Starting on Hilton Head Island and ending in Charleston, South Carolina, this trip will take you through the Lowcountry and makes stops at places aimed at preserving the Gullah way of life and educating all who are interested.
The heritage and traditions of the Gullah culture are evident throughout the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which runs along the East Coast from Jacksonville, Florida, to just north of Wilmington, North Carolina.
As you drive over the bridge to Hilton Head Island, SC, the view of the coastline provides a spectacular setting for the beginning of the trip. This is the very coastline that the Gullah people of the Sea Islands have inhabited for more than three centuries.
After arriving on Hilton Head Island, head straight for the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island on Gumtree Road to tour The Little House, built in 1930 by former slave William Simmons. The Gullah Museum preserves the Gullah culture that existed on Hilton Head Island before the bridge to the mainland was built. The Little House has been kept authentic by Simmons’ great-granddaughter, Louise Miller Cohen, and gives visitors the experience of life on the island of the Gullah people during the 20th century.
To explore more of Hilton Head Island’s expansive roots in Gullah culture, make your way to the Coastal Discovery Museum on Honey Horn Drive. This museum displays the natural history and cultural heritage of the Lowcountry with exhibits and tours that take visitors throughout Hilton Head Island, SC. For a Gullah-inspired tour of the island, reserve a spot with Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, which picks up close to the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island. These two-hour tours are available Tuesday through Saturday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and Sundays at noon. Tours are led by native islanders and descendants of the first Gullah settlers, such as Dr. Emory Campbell. Campbell, born and raised on Hilton Head Island, has been an influential leader of the Gullah community since the 1970s.
Another must-see setting for Gullah culture is the Mitchelville Freedom Park, located off Beach City Road at the heart of the original Mitchelville settlement. The first post-Civil War settlement for freed slaves, Mitchelville established the beginning of freedom for the members of this community as they built homes, elected their own officials, developed laws and implemented mandatory education for their children.
With your trip to Mitchelville finished, a great stop for a late lunch on the Lowcountry tour is Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s on William Hilton Parkway. Dye Scott-Rhodan is an outland Gullah raised in Ridgeland, South Carolina, whose parents passed their heritage and recipes along from previous generations. Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s combines authentic Lowcountry cooking with fresh ingredients but only takes reservations, so be sure to call in advance. If you’d prefer a more spontaneous lunch option, stop by Bullies BBQ for some smoked ribs or slow-cooked hickory pork.
After you’ve had your fill of Gullah fixings, leave Hilton Head Island for nearby Beaufort, SC. Beaufort is a stone’s throw from where the second day of your trip will start, so for your accommodations check out The Rhett House Inn. This classic Southern inn is located in the heart of Beaufort’s Historic Landmark District and is a great jumping-off point to tour the city. Head over to Bay Street to the Rhett Gallery, owned by the family who built the inn. The gallery features a variety of artwork inspired by the Lowcountry, including a collection of Gullah-inspired works. The collections here capture the spirit of Beaufort’s roots in Gullah history, and the city itself holds an annual Gullah Festival each May. With generations of the Rhett family working at the gallery, you’re in great hands if you have any questions about Beaufort.
If you didn’t get your barbecue fix earlier, head over to Q on Bay, just a few blocks away from The Rhett House Inn, and enjoy the spectacular views overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. Regardless of what you may have a taste for, there is always a wealth of dining options in Beaufort. Emily’s Restaurant offers a fantastic fine dining experience as well as a large variety of tapas dishes to choose from.
Enjoy the complimentary breakfast at the award-winning Rhett House Inn, taking in the beautiful views from the inn’s veranda or historic dining room. After breakfast, take a short drive on the Sea Island Parkway to St. Helena Island, SC and the home of the Penn Center National Historic Landmark.
The Penn School was originally founded in 1862 as a place for the education of emancipated Sea Island slaves. The school expanded to include an industrial arts curriculum in 1901 and operated through the end of World War II. During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the Penn Center became a sanctuary for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, marking it as a sacred place in the Gullah Corridor.
Take a tour through the York W. Bailey museum, which interprets the history of the Penn Center, as well as that of the Gullah/Geechee community in the Sea Islands. With the museum’s permanent exhibits, three galleries and a shop featuring traditional and contemporary Gullah arts and crafts, you won’t soon forget this historical experience.
Once you’ve finished the tour of the museum, stay on St. Helena Island for lunch at Gullah Grub. Owner and Head Chef Bill Green, known as the Gullah huntsman, has been featured on several television programs, including “Martha Stewart Living” and “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” and is nationally recognized as a true source of authentic Gullah cuisine.
Green emphasizes that Gullah-style cooking uses fresh and in-season ingredients, just as his ancestors used whatever ingredients were available. Gullah Grub is a treat, and if you’re lucky, Green will surprise you with an appearance and even stories from his incredible past.
After lunch, jump back on the Sea Island Parkway and head north to Highway 17 and the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Upon arriving, make your way to the Charleston City Market and stroll through the open-air market for some shopping. Among the antiques and small shops, Gullah artisans can be seen sewing sweetgrass baskets and conversing in the beautiful blend of French, Creole and African languages.
The baskets are a true art form, which has survived for more than 300 years. While you’re shopping for baskets, keep an eye out for soup bunches, which are traditional mixes that allow you to make your own Gullah-style soup at home.
After you’ve finished with the City Market, hop on a pedicab to the Charleston Visitors Center on Meeting Street where the Gullah Tours of Charleston picks up. This tour lets visitors explore all of downtown Charleston and at points features the Gullah language that still survives through its native speakers. Among the many stops, there are several that feature the Underground Railroad, Brown Fellowship Society and Catfish Row.
With tours running Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., Gullah Tours requires reservations, so be sure to plan your arrival to Charleston around these times if you would like to add this to your trip.
If you're looking for an authentic experience don't miss out on Boone Hall Plantation in the S.C. Lowcountry which offers a live presentation of the Gullah culture adapted by African slaves. These entertaining and educational performances take place in The Gullah Theater on the grounds of the plantation that was founded in 1681.
After your Gullah excursion around Charleston, SC is complete, end the trip by winding down on Meeting Street for dinner at Food for the Southern Soul, where owner Jimmy Hagood’s variety of BlackJack sauces and rubs makes for a tantalizing beef brisket sandwich.