For many travelers, nothing is more idyllic than escaping to an island. And an island with no bridge, few cars, and no chain stores or restaurants is truly an escape from the ordinary. South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island is such a place.
Originally made famous by Pat Conroy’s “The Water is Wide,” Daufuskie Island is an off-beat day trip from Hilton Head Island or Savannah, an extended-stay vacation destination for those in the know, and an unusual residence for an adventurous few. Accessible only by boat and with a full-time population of just over 400 people, Daufuskie Island is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of the Southeastern coast. At five miles long and less than 2.5 miles wide, the island is a true retreat, with environmental preserves, luxury resorts, distinct communities, Gullah history and a cast of colorful characters.
A bit of history
The first inhabitants of Daufuskie Island were Native Americans from the Creek and Yemassee tribes. Meaning “sharp feather,” Daufuskie Island got its name from the pointed-feather shape of the island.
The American Revolution brought divided loyalties — as well as plantations — to the Lowcountry. African slaves were brought over to cultivate the crops of rice, sea island cotton and blue indigo and to work the massive plantations.
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During the Civil War, Union troops occupied Daufuskie Island and drove off most of the plantation owners, leaving property and slaves behind. It was during this time that the remoteness of Daufuskie helped to create the language and culture of these newly freed slaves — known as the Gullah people.
The majority of the Gullah community worked in the thriving oyster industry until the mid-1950s, when the escalating pollution of the Savannah River forced the closure of the area’s oyster beds. There were few opportunities for work and the population shrank to less than a hundred people. But the tight-knit Gullah community remained and that legacy is the foundation of Daufuskie Island.
Today, the island is a destination darling for those who are looking for a slower pace. There are a number of ways to get there, including public ferries from Hilton Head and Savannah, water taxis and private community ferries. Upon arrival, the briny salt air, the smell of the Lowcountry, and the Spanish moss-draped flora seem to magically lower the heart rate.
Daufuskie doesn’t have any hotels or motels and is short on B&B offerings. Instead, upscale communities cater to visitors with rental homes and unusual accommodations.
Haig Point, a private, member-owned community lushly spread over 1,050 acres, offers a variety of rental homes. The property also features a clubhouse, several restaurants, a pool, 29 holes of Rees Jones golf and other amenities.
From the Haig Point private ferry dock, the first building to greet visitors is the Strachan Mansion. Built in 1910 as a summer retreat on St. Simons Island and moved to Daufuskie in 1986, the historic mansion has been completely restored to its original splendor and serves as a charming guesthouse with several well-appointed luxury rooms.
Nearby is the Haig Point Lighthouse, set on the foundation of the original 7,000 square-foot tabby Haig Point Plantation house. Built in 1873 and decommissioned as a lighthouse in 1924, it still provides a beacon of light into Calibogue Sound and can be rented for overnight stays. The lawn between the two buildings features some of the largest ruins of tabby slave cabins in the Lowcountry.
Other accommodations on the island include rental homes, villas and condos at Bloody Point Resort, rental cottages at Freeport Marina, and privately owned homes available for rent through Daufuskie Rental Group and Daufuskie Island Accommodations.
There are very few cars on Daufuskie, so golf carts are the way to explore the sand roads and Gullah architecture of the island. Golf cart rentals are available at Freeport Marina, which is also home to the Freeport General Store.
Tour Daufuskie offers a variety of tours, including one led by the colorful Sallie Ann Robinson, a sixth-generation Gullah native and student of Pat Conroy. This golf cart tour offers an insider’s view of what Daufuskie was like decades ago.
Other things to do on the island include: golfing, exploring the Rob Kennedy Historic Trail and shopping at the Freeport General store, several island art galleries, and the Silver Dew Winery & Gift Shop in the original Bloody Point Lighthouse.
Restaurants are plentiful on Daufuskie and range from upscale at the Clubhouse or Calibogue Club at Haig Point or Eagle’s Nest at Bloody Point Resort to the alfresco scene (and classic deviled crab) at Old Daufuskie Crab Company at Freeport Marina.
For a tasty breakfast or lunch, locals swear by the shrimp tacos at Lucy Bell’s Café. Or for a true taste of island color, Marshside Mama’s serves up Lowcountry gumbo, shrimp and grits, and fresh local seafood, along with creative cocktails, and live entertainment on weekends in their open-air dining room or under the trees at the County Dock.
The Iron Fish Gallery is a great shopping stop. Here, resident artist and metal sculptor Chase Allen creates metal coastal-themed sculptures (think fish, crab, mermaids, and more). If he’s not there, purchases are on the honor system.
Daufuskie residents Lancy and Emily Burn run Silver Dew Pottery, offering signature pottery and lots of island history. Gift items, local wines, and a small island museum can be found at the Silver Dew Winery Gift Shop, located in the original “wick house” of the Bloody Point Lighthouse. Handcrafted wooden kayaks, surfboards, canoes, and paddleboards are for sale at Daufuskie Wine & Woodworks, as are many organic, sustainable, and small-production craft beers and wines from around the world.
Daufuskie Island Rum Company provides one of the most unique shopping experiences on the island. Distilling and bottling 100 percent American handcrafted rum, owners Tony and Kristi Chase offer a variety of rums for tasting and purchasing, as well as tours of their distillery.