The Daufuskie Experience

By:Bob Gillespie


For visitors to Hilton Head Island, with its famous Harbour Town Golf Links, Sea Pines Resort and its bustling lifestyle, the notion of a quiet, serene and isolated spot just a few miles away likely seems foreign. If they know about Daufuskie Island at all, it’s likely only from viewing its green shores across the waters of Calibogue Sound from Harbour Town – or, perhaps, from remembering a famous book and movie from the 1970s.

And that’s too bad, because Daufuskie – so subdued and understated, yet teeming with potential adventures – is the perfect escape from the frantic pace of modern life.

The only way to get there is by boat or ferry, a ride of between 30 and 45 minutes that can seem like traveling to another world. But it’s a world that enchants those who have made it to Daufuskie – and find themselves unable to escape its charms.

The late Pat Conroy was one of them. He wrote one of his first books, “The Water Is Wide,” about his teaching Gullah children on Daufuskie Island; the book later was made into the movie “Conrack” (Conroy’s nickname on the island), starring Jon Voight.

These days, Patrick Ford might be first among the island’s devotees. The general manager of Daufuskie’s Bloody Point Golf Course and Resort, he lived through the bankruptcy of neighboring Melrose Resort , when it seemed nature might reclaim the property, as it did Bloody Point for several years. (For an in-depth story about his saga on Daufuskie, read his story as told by ESPN The Magazine).

At one point, Ford left for Florida – but couldn’t stay away. “It’s like a step back in time (on the island),” he says. “(Returning) was my opportunity to bring something back … to come back home.”

In 2016, Bloody Point and Daufuskie also are coming back. Online florist millionaire Brian McCarthy purchased Bloody Point out of bankruptcy in 2011 and spent $2 million to have PGA Tour player and architect Davis Love III restore the overgrown course. Melrose Resort, which barely hung on, was purchased that same year by the Pelorus Group out of Salt Lake City for $13 million.

Both golf courses have solid bloodlines: Jack Nicklaus designed Melrose, while Bloody Point is a Tom Weiskopf-Jay Morrish product. Neither course has the manicured features of, say, Harbour Town – in part because fewer people play there and in part by design; Ford is a believer in sustainable maintenance – but both are fun and challenging.

But in fact, the golf courses are only part of the attraction of spending time on Daufuskie.

“It’s kind of a bohemian lifestyle,” Ford says. “Visitors who are educated to what the island is love it – the lack of accessibility and the whole ‘decompression’ thing.” Translation: a place to get away from an oft-chaotic world.

Chip Tucker, director of golf at Melrose, echoes Ford’s sentiments. He first came to Daufuskie in 2002, returned in 2009 as bankruptcy hit, and came back for good in 2013. Now, he can’t imagine being elsewhere.

“We get a lot of day-trippers (about half Melrose’s golf traffic, Tucker says) who after playing can rent a cottage cart (golf cart) and explore the island, then eat lunch or an early dinner,” he says. “It’s the combination of a highly awarded golf course plus the Daufuskie experience that brings people back, year after year.”

Bloody Point doesn’t have the Nicklaus pedigree, but the course is enjoyable and, by Hilton Head standards, inexpensive ($35, less than a water taxi ride over). “It’s one of the few ‘core-designed’ courses in the area (only three houses border the course), so you won’t lose many golf balls. There are no man-made obstructions on the interior, no cart paths ever, and the way we maintain it, it allows for a lot of wildlife.”

Ah, the wildlife. Ford, a birder who has helped rescue an eagle with a broken wing, says “I see something every day, from gators to black snakes, fox squirrels, armadillos.” Highlighting a round is a large egrets’ rookery near the 18th hole.

“And every morning and evening, I see 15-25 deer on the course,” he says. “The dolphin on the 17th (hole), turtles – there’s never nothing going on; you just have to pay attention. You really don’t get that anywhere else.”

Melrose (also affordable at $65-$85), has a fabulous finish: the par-3 16th hole, par-4 17th and par-5 18th all run along the beach.

“It’s designed to test the better player, but be playable for all levels. Couple that with a memorable round: all the live oaks, pines and hardwoods, plus the view of the ocean.”

Too, for an isolated island without shopping malls and the like, there is plenty to do, Ford and Tucker say. Tucker ticks off attractions: the Melrose Beach Club with Friday night cookouts and bands; charter fishing; Silver Dew Pottery and the Iron Fish Gallery; a community farm; Daufuskie Island Wine and Woodwork.

And there’s history: the 1933-built Mary Fields School, where Conroy taught; First Union African Baptist Church, a civil-rights site; the Bloody Point Lighthouse; the Billie Burn Museum. And even a bit of “nightlife”: Bloody Point’s Eagle’s Nest restaurant, where chef Chris Spivey concocts a variety of dishes; Marshside Mama’s Café; and Freeport Marina's Daufuskie Crab Co.

But best of all is the peacefulness. At night, little ambient light allows visitors spectacular views of skies and stars. Tucker says corporate groups that stay in island accommodations (about 45 can be housed at Bloody Point, around 200 in cottages and rentals at Melrose) rave about being a willing “captive” audience.

Ford and Tucker welcome day-trippers, but to truly “get” Daufuskie, they say, one should stay a night, or more, on their home turf.

“To take it all in, to have the effect, you need to wake up here in the morning,” Ford says. “That’s when it really sinks in. You’re 20 miles but a world away, and that world isn’t going to bother you that day.”

Says Tucker: “It’s hard to describe this place in a sentence, but ‘enchantment’ is what the marketing folks came up with. By the time you have to leave, you’ve got to come back.”

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