OAKS DRAPED IN SPANISH MOSS, PRISTINE BEACHES, SHADY BIKE PATHS, WORLD-CLASS GOLF COURSES, AND A CRASH COURSE IN GULLAH CULTURE VIE FOR YOUR ATTENTION WHEN VISITING THE SEA ISLANDS OF SOUTH CAROLINA.
Clustered along South Carolina’s southern coast is a group of sea islands that offers resorts, history, and nature preserves. These islands include Hilton Head, Daufuskie, Fripp, St. Helena, Pinckney, and Hunting.
FALLING IN LOVE
Months after my visit, the image of frolicking dolphins still brought a smile to my face. My tour guide, Captain Duane Lapp, was as excited as a schoolboy every time he spotted a dolphin, though he’s been doing this for years. Lapp epitomizes one of those lucky few who call Hilton Head home. Lapp and his wife moved to Hilton Head from Ohio eight years ago.
“I love the water,” said Lapp. “It’s not a chore to go to work. I look forward to it.” I heard similar stories from numerous people who visited, fell in love, and came back to live permanently.
An alligator sunned itself by a perfectly manicured pond. Children whizzed by on bicycles, while adults pedaled at a more leisurely pace. None of this disturbed the alligator, which was used to sharing common ground with the almost 40,000 residents of Hilton Head and the millions of tourists who visit each year.
At 42 square miles, Hilton Head is the largest of the sea islands. It was developed in the 1950s as a resort destination complete with luxurious gated communities, which were the first of their kind. Yet, for all the development, the islanders insist on maintaining an eco-friendly existence. That explains the forests, lagoons, and salt marshes interspersed with tennis courts and golf courses. Also, there are no neon signs, no real estate signs, and the buildings blend into the colors of the trees. Street lighting is so subdued that finding an address at night can be difficult.
This emphasis on preserving the natural environment must sit well with dolphins, too. I spotted at least 50 bottlenose dolphins in Calibogue Sound. Captain Lapp explained that the dolphins love the nutrient-rich water of the sound and sometimes can be seen strand feeding – driving their prey ashore and then pushing themselves onto the strand to feed. Some people get close to the dolphins by kayaking through the sound.
Nature lovers on land have plenty to discover, too. Just a few minutes’ drive from Hilton Head is Pinckney Island, a 4,000-acre wildlife refuge that locals frequent for hiking and bird-watching. From there it’s a leisurely hour drive to the historic town of Beaufort, where the aura from the book and film version of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides is so strong. I had to order the “prince of tides” ice cream at Plums restaurant, contemplating scenes from the film as I gazed at the bridge to Hunting and Fripp islands.
Photo: Perry Baker of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism
Wilder by far than Pinckney is Hunting Island, a state park that uncannily resembles Vietnamese jungles. With good reason, this island and neighboring Fripp Island have caught the eye of Hollywood producers, who filmed Vietnam scenes from Forrest Gump and Rules of Engagement, among others, in these look-alike jungles.
HISTORY AND GULLAH HERITAGE
You may not even know it, but when eating gumbo, you’re feasting on a classic Gullah dish. Dr. Emory Shaw Campbell, founder of Gullah Heritage Consulting Services, said that three things continue to thrive in Gullah culture: the language – a mixture of African and English; family life – with some families living on the same property since the Civil War; and the food – whether it’s gumbo or red rice.
Photo: Perry Baker of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism
Before resorts and relaxing became part of sea island life, slaves farmed rice on pre-Civil War plantations. Earlier, Native Americans lived on these islands, leaving fascinating remnants known today as the Indian shell rings. These islands were heavily explored and colonized in the 17th century, and many plantations were built. In 1861, Union soldiers liberated the Gullah slaves, and they established a free town called Mitchellville on Hilton Head. You can visit Mitchellville on a Gullah heritage tour, which includes 10 existing Gullah towns.
The sea islands are part of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which extends from Jacksonville, Florida, to Wilmington, North Carolina. On St. Helena Island, the Penn Center is an important stop, where visitors can learn about one of the first schools for freed slaves in America.
SUNSET ON THE SOUND
Sitting in a rocking chair under the lighthouse at Harbour Town and watching the sunset, it’s understandable how people fall in love with the sea islands. Captain Lapp told stories of kids who come to work for the summer. He recounted, “They come to paradise and never leave.”
THE GOLF ISLAND
Golf is everywhere on Hilton Head and the surrounding Lowcountry, even when you’re off the numerous fairways. People walk around in golf clothes, drive golf carts, and avidly discuss their putting abilities. The island boasts more than 20 golf courses, which host world-class tournaments such as the PGA TOUR® Verizon Heritage.
A Lowcountry tradition since 1786, when Scottish immigrants opened the first American golf club, the sea islands offer golf for every level. Beginners aren’t left out, with golf clinics for children and adults, and even specialized golf schools for women only. Some holes are world famous, such as the 18th hole at Harbour Town, which doubles as a popular location for weddings.
Golfers aren’t alone on the greens, though. Alligators tend to hang out there. Should your ball go their way, most locals would advise letting the alligator have it.
For more golfing information, visit:
BIKING WITH THE ALLIGATORS
Everyone on Hilton Head seems to be on a bike. And it’s no wonder, with miles and miles of oak-shaded paths meandering around lagoons and creeks where you’ll see alligators and turtles hanging out together.
Bike rentals are a cinch, and families will appreciate the variety of cruisers and mountain bikes available. The little ones can be towed, while older children can pedal behind parents on tag-a-longs. You can even rent a jogging stroller.
At low tide, you can ride your bike onto the beach, with its close-packed sand. It’s a unique way to enjoy the surf.
Here are a few companies that offer bike rentals. Most hotels will provide bikes, too. Just check with the concierge. Also, you can reserve your bikes in advance.
- Hilton Head Bicycle Company – www.hiltonheadbicycle.com
- Palmetto Dunes Outfitters – www.palmettodunes.com
- Pedals Bicycles – www.pedalsbicycles.com
- Patriot Bike Rentals – www.patriotbikerentals.com
- The Bike Doctor – www.bikedoctorhhi.com
PAT CONROY AND BEAUFORT
The mystique of Pat Conroy’s novels hovers over the historic town of Beaufort. Conroy, a New York Times best-selling author, went to high school in Beaufort, worked as a teacher there, and chose the town as the location of many emotional scenes in his work. Movies such as The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides – both based on his novels – were filmed in and around Beaufort, bringing with them stars such as Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner, Nick Nolte, and Robert Duvall.
Conroy also taught underprivileged black children in a one-room schoolhouse on isolated Daufuskie Island. Later, he wrote a memoir about the racism he contended with while teaching there – The Water is Wide, which was made into the movie Conrack. Daufuskie Island remains isolated, accessible only by private boat or ferry.
Locals in Beaufort like to talk about the stars who have passed through, pointing out the homes they rented during filming and locations where they were spotted bicycling or drinking beer. Most stars chose mansions in the historic district, which boasts homes built by wealthy plantation owners in the 1800s. Today, tours take visitors past the famous homes.
Movie buffs will enjoy a self-guided tour following a guidebook called Lights, Camera ... Beaufort, written by resident film buff Ginnie Kozak.
Other movies made in Beaufort include:
- The Big Chill – 1983
- Forrest Gump – 1994
- Something to Talk About – 1995
- G.I. Jane – 1997
- Forces of Nature – 1999
- Rules of Engagement – 2000
For more information, visit The Internet Movie Database: www.imdb.com.
HOTELS, RESTAURANTS, AND PLACES TO VISIT
For more information, visit:
- Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce – www.hiltonheadisland.org
- Beaufort Chamber of Commerce – www.beaufortsc.org
- Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor – www.nps.gov/guge
- Penn Center – www.penncenter.com