A naturalist’s playground, St. Phillips Island is a study in South Carolina coastal history, geology and maritime flora and fauna. Contributed by Discover South Carolina

Discover the pristine beauty of St. Phillips Island

There’s a certain mystique about a private island. It conjures up images of millionaires, lavish homes and extravagant parties. Visiting a private island is a bucket list item for some people, and it’s easier than ever to achieve thanks to a new addition to the South Carolina state parks system. It might not be what some envision, but for many, it’s better.

Accessible only by boat, St. Phillips Island is a 4,680-acre barrier island between Hilton Head Island and Edisto Beach at the mouth of Port Royal Sound. Owned by media mogul Ted Turner for nearly 40 years, it now belongs to South Carolina and is a new addition to its robust state parks system.

While Turner was assembling his multimedia enterprise of billboards, radio stations and television stations in the 1960s and ‘70s, he also amassed massive amounts of private land for environmental conservation. He ultimately became one of the largest private landowners in the United States, and one of his properties was St. Phillips Island.

The island’s longtime caretaker, Ray “Boogie” Tudor, recalled accompanying Turner on his first visit to the island in 1979.

The pristine beach and inland trails are the highlights of the island’s attractions. Contributed by Discover South Carolina
Photo: For the AJC

“I dropped him off at the beach and Ted took off. He went through the forest and the marsh and came out at Trenchards Beach. We hit it off immediately,” said Tudor. Turner purchased the island the following year and hired Tudor to look after it. It was a dream job Tudor would maintain for the next 38 years.

“There was nothing on the island when I got out there,” says Tudor. “He sent me down with a tractor with a bush hog and a bucket in May. I hired José and by Christmas, we had cut a four-mile rough-cut trail through the island to where the house is now.” Turner came down every other weekend to check on the progress.

Tudor and a small crew built a caretaker’s cottage first, which took about seven months to complete. Everything had to be barged in from the mainland, including building materials, generators and fresh water. (Today, the island produces its own power and water.) They spent the next 15 months building the main house, a two-story, 3,351-square-foot dwelling on pilings with lots of windows to take advantage of the views and sea breeze.

Turner and his family used the house as their personal retreat for the next three decades, while Tudor and his family often stayed in the caretaker’s cottage.

Eventually the family’s visits tapered off and in 2017, Turner sold the island to South Carolina for $4.9 million, a bargain since it was appraised for $20 million.

Phil Gaines, then-director of state parks, recalled his first trip to the island with Duane Parrish, director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. It was a 30-minute boat ride through the lush waterways and marshes of Story River, Trenchards Inlet and Three Sisters Creek.

Kayaking the miles of waterways, marshes and inlets is a great way to explore St. Phillips Island. Contributed by Discover South Carolina
Photo: For the AJC

“We knew we were looking at something very few people had seen. Scientifically and from a natural standpoint, it is unique. I was literally a kid in a candy store,” said Gaines.

Protected from future development by a conservancy easement, the island is a study in South Carolina coastal history, geology and maritime flora and fauna. Massive magnolias, large dwarf palmettos, oak trees and loblolly pines live in harmony with deer, alligators, fox squirrels, reptiles and about 300 species of birds, including bald eagles, roseate spoonbills and painted buntings.

“The first time I stepped foot on St. Phillips Island I was completely awe-struck by its tranquility and beauty,” said Parrish. “Imagine a beach where the only disturbances are your own footprints in the sand. That’s the simple splendor of St. Phillips Island.”

Said Turner in a statement, “After sharing many fond memories together on the island, my family and I now look forward to others being able to experience and appreciate the unique beauty and tranquility that St. Phillips has provided us for so many years.”

Two years after the deal was complete, St. Phillips Island is now part of Hunting Island State Park.

Tours to the island are provided by Coastal Expeditions. They last about five hours and begin with an interpretive 30-minute boat ride from Hunting Island State Park’s Russ Point boat landing to the St. Phillips dock.

More maritime forest barrier island than beach — the island is 75 percent wilderness and 25 percent beach — St. Phillips is a naturalist’s playground.

Once a vacation home for media mogul Ted Turner, the house will be available to rent through Hunting Island State Park starting in the fall. Contributed by Discover South Carolina
Photo: For the AJC

Visitors can start a self-guided walking tour from the dock or take a 30-minute, rough-and-tumble tram ride into the interior with a naturalist. Group tours may be booked in advance.

“St. Phillips is a wilderness island experience that isn’t focused on a tropical beach experience,” said Chris Crolley, owner of Coastal Expeditions. “It’s great for hiking — the jewels of the island are the trails. It’s great for birding. It’s also great for botanists and wildlife lovers. And, of course, there is the beach, which is only a fraction of the island, and not the majority of the pleasure of this natural resource.”

Nevertheless, spending time on the beach is permitted. Visitors may bring beach chairs, coolers and fishing gear on the boat, but they must be able to fit on passengers’ laps or under their seats. Beachgoers can expect to carry their gear about a quarter mile from the tram to the shore. And they’re encouraged to check the tide chart. Beach access is limited during high tide.

Because there are no facilities on the island, visitors should bring a hat, sunscreen, bug spray, snacks and plenty of water.

The five-bedroom, five-bathroom house, which accommodates 12 people, is currently undergoing renovation. Although not available for day guests, it will be offered as an overnight rental property through Hunting Island State Park starting in the fall.

“The fully furnished house will have a full complement of amenities for the perfect getaway, including outdoor cooking spaces, a fire pit, fishing equipment and kayaks,” says State Park Director Paul McCormack.

During certain times of the year, exclusive rental options will be available giving visitors access to the house, the whole run of the island and personalized concierge services all to themselves.

As the maritime forest erodes on St. Phillips Island, weathered driftwood create a boneyard beach along the shoreline. Contributed by Discover South Carolina
Photo: For the AJC

So whether you aspire to commune with nature, explore a place where few others have gone or revel in the privacy of your own private island, St. Phillips Island is bucket list worthy.

If you go

St. Phillips Island, South Carolina, is 300 miles southeast of Atlanta on I-16. Ferry service is accessible from Hunting Island State Park.

Hunting Island State Park. $4-$8. Daily, 6 a.m.- 6 p.m. (9 p.m. during Daylight Saving Time). 2555 Sea Island Parkway, Hunting Island, S.C. 843-838-2011, www.southcarolinaparks.com/hunting-island

St. Phillips Island Safari Tours. $45 adults; $25 children under the age of 15; call for private tour rates. Tours are 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday. Tour times are subject to change, so call ahead. Departs from Hunting Island State Park Nature Center, 2555 Sea Island Parkway, Hunting Island, S.C. 843-884-7684, www.coastalexpeditions.com or www.stphillipsislandferry.com.

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