South Carolina Islands: Gators, Greens & Gullah

From wilderness to a lost way-of-life on the islands of South Carolina.

When Aunt Pearlie Sue says “shake it,” she’s got the whole room a-shaking. Her head wrapped in a white cloth and the rest of her covered in gingham with her “Reverend Leroy” carved walking stick in hand, she sings, dances, and tells the story of the people today known as Gullah — descendants of early African slaves from Angola, known for their rice-growing prowess.

Aunt Pearlie Sue "shakin' it" at Red Piano Too Gallery

After the Yanks took Beaufort, South Carolina, in “the war of Northern aggression,” the slaves became isolated on the sea and marsh islands of the so-called Lowcountry. Their isolation sealed in some of the customs, songs, beliefs, language, and cuisine from their homeland and the Caribbean islands, where traders stopped en route with the slaves to “break ‘em in – gotta season ‘em,” said Aunt Pearlie Sue, a.k.a. Anita Singleton-Prather.

Gullah culture (sometimes referred to as Geechee) flourished around Beaufort on St. Helena Island, Hilton Head, Edisto Island, St. James Island, Youngs Island, and Daufuskie Island. In recent years, modern resorts dispersed the once-tight communities, but new generations keep alive the musical jargon that mixes African, Creole, and British; and a style of cookery influenced by all that and then some – hints of Spanish, native American, and French Huguenot foodways for extra flavor. A good old Lowcountry cookup heaps on the hoppin john (rice and beans), Lowcountry Boil (shrimp, sausage, corn on the cob, and red potatoes), stone-ground grits, sweet potato pie, cornbread, sweet tea, barbecue, blue crab, grits, gumbo, and collard greens.

Gullah restaurants along the coastline continue to feed the traditions while the culture thrives on St. Helena at Penn Center, an early black vocational-technical school turned museum; and Red Piano Too, an art gallery showcasing the full-spectrum of Gullah color and exuberance. Throughout the Lowcountry, craftspeople keep alive the practice of weaving sturdy, wonderful sweetgrass baskets and selling them at roadside stands.

South Carolina’s Lowcountry alone encompasses dozens of occupied islands. The entire coastline boasts uncountable sea islands and marshy-mellow islands – rises of trees from the golden expanse of spartina marsh coastline between the sea islands and mainland.

But collards ain’t the only kind of greens going on these days along the South Carolina shoreline. Hilton Head has traded in its Gullah community for resorts and golf courses that started South Carolinaon its way to golfing stardom, especially during its spring and fall seasons. Beachy Seabrook Island holds a private club-resort with two courses, plus there are Kiawah Island’s five courses, one of which will host the PGA Championship in 2012.

Besides golfing, Kiawah treats guests to The Sanctuary, a resort that, true to its name, buffers against the world less genteel and gentle with a truly fine Southern experience in a hotel built to imitate nearby Charleston’s and its rice plantations’ grand architecture and manners. Like most of South Carolina’s barrier islands, its beaches make a heart ache to return to their natural beauty.

The greens of Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Hunting Island, one of the state’s most-visited, holds a beach-fringed state park and a lighthouse whose 175 steps you can climb to its full 132-foot height. With its slash pine and magnolia forests, it recalls the complexion of these islands before man settled. Visitors can stay in the cabins or in the campgrounds; both fill way ahead, so reserve early.

To hide out in comfort upon a natural marsh island, check out Palm Key Resort on Knowles Island along theBroad River. Summer camp-like in atmosphere, its fully furnished shoreline cottages are conducive to birding, kayaking, and participating in creative classes and demonstrations.

For the purest taste of ancient sea island topography, visit Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, a 66,267-acre spread of islands accessible only by boat. A ferry from the marsh-swept mainland shore transports guests to Bulls Island and 80 years past.

Nearly 5,500 acres, the island, like Sanibel, boasts the island oddity of a freshwater slough. Meaning: gators! Lots of huge gators. The refuge also tallies some 280 species of birds throughout its 22 miles of coastline. A whopping 1,400 sea turtle nests pock the shores of Cape and Bulls islands every summer.

In the same peri-Charleston vicinity, Folly Beach is a popular recreational island adjacent toSt.JamesIsland. On the latter, you can see vestiges of Gullah communities where old African-American families still live, eat Gullah food, and worship.

St. Johns Island, one of the state’s largest, along with Wadmalaw Island, feeds theCharleston area with farms that have made a strong eat-local statement. OneCharleston chef, Sean Brock from renowned McCrady’s, once raised his own pigs on Wadmalaw, but now is in the business of preserving historic seeds, such as Sea Island red peas from the colonial era. Charleston Tea Plantation, the only in North America, not only produces tea served in the White House, but came up with the brainstorm Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. The Irvin House Vineyards winery operates nearby.

Pawleys Island, on the other hand, has become synonymous with the hammocks residents have been hand-weaving there since antebellum days, when the plantations started growing sea cotton instead of rice. It marks the beginning of a stretch of barrier island beaches known as the Grand Strand. To the north, the coast reaches its hype peak at Myrtle Beach, much akin to the commercialism and hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach.

From practically deserted to beachball-bustling, the South Carolina Coast may seem bipolar in her mood swings from old South to new playground. Personified, she smells of sweet wisteria and gardenias, tucks bulbous hydrangea blossoms behind her ear, drapes a tattered shawl of Spanish oak across her strong but slightly arthritic arms, and embraces all who visit with the smile of sparkling seas, inbred good manners, and the bounty of her pantry.

IF YOU GO:

For more information on South Carolina’s big family of islands, visit www.discoversouthcarolina.com.

Hunting Island State Park, 843-838-2011

McCrady’s, Charleston. 843-577-0061

Palm Key Resort, Knowles Island, 843-726-6468, www.palmkey.com

Penn Center, St. Helena Island, www.penncenter.com

Red Piano Too Art Gallery, St. Helena Island. 843-838-2241, www.redpianotoo.com

The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, 800-654-2924, www.kiawahresort.com

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