Clipper invites guest lecturers aboard at most stops and salts bigger city destinations among the small ones. It’s probably easier to get a real feel for places like Savannah and Charleston on a land-based trip of several days, but the small towns can be more readily absorbed in the space of a day. One of these was Beaufort, South Carolina, the setting of several major movies: The Great Santini , The Big Chill , and, most recently, The Prince of Tides .

Beaufort certainly is a pretty town, with an amazing collection of houses lining a few ancient streets. The Beaufort house, one expert wrote, “more nearly resembles the plantation house brought to town.” In the Castle, an enormous porticoed house on Craven Street, one writer finds “an air of somber mystery,” and the author of Georgia’s WPA Guide talks of “handsome old houses [that] … seem to brood over their memories.” Perhaps because of the gray, damp threat of an approaching storm, perhaps because of the cheerfully chiding tour guide who gave no quarter when it came to refighting the Civil War, I found a sense of brooding here too. On an hour-long bus ride I heard enough of “the War between the States” and “If I like someone, I call him a Northerner, if I don’t, he’s a Yankee” and how unmannerly Yankee occupying troops had scratched their names in the fine woods of Beaufort’s walls and furniture to last me a very long time. “Oh, well,” the guide remarked, at the end of her litany, “we’ll get it straightened out someday.” One wonders.

It is the watery Route 1 of American travel, stretching from twenty-three miles north of Boston to the Florida Keys.

Later, away from chatter and in the absolute velvet dark of a small town asleep, Beaufort came closer to me. I walked In totally deserted streets, barely Illuminated by porch lights and the very occasional streetlamp, as I never would have in a large city. After the rainstorm a small crescent moon sat horizontally in a black sky, a breeze caused the moss to swing on its armature of trees, and Beaufort’s ghosts seemed to find some peace at last.

In the end it’s the waterway itself that belongs to the traveler when the trip is finished. From Norfolk south to Miami, dredged to a twelvefoot depth, the Intracoastal is the domain of pleasure craft, small fishing vessels, and, from time to time, a barge. It is the master of quick change: at one moment a narrow, banked channel with cottages barely visible among the trees and spidery docks reflected in the water and at the next turn a broad, hazy inland sea, bounded by marsh grasses in the subtlest shades of golden green and brown. One week after peak migration the birds are still flying north in great numbers. A cormorant stops to perch on buoy marker 125, and a pelican spears its supper—a small, silvery fish flapping in hopeless protest. Near Port Royal Sound, where the first Spanish galleons arrived in 1521, four dolphins arc out of the water.

The channel shifts and silts up here beyond any skipper’s ability to plan for it. Running aground is a common occurrence, and the boat usually takes about ten minutes to wriggle free. “There’s a formerly undiscovered sandbar,” a passenger remarked at breakfast one day during such a grounding. “We call the water the ditch,” said Joe Slowey, the Nantucket Clipper ’s first officer. “When we do this trip, we’re running the ditch.”

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP