Simply grand: It's easy to fall under the gentle sway of hammock capital Pawleys Island
Sunday, May 30, 2010
When I was living in Europe with my family in the mid-1970s, we often rented houses on Greek islands. We relished being able to unpack and unplug, to fall into the rhythm of island life, to walk on the beaches, wander through the villages and wind down the day with a cool white wine and a warm pink sunset.
When we returned to the United States, we looked for a place that resembled a Greek island but wasn't Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket (we did not want to add cocktail parties to our evening ritual). A friend mentioned Pawleys Island, on the South Carolina coast, which is not really an island at all but a glorified sandbar separated from the mainland by a narrow salt creek and a mile-wide mind-set.
In 1978, we rented a house for a week. One week became two; then we traded up to an ocean view and a third week. Four years ago we bought our own house, and if you ask me to name my favorite place in the world, on many days I would answer Pawleys.
I feel a freedom here, a quiet calmness, that I don't feel anywhere else. Life is reduced to a few simple questions: tennis or boating? Book or movie? Shrimp or barbecue? Walk on the beach with the dogs or leave them home? (Actually, we always take them.) Every family sets its own priorities. Our best friends walk in the early morning, we prefer the evening, and that's the whole point. No rules. Just don't track sand into the house.
Pawleys itself is pristine and protected -- just several hundred private homes, a few small inns, one egregious condo complex, no commercial enterprises. Even if every person in every house goes to the beach at the same time, it's still pretty empty. But just across the causeway, five minutes away, is a 24-hour CVS, an invaluable source of sunscreen and Band-Aids when the house is full of six active grandchildren. And beyond the CVS lies 60 miles of coastline, stretching from Myrtle Beach to Georgetown, harboring a gazillion things to do when everyone overdoses on sun and sand. The area goes by many names -- the Low Country, the Grand Strand, and a new one, Hammock Coast -- but I just think of it as Paradise. Or Home. Pretty much the same thing.
When people hear "Pawleys," they often think "hammock." In 1889, a riverboat captain named Joshua Ward wanted a cool place to nap on muggy summer days, so he wove this deep, wide-bodied contraption out of cotton rope and hung it on the back of his boat. During the Depression, Ward's brother-in-law, Arthur Herbert "Doc" Lachicotte, was running a small gift shop for tourists and desperate for business. "We started selling the hammocks because it was the only thing we had," Doc Jr. -- son of the original Doc -- once told me. Today, the hammocks are marketed around the world. They are unusually comfortable -- the mesh design catches the breeze -- but they also serve as a symbol of the region. You actually have the time and the temperament here to use a hammock: to nap, to read, to cuddle. Whatever.
Now 83, Doc the Younger has turned many of his business interests over to his daughter, Lu, but he's still involved in civic and church affairs, and he has more time to practice one of the region's favorite pastimes, flounder fishing. He introduced me to the sport years ago, emphasizing that the key to success is patience. When you feel a bite, wait a minute before setting the hook. On our initial outing through the marshlands south of Pawleys, Doc caught the first fish. So skill and experience are essential, I thought. Then our daughter Rebecca, who was 9 at the time, caught the second. Beginners' luck, I thought. Then she caught two more. I almost pushed her overboard.
We've gone out many times with Doc over the years, but one day stands out. My wife, Cokie, and I took our catch home and sauteed it hours later. The fish was so fresh it was intoxicating (although a good white wine probably contributed to our euphoria), and the butter and lemon sauce that Cokie made coated our chins and fingers as we savored each morsel. That flounder remains on our Top 10 list of memorable meals.
When Doc was busy, we'd fish from the bridge over Pawleys Creek or take the kids on a charter boat out of Murrells Inlet. It's easy, even for little ones: bait your hook with squid, drop your line and wait for a bite. We often came home with strings of black sea bass -- good eating, but not quite up to Doc's flounder.
Gullahs and gardens
Before the Civil War, the Low Country was the center of America's rice-growing industry. (To be precise: "Low Country" refers to the South Carolina coast from the Georgia border northward; "Grand Strand" refers to beaches from Myrtle Beach south; the two districts overlap at Pawleys.) Freshwater rivers thread the region and flow into Winyah Bay, near Georgetown, so they're subject to tidal action. Early planters built their homes along these waterways, harnessed the tides to flood their paddies and sent their families to Pawleys for the summer to escape the malarial mosquitoes. A few of those homes still exist, and we like to take our small boat on evening cruises and view them from the river, the way they were meant to be seen.
The descendants of the slaves who were brought from Africa through the port of Charleston to work the rice fields are known today as the Gullah people. "Gullah" is a corruption of "Angola," and the Gullah maintain more African traditions than almost any other black community in the States. Food is one example -- the word "gumbo" derives from an Angolan word for okra. Basketry is another.
Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant, a town north of Charleston, is lined with stands that sell handcrafted baskets made by local artisans. Traditionally woven from thick sweet grasses that grow along the shore, they are unusually sturdy and range in tone from wheat to coffee. Years ago, we bought several from a woman named Bea Coaxum, who entertained visitors to Doc Lachicotte's Hammock Shop by weaving her baskets in public. When Bea visited Washington once to represent South Carolina in a craft show, she was taken to the Renwick Gallery and shown an exhibit of baskets from around the world. She saw one at a distance and exclaimed, "That's our work!" meaning the Gullahs. When she got closer, she read the label: The basket came from Angola.