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South Carolina’s Sea Islands: Discover Another World on Daufuskie

Kerry Egan Kerry Egan

Just a mile away from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, there is another world, one so different from resorts on Hilton Head that the proximity of the two places seems impossible. But because they are separated by water instead of land, Daufuskie Island remains almost as natural as Hilton Head is developed.

Daufuskie, like Hilton Head, is one of South Carolina's Sea Islands, barrier islands that stretch like a chain from northern Florida to Charleston. They're often separated from each other and the mainland by less than a mile of creek or marsh. Some are preserved as spectacular parks, like Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina. Some have become luxurious resort destinations, dotted with golf courses and beautiful homes, like Kiawah Island in South Carolina.

A very rare few, like Daufuskie, have held off most development and remain living, working communities. Daufuskie is arguably the best place to understand the history and culture of the Sea Islands as they developed between the Civil War and the 1960s, when air conditioning, bridges and golf changed the close-knit, secluded, Spanish-moss-draped islands forever.

Between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s, the residents of the Sea Islands were mainly former slaves and the descendants of former slaves. Because of their geographic isolation from the mainland, a rich and distinct culture with folklore, arts and crafts, cuisine, social customs and dialect developed. Historians and sociologists, and some of the Sea Island residents and descendants themselves (though not all) refer to this culture as Gullah.

On Daufuskie, many of the Gullah families have moved to the mainland for jobs and education, though some have remained in their historic homes and land. That story is similar on Hilton Head and South Carolina's other Sea Islands. But because Daufuskie has not been developed like other places, that distinct Sea Islands culture remains more present, more vibrant, more alive. It isn't just photographs and placards in a museum. It is real, living churches, real century-old, blue-windowed oyster houses, real deviled crabs for sale on someone's front porch. There is no forgetting on Daufuskie that you are on an island.

While there are three modern, Hilton-Head style developments on Daufuskie, much of the island is a historic district. Homes, churches, schools and graveyards appear as they might have 10 years ago, or 100 years ago.

And the beaches. Those beaches. White sand dotted with driftwood and horseshoe crab tracks as far as the eye can see.

The historic and natural areas are not polished or luxurious like the resorts across the water. Be prepared to get dusty, and don't forget your bug spray, but also be prepared to fully experience what the Sea Islands are really like.

So when you're visiting us here in South Carolina's Lowcountry, spend some time -- a day or a weekend -- on Daufuskie. It isn't really like stepping into some other world. No, not at all. It's like stepping into the real world that you didn't know existed.

Kerry Egan
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