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.

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