Tucked between Hilton Head and Tybee islands on the South Carolina coast, Daufuskie Island is a less-explored place with a diverse and complex history.
by Cathy Martin
Above feature photograph by Mike Ritterbeck
I had always been curious about Daufuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina — there’s a mystique about an island without a bridge, accessible only by boat. But you don’t hear as much buzz about Daufuskie as say, Bald Head Island in North Carolina. Pat Conroy spent a year there as a teacher, inspiring his 1972 novel The Water is Wide. John Mellencamp reportedly has a home on Daufuskie. But generally speaking, the 5,000-acre island tucked between Hilton Head Island and Tybee Island, Ga., stays under the radar. So, when I received an offer to visit Daufuskie and see what it was all about, I jumped at the chance. What I found was a solemnly beautiful place with a fascinating and diverse history.
After arriving at the port cochere at the Haig Point welcome center on neighboring Hilton Head Island, I boarded the ferry and settled in for the 25-minute ride across Calibogue Sound — there’s nothing like being on a boat to bring your stress level down a notch.
Haig Point is a private community of nearly 300 homes (and growing) on the northern tip of the island, where the preferred mode of transportation is golf cart. If you don’t own a home there, or know someone who does, you can still visit through Haig Point’s “Discovery Weekends” for couples, individuals and small groups. With a beach club, 29 holes of golf designed by architect Rees Jones, an equestrian center, five pools, tennis courts and more, Haig Point is beautifully designed with plenty of modern amenities. But notably, several important historical elements remain intact, despite the fact that the community itself was established a mere 35 years ago.
International Paper, the world’s largest paper and packaging company, bought 1,100-acre Haig Point in 1984, when Daufuskie’s entire population had dwindled to about 50 people. The development is named for George Haig, who owned the land in the 1700s. Today, the member-owned community operates as a traditional private club.
Guests can stay at one of 22 private rental homes or at one of two historical properties. Strachan Mansion is a four-room inn that also serves as a community hub, with a small general store and a cocktail bar/coffee shop. The 7,500-square-foot inn was built on nearby St. Simon’s Island in 1910 as a summer retreat for a shipping magnate and brought to Daufuskie via barge in 1986. Bright, sunny rooms are spacious and private, elegantly upfitted with antique furnishings — a quiet and relaxing home base for exploring the island. Another unique lodging option is the island’s original lighthouse, situated on a jag overlooking the sound. Built in 1873, the two-story structure with a rocking-chair front porch is now a charming two-bedroom guesthouse.
But amid the island’s picturesque palms and Spanish moss are also stark reminders of the low country’s painful history. Steps from Strachan Mansion, the perfectly manicured lawn is dotted with restored remnants of the tabby-style slave homes, constructed with sand and ground oyster shells in the 1700s and 1800s.
Once you leave the gates of this exclusive community and its tidy landscaped yards, you’ll discover there’s much more of this complex and fascinating history to be found.
At just 5 miles long and 2 miles wide, it’s hard to believe this prime piece of coastal property remains largely undeveloped. The name, which means “sharp feather,” is a reference to the island’s original Native American inhabitants. English settlers arrived in the mid 1700s and divided the island into plantations — those lots were eventually divided into smaller plots that were sold to newly free people.
Fortunately for this tiny island community, an active volunteer historical foundation has worked to preserve the island’s heritage, from the Native American tribes that inhabited the land centuries ago to the Gullah people, whose ancestors were brought over from West Africa as slaves to till low country rice fields. Rice didn’t grow well on Daufuskie, so the landowners tried indigo, then cotton until the boll weevil infestation destroyed crops in the early 1900s. For a short time, an oyster-canning factory provided work for the locals, but when that closed, Daufuskie’s residents were left with no viable industry. While nearby Hilton Head Island was being transformed into a thriving resort, Daufuskie’s population dwindled. Today, about 400 people live on Daufuskie year-round.
A good place to start exploring is the Daufuskie Island History Museum, a former church that the historical foundation acquired in the early 2000s after raising money to keep the structure from falling into the hands of a developer. Here, you’ll find pottery shards estimated to be thousands of years old and other artifacts related to island life. Other historical points of interest include the First Union African Baptist Church, a community church established in 1881 that has been carefully restored, and Bloody Point Beach, named after a violent battle during the Yamasee War of 1715.
A short golf-cart ride from the museum is the Mary Fields School building, where Conroy taught schoolchildren in 1969. The building now houses Daufuskie Blues, which sells dyed scarves and clothing made from indigo plants that grow wild on the island. Behind the shop is School Grounds Coffee. Owners Pam and Brian Cobb moved to Daufuskie from Salisbury five years ago. “Best decision we’ve ever made,” Pam says as she hands me my latte.
Horseback rides through the maritime forest or along the beach can be arranged through Daufuskie Trial Rides. I hadn’t been on a horse in years, but Finch, my 14-year-old Tennessee Walker for the day, was a sweetie, and Claire, my guide, calmed my fears while sharing stories about the island and its wildlife, which includes loggerhead sea turtles, countless bird species, even armadillos.
Other spots to visit include The Iron Fish, where artist Chase Allen creates coastal-inspired sculptures that are displayed in an open-air gallery. At Daufuskie Island Rum Co., you can sample not only rum but also vodka and bourbon, all made in-house. One of Daufuskie’s most famous residents, cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson, who has been featured in O Magazine among others, moved back home to Daufuskie a few years ago and now offers Gullah tours.
Freeport Marina is where you’ll disembark if you arrive via the public ferry that runs seven days a week. It’s also a rustic, no-frills spot to sip a beer or cocktail and watch the sunset at the end of the day. Multicolored Adirondack chairs and rockers are scattered around the sprawling deck — this place is old-school beachy, so come as you are. Here’s where you’ll also find Old Daufuskie Crab Co. and the Freeport Island Store, where you can pick up basic provisions and gifts.
EAT & DRINK
With such a small island population, food and drink options are limited on Daufuskie. If you’re staying at Haig Point, you can dine at the clubhouse Grill Room or at the oceanfront Calibogue Club, with a wide-ranging menu that includes seared jumbo sea scallops, braised short ribs and lobster ravioli. Gather around the outdoor fire pit for pre-dinner cocktails and request a table on the covered porch for a splendid ocean view.
Lucy Bell’s Cafe serves breakfast and lunch from a small yellow cottage on the south side of the island. Order at the counter — there will likely be a line — and grab a seat on the lawn, shaded by a large live oak. Don’t be fooled by the unassuming appearance — the crab and spinach dip, fried green tomatoes, po’ boys and more are as good as you’ll find in fancier establishments. Don’t miss the peach iced tea, if you’re lucky enough to get a cup before they sell out.
As you board the ferry back home, chances are this little island without a bridge will occupy a special place in your memory for quite some time. SP
GETTING THERE: Haig Point runs its own private ferry service to and from Hilton Head Island from 6 a.m. to midnight daily. Learn more about Discovery Weekends at haigpoint.com. There’s also a public ferry and a water taxi service from Hilton Head Island to Daufuskie Island.