It happens somewhere between Beach Access 36 and 37. The Low Country magic. It’s a magic that has less to do with fairies, goblins, and changelings, and more to do with dark drapes of Spanish moss, fretting palmetto fronds, and sticky breezes slinking across bare shoulders. Edisto Island traps a bit of this Low Country magic, or perhaps the Island brews a batch all its own. The magic is strongest off of a dead-end spur of asphalt, along which the beach access markers stand as the only invitation to emerge, sandy-footed and wary, in a world just this side of heaven.
Beach Access 36 on Yacht Club Road is my preferred invitation to answer. A lone blue sign, sandwiched between one overgrown yard and one well-appointed beach home, marks a cement path that winds playfully through a snagging tunnel of shrubs, vines, and trees. It’s the kind of path that makes one wish for a handful of crumbs to drop, piece by furtive piece, like Hansel and Gretel. Then the concrete ends and a stretch of footprint-pocked sand plows on through the walls of nodding sea oats. The magic begins. From the surrounding grass dunes, flocks of white butterflies cavort around orange flowers sprinkling the sand like a paisley cloth. The grey expanse of sea heaves, advances, retreats. If you’re fortunate, a pod of dolphins threads the waves just off-shore with the pacing of a slow sewing machine’s needle. Look to your left. To your right.
Chances are good, not another human is in sight.
Welcome to Edisto Island.
The 55-square miles of Edisto Island offer a surprisingly affordable haven from other Southern-state barrier islands sinking under the weight of commercialization. Like some Brigadoon that owes its sacred preservation to magic, Edisto is an island that time, and obnoxious homogenization, has overlooked. Edisto Island offers vacationers exactly two gas stations, one grocery store, zero stoplights, and miles upon miles of sparsely populated beaches. After growing up spending my summer vacations on Edisto, I made the mistake (make that MISTAKE) of once visiting a New Jersey beach where I got a boardwalk splinter in my heel and paid $5 to squeeze my oiled body five bodies back from the lackluster water lapping the littered sand. In comparison, the calm, decidedly un-flashy state of Edisto Island suits me just fine.
Now that Little Friend plunges with reckless abandon into the waves, completely oblivious to the fact that she can’t yet swim a stroke and scours the beach for “diggers” (shells) to excavate trenches in the sand, I appreciate in new ways the sanctuary Edisto Island offers. The beaches are populated by multi-generational families content to take in sunsets while posing for photos sure to appear on cards come December. Edisto’s roads are patrolled by vigilant policemen who reportedly wag fingers at cars daring to go two miles over the posted speed limit. Family bike caravans and sun-kissed tween golf-cart drivers jockey for bike path positions in a perpetual game of Frogger. For many of us who continue to vacation on Edisto year after year like a species of migratory birds, the island feels like a Low Country extension of a safe, family neighborhood.
Fortunately, enjoying Edisto Island’s magic comes with a surprisingly affordable price tag. A week’s rental for a four-bedroom beach home costs significantly less than a comparable stay at a hotel. Mouthwatering meals from a number of local restaurants rival McDonalds’ extra value meals in taste and price. Enough free outdoor activities abound to pack a whole week’s vacation and still leave items untried for the next visit. As I rather unwillingly turned my sand-infested car inland last Friday, I babied my post-vacation grief by making a mental list of what to do when I came back. Because the coming back is never in question. Not on Edisto. The beauty, safety, and magic of Edisto Island create an elixir far more potent than a typical family vacation. Beware. This Island threatens to create family traditions.
Where to Eat
Low Country cooking is the marrow, lifeblood, back bone (and every other life-giving metaphor I can concoct) to Edisto Island cuisine. “Fresh, simple, local” seem to be key words on most menus around the island. What better words could you use to charm the taste buds off the vacationing public? To us Yankees, nothing beats the sandpaper rasp of fresh peach fuzz on our tongues and the thick juice sliding down our chins. The best South Carolina peaches are bought from the back of a pick up truck parked at unpredictable times along Highway 174 just before crossing the causeway between island and beach. Nicknamed “Pick-Up Truck Peaches” by my family, we’ve learned to swerve off the road the minute we see the telltale pick up in the distance. Empty your wallet into the gnarled, calloused hand of the farmer and head home with as many peaches as your basket will hold. Attraction begins with the first smell. Addiction begins with the first taste. Edisto Seafood (3729 Docksite Road |(843) 869-3446) offers the best local fruit from the sea. The fishing boat parked out back trolls the Atlantic waters each dawn and brings back the shrimp bounty to be sorted and sold in-store. Family members familiar with each local fish, shrimp, and oyster provide prompt, friendly, and helpful service. We have yet to be anything but impressed with Edisto Seafood’s daily haul.
If the kitchen is off-limits on vacation, head out to Sea Cow Eatery (145 Jungle Road | 843-869-3222) for a leisurely breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The lines, especially in high season, are part of the local charm. Adopt “Edis-Slow” time and wait on the deck to be called to a table, indoors or out. The breakfasts are reliable and hearty. Leisurely lunches are best enjoyed at McConkeys Jungle Shack (108 Jungle Rd | (843) 869-0097), located just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean. The “Shack” is festooned with jungle kitsch that stops on the fashionable side of the line between shabby and chic. While take-out certainly gets the delicious food on your plate, it’s worth dining in for the atmosphere captured inside the tiny, screened porch. The 8 oz. hand-formed hamburgers could win nationwide juicy burger contests, while the cheese quesadillas never disappoint. Of course, fish tacos and an ice cold beer go down real easy, too. If possible, save room for a homemade dessert along the lines of the tartly-pleasing key lime pie or the thick, creamy coconut pie. With high-quality ingredients and made-to-order service, McConkey’s offers some of the best food on the island at insanely reasonable prices.
With a five-star Southern Barbeque joint in the neighborhood, why consider going anywhere but Po’ Pig Bo-B-Q (2410 SR-174 | 843-869-9003) for dinner? My family plans our weekly meals around Po Pig’s schedule (open Wednesdays through Sundays in the summer, Thursdays through Sundays in the off seasons). The food is so incredibly good, we fast for hours beforehand to make sure we have optimal space to stuff the “all-you-care-to-eat” buffet. And yes, we care to eat A LOT. The steaming buffet line serves up smoke-cooked pork, dark meat, light meat, pork cracklin’s, various hashes (made from animal parts–don’t ask, just eat) to ladle over white rice, smoked turkey, grilled and fried chicken, and a Creole-flavored red chicken stew. The array of sides swamps even the most carefully conserved plate: turnip greens, green beans, okra and tomatoes, macaroni and cheese, squash casserole, white rice, red rice, lima beans and ham, baked beans, stewed cabbage, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes with lemon, and onion-studded hushpuppies. A tall drink of sweet tea washes it all down perfectly. Usually, room for dessert is a moot question. At $9.25 per endlessly-refillable buffet plate, Po Pig is a steal. Ignore your misgivings over the location of Po’ Pig Bo-B-Q (squeezed in next to a gas station along Highway 174), wear your loosest, most forgiving clothing, and prepare to feast, Southern-style.
What to Do
Kayaking the tidal marshes, combing the beaches for sea glass and shells, hiking the Edisto State Park trails to ancient Indian oyster mounds, packing picnic dinners for beach sunsets, setting crab traps and waiting patiently at picturesque Steamboat Landing: the list of free or inexpensive Edisto Island activities seems endless. Certainly more than enough to pack a week’s vacation time and again. And that’s just if you elect to stay on the Island. With Charleston a one-hour car ride away and Savannah a two-hour drive, the temptation to visit these impossibly elegant Southern cities is almost irresistible. Whatever your schedule, don’t miss these Edisto Island activities.
Edisto Beach State Park contains a myriad of family activities, thanks to the epicenter, The Environmental Learning Center. The Learning Center’s hands-on interactive exhibits entertain everyone from kids to adults. (Little Friend recommends waving “hi” to the snapper turtle and driving the mock fishing boat.) Daily organized activities range from feeding the marine animals to crab-cooking demonstrations to sea turtle reconnaissance. The Environmental Learning Center updates their program schedule weekly, so stop by early in your visit to pick up a schedule. Many forest trails through the State Park also begin at the Learning Center, so wear comfortable walking shoes. The Environmental Learning Center is free to all, although donations are gladly accepted (and well-deserved).
The newest addition to Edisto State Park holdings is the Botany Bay Plantation tour and beach. Only recently opened to the public, the Botany Bay beach exudes an eerie beauty. Skeletal limbs of salt-deadened trees line the pristine sand. Since it’s currently forbidden to secret away a single shell souvenir, the trees and beaches have been liberally decorated with whole whelk and conch shells and cockle shells bigger than an adult’s hand. The half-mile walk to the beach traverses a causeway through undisturbed marsh habitats ruled by flocks of ibises, colonies of fiddler crabs, and beds of clicking oysters. A driving tour (free map available at park entrance) also travels through plantation artifacts: a tabby oven, foundations of former plantation homes, the remains of slave cabins, and even an intact ice house with Victorian flair. Children, and their accompanying adults, are permitted to fish in a large saltwater lake on the property.
Every vacation needs a bit of shopping, and Edisto does not disappoint in this regard either. While a number of shops fit the “vacation souvenir” bill, With These Hands Gallery (1444 Highway 174 | 843-869-3509) is a unique gem within the shopping scene. Showcasing American handicraft talents, the Gallery’s always-intriguing stock includes handmade jewelry, baby gifts, original artwork, and handmade pottery. The store’s selections are souvenirs worth hanging above a fireplace mantle. Heading back toward the beach from With These Hands, be sure to stop in the Edisto Bookstore (547 Highway 174 | 843-869-1885). I haunt this independent bookseller on each visit to the Island to replenish my stack of “must-read” books. The care and insight with which the featured books are chosen warms my little English teacher heart. With a great children’s section and fairly extensive used-book area, the Edisto Bookstore has a little something for everyone. Unique gifts and souvenirs are also tastefully placed amongst the stacks of books. You’ll just have to fight the resident cat, Gracie, for the favored spots.
Where to Stay
With no hotel on the island, beach home rentals comprise the bulk of accomodation options. Located on breathtaking St. Helena Sound (nothing like eating dinner overlooking a vivid sunset and cresting dolphins), the tastefully appointed Dolphin Watch (six bedrooms, sleeps 14) is conveniently situated between my favorite beach access points (36 and 37). For true beach lovers who crave falling asleep to the rhythmic roar of waves, look no further than the poetically named Cerulean, a beach front house (sleeps 12) with so much curb appeal that it makes me stumble a step each time I pass it on a run. The insides are as gorgeous as the outside. Of course I’m hopelessly biased, but I prefer my parent’s rental beach home the best. Located just a row back from the beach, four-bedroom (sleeps 10) Waves of Grace backs up to a tidal marsh and is surrounded by mature live oaks and palmettos. In the off-season, we sleep with our sliding bedroom doors open and let the rushing surf serenade our dreams all night long. In a word, Heaven.
What to Read
Ah, the classic beach read. Made even better with settings and characters drawn straight from the salt marshes and maritime forests of the Southern coast. Here are my three life-long favorite beach reads that provide a Low Country mental journey while my feet are planted firmly in Low Country sand.