The Sea Islands of South Carolina

On South Carolina's once-isolated Sea Islands, Gullah is still spoken, African traditions are carried on, and salty marshes perfume the air.

Canopy of trees cloaked in Spanish moss over a dirt road
Photo: Penny Britt/Getty Images

"Welcome to the best place on God's earth," said the man behind the wheel of a gray 1985 Oldsmobile. We were driving on a slender road that eased across swirling sweet grass and dusky marsh toward a steely vault of ocean. Crabbers prowled the crimson swamp with dip nets, and fishermen on shrimp boats — their nets spread wide like angels' wings — plucked pearly shellfish from the river. As we gazed out our open windows, the car's ceiling liner fluttered in the breeze and gospel seeped from the radio. Barely five minutes into our tour of the South Carolina Sea Islands, we began to believe the Rev.

Not that there's any reason to doubt the Baptist preacher. He was, after all, conceived and nurtured in this haunting, wild, and watery land halfway between Savannah and Charleston. Born Joseph P. Bryant, he grew up speaking English, but gained fluency in Geechee and Gullah — the languages of his slave great-grandparents who toiled on the islands' rice plantations — as a child. Later, as reverend of the Third Macedonia Baptist Church in Burton (a suburb of Beaufort), he often delivered sermons in his acquired lowcountry languages. "My grandmother was full-blooded Gullah, my grandfather was Irish, and I picked up Geechee from living in Beaufort," the Rev said.

He was talking to the four of us who signed up for The Rev's Step-On Gullah Tours — "Step-On" as in, he'll "step on your tour bus" if you need him to. (Otherwise, he would take you around in his Oldsmobile.) It was a Saturday, a good day for riding with the Rev, since he rarely gave tours on Sundays or when they conflicted with weddings or funerals. On this day, he had a funeral after our outing, which is why he wore a black bowler hat and fresh-smelling aftershave.

Conducting local tours wasn't his idea, the Rev said. In fact, he started the business a year before because everyone kept asking him to explain the rich, obscure Gullah culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands. Most of his customers came from Beaufort, the Sea Islands' gateway. Often called "a little Charleston," Beaufort has all the allure of that city, without all the hubbub. Stroll Beaufort's sidewalks and you feel the Southern savvy, a poise that comes with intense natural beauty, colorful colonial history, and a steady flow of money. Grand Georgian and Greek Revival manses are washed pure white, Spanish moss weeps from the oaks, and magnolia trees are filled with birdsong.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood filmmakers adore Beaufort. Its formal houses and gardens, and boundaries of river, salt marsh, and sky, so surreal and cinematic, have been the backdrop for films of every genre, from "The Big Chill" to "G.I. Jane." Movie people also love the Sea Islands, which start just a short bridge ride from Beaufort but couldn't be less like it.

Gullah culture permeates South Carolina's Sea Islands.

We sensed the difference instantly as we rode with the Rev across St. Helena Island, cruising the two-lane "hard road" (make that "paved road" for the Yankees in the car). Flashes of a soft, long-ago South streamed past the windows: clapboard cottages peeked from pine forest, children played in fields of wildflowers, Gullah farmers sold collards and corn from pickup trucks. Matchbox-sized seafood markets by the side of the road advertised "head-on" shrimp.

The Rev veered down a clay-dusted path to show us one of the Sea Islands' numerous Gullah family farms — the former rice and cotton plantations Gullahs worked as slaves, then acquired after the Civil War. We stopped to chat with folks who recognized the Rev, but we didn't get invited in. (The only way to see the inside of a plantation house is by taking another tour. The 10,000-square-foot mansion, built in 1931, is a replica of the original Georgian house, which General Sherman burned to the ground during his 1865 march to the sea.)

Spanish moss-draped trees hanging over chapel ruins
Silver and Chalk Images/Getty Images

After the Civil War, the Gullahs were abandoned in the islands flung off the Carolina coast because the land was considered worthless. "There were no bridges, and the mosquitoes were so thick they'd carry you off," said the Rev. That abandonment and the century of isolation that followed have preserved the Gullah language, culture, and daily way of life. Families live for generations on the same farm, grow much of their own food, pick sweet grass to make baskets, and attend the one-room praise houses of their slave ancestors, where hymns are harmonized in Gullah and Geechee.

According to the Rev, Geechee "is what citified types — mainland-dwellers from Beaufort and Charleston — speak, whereas Gullah is spoken by people of African descent living on the Sea Islands." Linguists, however, consider Gullah and Geechee two names for the same dialect, which sounds to the untrained ear like island patois peppered with colonial-era English.

The Islands have long inspired artists.

Gullah, says the Rev, comes from a West African language and means "a people blessed by God." Elayne Scott, who was co-owner of the now-closed Red Piano Too gallery on St. Helena, said she believed they are. When the Virginia native arrived in the Sea Islands in the early 2000s, she was "astounded by the richness of Gullah art" and equally amazed that these self-taught artists weren't more widely known. During the '60s, Martin Luther King Jr. brought them into the public eye by campaigning for their rights at St. Helena's Penn Center. This cultural gathering place was founded in 1862 by Quakers eager to educate freed African slaves. Its white wood cottages are embraced by the ghostly arms of monster live oaks. "Sacred ground," proclaimed the Rev, pointing to a forest cottage built as a hideout for King after he received death threats. He was assassinated before he could stay.

Scott, who opened the Red Piano Too in 1992, said the Penn Center is still the lifeblood of the Gullah community, the place for weddings and church retreats. It's also where young artists learn how to replicate their surroundings. Much of the compelling art at Scott's gallery reflected the splendor of the Sea Islands, in particular the window-shade and tin murals of the late Sam Doyle. His portraits of local characters — a voodoo doctor, spiritual leaders, prostitutes — were painted in his yard on St. Helena. Finding canvas difficult to come by, Doyle worked on whatever surface he could salvage. Later, his tin murals commanded up to $20,000 each and would be sold alongside the books of the late lowcountry literary giant Pat Conroy.

Author Pat Conroy sitting in chair inside house with large statue
Ulf Andersen/Contributor/Getty Images

Conroy, author of "The Great Santini," "The Prince of Tides," and "Beach Music," lived in the Sea Islands as a teenager and later taught at Beaufort High School. His prose mined the mysteries of these islands, evoking sensations found nowhere else. In "The Prince of Tides," he wrote: "Breathe deeply, and you . . . remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater."

In 1990, Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte showed up to film "The Prince of Tides," which was a big deal in the Sea Islands. Since then, Hollywood stars have come for work and for play, and few islanders give them bother. In fact, when "Forrest Gump" was shot on St. Helena, Hunting Island, and Fripp Island, the biggest gossip swirling around was that Tom Hanks ate a shrimp burger. Specifically, one of Hilda Gay Upton's shrimp burgers.

For decades, Upton and her husband, Bob, have been serving shrimp burgers, sweet potato fries, and sweet tea at the Shrimp Shack on St. Helena. The keys to the burger: using just-caught shrimp from Gay Fish Co., run by the same family, and making them the way the local fishermen have for years — "beat the shrimp up with the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle," they say.

Instead of stopping for shrimp, though, the Rev took us to the Gullah Grub Café for traditional Gullah cooking, including barbecued chicken, collard greens, and sweet potato pie. The tin cottage is in "downtown" St. Helena, which is just a three-way intersection. Someone said it felt as if we're back in the 1950's. But once the Rev showed us the headstones of pre-Civil War plantation owners, across the road from the unmarked graves of Gullah slaves, we realized it's more like the 1850's.

Locals keep Gullah traditions alive.

Throughout most of the South, African culture perished with the slaves. But in the Sea Islands it has been kept powerfully alive by women like Marquetta L. Goodwine, once sanctioned "Gullah queen" by the United Nations. "She even spoke before the U.N. in Geneva," the Rev said. Queen Quet, as she's known locally, travels the country, spreading her love of Gullah life by performing what she calls "histo-musical" presentations in both English and Gullah.

Another woman, Natalie Daise, shared Gullah art and culture by means of Ms. Natalie's Workshop on St. Helena. Batik-patterned burlap lined the walls, and the gallery and studio floors were painted sky blue and decorated with turtles and fish. Shelves held locally made candles, woven banana- and pineapple-fiber frames, African rain sticks, and Australian didgeridoos. In the back room, Daise showed children how to make bracelets using crystals and African ceramic beads — typical of a scene from her "Gullah Gullah Island" show on Nickelodeon, which ended its run in 2008.

But cultural proponents like Daise and Goodwine may not be enough to preserve the Sea Islands, said Hurriyah Asar, owner of the No Pork Café. Since the Georgia native moved to St. Helena just six years before, 30% of the island had been sold off. "Developers come in with cash, so they don't even have to deal with the banks," she said. "A lot of people are in denial, because the land has been in the same families for generations. But I sense fear." Asar added that at some point, she may be pressed to "look for a retreat from this retreat."

In the meantime, her natural foods café and African gallery were flourishing in St. Helena. Travelers amused by the name (there's "no pork" on the menu) found shrimp creole, walnut steak, okra soup, and hibiscus punch made from cut, dried flowers, peppermint, maple syrup, and fresh-squeezed lime juice. After lunch, they could rummage through baskets, drums, and woven dresses from Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria, or browse among books on African and other world cultures in Asar's 3,000-volume Afrikan Universal Library Museum.

From the café, it was an easy walk to Ibile Indigo House, where Nigerian textile apprentice Adesola Falade was heating wax for batiks in an electric skillet. Ibile, pronounced "ee-be-lay," is a Yoruba term for "those who are messengers of our ancestors." The messages there resounded from intricate images of African village life — seasons and harvests, births and deaths — depicted on brilliant fabrics, lampshades, and rugs.

In the front window of the studio and gallery, white doves cooed inside a cage as Ibile's artistic director, Arianne King Comer, explained how dye patterns are created by melting down everything from broom bristles to chicken feathers. King Comer wore her hair in dreadlocks and had carved bands on fingers stained blue from dye. That morning, she had been at a high school teaching the art of indigo, just as she did at Ibile. Raised in Virginia, King Comer moved to Detroit in 1974 and taught technical artistry. In 1992, the U.N. awarded her a grant to study the indigo-dyeing tradition in Nigeria.

That three-month pilgrimage transformed King Comer's work and life. While in Nigeria, she was reminded of a PBS docudrama she had seen called "Daughters of Dust," which portrayed the Sea Islands' prolific indigo-growing past. Less than two years later, she moved to St. Helena and began working with farmers to resurrect the industry. She brought Nigerian dyers to teach their ancient skills. And she began getting calls from Gap; they wanted to buy her ethereal designs as sketches for their own fabrics. Since 1994, she had provided the clothing brand with images for t-shirts, skirts, and tie-dye prints. And in the year leading up to our tour, she had also created 50 designs for Mavi Jeans, a Turkish design house that had just reached hip U.S. markets.

King Comer credited her Sea Islands surroundings with nourishing her creativity. In fact, she chose her 1940's studio for its proximity to the "sacred ground" the Rev spoke of at the Penn Center. "Penn had this power," she recalled of her first time in the area. "I looked at those old live oaks, and I thought, 'anywhere that has this magic, I can live the rest of my life.'"

In the roomy back seat of the Rev's Oldsmobile, three of us dreamed of what it would be like to move to the Sea Islands. A couple from New Jersey imagined warmer winters, fresher seafood, and a slower, kinder way of life rooted in American history and tethered to the tides. I pictured Pat Conroy, the original "Prince of Tides," writing from his screened porch with nothing but marsh and Southern sky stretching to infinity. The Rev chuckled and assured us we're not the first to feel this way about his homeland. "Tourists are so infatuated by the simplicity of this place," he said, "that they sometimes change their address."

Visiting the Sea Islands

Getting There

Beaufort is the access point to the Sea Islands, but visitors generally fly into Savannah or Charleston, then make the drive from either airport. Almost every hotel and restaurant is a good value, and with a map (and ideally a convertible), you can navigate the region with ease.

Where to Stay

Cuthbert House Inn 1203 Bay St., Beaufort; 800/327-9275 or 843/521-1315, fax 843/521-1314; Venetian chandeliers, cheese grits for breakfast, and the most comfortable guest rooms around — this 18th-century mansion has it all.

Beaulieu House 3 Sheffield Court, Cat Island; phone and fax 843/770-0303; An airy, welcoming B&B with a postcard-perfect location on Chowan Creek.

Fripp Island Resort 1A Tarpon Blvd., Fripp Island; 800/845-4100 or 843/838-3535, fax 843/838-9079; Fripp, the most exclusive of the Sea Islands (as in, only residents and guests get past the gate), is a country club community where the mainland preppy crowd goes to unwind.

Where to Eat

Shrimp Shack 1929 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-2962.

Gullah Grub Café 877 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-3841.

Beaufort Inn 809 Port Republic St., Beaufort; 843/521-9000; Wonderful wines and elevated cuisine presented in a room with velvet draperies and carved mahogany walls.

Where to Play

Hunting Island State Park 2555 Sea Island Pkwy., Hunting Island; 843/838-2011; The park contains 5,000 acres of marsh and pinewood. It offers guided kayaking trips and tours of its 1889 lighthouse.

Tours to Take

The Rev's Step-On Gullah Tours 843/838-3185. A three-hour tour of the Sea Islands.

Cap'n Richards ACE Basin Escapes 843/766-9664. Lowcountry native Richard Martin maneuvers his 19-foot skiff past wildlife-rich landscapes and former rice farms, including the reconstructed Bonnie Doone Plantation.

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