“Welcome to the All You Can Eat Seafood Buffet,” Captain Chris Crolley jokes, sort of, as he cranks the ferry engine and winds through labyrinthine marsh creeks toward our destination, Bulls Island. “These estuaries are one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet, nurturing all the shellfish and fish we love to eat,” he says of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. “Look around,” he encourages, hand sweeping toward the vast waterway. “This is 29,000 acres of federally designated Class 1 wilderness. A place untrammelled by man,” explains Crolley, owner and expedition maverick of Coastal Expeditions, which operates Bulls Island Ferry.
Crolley has been exploring these island ecosystems for 30 years, and knows this neck of the coast—just north of Isle of Palms and the beaches of Charleston—as well as anyone. “People come to Charleston looking for history,” he adds. “Well, you can’t get a more historically accurate picture than this view—unchanged over the centuries except by nature itself. You’re looking at exactly what the first settlers who landed on Bulls Island in 1670 would have seen.” As if on cue, an Eastern brown pelican soars by; on the marsh edge, an American oystercatcher nods hello with her bright orange-red beak, then goes back to poking around in the pluff mud oyster beds.
Throughout the relaxing 30-minute boat trip to the unspoiled wonderland of Bulls Island, Crolley is a non-stop font of naturalist knowledge. Crolley, or any of his seasoned Coastal Expedition guides, are eager to help identify wildlife and share quirky tidbits about every critter, bird, insect, plant, or 9-foot alligator (no help needed on that one!) you might encounter.
And encounter you will. A trip to Bulls Island is a coastal safari—a gaze-fest over breathtaking vistas of needlerush and beaches. Bring your binoculars and camera; shift your focus beyond your laptop or cellphone screen. This adventure implores you to tap into a different sort of search engine—the one fueled by curiosity and amazement. Once we land, there are 16 miles of well-marked traversable trails and roads to explore, and seven miles of pristine shoreline. There is a bathroom and picnic shelter near the ferry dock, but the rest of the island’s 4,000 acres is raw beauty, offering a range of habitats and a haven for migratory birds. Technicolor painted buntings, barn swallows, whimbrels, least terns, and the ever-elegant snowy egret are among the 297 avian species found here. Cape Romain is also the second-largest nesting area for sea turtles, with five of the seven turtle species returning to these shores every spring to lay their eggs.
Boneyard Beach along the island’s north end is a don’t-miss. This otherworldly sculpture garden of toppled oaks, skeletal pines, and palm-less palms scattered amidst the sand and surf is stark testimony to nature’s ways—life, death, erosion, and accretion. It’s also a fabulous jungle gym for those who can’t resist climbing on surrendered tree trunks. Not far beyond Boneyard Beach, the trail along Jack’s Creek offers unparalleled bird watching and plentiful gator spotting. “It’s an exercise in perceived risk versus real risk,” Crolley says, nonplussed by the lazy reptiles’ proximity. “Fire ants, sunburn . . . those are real risks for humans. Alligators, not so much.”
A pod of bottlenose dolphin surface to roll and arc and shimmy alongside our ferry as we return to the mainland. Fortunately, our back-to-nature bliss is far from over. By pairing our excursion to Bulls Island with Charleston’s best-kept secret—lodging on lush Dewees Island—we go from one outdoor paradise to another.
A private island across an inlet from Wild Dunes, Dewees is accessible only by private ferry from the Isle of Palms marina, and only to property owners and vacation renters. But there’s no “private island” pretense here—life is low-key and relaxed on Dewees. Sandy trails are the island’s only thoroughfare, and two and a half miles of immaculate beach await adventurers.
Here’s what we discovered that you don’t need on Dewees: car keys (golf carts come with your rental), house keys, and a schedule, unless it’s the tidal one. It’s the kind of place where children can be free-range kids again, moseying down pathways simply for the joy of exploring. There are guided walks, a swimming pool and tennis courts, as well as Ping-Pong and Frisbee golf. Dewees is ideal for reconnecting with the gentle rhythms of nature, taking a lesson from the great blue heron standing serenely, endlessly, gracefully, by the water’s edge.
A stay on Dewees is the ideal complement to being immersed in the wild awe of Bulls Island. In addition to long beach walks, we enjoyed clamming near the Capers Inlet, and canoeing in the impoundment, as well as plenty of napping on the rental house’s screened porch. It’s a good thing the ferry ride back to the mainland was so relaxing and peaceful—it eased the pain of returning to reality. First order of reluctant business—digging out those car keys, and filing away beautiful, down-to-earth memories.
Rest Assured // Bulls and Dewees islands are virtually untouched coastal South Carolina land near Charleston, teeming with maritime wildlife and trees in various stages of decay, like on Boneyard Beach (pictured here). Thoughtfully designed to be in harmony with nature, homes on Dewees are tucked within the maritime forest, barely noticeable to passersby, and parking hassles are non-existent. You might be stopped in your tracks by a majestic bald eagle sighting, but not by a traffic jam.
/// COAST WITH THE MOST
DEWEES ISLAND RENTALS:
The go-to place for finding the perfect rental, Dewees lists all the vacation homes available to rent, as well as villas at Huyler House. (843) 906-0410, deweesrentals.com
Reserve your excursion (day exploring, guided, or kayaking) through Coastal Expeditions. The ferry schedule from March 1–November 30 runs Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday departing at 9am and 12:30pm; returning at Noon & 4pm.
(843) 881-4582, bullsislandferry.com
/// HELPFUL HINTS
There are no grocery stores or restaurants on Dewees, so plan accordingly. There is a Harris Teeter on the Isle of Palms, and grocery delivery can be arranged. Rentals are stocked with linens, beach chairs, towels, etc. Some are pet-friendly, so please inquire.
The Dewees Island Ferry departs the mainland on the hour and from the island (on demand) on the half-hour. Reservations required.
For a Bulls Island outing, pack snacks or a picnic lunch, bring water and sunscreen, insect repellant and a hat. Fat-tire bikes are welcome and a good way to cover more ground, but make a reservation for bikes (no cost) when booking the ferry.