Sallie Ann Robinson is down in St. Petersburg, Fla., doing a presentation at the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival. So instead of bumping along the sandy roads that cut through Daufuskie Island’s dense maritime forest on a history tour with her, I’m bumping along the island’s roads with Jenny Hersch. Hersch recently spent three years researching and co-writing a book with Sallie Ann on the history of Daufuskie, a sea island off the southern coast of South Carolina.
Hersch laughs when I ask if she’s a guide. “I’m a bass player with an interest in Daufuskie’s history,” she says, alternating between tales of island life and apologies. The latter are for the drive — patches of deep potholes send her electric golf cart dipping, bucking and bobbling — and for not being Sallie Ann. “She’s the real deal. I’m just visiting,” Hersch says. “I’m full of fun facts, but she’s lived it all.”
Sallie Ann is the sixth generation of her family to be born and live on Daufuskie, and, explaining her keynote presentation at the festival, an accomplished chef. On the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” show, she cooked host Andrew Zimmern some barbecued raccoon — after she showed him how to skin and clean it.
Hersch has nothing to apologize for: Her facts go deeper than mere fun, and the wild and woolly drive only adds to Daufuskie’s charm and magic.
I’ve long been in love with the Lowcountry, a wild labyrinth of rivers, islands, maritime forests, wetlands, savannas and marshes that stretch south from Charleston to the Savannah River. The area is home to bald eagles, herons, wood storks, ibises and pelicans. There are orchids, cypresses, sycamores, magnolias and flowering dogwoods. Daufuskie — pronounced dah-FUS-key; the last two syllables rhyme with “husky” — is all this, and then several levels more.
Separated from Hilton Head’s southwest tip by less than a mile of water, Daufuskie couldn’t be more different from its densely populated neighbor. The only way to get to the island today is the same way Native Americans have since it separated from the South Carolina mainland about 4,500 years ago: by water. There are cars on Daufuskie, but it wasn’t until 1995 that they were required to be registered and drivers required to have a license. Because there’s no bridge to the island and because the island is only about eight square miles, most people, whether residents or visitors, get around by golf cart or bicycle. There are a couple of stop signs but no police to issue tickets.
Daufuskie has no grocery store or doctor, much less a hospital, but about 400 people live there year-round. About one-quarter of these, including Sallie Ann, are Gullah, or Geechee — African Americans descended from slaves who, even today, maintain a distinct culture and dialect. The latter is a combination of West and Central African languages and English. The Gullah spoken by three people in the small general/souvenir store in Freeport, the island’s commercial hub, is, to me, mostly indecipherable but mellifluous.
Other evidence of Daufuskie’s charm? Every tree on this island weeps with thick, Albus Dumbledore beards of Spanish moss that are as straggly as they are abundant. Cyclists brake for armadillos crossing the road while tooling around the island. The same woman, Hailey, who welcomes me to the Daufuskie Island Rum Company one day is, the following night, my waitress during dinner at Melrose Beach Club, where she greets me by name. People ride horses on the beach. Twice as I paddleboard in Calibogue Sound (pronounced kal-uh-BOWG-ee), dolphins swim alongside and pelicans, the tips of their wings no more than a foot off the water, soar past.
At Lucy Bell’s Cafe, a lunch spot in a former honky tonk, fresh, local fried oysters and other items are served at wrought-iron tables shaded by a century-old live oak. Down the road is an art gallery whose owner-artist asks patrons to pay by the “honor system” and leave cash or a check in a box on the front porch.
Having read “The Water is Wide,” Pat Conroy’s 1972 memoir about his year teaching Daufuskie’s black students in the two-room Mary Fields School, I arrive on the island expecting it to be idiosyncratic and evocative, and to possess a moody magic. But, as extensive a picture as the book painted of an island set apart from time — Conroy mentioned the island not yet having phone service — it doesn’t do the reality of Daufuskie justice.
Of course, as charming as I find Daufuskie today, it wasn’t always this way. By the mid-1700s, European diseases and wars wiped out most of the Native American tribes that lived in the Lowcountry for about 9,000 years, including on Daufuskie. The island’s Native American name did stick: “Daufuskie” means “sharp feather” in the Muscogee language.
Glass cases inside Strachan Mansion, a gathering spot inside the resort community of Haig Point, display Native American points and arrowheads and pieces of fiber-tempered pottery discovered as the property was being developed. Also inside these cases are Civil War bullets, hand-forged iron chains and glass slave beads.
From the 1770s through 1861, Daufuskie had 10 plantations; at any given time about 200 slaves lived on the island. On my tour with Hersch I learn that it was slaves who built, in 1805, the island’s main north-south road, which is still used today. (This is the island’s only paved public road.)
On Daufuskie, I stay at Haig Point’s 1873 lighthouse. Haig Point was once a plantation of the same name. Walking up to the lighthouse’s back door, I wonder at thick, right-angled oyster shell pathways surrounding the lighthouse. Inside, a section of kitchen floor that is clear plexiglass instead of wood perplexes me. Hersch tells me the “pathways” are all that’s left of the Haig Point mansion, its foundation. The plexiglass in the kitchen allows lighthouse guests to see the foundation’s depth.
About 200 feet north of the plantation house’s foundation are the carefully preserved remains of three former slave dwellings. The slave houses and the mansion are constructed of tabby, a type of concrete made with lime from burned oyster shells mixed with sand, water, ash and crushed oyster shells. The mansion’s foundation reveals it was the largest tabby home built on the South Carolina coast. The slave dwellings, which were originally 16 by 24 feet, are among the best-preserved in the area.
Considering the plantation’s history, I’m surprised to learn that the ghost rumored to haunt Haig Point’s lighthouse is, if not friendly, at least benign. Over my four days in her former home, though, Maggie Comer, the lovesick daughter of the lighthouse’s first keeper, is absent.
The most haunting place I find on the island is Melrose, another former plantation turned luxury golf community that is adjacent to Haig Point. Melrose went into bankruptcy in March 2017. Some families still live full-time in homes they own here, but many cottages are abandoned. This winter, a chain-link fence was erected around the waterfront clubhouse and inn to keep vandals away, but all its windows had already been broken. The development’s roads and Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course are weedy and blanketed with fallen pine needles.
Driving my golf cart here at night — an independent restaurateur leases one of Melrose’s former restaurants; he fixed it up and reopened it as the Melrose Beach Club last October — I wonder how two streetlights still work. Having recently finished reading the dystopian novel “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel, I imagine Melrose is exactly what the world would look like if a super-flu wiped out 99 percent of the planet’s population. Even with this in my head, the quietude of the decaying development is more captivating than creepy.
My first visit to Melrose is on the back of Zeus, a calm and stately white gelding who looks as though he’s winking. (He isn’t; he has a minor infection in one eye.) Haig Point recently began renting Melrose’s stables, and the first 15 minutes of its 90-minute beach ride are through Melrose’s post-apocalyptic landscape.
Zeus brings me to the beach shortly after passing a catawampus gazebo with several collapsed pilings. As he self-assuredly walks several feet from waves gently lapping at the shore, my mind turns to a favorite book from my childhood, Walter Farley’s “The Black Stallion.” I think of Alec Ramsay riding bareback at a full gallop down the deserted beach where they’re shipwrecked. But while magic is everywhere on Daufuskie, I’m not so silly to think it has suddenly made me an accomplished enough equestrian to stay in the saddle of a galloping horse.
I’ll save my Alec Ramsay fantasy for my return trip. Even then, I’ll do it only after paddleboarding with dolphins a few more times. And eating another plate of fried oysters at Lucy Bell’s. And, of course, after touring the island with Sallie Ann.
More from Travel:
Haig Point Historic Mansion
10 Haig Point Circle
Built in 1873 on the tabby remains of the original Haig Point Plantation, this lighthouse in Haig Point is rumored to be haunted by the lovesick (but friendly) ghost of the daughter of its first keeper. From $850 per night per couple, including round-trip ferry transportation, an electric golf cart and a round of golf. The Strachan Mansion, a 7,500-square-foot plantation home built in 1910 on St. Simons Island, Ga., and barged to Haig Point in 1986, has four guest rooms. Available as part of Haig Point’s Stay and Play package, which includes round-trip ferry transportation, an electric golf cart and a round of golf. From $400 per night per couple .
Frances Jones House
188 School Rd.
The former home of Frances Jones, who taught at the Mary Fields School for 35 years, was restored by the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation and furnished with antiques that recall the way a Gullah family would have lived in the 1920s, as well as modern amenities such as a flat-screen TV and WiFi. $150 per night.
Lucy Bell’s Cafe
111 Benjies Point Rd.
Grab one of the wrought-iron tables under a live oak in the front yard of this lunch spot named after chef and co-owner Brad Klieve’s grandmother. Order the collard greens, coleslaw, or shrimp and grits, all of which Klieve makes from Lucy Bell’s recipes. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Breakfast from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. From $9.
30 Outer Banks Trail
White linen tablecloths, well-executed Southern standards and fresh local seafood overlooking Calibogue Sound. Hours vary seasonally; April through July dinner served Wednesday through Saturday. Entrees from $22.
The Gullah Diva Private Dinner
Sallie Ann Robinson, a sixth-generation Daufuskie native and author of three Gullah cookbooks, comes to your lodging to cook a meal and share stories about life on the island. $400 plus the cost of the food (for up to 20 people).
Melrose Beach Club
175 Avenue of Oaks
In the decaying former luxury resort, this restaurant was revived this past fall. Already popular with locals, it serves Cheesecake Factory-size portions of creative Southern comfort food and has an open-air bar. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. daily; lunch from about $14; dinner from about $20.
School Grounds Coffee
203 School Rd.
The only espresso and pour-over coffee on Daufuskie is in the back of the building that was the Mary Fields School, where author Pat Conroy taught in 1969. The building was a school until 1995. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. From $3.
Daufuskie Island Rum Company
270 Haig Point Rd.
A tour of this craft distillery that makes eight rums, two vodkas and a bourbon ends with a tasting of three spirits. Post-tour, sip a cocktail on an outside picnic table overlooking a pond ringed by moss-draped live oaks. Tours every half-hour Tuesdays through Saturdays. $7.
Haig Point Equestrian Center
10 Haig Point Ct.
Ninety-minute rides from the Melrose Equestrian Center to a beach along Calibogue Sound. $150.
Daufuskie Island Marsh Tacky Society/Adventures
58 Freeport Rd., Daufuskie Landing
Learn about the critically endangered (but recovering) South Carolina State Heritage Horse during a 40-minute, docent-guided tour that includes a meet-and-greet with a Marsh Tacky, a breed of horse native to the state. By appointment. $5 adults; $2.50 for children younger than 16.
Haig Point Golf Courses
130 Clubhouse La., Haig Point
Choose from the 18-hole Signature Course and the nine-hole Osprey course, both of which were designed by Rees Jones. Open daily. $225 per round.
Hourly and overnight rentals of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, and 90-minute guided kayak tours with advance reservations. Rentals start at $25 per hour; guided tours start at $35. Take a 2½-hour history tour of the island in a golf cart with “the Gullah Diva,” Sallie Ann Robinson, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. From $55.
Iron Fish Gallery & Studio
168 Benjies Point Rd.
Former real estate agent Chase Allen displays his colorful metal sculptures of fish, blue crabs, sea turtles and stingrays, among other coastal themes, in an open-air gallery and directs shoppers to leave payment for pieces in an “honor box” on the front porch. Open daily. Free.
209-221 School Rd.
Learn about dying with indigo — it only turns blue after air hits it — and shop for one-of-a-kind decorative and wearable pieces inspired by Japanese Shibori techniques, among others. Noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday through the summer. Free.
For the author’s full list of Lowcountry suggestions, visit washingtonpost.com/travel