Monday, October 28, 2013

From Textiles to Tourism in Calhoun Falls
Written By Louise Hudson

Calhoun Falls Marina
Just as the Westpoint Stevens Mill at Calhoun Falls is being demolished, Mayor Lee Garrett is doing his best to keep the dwindling South Carolina textile town on the map – not through industry this time but via tourism.

Dubbing it The Gateway to Adventure, Garrett has big plans to redefine the town with a trendy “glamping” development at Blue Hole Beach on nearby Lake Russell. “Calhoun Falls is a dying community,” he says. “But the plan is to make Calhoun Falls a healthy community through the Blue Hole project.” Glamping is the new term for glamorous camping and the Mayor’s plans include treehouses, teepees and yurts as well as more traditional tent and RV sites.

Emulating the Georgia side of the 26,650 acre reservoir created by the US Corps of Engineers, Garrett’s plan is to encourage more tourists with better facilities without disturbing the pristine beauty of the undeveloped area. Unlike many other lakes in the area, Lake Russell’s shoreline is prohibited for private use and, instead, encompasses several state parks and day-use areas.

Blue Hole
There is, however, a 200-acre plot called The Sanctuary zoned for residential development just inland from the lakefront. It was a donation of seven acres of this land to the Town which is helping to facilitate the Mayor’s tourism tactics.

With a $250,000 grant from the SC Department of Commerce, Calhoun Falls has the opportunity to redefine its previously unvaunted day-use area known as Blue Hole. “If we’d developed it years ago, it would have been traditionally done,” says the Mayor. “But we now have the opportunity of a clean sheet of paper so we can do it in a leading edge way.”

Blue Hole
The project focuses on eco-friendly additions to the Blue Hole Beach area which already sports white sands, volleyball, a wide and deep designated swimming area, a pavilion, brand new rest rooms and a pier all encircled by miles of clear water and pristine wooded shoreline. Blue Hole’s dense forest and thick undergrowth has been manicured over the past year or so by a dedicated team of locals. “We are part of a declining county but we have not seized our greatest assets; it’s almost negligent not to do this,” says Mayor Garrett who recognizes that both people and natural resources are Calhoun Falls differential.

Blue Hole
Since the mill closed in 2006, there has been an exodus from the town with jobless residents leaving for work opportunities elsewhere. “There’s also been a brain drain with much of our youth and more qualified people moving,” says Garrett who says the town now needs strong outside objective leadership to reinvigorate its residents. He has reached out to several different agencies to help with this strategy and two so far - the University of South Carolina’s Smart State Center for Tourism and The Conservation Fund (TCF) - have agreed to help. While USC is concentrating on customer service training and tourism awareness for the town’s population, TCF is investigating the link between people and nature in a livability study.

Blue Hole Ranger
Future improvements for Blue Hole include a forest zipline and various trails to link the area to the adjacent Calhoun Falls State Park. “I see Blue Hole as the trailhead and the marina as the destination,” says Garrett who doesn’t want to compete with the State Park but instead offer a complimentary facility. The Town has developed nifty names for the land, water and air connections: the Blue Way is the water route; the Green Way is the biking and hiking path and the Air Way is the proposed zipline.

An important component of the Mayor’s quest is to link the whole development to Main Street which, with empty stores and peeling paintwork, is in dire need of re-invention. “We’ve already re-named some of the roads,” he said.  SC Highway 81, dividing the Park and the potential development areas from the remainder of the town, is now known as Calhoun Shores Parkway and US Highway 72, running east/west over Lake Russell to Georgia, has been renamed Russell Lake Boulevard

Mayor Lee Garrett
Up until recently there was nothing noticeable to link the lake with the town or direct any accidental tourist that way. The newly named roads with glossy new road signage will help with this as well as an artistic statue of two children having fun fishing at the entrance to Blue Hole.

However, more funds are needed to revitalize downtown and encourage hotels, motels, stores and restaurants as a backdrop for the camping and beach facility. “We’ve been looking for private investors or benefactors who were born here or who have a special connection to Calhoun Falls but haven’t found anyone yet,” said Garrett. He’s eagerly awaiting the outcome of his application for a Parks, Recreation and Tourism grant for $100,000 to build a new trail on an old golf cart path.

There are plans to expand and light the beach pavilion to accommodate musical and theatrical evening events and there is permission for much needed food and beverage concessions. The Calhoun Falls Strategic Economic Development Plan also includes specific projects such as adding paddleboats to the kayak facility.

Beaver Dam Marina Restaurant
Although Calhoun Falls has no ritzy restaurants yet, there’s a lovely lakeside eatery called Clifford’s just across the “Blue Way”. Adjacent to Beaver Dam Marina, Clifford’s excels in fresh seafood and fish dishes with an interesting array of specials every weekend. Open Friday through Sunday, it has a panoramic wooden veranda over the lake where visitors throw fish food down to a frenzy of resident carp. Owner, Tim Clifford took over the building in 1997, transforming the disused shell into a thriving rustic restaurant. A former engineer, he also built a covered marina, home to speedboats, cruisers, jetskis and houseboats which ply the lake every weekend.

Beaver Dam Marina
There’s also a gorgeous golf course which you can see peeking through the shoreline trees. Although the course is on the Georgia side of the lake, it is still part of the Mayor’s vision: “Imagine staying in a treehouse, getting on a boat, tooling across the lake with your golf clubs on board, and going to Arrowhead Point for a round of golf.”

If you like the sound of a watery wilderness populated by ospreys, bald eagles, herons and beavers, you can already camp at Calhoun Falls State Park. One of the major fall events there is the Halloween Haunt when the regular RV crowd decks the trees with scary paraphernalia and locals flock in for a mega trick or treat party.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Perfect Honeymoon in South Carolina
Written By Louise Hudson

“If you can’t make the wedding, at least you can be there for our honeymoon,” said my British buddy, Vanessa Plant this summer while I was in the UK. It turned out that she and her new hubby, Simon, were planning to visit me in South Carolina after their artsy al fresco wedding at Brighton’s Bandstand in October. Quite a responsibility for me to make sure that the two 50-ish newlyweds had the honeymoon of their lives!

After three days in New York and a trip to Asheville, NC, they met me in Columbia where my first job was to show them around South Carolina’s capital. Although it is not exactly a tourist town, I was able to impress them with the Tara-type mansions, gorgeous golf courses, retrogressive State House (still sporting the Confederate flag) and far-fetched fried food at the annual State Fair, before setting off for the charismatic coast.

For the third year running, Charleston ( has been voted the USA’s best city by readers of Condé Nast Traveller. Nearby Kiawah Island ( is also USA’s top mainland island so I figured these would be perfect destinations for a second-time-around honeymoon.

Up until recently, San Francisco was my favourite US city. But now Charleston pips San Fran for me on friendliness, atmosphere, history, shopping, lodging and restaurants – all the criteria used for the Condé Nast awards. And I was pretty confident that my friends would love it too.

Vanessa was initially struck by how walkable Charleston is with its flat topography, closely-knit centre and remarkable absence of traffic: “You can actually hear the birds in this city,” she said while exploring the historic Battery area with its sea-wall promenade. “Life is happening around you, with people doing their daily business and a few runners around, but there are so few cars even at 10 am.” The antebellum architecture – immense shuttered mansions and townhouses sporting extravagant window boxes and gracious verandas - brought to mind sultry Southern belles trying to keep cool with mint juleps, rocking chairs and overhead fans.

Relishing the smell of the sea in the air, Vanessa found the pong of the pluff mud at the harbour less palatable but enjoyed the expansive views towards Fort Sullivan where tough Palmetto log walls managed to repel British cannonballs during the Revolutionary War in 1776 - giving South Carolina it’s nickname ‘The Palmetto State’.

As a self-confessed shop-a-holic, one of Vanessa’s first priorities was to trawl the one-off boutiques and designer stores on King Street onto which our Society House ( condo abutted. “You could come here with an empty suitcase,” exclaimed Vanessa who spent the next few days working out how many purchases she could cram into her luggage, including handmade boots from The Charleston Shoe Company ( Even hubby Simon was impressed with the affordability of designer jeans, footwear and electronics.

Unlike other cities in the USA, Charleston’s best shopping is not in a monotonous mall but in a meandering high street, with eclectic eateries and cute cafes tucked away in side streets. Halfway along King Street is the art deco Riviera Theater, now used by Charleston Place Hotel ( as a ballroom and conference center.

Anyone who hovers near the various sweet shops in and around King St is treated to samples of pralines – handmade, warm pecan toffee confections that literally melt in the mouth. Naturally the Plants stocked up on these at River Street Sweets ( to take home as souvenirs. They were also delighted by Christophe (, a French bakery just across the road from Society House. Its croissants and pastries are perfect for a boulangerie-style breakfast or afternoon tea and it also specializes in strangely techni-coloured – but delectable - handmade chocolates.
The food in Charleston is unfailingly good whether it’s pub grub at The Blind Tiger ( on Broad Street or posh nosh and jazz at High Cotton ( “I’ve never liked oysters before,” said Vanessa. “But fried in buttermilk at High Cotton they are delicious.” The four of us tried various decadent dishes including rack of lamb, succulent steaks, local mussels with clams, and an incredible Caesar salad in a basket-shaped crouton made from fried brioche.

Rooftop bars are popular in Charleston due to the cooling effect of the winds and the panoramic views over the relatively low-rise city. Charleston was the first city in America to enact a preservation ordinance and Mayor Joe Riley has made certain that buildings don’t top the 100 or so church spires which dominate the skyline ( This means that rooftops at the Market Pavilion Hotel ( or Vendue Inn ( have unobstructed 360-degree views of the harbour and downtown. And he also insisted on renovation rather than demolition, keeping the architecture, history and culture intact – unlike most US cities where anything over a decade or two old is bulldozed to make way for modernization. There are even a few cobbled streets left in Charleston and many tourists circumnavigate the Old Slave Mart museum, pillared Renaissance Revival civic buildings and historic French Quarter in old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages. Due to the antiquity of the city, which was founded in 1670, there are also goose-bump ghost tours every evening.

A great way to imbibe the history and ancient culture of Charleston is to visit a plantation. The Historic Ashley River Road District, just nine miles from city centre, is home to three plantations where visitors can tour houses, slave quarters, swamps and gardens. With Vanessa and Simon on the hunt for alligators, we picked Magnolia Plantation ( for a boat trip as well as house tour. After snapping dozens of gators while they warmed up in the afternoon sun, we swung on wooden chairs in the romantic flower gardens surrounded by peacocks and chickens. Over pimento cheese and pulled pork sandwiches from the outdoor café, we tried to imagine what life must have been like for the immensely wealthy plantation owners and the less fortunate African slaves. Today, African-Americans – some of whose ancestors were educated at an illegal school by Magnolia’s progressive plantation owner – have managed to retain their Gullah cuisine, arts and crafts which can be seen in Charleston galleries and restaurants such as Hugers  ( on North King St. The sweetgrass baskets sold at the City Market date back to skills brought over from Sierra Leone in the late 1600s.

A tour of Charleston Tea Plantation ( is also interesting as it is the only one in North America and the only tea produced anywhere on flat ground. Elsewhere in the world tea is picked manually from hillside terraces but in Charleston artful irrigation and a unique threshing machine mean that tea can be harvested from the field by machine. Great tea but the place really cries out for a cute café serving scones and cakes!

In Charleston there is no real “season” – tourism is year round due to the consistency of good weather as well as events, entertainments and festivals. I’ve found myself so hot in December that I ended up swimming and sunbathing on the roof of the ritzy Charleston Place Hotel. In October the weather is comparable to a hot July in the UK or September on the Med. So a visit to the seaside is a must.

Having travelled a couple of times around the world and visited the romantic idylls of Fiji, the Great Barrier Reef, South Africa, Vietnam and Mauritius, I had already decided that Kiawah’s beaches are the best in the world. “I have only seen beaches so flat and so long and sandy like this in Australia or in films,” agreed Simon, who got up each day at dawn with Vanessa to photograph the spectacular sunrises. “It felt like an ancient ritual with everyone turned toward the sun in a kind of worship,” he said.

The Sanctuary, Kiawah Island’s five-star hotel, was so overwhelmingly opulent that the couple immediately felt under-dressed in their sandy flipflops and beach attire. “But everyone was so nice to us, so friendly and engaging that we soon felt relaxed,” said Simon. “One time I was holding someone up on a staircase and apologized for ambling but he said ‘that is just what you should do in South Carolina.’”

Having seen the Low Country landscape during TV coverage of golf at Kiawah and nearby Hilton Head, Simon had a mental picture of what scenery to expect but hadn’t appreciated just how tropical it really is there. “The dense trees and greenery are amazing and the weather in October is perfect for us Brits,” he said. “You can stay out in it all day without getting too burnt and really enjoy the sea, paddle-boarding, swimming, watching the dolphins and pelicans and just playing on the beach.” The flat-packed white sand is also ideal for long walks, jogging and bike-riding. A few miles along the beach at Captain Sam’s Inlet, hardy walkers can sometimes see strand feeding where Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins shoal fish right onto the shore.

Barring July and August holidays which attract multi-generational family reunions, Kiawah’s clientele tends to be mature. Throughout the year there are corporate groups, spa visitors, celebrities eluding the paparazzi and golfers re-enacting the trials and triumphs of their favourite pros on the Ocean Course. The best time for Brits is November to March when there are affordable deals for The Sanctuary or nearby self-catering villas and packages for golf and gourmet, girls golf weekends, spa stays, etc.

Kiawah is about 45 minutes drive from Charleston and once you arrive you don’t need your car. The hotel shuttle will take you wherever you need to go day or evening for free. Service is five star everywhere including the beach where you can have cocktails or lunch delivered to your pristine sunlounger, draped in a fitted toweling cover and shaded by an umbrella. While Vanessa ordered mojitos, Simon rented a paddleboard and trolled up and down the balmy waves. Kayaks and bikes are available, too.

Eating is topnotch all around the resort whether it’s pizza or lobster. If you book a villa you can defray the cost with some self-catering courtesy of the food shops at Freshfield Village ( but you will still want to dine out at Kiawah Resort’s array of 12 different eateries. For upmarket, there’s The Ocean Room with gourmet steaks and sushi. Tomasso’s at Turtle Point golf club serves mid-priced munchies in the restaurant or more laid-back bar. When ordering at The Lobby bar in The Sanctuary you can sit on comfy Adirondack chairs overlooking emerald lawns and the pelican-patrolled horizon. The Cherrywood BBQ and Ale House serves gastro-pub nosh and local beers. Other island options include fresh fish and chip lunches at the Straw Market café and a selection of eateries at nearby Freshfield Village, a pretty pastel high street with boutiques, ice cream parlours, grocery stores and restaurants.

Final verdict from the newly-weds: both Charleston and Kiawah are the ultimate honeymoon spots for mature marriages. “So much better than Europe as it’s uncrowded, beautiful and people are so friendly,” said Vanessa who was blown away by the complimentary champagne and chocolate strawberries brought to her club-floor suite. And, having seen but not played, all the famous golf courses, Simon’s already planning their return trip next year: a South Carolina golf trail. I guess that means the honeymoon is over!

Louise Hudson

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Healthy Holiday Habits on Hilton Head Island  
Written By Louise Hudson

Decades ago when I went to live in the USA for a year I was faced with two alternatives. Either 12 months of overindulgence, gorging on gargantuan gourmet grub, lazing around on spectacular beaches and lapping up the LA nightlife. Or, become super-fit, calorie-focused, a hiker, biker and jogger, and share every super-sized meal.

Now at 52, mired in menopause and on the verge of empty-nesting, I am at a similar culinary crossroads as I plan to fill my calendar with travel.

As in my California days, I tend towards the slim-line option but with menopausal midriff impending I now need a helping hand when it comes to healthy holiday habits. I have always avoided fat farms and weightwatcher set-ups due to never being more than around 10 pounds overweight. And I have never been the spa type - but where else to find a guilt-free game-plan? 

With its high rates of obesity and a fried-fish focus, South Carolina doesn’t initially sound like the perfect place. Most British travelers – especially those with golf inclinations - will have heard of Charleston, Myrtle Beach and also Hilton Head Island, thanks to the internationally-televised Heritage Classic PGA tournament held there every April. But those TV glimpses of the sea-to-tee resort life and the temptations of the 19th hole don’t necessary correlate with diet or fitness aspirations.

However, hidden among Spanish-moss swathed oaks and towering pines is a health resort which has been changing people’s eating and exercise habits for the past 35 years. At the forefront of the movement to counteract obesity, Hilton Head Health ( was used as the location for A & E’s weight-loss docu-drama, Heavy, in 2011 (

Lured by the multi-disciplinary scope of its slimming schedule – including lots of yoga, Pilates and beach walks for my aging physique - I decided to give Hilton Head Health a try to set me on the straight and narrow for my new travel timetable.  

The rustic buildings which house the extensive workout facilities, state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, reception, dining and lecture rooms are set around a year-round heated swimming pool. Originally a health institute, it offers a holistic regime of fitness, nutrition, calorie control, healthy mindset and outdoor appreciation. For the pampering-prone, there are also spa treatments and massages.

Based in a former plantation, the whole enclave is submerged in sub-tropical foliage with gigantic trees shading the low-rise buildings. Bike paths meander quietly through the adjacent residential villas, crossing tributaries of the Intracoastal Waterway which intersects the Low Country island. Watch out for sizeable alligators sunning themselves on the river banks! You can continue biking right onto the seemingly endless beach as the sand is flat and compact –a great surface for the daily sunrise beach walks. The Atlantic is also surprisingly warm for all-year swimming with bottlenose dolphins to keep you company. 

Staying at Hilton Head Health for a week of workouts and low-calorie gourmet food – with no cocktails - isn’t as punitive as it sounds. It’s a health-infused holiday with plenty of off-campus trips available such as golf clinics, cardio tennis, zip-lining, kayaking and other water sports.  

Always an exercise junkie, I loved the diversity of the day-long fitness schedule. There’s nothing more tedious than pounding away at the same old machines or weight routines week after week. Here I was able to come away with lots of new ideas to spice up my gym regimen as well as try different concepts for pool, aerobics and dance. My favourite cardio class was “treading” which, led by a tough taskmaster, added team spirit and interval training to the treadmill and elliptical. 

Although I was doing three or four times as much exercise as I would normally do in a day, I didn’t get too hungry due to the pacing of calorie intake. The three main meals were interspersed by three “Metabo Meals” – each 100 calorie apiece and enough to keep me going to the next trough time. Check out this link for sample menus: Aimed at 1200-1500 calories per day, these recipes provide the quality rather than quantity that we need as we lose muscle and metabolism through the aging process.

Having been traumatized by group home ec classes as a schoolgirl, I don’t usually allow voyeurs when I’m in the kitchen. But, inspired by the inventive low-cal recipes, I went out of my cooking comfort zone to try one of the series of healthy cookery courses available. Although my turkey burgers stuffed with cream cheese and jalapenos stuck to the grill, they must have tasted okay as someone swiped the whole plate full before I could get a look in. Coming away with a dozen low-fat barbecue recipes, I now feel well equipped for this summer’s outdoor eating without the usual calorie overload.

One of the things that struck me at Hilton Head Health was the friendliness of the inmates. As soon as I arrived I was greeted and welcomed into the fold by regulars and repeaters who come back annually for refreshers. With everyone together for a common purpose, there seemed none of the usual barriers to conversation or connection. Some were there for the long-haul – three months or more to shed up to 80 pounds.

Although mine was a brief stay with more moderate goals, I feel confident now to face my travels with a body-conscious attitude to help me navigate through foreign supermarkets and vacation menus. And whenever I waver I can check for inspiration.

Hilton Head Island Travel Tips:

Hilton Head Health for weight-loss programs and cookery courses -

Hilton Head Island info -

Coligny Plaza for beachy bargains – especially if you’ve dropped a clothes size

Arts and antiquities at Old Town Bluffton - not to mention the cheeses and wines at Vineyard 55

African-American and Gullah culture, golf, beaches and armadillos at Daufuskie Island

Plantation history at Rose Hill Mansion -

Best beach bar – Coco’s on the Beach

Seafood – Alexander’s

Locals’ hangout – Roastfish and Cornbread

Posh and traditional – CQ’s

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Musing and boozing in Bluffton 
By: Louise Hudson, freelance travel journalist and travel author 

Many years ago when I was a summer season worker on the Greek island of Kos, I saw an older woman sitting alone at a café table with a glass of Retsina and a notebook in front of her.

Fascinated by the lone female in a bar full of leering Lotharios, I discovered through the local gossip grapevine that she was a writer. What I didn’t realize was that I was looking at my own future.

Right this minute I am reposing at a wrought-iron patio set on a rustic deck in the quaint Old Town of Bluffton, South Carolina, perched with pen and paper and an ice cold glass of Zonin Prosecco – alone. Penning a piece about Hilton Head Health ( for Silver Travel Advisor (, an over-50s travel magazine, I’m also earwigging fellow patrons’ conversations in strong SC and German accents, watching a sparrow mouthing morsels to its offspring in a roof-corner nest and generally appreciating life, nature and nemesis.

Now that I am that woman writing in a holidaymakers’ bar, solitary and mysterious, I realize how happy she probably was whereas, at the time, I worried about her loneliness. But, like me, she probably had kids, husband, friends elsewhere and was enjoying some down time.

It is merely circumstance which has sent me to Vineyard 55 alone.  If it had been warm and sunny today as April 21 usually suggests in SC, I would be reposing and recreating on the long and sandy Hilton Head ( beach by our Omni oceanfront hotel (
&gclid=CP-Q9bnP3rYCFcdU4AodUEUAYA). If it hadn't been small-town Sunday I would be doling out dollars at Gigi’s, the Bluffton boutique I had Googled earlier. As it is, today is overcast with 50-mile per hour winds; my husband has a business meeting at the Holiday Inn Express in Bluffton; my kids are pursuing their own travel plans; and the thought of exploring the art and antiquities of the Old Town sounded like something a travel journalist should do. Little did I know it would be largely shut due to Sunday syndrome. How did I forget that everyone but everyone goes to one church or another in SC’s Creationist culture?

As I move onto a Mulderbosch Rosé which the cute and courteous waitress assured me was German but turned out to be the South African wine I had anticipated, I’m looking at Gallery Without Walls – one of those forested, hippy enclaves with erudite etchings nailed to trees and arbitrary flotsam re-fashioned into furniture which could be blamelessly mistaken for a yard sale. Next door is The Store – ramshackle, rustic and closed, of course, with a “Count Your Blessings” sign confirming its religious routine. Is this my church then, a one-off wine bar where I worship faithfully at the shrine of Bacchus and Epicurus with fervent fellow Hedonists, I wonder?

Just then, two golf carts draw up on Calhoun Street, spilling out animated people and puppies. And strolling along behind them is my handsome husband back with business partners from the meeting. End of reverie; beginning of a great gourmet dinner at V55.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Daufuskie Island – Back on the Tourist Trail
Written by:  Louise Hudson

When Nick Faldo was commentating on the RBC Heritage Classic at Hilton Head’s Sea Pines Resort last April he asked his co-host if he knew the name of the lovely island they could see from their vantage point at the internationally-famous Harbour Town Golf Links. No-one at the Golf Channel network seemed to know and Faldo speculated on air about how great it would be to persuade one of the big yachts moored there to sail across to explore the beautiful island. He didn’t know it, but he was talking about Daufuskie Island - an atoll-like island untrammeled by time and tourism. 

It seems impossible in this Twittering world that a whole island - albeit only 5 miles long and 2 ½ wide - could have been overlooked on the touristy South Carolina coast, but most travelers seem either too lazy, too unadventurous or plain incurious about the empty beaches and thick forest they can see from the mainland. They just stop their SUVs at the road-accessed Low Country islands in their hordes all spring, summer and fall and don’t venture any further. It seems that if there isn’t a bridge and their precious cars can’t take them any further, then they have no interest in pressing on, despite the romantic allure of arriving by boat followed by golf cart perambulation around the intricate island roads and dirt tracks.

For people visiting Hilton Head and Savannah just four nautical miles away Daufuskie - pronounced D’Fuskie by locals - has been pretty much a write off over the last few years, dismissed as having “nothing much there”. If that means no caffeine chains or burger drive-ins, no crowded carbon-copy outlet malls, no parking problems, traffic or day-to-day worries to spoil the tranquility, then they are right. But these city-slicker negatives could be the essence of the perfect holiday for people looking for somewhere unspoilt, untamed and under-inhabited.
The island is currently re-emerging in the tourism market like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of its recession-fueled bankruptcy. Up until a few years ago Daufuskie was forging ahead with three golf resorts and a smattering of embryonic tourist businesses. The recession put an end to the progress leaving one private resort intact at Haig Point with its own regular boat and the other two closed down with alligators taking over the dark green, slime-filled pool at Melrose while humongous hog fennel weeds conquered the course at Bloody Point. But investors have recently bought both resorts, leading to some inspiring signs of recovery, starting with the eradication of all the triffid-sized weeds. 

When I went there two years ago I saw mainly dilapidation and decay with a few doughty locals desperately trying to preserve the infrastructure through the Daufuskie Island Council. By contrast, this summer I felt a new optimism and excitement as everyone was working towards refurbishments and grand re-openings. Melrose Golf Course is still functioning despite breeches to the sea wall on several shore-line greens. Work is slowly restoring its hotel, beach club and clubhouse. But possibly the biggest strides are being made at Bloody Point. 

Bought by local property owner, Brian McCarthy at auction last year, the golf course has been rescued from the wilderness largely by the efforts of local golf pro, Patrick Ford. Ford worked at Bloody Point until its closure and then moved on to work at Melrose, trying to stem its deterioration with a skeleton staff. Having left the island for a six-month mainland job, he was tempted back last year to resurrect Bloody Point Golf Club. “It’s been a huge job; it took me three days just to clear the driving range of weeds. I could only see behind me,” he recalls. Now less than a year later, the course is just waiting for a well to be sunk and final construction phases before the slated September grand opening. 
A new 165 foot jetty is planned for easy boat access with golf cart rentals and guided tours available. “And we are also building a 40 by 40 foot deck the other side of the swimming pool which will be raised to dune height to get a great view of the sea,” Ford says. The tennis courts will be revived as well as an expanded retail facility. “We’ll be the only retail shop with an actual business license on the island and we’ll have climate control,” says Ford. “We will carry everything from dog food to $2500 shirts - the less you have to bring here the better.” For tourists overnighting, there’s a refurbished 7-bedroom apartment building right next to the clubhouse as well as a second rental property nearer the beach. Minutes away is a condo building with rental units overlooking the sea at Sandy Lane just along the road from John Melloncamp’s house. “We could house up to 100 people in total at Bloody Point,” Ford calculates. This would be particularly efficacious for the weddings, golf camps and tournaments he envisages for the club’s future. 

As well as serving seasonal visitors, Ford sees these improvements as instrumental for the smooth running of the whole island. “This is for the islanders to make it a better place for them to live and to prove to everyone that Daufuskie is not defunct,” he maintains. His wife, Tai, who runs the Eagle’s Nest Restaurant at Bloody Point, agrees saying that they are open to non-members as well as members: “Our dock will be available to anybody whether they want golf, beach or the restaurant. When Melrose was open, no locals were allowed and Haig Point is still private too. We will sell memberships, of course, but also do day passes. We pride ourselves on being welcoming, having good service and a great atmosphere for everyone on the island.”

Despite its financial tribulations, the island is coming back to life and reaching out to inquisitive and eco-minded tourists who value the natural beauty, indigenous and endangered wildlife, rugged crowd-free beaches bordered by towering plantation forests, arts and crafts outlets in artisans’ rustic homes, cooperative farms and quaint restaurant shacks, as well as the more mainstream pleasures of tennis, fishing and golf. There is also a small historical district with a museum and preserved architecture commemorating the rich African-American culture on the island, everything linked by winding dirt roads easily negotiable by golf carts, the preferred method of transport on the laid-back isle.
In stark contrast to its paint-peeling, rustic facade, Daufuskie has electricity, running water, internet, phone coverage in the residential areas - all the things that make people feel secure and connected even when trying to get away from it all. Wealthy second-home owners have built a few beach houses along the dunes and cottages in the woods, many now either for sale or for rent at reasonable rates. Attracted by the obscurity of the remote spot, John Melloncamp spends vacations at his property on Sandy Road, Meg Ryan has chosen Daufuskie as a hideaway holiday retreat and Clint Eastwood once had a secluded birthday party there.

Development stalled on Daufuskie due both to its inaccessibility and its history. Without a regular boat service linking it to the mainland, everything is expensive to transport whether it is tourists, provisions or building materials. Private water taxis seating only six people cost $65 a head per round trip and bigger charters are even more prohibitive. This of course makes it even more attractive to holidaymakers or retirees looking for somewhere tranquil. 

The former plantation island was home since the early 1700s to an African-American population which grew to 2000 by the 1950s. With a rich culture known as Gullah (derived from their roots in Angola) the islanders fished and hunted and had a regular ferry link to the mainland for provisions, work, medical and educational needs. The writer, Pat Conroy taught at the island school during the 1970s and based his book “The Water is Wide” on his experiences there. This book and subsequent films put the spotlight on the island momentarily. But when industrial pollution ruined the oyster fishing, the economy suffered and the Gullah people gradually debunked to find regular work elsewhere, reducing the population to about 20 people. Much of the land is still owned by absentee ancestors of the original freed slaves from plantations in the area. 
One organization has come up with an ingenious way to restore some of the deserted Gullah cottages to add to the tourism cachet of the island and help the original owners. Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of the Palmetto Trust, is planning to renovate several dilapidated 150-year old homes, rent them out to holidaymakers to recoup costs and then return them complete with heating, air conditioning and plumbing to their owners. The character of the homes will be preserved. 

Over the years Daufuskie has attracted many artists and craftsmen as well as spawning its own local talent. Pat Beichler - a former nurse and an accomplished seamstress - retired to Daufuskie where she has energetically established a variety of enterprises on the island. Starting with Pat’s Pot Farm (potted plants rather than the drug), “Nurse Pat”, as she is known, moved on to develop a Cooperative Sustainable Farm for goats, turkeys and bees, supported by donations. She is now launching the Daufuskie Artisans’ Village project in collaboration with various island investors. This will consist of an enclave of cute cottages planned on a four-acre plot next to her farm, showcasing a line-up of 70 artists and craftsmen. Visitors will be able to watch weavers, spinners, sculpturers, artists, woodcarvers and glassworkers at work, take classes and purchase items. 
While landlubbers have failed to recognize the island’s uniqueness, seafarers have known about Daufuskie for years, patronizing its rickety docks to refuel their boats - and themselves - at the marina restaurants. The Daufuskie Crab Company at Freeport and Marshside Mama’s are well known in boating circles for their succulent seafood dishes, casual outdoor dining and oyster roasts. On busy Saturdays the boaties are so prolific that reservations are necessary at Marshside Mama’s particularly on live band nights.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Folly Beach

Until now I’ve only gone to Folly Beach on a rushed daytrip. Two hour’s drive from my land-locked home in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, it is my nearest beach, dubbed “the edge of America” by locals. Nostalgic for my coastal roots in Shoreham Beach, England, I love the low-key bungalow-beach atmosphere. But I’ve always hankered to stay longer, envisaging a cute cottage on the coast with barbecues on the sand to the sound of Beach Boy tracks from an old-fashioned portable stereo.

However, when friends from Canada were visiting with their young daughters, it soon became apparent that catering and cleaning up my dream cottage would not exactly make for a relaxing holiday. Thus, we found ourselves checking into the 1980s Tides Hotel which dominates Folly Beach’s Center Street to the west and hugs the seashore to the east.
Tides inside is stylishly decorated in beach pastels with driftwood-edged mirrors and a subtle sealife motif. It was originally a Holiday Inn but was renamed in 2009 by the new owners, Jon and Lisa Weitz, who also manage 185 rental properties on the island. The atmosphere there is casual, although – thankfully - you have to wear cover-ups in the public areas and dress for dinner in more than just a bikini. Still, you can get away with flipflops 24-7.
After the friendly check-in, we found our interconnecting rooms to be airy and modern with comfy chairs and table that could be positioned in the patio doorway to take full advantage of the sea air and ocean views over morning coffee or early evening aperitifs. Quiet at night, sleep was further enhanced by the option of forgoing A/C and opening the room up to the white noise of waves and the tranquility of starry skies.
Having arrived hot and harried from our two-hour drive, getting on the beach was our first impulse and it is propitiously right outside the hotel’s pool deck. The Atlantic waters are warm and the swell strong enough in August for fun but not too forceful for swimming. It is wonderful to wake up right on the beach and dash into the depths for an early morning dip before breakfast. However early we got up, there was always a parent-kid team already hard at it building castles and kingdoms in the sand. We loved walking along the six miles of long flat beach, among the joggers and bikers, disappearing into the horizon in that shimmering mirage effect produced by the combination of crystalline sand, sea, sun and warm air. Later in the day, the area right in front of Tides fills up with colourful umbrellas, towels and chairs but if you walk along in front of the beach bungalows, the shore is almost empty.
With fine dining on site, it was bliss to be able to put the kids to bed with a favourite book or video on their I-Pad and go downstairs dressed up for an adult dinner in a classy restaurant! If you chose a room on one of the lower floors, you would probably be within baby monitor range. BLU opened in 2009 and is a contemporary combo of local Lowcountry cuisine and Mediterranean influences such as tapas and paella. To my husband’s delight, they even serve paella for one – unknown in Spain where it is always for a minimum of two people. One of Charleston’s few oceanfront eateries, BLU maximizes the sea and pier views with outdoor tables and a bustling beach bar with live music at the weekends. The house-made chips and dip, served in a trendy conical paper contraption, go particularly well with the cocktail menu. Much of the food is locally sourced and sustainable, earning BLU the Platinum Certification from South Carolina’s Aquarium Äôs Sustainable Seafood Initiative.
Although the breakfast buffet at BLU is a convenient and tasty option, we also found it fun to explore the neighbourhood for variety. We found the community so compact that, once parked in the hotel’s convenient free carpark, we could stroll almost everywhere. Finding many of the lunch and dinner venues closed in the morning, we were gratified to stumble upon the humble-looking, renovated trailer reinvented as Black Magic Café.
Advertised on Center St as a “healthy eatery and espresso bar”, it is colourful coffee shop on W. Erie Ave, with vibrant paintwork and artsy beach and sea-scapes created by local artists and photographers. It has an opulent washroom clothed in magical, black décor to justify its name. Like Starbucks, Black Magic offers designer drinks but its granola grub is more extensive, incorporating customized omelettes and interesting bagel mixes. Both locals and tourist families mingle here, attracted by the casual atmosphere, under 10s menu, library of children’s books and free Wi-Fi. For lunch, Rita’s restaurant and pub is great for cheap and cheerful shrimp, seafood and salads and the Piggly Wiggly is just five minutes drive onto James Island if you want to pick up picnic produce – or as my Canadian friend did, pose for a photo by the amusing sign.
Tides is right next to Folly Beach Pier, one of the three top surf areas on the barrier island although surfers are warned by large overhead signs to keep clear of the dangerous currents churning around the pylons. Although the sea is calm most of the summer, occasionally surf is up - especially when there’s a hurricane brewing up in the Caribbean. Before the storm hits full-on, surfers appear from all over the area to make use of the waves. For the past five years, Surfers Healing has also held its annual August camp here, right in front of Tides. Professional surfers from all over the world congregate to introduce the exciting sport to young kids with autism. When we were there, Hurricane Irene was boiling up and the waves were just right to give both amateurs and professionals an adrenalin rush.
The Pier also serves as a popular fishing spot, with regular tournaments held there. Extending over 1,045 feet into the Atlantic, it is also a handy dolphin and sea-bird look-out and is used throughout the summer as a venue for “Moonlight Mixer Shaggin” sessions. Now I know this is a dance, I am no longer shocked by the nonchalant use of what is rather rude slang in England.
Shopping is fun at Folly with many stores flaunting $5 rails or “Nothing over $7.99”. From cheap and cheerful to high end, boutiques woo the tourists with gaudy tie-dye t-shirts, brandname board shorts, and handkerchief-hem dresses. You can also rent or buy all the paraphernalia for surfing, kayaking, jetskiing, paddle boarding and boogie-boarding.
What beach holiday would be complete without icecream? Tides has cleverly cornered that market with the poolside Sugar Shack, advertised to passersby with a colourful cartoon ice-cream sign in the hotel forecourt. The shop is arrayed with multiple-flavoured cornets, gigantic lollipops, barrels of candy and cabinets of gobstoppers, looking like a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film set, and irresistible to young and old.
With just three days and two nights at Folly Island, we had time for one foray into Charleston (20 minutes away) where we combined some highspeed, power purchasing in King Street’s funky boutiques with a horse-and-cart tour around the city’s historic district. The carts operate on a lottery system whereby the guide picks from various coloured cards which dictate the route, reducing equestrian snarl-ups around the city’s winding streets. The hard-working horses seem to know the way without any directions from the drivers. A great educational way to see the city with kids, going by cart also reduces the street heat and feet stress.
As you return to the beach, you drive under a canopy of immense oaks draped with Spanish moss before crossing Ellis Creek. Next you cross the salt marshes to James Island over a causeway bridge which traverses swampy wetlands used to represent Vietnam in the making of the film, Forrest Gump. The main road through James Island is full of big box stores, boat outfitters, and a strange proliferation of pet parlors and doggy daycares, making us wonder if all the tourists bring their pooches on holiday for pampering. There’s a second causeway linking James Island to Folly and the whole area is very pretty, dotted with shrimp boats, waterfront houses with their own jetties and pristine bird habitat.
With bottlenose dolphins proliferating in both the ocean and the calm waters protected by the barrier islands, a boat ride was high on the kids’ bucket (and spade) list. We were lucky enough to spot a mother and baby team during our guided tour and learnt lots about the wildlife, ecosystems, history and geography of the area. Curious about the name “Folly” - which semantically suggests stupidity or recklessness - we discovered that early English explorers named it after the dense, low foliage which covered the area. During our two hour trip, the dolphins provided the drama, but we also enjoyed the antics of the white egrets, majestic herons, osprey and brown pelican patrols who fished feverishly alongside us in the oyster-lined tidal creeks.
Reluctant to leave next day, we vowed to come back again for another quintessential family beach holiday on Folly Island, perhaps for a whole week next time and use it as a relaxing base to explore Charleston and the beautiful barrier islands.