The Ultimate Boat Trip Through South Carolina's Undiscovered Lowcountry
I have called the Lowcountry home for 19 years. My wife and I live about 20 miles southwest of Charleston on a sea island named Wadmalaw. Our house got its start as a shrimper's shack and sits atop a bluff overlooking a weathered commercial dock on a deepwater creek. Beyond that lies a half mile of teeming salt marsh, giving way to the mighty North Edisto River just above where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Further on lies Edisto Island, over which we watch the sun set.
Like many homes in this low-lying region of the South Carolina coast, our yard is dominated by grand old live oaks draped in Spanish moss, as well as pecans, magnolias, giant camellias and azaleas, and, of course, palmettos. We take most of our meals on the porch, where we can see and hear what's going on in the creek below. Dolphins—huffing along the creek at each change of the tide—are the primary attractions. Brown pelicans stage dramatic air shows diving into the water. If we crave blue crab, we stuff some turkey necks into a couple of traps, throw them off the dock into the creek, and wait a tide or two. We buy fresh shrimp off the boats just around the bend.
We are visited by eagles, hawks, osprey, pileated woodpeckers, buntings, herons (blue and green), laughing gulls, egrets, and crows almost every day. Then every night mink, sea otters, raccoons, possums, marsh rats, and deer thwart much of our gardening and bird feeding efforts.
At low tide, the pungent aroma of pluff mud dominates any scent more delicate than, say, deep-frying something outside. When the wind dies down, the mosquitoes and tiny flies known as no-see-ums assault us in swarms. When the wind rises to the point of acquiring a name—like Matthew or Irma—we board up and head for the hills. This is the Lowcountry I know and love, and yet …
Looking south and west across this painterly landscape, I sometimes worry that the routine of my daily life—tied as it is to the city of Charleston, with its fine restaurants, temples of mixology, and elegant parties on one piazza or another, not to mention the grocery stores, auto repair shops, dentists, and so on—has distracted me from the magic of the real Lowcountry that first lured me here.
Looking to reconnect with the mythical promise of this archipelago of marshy islands—knotted together by endless veins of rivers, bays, and tidal creeks—I crave the heart and soul of the place. I need to board my boat and head out.
An odyssey, I think, myth-bit, as I study navigation charts to line up some choice destinations, both high and low, civilized and less so. I recruit my friend John Cebe from the South Carolina upstate to be mate. A fine boatsman, an expert fisherman, and a curious naturalist and amateur photographer, he also appreciates old rum, good cigars, and conversation with real folks. Plus, he happens to be a distinguished cardiologist.
We get underway on a crisp spring morning, beneath postcard blue skies, riding a rising tide. Our plan is to travel by boat but to eat, sleep, and explore on land. Our first stop—about five hours south along the Intracoastal Waterway and St. Helena Sound—is a near-total immersion in Lowcountry culture: a sea-island fish camp.
Pair "O" Dice Island
Usually remote and accessible only by water, fish camps sprang up across the Sea Islands—a chain of barrier islands that dots the Atlantic coastlines of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida—around the turn of the 20th century. That, of course, was before air-conditioning and bridges and direct flights to Charleston and Savannah unleashed an influx of tourists into the Lowcountry. Before planned communities like Hilton Head and Kiawah and their many successors, before the government bought islands for parks, before the camps and their lifestyles became increasingly rare artifacts.
Still, some of these camps do remain in the watery outback, and they haven't evolved much from either their original purpose or their style. In speaking to our host, Cecil Mitchell, a local contractor, I mistakenly anticipate we are heading to a spot called "Paradise Island." Only when we arrive and spy wooden signs hanging from the dock that feature cubes of dice do I realize we are encamping at "Pair 'O' Dice Island.
The weathered compound—a village of bunkhouses and out-buildings strung together by rustic raised boardwalks—nestles among palmettos on a 4-acre islet surrounded on three sides by salt marsh and facing a broad stretch of river. It is a hodgepodge of corrugated metal, plywood, rough lumber, and whatever could be hauled over by boat from the mainland, including a lot of salvaged scarlet-and-gold signage and other Marines paraphernalia that nods to the influence of nearby Parris Island.
It's easy to picture what goes on here. The porches are crammed with grills, deep fryers, smokers, stoves, and propane tanks, not to mention as many implements as there are ways to prepare shrimp, crabs, fish, oysters, duck, deer, and dove. A hog-cooking shack with two pits sits to one side. Fishing gear and boxes of clay pigeons are stashed around the property.
Not wanting to be taken for tourists, my mate John and I have come prepared to lay out our own feast. He fires up some of the cooking gear and feeds us deep-fried balls of bacon-wrapped quail stuffed with Gouda, fried wild turkey he has recently shot, and hush puppies, plus canned green beans found in the camp larder next to the four-packs of Spam. We take our after-dinner refreshments out on the dock, watching the river rush by under a sky full of stars. Only about 40 miles away from my house, we have definitely crossed over into the mythical Lowcountry.
We head out the next morning, slowly weaving down the sparsely populated Story River, past a few more fishing camps and into Trenchards (pronounced like "drunkards") Inlet. We fish a bit with no luck, then head toward the clearer water of the Atlantic where we can anchor and—as we do every day of the trip—jump in for a swim.
When I say clearer water, I don't mean clear water, because that is one thing the Lowcountry really doesn't have much of, due to the outflow of massive rivers that drain a large section of Southeast forests, oozing tannins. What passes for clearer here is murky, yes, but not muddy. And it's still clean, cool, and refreshing. As a Charleston friend of mine observes: "If our water were clear and blue like Biscayne Bay, Charleston would look like Miami. We'll take the murk."
We are due in the port town of Beaufort that night, so when the tide begins to rise midafternoon we head into Station Creek, a tricky shortcut through the islands into the big water of the Beaufort River. The Scylla and Charybdis of the Lowcountry appear in the form of deep, sticky pluff-mud banks, which sometimes lie in the middle of a tidal creek and can grab your boat and hold it high and dry in a buggy marsh for hours, and—even worse—the submerged oyster bank, which can do the same plus tear up the bottom of your boat or your prop. We make it through, this time, without incident.
Conroy Country & Gullah Grub
Easing up the Beaufort River at the end of a day of salt and sun and into our slip at Beaufort's Downtown Marina interrupts any sense we had of roughing it. The core of this historic waterfront city is a bend in the river, festooned with fine homes and inns perched above it on bluffs and slopes.
Our lodging for the night is the Anchorage 1770 inn, a meticulously restored planter's house just across the street from the marina. While I'm not normally an inn guy, this place is hard to resist. A knock on the room door brings a welcome glass of Champagne, as well as encouragement to step out onto the top-floor veranda, where we drink in the bubbly and the dramatic view of the sunset over the waterfront. The famed Lowcountry author Pat Conroy spent his 70th birthday taking in this vista from just this perch, and I can see why he did.
We aren't here to sit and look, though. We grab a taxi over the river to the Corners Community, a tiny spot near the village of Frogmore, on St. Helena Island. Here await Bill and Sará (rhymes with "hurrah") Reynolds Green at their Gullah Grub restaurant. While Gullah food—items like crab soup, red rice, fried shark strips, garlic shrimp boil, cornbread, collard greens, and sweet-potato pie—is surely a form of soul food, Gullah encompasses much more: a rich and complex coastal culture brought to the Lowcountry by African slaves forced into labor at rice, indigo, and sea cotton plantations. That culture, which also blends West Indian influence, includes crafts like sweetgrass basket weaving, music, spirituality and philosophy, heritage agriculture, and a distinctive patois with rhythms and pronunciation all its own. Though the breadth of Gullah culture is in retreat from the incursions of developments and shifting populations in these parts, descendants like the Greens remain stewards and proselytizers of this rich African heritage.
Gullah Grub occupies an old country store just down the road from Penn Center—a school founded in 1862 by an abolitionist missionary to educate slaves liberated from plantation owners fleeing occupying Yankees; later it served as a retreat for Martin Luther King Jr. during the heat of the civil rights movement. Much of the food Bill cooks at the restaurant is grown at Marshview Community Organic Farm, a family plot passed down for generations. A retired school counselor who met Dr. King at Penn when she was a child, Sará continues to promote education of Gullah folkways, including running a cooking school for local youth.
As he serves us heaping plates, Bill calls Gullah food "smilin' food," summing up what he calls the spiritual aspect of the cuisine: "We live by the season. If you eat what's in season," he says, "you catch the sun."
Into the Wild
St. Phillips Island
The next morning, we not only need to catch the sun, but the tide. It's falling fast, and we're overdue for a tour of St. Phillips Island, the almost 5,000-acre nature preserve that Ted Turner—the billionaire cable pioneer and founder of CNN—recently sold to the state of South Carolina (for $4.9 million) for conversion into a state park. We make another harrowing passage through the treacherous Station Creek (this time we have to jump out of the boat to free it from the pluff), and arrive—muddy but unbroken—at St. Phillips's modest little dock on a tidal creek.
There we meet park ranger J.W. Weatherford, manager of nearby Hunting Island State Park, a barrier island with beautiful beaches, forest, and camping that is South Carolina's most visited park. From the moment Weatherford packs us into a tractor-pulled tram for a tour, he cannot contain his passion for St. Phillips, which visitors will reach by ferry from Hunting. What unfolds as we bounce across the ancient rolling dunes that snake through the forest of moss-hung live oaks, giant magnolias, saw palms, and pines is basically an uninhabited coastal terrarium.
As if to underscore the point, we immediately spot a bald eagle and a pair of red-tailed hawks, followed by osprey, herons, and egrets. Then we sight a much rarer red-headed woodpecker. Just as rare, fox squirrels—an oversize variety of the species with a distinctive black facial mask contrasting its lighter fur—scamper through the trees.
"This is why we want to bring people out here," Weatherford says. "To educate them about nature. So that they'll understand. So that they'll care."
We stop for a stroll on a boneyard beach (so named for the looming skeletons of dead trees overtaken by erosion), which abuts a compound with the only two houses on the island. One is a caretaker's home, and the other, facing the Atlantic with a sprawling porch and a sturdy pier, is Ted Turner's former beach house—a modest (for a billionaire), wood-paneled, five-bedroom, five-bath house that will soon be available to rent.
Weatherford says the plan is to begin small day tours of the island, offer the Turner house for weekly rental, and, eventually, build a handful of rental cabins on the island. He also mentions that the pond behind the house has a resident alligator. Leave the cockapoo at home, in other words.
The Ungated Community
Next, we take to open water, crossing the wide reach of Port Royal Sound—schools of little flying fish glittering in the sun off our bow—and head west into Skull Creek. To our starboard lies the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, in sharp contrast to what stands to our port: Hilton Head Island, one of the largest and most populated islands fronting the entire Atlantic seaboard, and the birthplace of the coastal Southern golf community.
Cruising past the marinas, condos, and hotels, I float back to the 1960s, when my college roommate drove us out from Savannah to Hilton Head for a night of beer drinking and live music at Abe's Driftwood Lounge. A ramshackle roadhouse and pool hall, it was run by Abe Grant, an African American entrepreneur who later opened Abe's Shrimp House—like the Driftwood, long gone—which was possibly the first restaurant in America to offer the now ubiquitous dish of shrimp-and-grits. More echoes of the vanishing Gullah presence …
We pass the striped lighthouse of Harbour Town, resisting the final siren calls of Hilton Head, and continue down the Intracoastal, across Calibogue Sound and into the May River, bound for a place reachable only by water that calls itself an island "like no other." Just five miles long and two and a half miles wide, with no stoplights marring its roads (some pavement, some sand), Daufuskie Island is one of the very last stops on the South Carolina coast before crossing into Georgia. It boasts a year-round population of roughly 400, which includes 16 Gullah descendants amid an assortment of end-of-the-roaders from elsewhere. A few grand luxury homes have sprung up, occupied by wealthy pilgrims—including even an unlikely celebrity or two. But Chappaquiddick it ain't.
We arrive at Daufuskie's rollicking Freeport Marina, our chosen spot for the night's stay. On shore, it is happy hour, and the marina's Old Daufuskie Crab Company—a funky open-air bar and eatery—is pouring its grain alcohol–based specialty cocktail, the Scrap Iron. A cover band is blasting "I Shot the Sheriff" as we locate our tiny colorful wooden cottage with bunk beds, air-conditioning, and a functioning bathroom—just one thin wall and steps away from the band, the bar, the package store, and the general store. Fortified by our Scrap Irons, we rent a dilapidated gas golf cart and hit the sandy lanes of Daufuskie, soon passing a paddock occupied by a few of the island's Carolina Marsh Tacky ponies—a vanishing breed relied on for work, warfare, and transportation in the marshy lowlands since the 16th century.
Down the road a bit, we arrive, unannounced, at a small blue wooden house sitting in the shadow of one of the most majestic live oaks in the entire Lowcountry. The occupant, Sallie Ann Robinson, comes out to greet us. She is an ebullient Gullah cultural ambassador—a speaker and tour guide, and the author of a cookbook that includes Gullah fare such as Pop's Smuttered Mullet with Stiff Grits, Pot Full O' Coon, Pig Tails with Tomatoes; and Baked Possum. It also includes a foreword by Pat Conroy.
These two go way back. All the way, in fact, to 1969, when Conroy arrived on Daufuskie to teach at the island's two-room schoolhouse, where Robinson was a young pupil. That experience inspired his first book, The Water Is Wide, a stirring account of the staggering racial inequities he discovered (as well as the rich characters he got to know). Today, the schoolhouse is a community center and houses an indigo dye studio called Daufuskie Blues. In back, School Grounds Coffee is the place for modern coffee and island gossip.
Robinson is quite the storyteller in her own right, and she entertains us with tales of that year in the classroom. We buy a few autographed books and head down the road to Daufuskie Island Rum Company. There we meet a runaway, Tony Chase, a serial entrepreneur from Lexington, Kentucky, who moved here and put a lot of money into a gleaming distillery that has become one of the few modern commercial tourist attractions on the sleepy island.
Like Conroy, we encounter a parade of characters, but none more emblematic than Roger Pinckney XI—a former farmer and professor, now a part-time guide and full-time writer (a smuggling novel called Reefer Moon is among his works) and raconteur. He greets us on the wraparound porch of his marshside "cracker" house, dressed a bit like Teddy Roosevelt, rolling his own cigarette. He's eager for us to accompany him to see Wes Campbell, he says, who sells shrimp, oysters, and crab out of the chicken-filled yard next door to Pinckney (and who bears a striking resemblance in both appearance and demeanor to comedian Dave Chappelle).
Pinckney, whose surname marks him as a member of one of South Carolina's founding families, is a Beaufort native who has called Daufuskie home for 20 years. Asked if he is worried about the island getting swept up in the frenzy of folks moving into the Lowcountry, he says, "Not at all. A lot of people come down here with stars in their eyes. Two years go by. Then somebody starts missing the yoga and the yogurt, and there's trouble."
Before we shove off, we stop for lunch at Lucy Bell's, a modest little restaurant on the side of the road with picnic tables scattered under live oaks. We order at the counter: soft-shell-crab sandwiches, deviled crabs (for which Daufuskie is famous), coleslaw, collard greens, and sweet tea. It is the best meal we have. Perfect pitch.
Back at Freeport Marina, boats have filled the docks, alcohol is flowing, the band is blaring, and something resembling an informal bikini contest is underway. But we are about to re-enter the grid and switch demographics entirely. We are expected for dinner at Palmetto Bluff.
The High Lowcountry
Less than an hour from Daufuskie, Palmetto Bluff is a meticulously manicured community of homes and a resort property set on a 20,000-acre tract of former timber land. We are booked into the prime spot of the Montage resort, the cottages on the bluff overlooking the May River.
As we chug up the May toward the bluff, we observe the resort boats we will tie up alongside—a 105-year-old wooden cruising yacht and a polished 36-foot Hinckley motor yacht—and we are glad we decided earlier to wash off the road dust of Daufuskie with a swim in the May and a slight wardrobe upgrade.
This spot is a Lowcountry confection of the highest order, blending the natural beauty of the location—trails, views, bike paths that weave through magnificent live oaks and ponds—with most every high-end resort amenity conceivable—an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, a lush spa, stables for equestrian events and trail rides, a 40-acre shooting club, even a bowling alley.
We rise early the next morning and take a long bike ride around the resort—a beautiful, tranquil passage through marsh vistas and maritime forest. We cruise past birds in flight and handsome homes that exude their owners' quest for Lowcountry authenticity.
Back at the dock, we cast off a final time, with a salute to the Hinckley before heading north up the waterway toward home. On course, we mark Parris Island, Port Royal, and Beaufort, then into the Coosaw and Ashepoo rivers, through Fenwick Cut to the South Edisto River, then Watts Cut, the Dawho River, and finally the North Edisto, which at this point feels like entering my driveway.
Like many an afternoon return trip, there isn't much conversation, but my mate and I share a feeling of great satisfaction with our odyssey. We haven't actually covered much geography, and we've only scratched the surface of the Lowcountry. But we've witnessed abundant wildlife and natural beauty up close, dined off the bounty of the ocean and the estuaries, met a host of great folk, and at least touched its heart and soul. The boat, the Miss Kate, has done her job well.
As we approach the dock jutting out from the bluff that holds my house, I see my wife up in the yard, and it hits me that this odyssey doesn't have to end now. This creek is as much Lowcountry as anywhere we've been. And it's home.
Several airports service the Lowcountry: Charleston International Airport, Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, and Hilton Head Island Airport.
In Beaufort, Anchorage 1770 inn occupies a grand and historic mansion on a picturesque waterfront and not only offers excellent food and cocktails at its house restaurants, but also arranges rich adventures into the Lowcountry waterways and islands. Rates start at $175; anchorage1770.com.
Capture some Daufuskie Island magic by overnighting in a gracious home (or even a historic lighthouse) in Haig Point, a private community at the island's northern end, via the community's "Stay & Play" package. Rates start at $249 per person and include a daily activity; haigpoint.com.
Palmetto Bluff provides abundant ways to stay and play in peak Lowcountry style, from the glorious rooms, suites, and cottages of Montage Palmetto Bluff to spectacular home rentals in the community's Wilson and Moreland Village neighborhoods. Rates start at $305; palmettobluff.com.