Skip Links

Lowcountry Cruising: From Charleston To Savannah

Local advice for a leisurely cruise through the spectacular waterways between Charleston and Savannah.

Lowcountry sunset

Photo: Getty Images/Keith Briley

Soon after moving to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1992, I discovered a spectacular stretch of waterways between my new home port and Savannah, Georgia, that is lavished with pristine barrier islands, dozens of estuaries teeming with wildlife, and spectacularly scenic sounds. I’ve been boating and exploring these waterways, known as the Lowcountry, ever since. The antebellum sister cities are known for their abundant history, well-preserved architecture, scrumptious southern fare, and friendly people. Even more alluring than the cities is the 125-mile stretch of unspoiled archipelago between them. What better way to immerse oneself in two special American cities than by way of water?

Cruising through Lowcountry waterways pleases all the senses as the ride goes through the heart of the 350,000-acre ACE Basin Wildlife Refuge, named for the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. One of the largest natural areas on the Atlantic, it teems with threatened and endangered wildlife. The sounds — the St. Helena and the Port Royal — are long, wide bodies of water that at times look and feel like the open ocean.

Lowcountry map

From whichever city you depart, pockets of paradise and charming ports of call await. Whether by sail or power, navigating is pretty much a breeze, and can be accomplished by way of the faster ocean route, or the Intracoastal Waterway if you're in no rush.

I have two boats — a Boston Whaler 200 Dauntless and a Back Cove 30 — and have made the passage in each. The Whaler is great for cruising the waterways and visiting the barrier islands around Charleston. The Back Cove comfortably accommodates my wife, Shelley, and our 4-year-old son, Owen, and we use it for overnight trips and as a second home. The Whaler can make the trip to Savannah in three to four hours. It's almost double that in the cabin cruiser, so we normally break up the trip and stop overnight in Beaufort, South Carolina. From there it's about a two-hour ride, or an hour in the Whaler.

Charleston, the 'Holy City'

When I moved to Charleston, "the Holy City" — a moniker derived from its steepled cityscape — was hardly a travel destination. Now it's routinely named a top North American city by the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine. I never tire of experiencing Charleston's waterfront by boat, so before setting sail to her sister to the south, let's explore Charleston's Ashley River.

Charleston Granite Hight Battery

Charleston’s granite High Battery seawall was originally built in the 1850s to transform a sandy beach into scenic high ground. (Photo: Explorecharleston.com)

Once the city's main thoroughfare, this 36-mile tidal river features magnificent scenery, and the 24,000-acre historic district (with more than 130 historical national landmarks) is one of the largest of its kind on its banks. The prettiest part of the Ashley is a 15-mile swath, known locally as "plantation row," that winds through three pre-Revolutionary plantations: Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, and Middleton Place. The river affords unobstructed views of these well-manicured English-style gardens. The 1738 Georgian Palladian style home of Drayton Hall is clearly visible from the water and a remarkable historical treasure.

Another gem is Shem Creek. Lined with shrimp boats — many selling the day's catch — and some wonderful eateries, Shem Creek is Charleston's waterfront dining district. On any day of the week, any time of the year, Shem Creek is a hive for boaters, paddlers, and bottlenose dolphins. The creek's entrance is located on the east side of the harbor, at Red Marker 16, with the best route through the Mount Pleasant Channel. Underway you'll pass two sea forts, Pinckney and Sumter, the sites of early battles in the Civil War. Today, the procession of stately waterfront homes flanking the Mount Pleasant Channel is among the most desirable real estate in Charleston.

David Kuczkir’s Favorite Lowcountry Restaurants

Tavern & Table
100 Church Street, Mount Pleasant, SC
(843) 352-9510

Shem Creek Bar & Grill
508 Mill Street, Mount Pleasant, SC
(843) 884-8102

Saltus River Grill Restaurant
802 Bay Street, Beaufort, SC
(843) 379-3474

Old Bull Tavern
205 West Street, Beaufort, SC
(843) 379-2855

The Grey
109 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Savannah, GA
(912) 662-5999

The ACE Basin, "A Last Great Place"

From ICW Marker 1, at the mouth of the Ashley River, cruise south along the ICW through the Wappoo Creek, Elliott Cut, and the Stono and Wadmalaw rivers. Once past the city, boat traffic thins considerably. At ICW Marker 110, at the convergence of the Wadmalaw, North Edisto, and Dawho rivers, is the northernmost boundary of the ACE Basin. Here's where the scenery really ramps up. Dolphins are everywhere. At low tide you may spot a pod strand feeding, where they isolate schools of shrimp or menhaden against the shoreline and proceed to have a feast.

Above is the Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration route between the Gulf of Mexico and Canada. The ACE Basin is home to more than 300 different resident and migratory species, including the rare whooping crane, peregrine falcon, endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, and the beautiful American oystercatcher.

Harbor cruise aboard Marytime

A harbor cruise charter aboard the author’s MaryTime, includes viewing the city’s two Civil War-era forts, impressive homes, and a variety of sea animals. (Photo: Shelley Kuczkir/Harbor Cruise)

The 6-mile stretch through the Ashepoo River and Rock Creek is the sweet spot of the ACE Basin, in the heart of the St. Helena Sound Wildlife Preserve, a cluster of undeveloped state-managed barrier islands, most notable of which is Otter. Open to the public year-round, this unspoiled island is a nesting and feeding haven for endangered creatures like the loggerhead sea turtle, piping plover, wood stork, and bald eagle. The Otter sea island draws outdoor enthusiasts to camp (primitive and by permit only; McKenzie Center 843-844-8822), but only from November 1 through March 31 — the non-nesting months for sea turtles.

This is an ideal launch spot for trailer boaters. The Bennetts Point Landing public boat ramp on Mosquito Creek is just 1.4 miles north of ICW Marker 166, near the convergence of the Ashepoo River and the second Ashepoo-Coosaw Cutoff.

The Seaport Of Beaufort

From the Bennett's Point landing, the city of Beaufort, South Carolina, is an easy 25-mile cruise along the picturesque Coosaw and Beaufort rivers. From Charleston it's a 75-mile leisurely picturesque cruise of two to five hours by power. Founded in 1711, Beaufort is the state's second oldest city (to Charleston). At high tide, half of Beaufort County — an area encompassing 300 square miles — is submerged in seawater. Beaufort's rivers and creeks are called "sea fingers" because their salinity level is equivalent to that of an ocean.

Dave and his wife

Dave and his wife, Shelley, enjoy all the Lowcountry has to offer.

These briny, sinewy waterways attract an impressive array of marine life, including seven known shark species, aggressive bulls and whites among them. For anglers, spottail bass and speckled trout are plentiful year-round, while other popular gamefish are seasonal, including cobia (spring) and tarpon (summer). Visit dnr.sc.gov/fishing for rules and regulations.

Whether on your boat, or tucked in one of Beaufort's waterfront inns, the Downtown Marina of Beaufort (ICW Marker 239) is a good place to relax and have fun. The marina is the gateway to Historic Downtown Beaufort with its shops, cafes, and wonderful cuisine.

Daufuskie is home to about 500 laid-back residents who choose to be untethered from the outside world.

The Ports Of Hilton Head And Daufuskie

From Beaufort, Savannah is a relaxing 50-mile jaunt through two beautiful sounds, the Port Royal and Calibogue ("kal i-bow-gee"). But let's first explore Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands. Hilton Head, particularly the swank Harbour Town, is known as a premier yachting destination. Whether it's for lunch or a layover, the Harbour Town Yacht Basin is an excellent full-service marina to dock and sample the island's offerings.

Delta Lady paddleboat

The historic Delta Lady paddle boat is a charming way to get from Hilton Head to Daufuskie Island.

The nature-inspired playground tucked behind the marina will provide hours of fun for little ones. The resort has 22 unique shops, including haberdasheries, gift shops selling handcrafted Lowcountry jewelry, and upscale boutiques. Some of Hilton Head's best dining is in Harbour Town, and seven restaurants are a short stroll from your slip.

Leaving Harbour Town, follow the ICW across Calibogue Sound and into the Cooper River. The approximately 8-square-mile island to port is Daufuskie, South Carolina's southernmost sea island. Accessible only by boat, the mostly undeveloped and quirky Daufuskie is home to about 500 laid-back residents who choose to be untethered from the outside world, which is the essence of Daufuskie's charm. Dock at the Freeport Marina (843-342-8687) on the Cooper River, east of ICW Marker 36. The island has a no-car rule, so residents and guests tool around on Daufuskie's dirt roads in golf carts.

Oysters on the half shell

The fresh offerings at Lowcountry restaurants are not to be missed.

The nature-inspired playground tucked behind the marina will provide hours of fun for little ones. The resort has 22 unique shops, including haberdasheries, gift shops selling handcrafted Lowcountry jewelry, and upscale boutiques. Some of Hilton Head's best dining is in Harbour Town, and seven restaurants are a short stroll from your slip.

Leaving Harbour Town, follow the ICW across Calibogue Sound and into the Cooper River. The approximately 8-square-mile island to port is Daufuskie, South Carolina's southernmost sea island. Accessible only by boat, the mostly undeveloped and quirky Daufuskie is home to about 500 laid-back residents who choose to be untethered from the outside world, which is the essence of Daufuskie's charm. Dock at the Freeport Marina (843-342-8687) on the Cooper River, east of ICW Marker 36. The island has a no-car rule, so residents and guests tool around on Daufuskie's dirt roads in golf carts.

Montery Square

Savannah’s 22 historic squares, including Monterey Square, are the centerpiece of the city’s historic district. Each of these small parks features monuments and plaques devoted to the area’s rich history. (Photo: VisitSavannah.com)

Savannah's celebrated southern cuisine, well-preserved architecture, and southern charm mirrors that of her older sister to the north. However, Savannah's 22 historic squares are unique and the centerpiece of the Savannah Historic District. Originally the squares were communal gathering places for water, food, and shelter. Today they're lush parks with monuments and plaques that recount Savannah's history.

The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa on the Savannah River is not only a good place for an overnight, but one of just two places offering docking close to the Savannah Historic District. The Westin and the Historic District are on opposite sides of the river. Leave your boat and take advantage of the free two-minute ferry over to River Street.

"To truly experience the Lowcountry, first you must boat it," is a slogan I often repeat to new boaters. It reminds me that I live in the prettiest place in the world.

Marinas & BoatUS ­Savings

$Charleston City Marina
17 Lockwood Dr., Charleston, S.C.
40+ transient slips, at 1,530 feet the MegaDock is the longest free-floating fuel dock in the Southeast.
Bathhouse and laundry facilities, volume fuel discounts, 24-hour security, courtesy shuttle to Charleston, U.S. Customs Port of Entry, repair and maintenance service, high speed in-slip fueling
(843) 723-5098
BoatUS members receive $0.05 off per gallon of fuel

Charleston Harbor Marina
24 Patriots Point Rd., Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Located on Patriots Point — a Naval & Maritime Museum
60 transient slips, staffed 24 hours, full concierge service, private beach, free trolley to Charleston, two resorts on site
(843) 297-2949

Downtown Marina of Beaufort
1006 Bay St., Beaufort, S.C.
1,000 feet of transient docking space, courtesy car, bathhouse and laundry facilities, adjacent to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park
(843) 524-4422

Freeport Marina
249 Freeport Dr., Daufuskie Island, S.C.
160 slips, free day docking
(843) 785-8242

$Harbour Town Yacht Basin
149 Lighthouse Road, Hilton Head Island, S.C.
100 slips, South Carolina Clean Marina, restaurant, fuel, access to resort amenities
(843) 363-8335
BoatUS members receive $0.10 off per gallon of fuel

$Port Royal Landing Marina
1 Landing Drive, Port Royal, S.C.
700' transient docking space, South Carolina Clean Marina, pet friendly, courtesy car, pools, fitness center, on-site restaurant, transient dockage specials, volume fuel discounts
843-525-6664
BoatUS members receive $0.25 off per foot on transient slips; $0.10 off per gallon fuel (100 gallons ­minimum)

Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa Dock
1 Resort Drive, Savannah, GA
600' deep-water dock, access to resort amenities
(912) 201-2000
BoatUS members receive free bookings through $Dockwa at participating marinas

$ BoatUS Member discounts

David Kuczkir

Writer and accountant David Kuczkir grew up on the New Jersey and Florida shorelines, teaches at the College of Charleston, and is a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain. He charters his two boats through his Sister City Cruises ­(sistercitycruises.com).