So, you’re finally going to satisfy your curiosity and spend a day on Daufuskie Island. You’ve arranged for transit and secured a golf cart that will be ready and waiting at the dock when you arrive. But to get the most out of your visit to the rustic, historic, quirky little island, a bit of research and perspective is called for.
Before you don your shorts and flip-flops, pack the bug spray and sunscreen, cross the water, hop on a golf cart (the recommended way to get around) and take off, review your expectations and prepare to ease into the laid-back ways of the island.
Expect the Unexpected
Here’s a wake-up call for first-timers: If you’ve got visions of charming shopping districts, upscale dining and polished entertainment venues dancing in your head, do not go to Daufuskie Island. You will not find any of these things there. The closest thing to that kind of visitor experience is reserved for those living in or visiting the island’s only resort, Haig Point, a lovely private property appointed with manicured lawns, impressive homes, fine dining, golf and a host of other amenities and creature comforts.
The majority of Daufuskie offers a much different experience, one defined by mysterious natural beauty, a slow, eclectic vibe, and humble reminders of the island’s past when it was the bastion of industrious Native Americans and later, Gullah communities that contentedly lived off the gifts of land and sea. Indeed, when you crank up the golf cart to traverse Daufuskie’s network of dirt paths, you can almost feel the history trembling beneath the rumble of the motor.
Looking for a relaxing beach day? You’re going to love it here. Sparsely populated with room to spread out and vast expanses on which to take peaceful strolls, the shoreline is the stuff of dreams. The water routinely washes up driftwood and other treasures, so keep your eyes peeled. If it’s a quiet escape you’re after, this is where to find it. For an extra special treat, make arrangements with Tour Daufuskie Trails to tour the shoreline from a horseback vantage point.
See the Sights
Colorful, primitive handmade signs affixed to the trunks of trees point the way to places you might be seeking out as part of your island sojourn: museums, a distillery, cafes, art galleries, Gullah graveyards, historic churches, schools and historic houses. Your golf cart provider will likely supply you with a map; GPS sometimes works, too—emphasis on “sometimes.” If cell phone service is essential to you, know that getting a signal may be tricky, depending on your provider and where you are on the island. Service tends to be more reliable along the shorelines.
As you bump along the unpaved, rutted avenues, you will be awed by the cathedral of gorgeous, moss-festooned live oaks that shade your path. You will admire the many tidy, quaint cottages with burgeoning gardens. You will also spy ramshackle shanties—swallowed by time amid the same oaky shadows—abandoned by their former occupants who left for the mainland years ago in search of opportunity and gainful employment. Stop and ponder the way of life that once sustained them—and the reasons they were forced to leave their beloved Daufuskie to scratch out a living elsewhere. Locals are more than happy to tell the story if you ask.
A stop at the Daufuskie Community Farm is irresistible. The vision of longtime islander, former fashion model, one-time nurse practitioner and master seamstress, 82-year-old Pat Beichler, the 9-acre operation is teeming with goats, chickens, geese, ducks, guinea fowl, a pig and other animals. There is a small orchard where fruits and vegetables grow, whimsical outbuildings with names like “Poulet Chalet” (a chicken coup) that dot the property, and evolving plans to establish a thriving artisan village on the grounds. Volunteers willing to get their hands dirty to support the cause of sustainability on the island are welcome, as are families and visitors who wish to take a tour. Call or visit the website ahead of time to make arrangements.
Not as much fun but just as mesmerizing is a drive through the defunct Melrose Resort, which stands in largely abandoned testament to the grip of misguided developers—a bit eerie but beautiful with its stunning live oak canopies. Islanders consider it a cautionary tale and important part of recent Daufuskie history.
While exploring Daufuskie, you may also come across a couple of small, unofficial junkyards and a "convenience center" for processing islander's refuse—just as you'd find in any other town. Deep in the forests, an occasional rusty boat can be seen nestled among the trees—island monuments washed ashore by various hurricanes and such.
In other words, the Daufuskie landscape is one of visual contrasts; what’s pleasing to look at is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. And if you don’t like what you see, well, best keep it to yourself. Islanders consider you a guest in their home of which they are fiercely proud. They like things pretty much the way they are—scars and all.
Switching to Island Time
As you set out on your day of exploration, you will find there really is such a thing as “island time.” Things move slowly here—especially golf carts. Locals go a bit more quickly in their cars and trucks but always pass with a friendly wave. For safety’s sake, observe the standard rules of the road and have your driver’s license handy.
Know that it is not uncommon for some businesses to disregard the dictates of their own posted operating hours. This might be due to weather issues, supply shortages, seasonal demand or another unspecified reason. If there’s an art gallery or other business on Daufuskie you have your heart set on visiting, it is prudent to inquire ahead of time to ensure you are not disappointed by a “closed” sign on the door.
There is delicious food to be had on the island from a trio of eateries, with Old Daufuskie Crab Company being the only serving seven days a week. On weekends, the place thrums with all the energy of an outdoor music festival. The Scrap Iron cocktails (the island’s signature moonshine drink) and deviled crab fly from the kitchen to the sounds of live music and the hubbub of a partying crowd. This is as lively as it gets on the island, so sit back, order some shrimp and a cold beverage, and go with the flow. For your trouble, you’ll get a spectacular sunset, a chance to snag an autograph from the island’s resident author, Roger Pinckney, who shows up around 3 p.m. most days (find his books in the adjacent general store), and maybe even have an encounter with Turbo, Freeport Marina’s “pet” deer. And yes—that is a collar around her neck.
Couture: Beach Casual
Dress for the occasion. Keep in mind that summers can be quite hot. If that’s a problem, aim to go in April, May or October when temps are milder. Other months see average temps in the 50s, though it can get chilly at times. No matter when you go, expect to get dusty, maybe a bit sweaty and, depending on the time of year, for the no-see-ums and mosquitos to vie for your attention—nothing a good application of bug spray can’t handle. Do not be surprised if you spot a snake on the road or perhaps an alligator in a pond. Yes, those are vultures circling overhead and wood storks roosting in the trees. It’s all part of the magic here.
When you gotta go …
It is imperative that you know where to find public restrooms while you are on the island. This is especially important if you are visiting with children. If you are heading to the beach, keep in mind that there are no public facilities nearby. Public restrooms can be found at Old Daufuskie Crab Company at Freeport Marina, D’Fuskies at the Beaufort County dock and at the Frances Jones Community Park on Church Road. Plan accordingly.
Time to Tour
If you are not inclined to undertake a self-guided tour, leave it to the pros. Tour Daufuskie offers a number of themed tours, from history and artisans to eco adventures, kayaking and paddleboarding. The Sallie Ann Robinson Gullah Tour is another rousing favorite. Hop on the beloved chef/cookbook author’s tour bus and see all the best-known sites and more, thanks to Sallie Ann’s entertaining narrations through which she shares her personal island experiences, including her time as a student of Pat Conroy’s when the best-selling author taught at the Mary Fields School.
Ready to venture out on your own? Here are some notable points of interest you can check out.
Mary Dunn Cemetery: The only “white” cemetery on Daufuskie Island; headstones date back to the 1700s.
Bloody Point Lighthouse and Museum: Named for the Indian battles that happened here in the early 1700s, the two-story structure is unusual as it had a large dormer jutting out from the roof. It opened at night to expose a fixed reflector lens that shone in the direction of a second positioning light. The building houses a museum and giftshop. On the grounds, see a bald eagle’s nest, a garden with native crops, the “Almost an Angel Oak,” and Papy, the resident pond gator.
Silver Dew Winery: A tiny, rustic shed dating back to 1883 once served as a wick house for the lighthouse. In the 1950s, it was used by Arthur “Papy” Burn to make wine from locally grown fruit.
Moses Ficklin Cottage and Oak Tree: Be awed by the enormous ancient live oak, said to have greeted Spanish explorers, standing on the grounds of this restored Gullah home.
Mary Fields School: This two-room schoolhouse was where the island’s Gullah children were educated from the early 1930s to 1997. It was made famous by Pat Conroy, who taught there as a young man, an experience he shared in his novel, “The Water is Wide.” It now houses Daufuskie Blues, an indigo art studio, and School Grounds Coffee.
First Union African Baptist Church: Dating back to 1881, this church is the oldest building on the island and was built on the grounds of a former cotton plantation. All are welcome to attend services there on Sundays.
Mary Fields Cemetery: The largest Gullah cemetery on the island has grave markers dating from 1926 to the present. Earlier graves had wooden markers that have now disintegrated, leaving only concave areas in the earth to denote a grave.
Billie Burn Museum: Documents the island’s history from pre-Colonial days through the mid-20th century. See a copy of the original land grant from King George II, old coins and military buttons, arrowheads, a restored 1800s organ, stuffed alligator and vintage photographs.
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago,
where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.