The Island with No Bridge
Pat Conroy’s Daufuskie Island offers an old-fashioned coastal retreat
Cruising along the Calibogue Sound aboard the Haig Point IV, a double-decker ferry, I enjoyed the salty breeze in my face and the expansive coastal views of this slice of South Carolina. Pods of dolphins rolled in the water below with seagulls wheeling and pelicans gliding in the sunshine above us. Just across the Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head lies Daufuskie Island, an island with no bridge where everything — from mail to groceries to people — is delivered by boat. Made famous in Pat Conroy’s autobiographical novel The Water is Wide, Daufuskie is the location of Conroy’s teaching stint in 1968 when he taught the island’s Gullah children. Years later, he reflected, “You can’t believe how beautiful it was. My favorite fact about Daufuskie Island the year I was there was when the only two cars on the island crashed head-on. The island had the highest accident rate in the country, 100 percent.”
In fact, we had just met Conroy’s former student Marguerite –– Mary in the book –– at the dock on Hilton Head as we boarded the ferry. It was apparent from the warm greeting from her and her staff that this trip was going to be a unique experience. We thus left the world behind with our parked car and jumped aboard Haig Point IV bound for Daufuskie.
The ferry docked at Haig Point, a private gated community at one end of the island. Its most striking detail is the absence of cars; only golf carts traverse the paved and gravel paths. Adam greeted us as we disembarked and led us up to The Mansion — a stunning antebellum home that was transported whole and intact from Sea Island, Georgia. Tabby ruins and ancient live oaks adorn the property and contribute to the historic aura. Adam escorted us up to the Mongin Room, a beautiful corner suite overlooking the marsh, where we unpacked and settled in before dinner.
Debbie and Dave McKeeman, members at Haig Point, picked us up in their golf cart for a member social at the clubhouse right off their stunning golf course. There, we met no strangers as the island residents welcomed us with open arms and threw us right into their party. Celebrating life on an island with no bridge is what they do every day, and the room was filled with jovial, friendly faces. An adult milkshake bar was the focal point of happy hour, and I ordered the Kahlua Crash — chocolate ice cream blended with Kahlua Liqueur. Dinner was served in an outdoor buffet with tantalizing choices of shrimp burgers, cheese-stuffed turkey burgers, and traditional burgers and hot dogs.
A second table consisted of copious burger fixings, potato salad, coleslaw, fries, and other sides, and a third table was covered in plates of cookies. After dinner — much to my surprise — everyone sang happy birthday to me as a sumptuous strawberry shortcake was carried out and set down in front of me. I later found out that this was the chef’s specialty, and it came as no surprise after tasting it!
Friday morning, we dressed in our riding attire and darted to the clubhouse Grill Room for breakfast in our personal golf cart. Shemeika served us a delicious breakfast composed of blueberry pancakes with hot maple syrup, a seafood omelet, bacon, grapefruit juice, and herbal tea.
We then jumped back in our golf cart and started our first exploration of the island on our way to the equestrian center. We encountered fox squirrels, towering ancient oaks dripping with Spanish moss, beautiful homes, and quaint golf carts styled to look like mini cars. We finally reached a handsome barn, beautifully maintained, where we met Rachel and Jodi, who introduced us to our quarter horse mounts — Misty, a chestnut, and Victor, a paint.
Jodi led us on our riding adventure across the island, winding on and off trails through the woods, around a natural spring, and past the magnificent sanctuary with one tree overflowing with snowy egrets. During the mating season, their plumage grows to long, filmy white wisps and is truly a stunning sight to behold. Underneath the huge tree was a menacing 8-foot alligator, thus the perfect home for the egrets to nest their eggs safe from raccoons and snakes climbing up the trunk. We finally made our way to the beach, where we enjoyed a wonderful stretch of cantering. While some residual damage from Hurricane Matthew still remained, more prevalent were the many stories of how the community banded together in the face of this natural disaster, both in preparation and in rebuilding.
For lunch, we chose Lucy Bell’s, which Ridgeway natives Rebecca Watts and Brad Klieve just opened in 2016. The menu features a wide array of dishes, focusing primarily on farm-to-table ingredients and fresh, local seafood. Options included the simple and traditional, like Southern fried chicken, as well as more sophisticated delicacies, such as lobster thermidor, tournedos Oscar, and herb-roasted prime rib of beef. I enjoyed shrimp tacos, lemonade, potato salad with a touch of mustard, a delicious pasta salad, and slaw, with chocolate mousse for dessert. Everything we tasted was perfection.
After lunch, we toured that end of the island for hours on our golf cart and saw many historic sites as well as modern points of interest. We first visited the outdoor gallery of The Iron Fish, where national award-winning and self-taught metal sculptor Chase Allen has his intriguing work on display. Perhaps most surprising is that this valuable artwork is there for the taking — price tags mark each piece, and a box outside his office receives the payment for anything visitors would like to purchase in his absence. This level of trust is yet another example of the island’s incredible community.
We explored the historic Bloody Point Lighthouse, originally one of two in a 19th century front and rear range light tower system, and Silver Dew Winery, where we tasted the local wine made on the lighthouse grounds. Then we found Mary Fields School, where Pat Conroy famously taught his class. Now, visitors can see the original classroom on one side of the building and on the other discover Daufuskie Blues — the island’s own indigo dying company, where Rhonda Davis and Leanne Coulter dye and sell scarves. Because indigo is natural, it will only dye natural materials — such as silk and cotton, and Rhonda demonstrated for us how the organic process works. She put a strip of cloth in a dark blue tub of indigo dye and, after 10 minutes, drew it back out. I was shocked to see that rather than reflecting the dark hues of the dye, the cloth was bright yellow… no, more of a yellow, limey green. I realized it was bright green. Then it started to turn teal and then finally blue. Apparently, indigo stains through oxidation and thus must come in contact with the air to take effect.
To create a pattern on the scarves, the women tightly stitch the material together and then submerge it for an allotted period of time in the dye. The stitches keep the indigo from coming in contact with some of the material, thus saving white space. Once the fabric has dried, they cut the stitches and pull the scarf open to reveal the white and blue pattern. Rhonda even let me pull apart one that had just finished drying!
We then took a tour of the Daufuskie Island Rum Company, where Tony Chase showed us the entire rum-making process — from fermenting to distillation, and even the bottling and labeling. I tasted four of his flavors: vanilla, which was the boldest on aftertaste; gold, which tasted like bourbon on the front, but smoother without the burn going back; spiced, where all of his selected nine spices were perceivable and balanced; and fire, which tasted like a red hot candy. After these samples, Tony mixed me a peach mint julep with Sallie’s Greatest syrup and gold rum.
In touring all of these sites, we observed one unique aspect: all were well set up for visitors, but none felt in any way touristy. Each location felt authentic as if the people there were just happy to host visitors peeking in on the hobbies they had made professions.
That evening, we went to another Haig Point member social, this time a happy hour at the Calibogue Club, which overlooks the Calibogue Sound across to Hilton Head’s Harbor Town. Haig Point CEO Doug Egly and Nancy, his wife, picked us up in their golf cart, and we enjoyed another evening of meeting new friends as well as seeing “old” friends from the night before! These people have a true passion for creating community. After the happy hour, we sat on the second-story, screened-in porch and enjoyed a delicious dinner, served by our waiter Locksley, that started with hot, soft bread and a tasty olive spread, as well as an appetizer of baked oysters. I then ordered the duck entrée, which paired perfectly with Locksley’s recommended pinot noir.
We awoke Saturday to a magnificent view of the river as the soft, morning sun gently reflected warm, golden colors onto the marsh grass. The large balcony outside our room overlooks the river, and there we enjoyed blueberry muffins, hot tea, and coffee. We spent much of the morning riding bikes along the beach paths and exploring the Haig Point neighborhoods, admiring the grand Lowcountry mansions and picking out our favorites.
We ended at Old Daufuskie Crab Company where general manager Walter Cavern greeted us and showed us to a shady picnic table overlooking the river. He explained that the chef spoke Gullah, and she was known for making the most delicious deviled crab. The best decision we made was to let him select our lunch menu, which, of course, started with steaming deviled crab, served in a crab back shell. We also enjoyed roasted oysters and lightly fried, fresh shrimp before devouring a softshell crab BLT sandwich, finished by a cool glass of fresh lemonade. The breeze from the river topped off an excellent lunch. Inside the restaurant along two walls was a small museum of the island, featuring such artifacts as a dugout canoe found in 2012 on neighboring Turtle Island, Confederate cash, American Indian pottery and arrowheads, and old photos.
Still exploring, we took our golf cart along a quiet dirt road until we saw a sign for more tabby ruins. We traipsed along a faint footpath through the pine woods to the edge of the marsh, where we found some remnants of a home site. It was not hard to imagine why the original inhabitants had chosen the spot because it was idyllic with magnificent oak trees looming over the marsh. Along another road, we found an old cemetery where the Gullah people had buried their dead on a high bluff overlooking the river with the intention that the departed souls could more easily travel back to Africa.
We then met Sean at the Country Boat Landing for an extended kayak tour of the river. We paddled downriver against the incoming tide, and then up a narrow creek until it nearly ended, shocking a blue heron out of the marsh, and received an up-close visit with fiddler crabs scurrying around the pluff mud. As we paddled back past docks, we watched the pelicans dive bomb from above to retrieve their dinners from the water below.
Once we returned, we also felt it was dinnertime … and Marshside Mama’s was at the head of the docks. We enjoyed sitting outside near a large fire pit while the sun set, eating a smorgasbord of crab, boiled shrimp, blackened snapper, grits, and succotash.
Sunday morning, we enjoyed the pleasant beachfront commute in our golf cart to the clubhouse for another fabulous breakfast. We then attended church at First Union African Baptist, where I was asked to ring the historic bell to begin the service. Aaron Crosby officiated at this wonderful time of worship, and member Ethel May Wiley (a former student of Pat Conroy’s) led us in a spiritual during the offertory. The genuine fellowship was enriching.
That afternoon, we were excited to engage in a game of tennis on the beautiful clay courts beside a lagoon. Spanish moss hung above our heads in the oak trees as we played our hearts out below.
For dinner, we returned to Haig Point’s Calibogue Club, where I relished the shrimp cocktail paired with a dry chardonnay, followed by an entrée of veal and mushrooms in a red wine sauce with mashed potatoes and vegetables on the side. Dessert consisted of a hot lava cake with vanilla ice cream and a glass of tawny port. We watched the sunset light up Harbor Town across the sound, listened to the waves crash on the beach right below us, and felt the breeze tickling our faces as it blew through the screen.
After dinner, we said goodbye to our new favorite island by going down the beach path to a nearby hammock. We wrapped up and looked at the stars and the revolving light of the Tybee Island lighthouse distant across the water, enjoying the ocean air that swept away any would-be bugs.
It was with refreshed hearts and minds that we took the ferry back to Hilton Head and reality the following morning … yet with determined wills to come back and visit our friends on Daufuskie again.