Escape to Daufuskie Island

Barbara Noe Kennedy


The second I board the ferry for the 30-minute ride from Hilton Head, the sultry sea breezes cavorting across the upper deck wash away the daily grind. I’m headed to Daufuskie Island, one of South Carolina’s remote Sea Islands, accessible only by boat. And I am unprepared for the surprises this unassuming island has to offer.


Although Hilton Head’s famous lighthouse rises in the distance across the water, Daufuskie is a step back in time. Arrowheads dating back over 9,000 years point to ancient Native American hunting parties, though one of its most intriguing eras takes place after the Emancipation Proclamation, when recently freed enslaved individuals purchased small plots of land and worked for the island’s large landowners. It was never an easy life, but it was a free life, with traditions handed down generation to generation.



Island Heritage

The first night, I meet Chef Sallie Ann Robinson at a local catered event. She hands me one of her famous deviled crabs—a Lowcountry, spiced-crabcake-like specialty served in a crab shell, this one based on her family’s age-old secret recipe.


She’s a sixth-generation Daufuskie Islander—her great-great grandfather built the First Union African Baptist Church. They’re Gullah, a culture that developed in the Sea Islands’ 18th-century rice fields. Enslaved African Americans from a diversity of countries spoke different languages, and modified the English language with aspects of their own African tongues so they could speak to one other. Experts thought the language would die out as young African Americans left the island in the mid-20th century to escape poverty, just as Robinson did.


“I went away to nursing school,” Robinson says. She didn’t realize how special the island was until she left. “The freedom, the people, the pure joy of living off the land. I didn’t know where my food was coming from,” she says. She was used to picking vegetables from the fields and pulling fish from the water, not sorting through packaged foodstuffs at the grocery store.



“Don’t get mad; do something about it,” is her motto. And so she did. “I started writing late at night.” She wrote about the ways her grandmother eked a living off the island, because they didn’t have grocery stores or hospitals. She published several cookbooks, including Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon, and Night and Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way. (No, the deviled crab recipe is not in any of them.)


But there’s more to the story. As a child, Robinson attended the one-room schoolhouse that still stands on the island today. Her teacher was a young man from nearby Beaufort, who used unorthodox teaching methods, including encouraging dancing and singing in the classroom, and calling the kids “punks,” much to the chagrin of the elderly superintendent. The teacher’s name was Pat Conroy, and he wrote about his experiences in his book, The Water is Wide, featuring Robinson and her classmates—she’s Esther.


Robinson speaks fondly of Conroy, who of course went on to become the award-winning author. “He pushed us to look beyond the island’s borders, to see what was out there,” she says.


Eventually, she moved back to the island, where today she writes books, caters meals, and leads Gullah island tours, embracing her heritage and sharing it with others.



Discovering the Island

To explore her island, I hop into a golf cart—there are few cars on this 5-mile-long by 2.5-mile-wide isle, and everyone travels by golf cart or bike.


First stop, the little Daufuskie Island History Museum, with exhibits ranging from the arrowheads of prehistoric peoples to an early 19th-century family bible to military buttons to an enormous stuffed alligator. It’s housed in the old Mt. Carmel Baptist Church No. 2. Though the most engaging thing is the conversation I overhear between two local women: “He hasn’t been seen on the island in a while.” “I hear they’re no longer together.”


Down the road is the Mary Fields School, built for the African-American children in the early 1930s. This is where Pat Conroy taught Sallie Ann Robinson and her fellow students. There’s a small exhibit with photos, but the place is now the Daufuskie Blues, where dresses, dish towels, and jackets dyed in the local indigo are for sale, absolutely gorgeous in their various shades of blue. One of the proprietors, Leanne Coulter, tells me that the practice of tie-dying dates back to the Japanese and their beautiful silk kimonos. Of course, Stateside, it was considered slavery’s other cash crop, with enslaved African Americans forced to toil under the burning sun.


And that’s the one aspect of Daufuskie’s history, its 12 different plantations growing cotton and indigo. Tabby-walled single dwellings of enslaved individuals, among the best preserved in the South, are scattered about the island’s northern tip, on the site of the former indigo and cotton plantation. The private Haig Point community resides there now.



The island is heavily forested, and as I continue driving south in my little golf cart, I take in modest island houses tucked beneath towering pines. Next stop, Chase Allen’s Iron Fish Gallery. The young man has made a name for himself with his whimsical, colorful sea critters made from sheet metal—fish, crabs, lobsters, mermaids. I walk through the informal outdoor studio, taking in the brightly painted sculptures displayed on the walls. The mermaids, with their perky tails, are adorable. At the end of the corridor, a huge, tool-cluttered table stands in the middle of an industrial-looking yard, with a small house to one side.


Chase is home, and he greets me, chatting about Gullah history, where John Mellencamp lives, and who sells the best deviled crabs. What he doesn’t tell me, which I learn later, is that he has received high accolades for his work, including Martha Stewart’s “American-Made Winner” in 2014.


Down another road, I stumble across Daufuskie Island Distillery, which uses local botanicals in its spirits; and elsewhere, a small little museum that speaks of the island’s oystering days.


Along the island’s southeastern shore, I drive along the water’s edge, taking in vast expanses of sea and sand, seabirds flitting about. There’s no one around for miles, so I park my golf cart and indulge in the warm sands, massaging my feet, firmly planted in the moment.



Where to Stay and Eat

There are not a lot of accommodations on the island. You can rent a house through Daufuskie Rental Group; Chase Allen rents a charming bungalow next to his studio through Airbnb. Another option is to purchase a horse or golf package at Haig Point. Stay in the 1873 lighthouse or historic Strachan Mansion, and enjoy all the perks of this gated community, including meals and free golf carts.


There are a few restaurants, including Old Daufuskie Crab Company and Bell’s at the Beach (no website); and no grocery stores other than Freeport Market, which has a few staples but mostly snacks and soda (residents bring their groceries from the mainland, or use DoorDash or UberEats). But that’s what makes this lost-in-time isle so captivating.



Author Bio:

Highbrow Magazine Contributing Writer Barbara Noe Kennedy is an award-winning writer and editor, who specializes in travel writing. She worked for more than 20 years for the National Geographic Book Division, and she has also written for the Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, the Los Angeles Times, and Fodor's -- in addition to penning a few books -- including 25 Joys of Paris, which was published recently. She is also a Lowell Thomas travel journalism award winner. Barbara has traveled extensively around the world and, along with her husband, is actively involved in helping Zambian students achieve their education and career goals. She writes travel articles and film reviews for Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Barabara Noe Kennedy

--FW Gadget (, Creative Commons)


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