I-95 does a lucky thing as it heads downward -- it wends ever closer to the coast, southeasterly. At the top of the Carolinas the ocean is a hundred miles away, but at their bottom the Atlantic is only 20 miles east, across wild and marshy islands threaded with sleepy tidal creeks: the Low Country.
Hilton Head, S.C., is one option among these islands, and there are others. If your taste runs to vast untouched marsh and long unspoiled beach, you might choose Hunting Island, whose entire 5,000 acres is a state park, with rental cabins and camping, a historic lighthouse, a locally famous fishing pier and pleasant hiking/biking trails through mature forests of palm and live oak draped with Spanish moss -- a Deep-South-meets-the-tropics forest. There are boardwalks through the marsh for watching wildlife and sunsets, and four miles of empty beach with world-class shelling at either end, where the tides at the inlets wash great numbers of perfect shells upon the sand.
After an 11-hour drive from D.C., the author finds a bit of springtime on South Carolina's Hunting Island.
The 40-mile trip to Hunting Island from I-95 takes an hour as you slow for little towns and wind through genteel Beaufort (pronounced "BYOO-firt"), a sort of miniature Charleston and nearly as old. Beaufort offers the March visitor azaleas and wisteria in full flower, as well as bookshops and art galleries and places for coffee and interesting dinners.
I find, however, that once I'm on Hunting Island I can never make the 20-minute drive back there for food -- can't even get as far as the Shrimp Shack right down the road -- instead, get stuck at the Johnson Creek Tavern and Restaurant, just across the little two-lane bridge from the island. The view out the windows of the marsh, with the faint line of surf in the distance, and the $1 happy hour beers and the broiled grouper sandwiches get me every time.
I don't have much call, frankly, to get too far from my island. Even other lovely islands, like Edisto, with its own state park and beach with, reputedly, the tallest palm trees in the Carolinas, fail to entice me -- I have found mine. I'll stay a couple of days, and maybe a couple more.
Those palmettos and those big pom-pom cabbage palms make me realize I'm someplace else. Back home, I remind myself, I'd still be playing games with the thermostat (Nudge it! Nudge it! Blow your heating budget!). It's not bikini weather just yet down here, but it is T-shirt weather, and the mild southern evenings are sweater weather. And it was worth the drive -- I wouldn't have gotten to watch the change of seasons out my window, nor felt in my bones how far I'd come.
It's supremely nice to be here, kicked back beneath my beach umbrella gazing at the sea, or drowsing in a hammock in the shady woods of my campsite, listening to birdsong I don't recognize and the squirrels scampering in the palmettos. March is too soon for the mosquitoes to cause trouble. In short, bliss.
And by the time I get back home, it will be spring.
Sally Shivnan last wrote for Travel about a ranch in Blue, Ariz.
Details: Hunting Island, S.C.
GETTING THERE: Hunting Island is about 600 miles from Washington, about an 11-hour drive. Take I-95 to South Carolina Exit 33, then go east on Route 17 to Route 21 to its end.
WHERE TO STAY: Hunting Island State Park has cabins and campsites. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance (see below) and are recommended for the cabins and, on summer weekends, are a good idea for the campsites. Most sites have electricity and water, and the cabins are fully equipped with heat and air-conditioning. Campsites run $10 to $25 per night, cabins from $81 per night. Reservations: 866-345-PARK, reserveamerica.com.
For a more sumptuous stay, consider Beaufort, 16 miles from Hunting Island. The historic Beaufort Inn (809 Port Republic St., Beaufort, 843-521-9000, www.beaufortinn.com) is the most elegant B&B in the area, with private gardens, fireplaces and a gourmet restaurant. Rates start at $149 a night double. The Rhett House Inn (1009 Craven St., 888-480-9530, www.rhetthouseinn.com) is an 1820 antebellum mansion in Beaufort's historic district, with rooms from $175 a night double. The Craven Street Inn (1103 Craven St., 888-522-0250, www.thecravenstreetinn.com), built in 1870, is a block from Beaufort's waterfront, with rooms starting at $125 a night.
Or consider a vacation rental at one of the neighboring islands (Sea Island Resorts, 843-838-9095; Harbor Island Rentals, 800-553-0251, www.harborisland-sc.com; Fripp Island Resort, 843-838-3535, www.frippislandresort.com).
WHERE TO EAT: The Johnson Creek Restaurant and Tavern (2141 Sea Island Pkwy.) is hard to miss just before you cross the bridge to Hunting Island. Sit in the sunroom for the view across the marsh to the island and the sea. Sandwiches $6 to $9, entrees $15 to $25. Or check out the Shrimp Shack (1925 Sea Island Pkwy.), for shrimpburgers and sweet potato fries ($8 to $18).
Fresh local seafood abounds in Beaufort, where choices include Bistro 205 (205 West St.), for nouvelle Low Country cuisine (try the vichyssoise); Plums (904 1/2 Bay St.), for waterfront views and seafood soup; Emily's (906 Port Republic St.), for tapas and smoked salmon paté; and Blackstone's Cafe (205 Scott St.), for breakfast, and shrimp and grits served all day.
INFORMATION: Hunting Island State Park, 843-838-2011, www.discoversouthcarolina.com/stateparks. Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, 800-638-3525, www.beaufortsc.org.