum, built in the 1790s.
The house, which is in the heart of downtown, was visited by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825 and used as a headquarters by the Union army during the Civil War. It has been restored and furnished as it would have been in 1790.
My favorite home in Beaufort, near Tidalholm, is the Paul Hamilton House -- also called the Oaks. It was built in 1853, and the grounds around it are graced by statuesque oaks. It is the only house in town with a widow's walk.
In addition to its magnificent mansions, Beaufort also has a deliciously dark, dank graveyard on the grounds of St. Helena's Episcopal Church. On Halloween, a group walks through the cemetery and listens to haunting stories told by a guide.
Founded in 1712, St. Helena's is one of the oldest active churches in the nation. Some of the dead buried in its cemetery died a couple of centuries ago, and some inscriptions on the tombstones are no longer legible.
Other long, flat, marble tombstones were used as operating tables during the Civil War. "By the Yankees, who else?" says Ms. Carter.
If you go. . .
For more information, call the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 910, Beaufort, S.C. 29901, (803) 524-3163.