There’s a feeling to Daufuskie that lingers long after leaving. It’s like a portal to the past, a rare gem hidden in plain sight. I traveled to the island near Hilton Head almost two years ago, but its wild beauty, history, and peaceful coast keep calling.
To get there, I parked my car on Hilton Head to board a ferry. There are no bridges to the island, so boats and, now, helicopter service from airports in Savannah and Hilton Head are the only means of access. Already the trip feels like an adventure. In many respects, Daufuskie is like another country, having little semblance of the modern bustle of our times. There’s a general store for necessities, but the closest supermarket is on Hilton Head. There’s a seafood shack where you can get cold beer and fresh catch, a rum distillery, a handful of art studios, historic buildings, golf courses, Carolina Marsh Tacky horses, and pristine, near-empty beaches.
There are various worlds that coexist on the island: an a private called Haig Point that mirrors the manicured communities on Hilton Head; semi-private residential developments that fell into bankruptcy but are now being revitalized; and a land-before-time wildness of dirt roads, dense coastal vegetation, and true quiet. These experiences don’t compete; rather, they exist symbiotically, which makes a visit so rewarding. I hopped in an electric golf cart, the main mode of transportation on the island, and began exploring.
Daufuskie is divided into five areas: Haig Point, Melrose, Oak Ridge, Bloody Point, and the historic district. Haig Point is the island’s exclusive residential community and golf club, with private homes, club amenities, award-winning golf courses, and an equestrian center. Now, Haig Point is renting its historic Strachan Mansion and the Haig Point Lighthouse, built in 1873, to the public for overnight stays.
Spanish colonists discovered the island in the sixteenth century. At the time, Native Americans inhabited the land, only 2.5 miles wide by 5 miles long. The Muskogee tribe named the island Daufuskie, meaning “sharp feather” or “land with a point,” in reference to its shape. The Spaniards introduced their Marsh Tacky horses, an intelligent and hearty breed that still roams there. Before the Civil War, Daufuskie harbored eleven plantations, but after the Union troops charged in, many owners fled, leaving their homes and slaves to root their Gullah traditions that exist today.
Staying on Daufuskie feels like traveling back in time. Its historic structures are well preserved, including the First Union African Baptist Church, the Mary Fields School, where author Pat Conroy taught in the 1960s, the Brothers and Sisters Oyster Union Society Hall, two nineteenth-century lighthouses, and the remains of tabby-built slave quarters. Today, the school is home to the island’s sole coffee shop, School Grounds Coffee and the art studio, Daufuskie Blues, where two women create beautiful indigo-dyed scarves and textiles.
Artists seem drawn to the island and have made their homes among the live oaks. Chase Allen left a promising corporate career to live in Daufuskie’s rural beauty. With a desire to work with his hands, he’s since created an award-winning and lucrative business, designing and making sea sculptures at his Iron Fish Gallery. His wife, Rachel Allen, heads up the equestrian center at Haig Point, and offers 90-minute to 3-hour rides along the beach, as well as history tours on horseback.
Similarly, Tony Chase felt so at home on the island that he and his wife decided to stay. He opened Daufuskie Island Rum Company, where he distills a variety of rum and other spirits. On the day I visited, after my tour of the facility and complimentary tasting, a late-afternoon summer storm popped up. I listened to the drenching rain from the distillery’s porch, in view of a huge live oak cascading over a small pond. As the storm passed, a rainbow appeared in the rose-hued sky.
Like anything eclectic, Daufuskie attracts like-minded characters. The people of the island, no matter if they own a Haig Point home or live in a humble abode in the woods, seem to possess a particular code. Their key fits the lock to this place, and they give it its singular flavor. It isn’t for everybody. But for those who live here, it is their forever home. It’s hard to leave. And, for me, it’s a memory that will keep haunting until I go back again—and again.
/// Strachan House and the Haig Point Lighthouse The island’s exclusive community, Haig Point, is now offering stays in its nineteenth-century properties next to Calibogue Sound.
SEE & DO
/// Daufuskie Blues Find one-of-a-kind indigo-dyed textiles at this women-owned studio inside the Mary Fields School.
/// Daufuskie Island Trail Rides & Historic Tour Take a romantic beach ride or tour Daufuskie’s historic landmarks on horseback; open to all levels of riders.
/// Iron Fish Gallery Artist Chase Allen displays a variety of custom iron works at his colorful studio gallery.
/// Daufuskie Island Rum Company Sample distiller Tony Chase’s crafted rum, vodka, and other spirits made on-site.
/// Lucy Bell’s Café Featured on the Food Network, this mom-and-pop restaurant is famous for farm-to-table cooking. Don’t miss the deviled crab, their specialty. (843) 341-6477