Beaufort County Sea Islands Map

Exploring The Sea Islands of Beaufort County

Island secrets

Story by Michele Roldán-Shaw + Illustrations by Maddie Batey

There are hundreds of islands in Beaufort County, ranging from tiny unnamed scraps of high ground in the marsh to fully developed destinations like Hilton Head. Islands are by nature little worlds unto themselves, and as such they have long beckoned people to revision society and build the life of their dreams. The sheer diversity of plans that have been carried out on our islands is astonishing, from hunting retreats to monasteries, military training grounds to nudist colonies, indigo plantations to luxury resorts, monkey farms to wilderness reserves. So come with us as we explore the fabled Sea Islands — and air out a few of their dirty secrets.

The Sea Islands of Beaufort County

Bay Point Island Beaufort County SC1. Bay Point Island

Location: Northeast of Hilton Head in the mouth of Port Royal Sound.

History: This uninhabited barrier island has been the subject of controversy since 2016 when a Thailand-based company announced plans to develop a luxury resort there. Under the guise of “ecotourism,” they hope to build 50 beach bungalows, four spas, several restaurants and ten septic fields on this tiny island with zero infrastructure. A public outcry has been raised over the negative impact this would have on Beaufort County taxpayers, traditional Gullah fishing grounds and the island’s fragile ecosystem, which provides a crucial nesting area for sea turtles in summer and resting ground for as many as 8,000 shorebirds at high tide on a single winter day. The wisdom of constructing elaborate facilities on a storm-battered, erosional island that is continually losing high ground was questioned. As of this writing the developer’s plans have been halted, thanks to denial of a special permit by Beaufort County Zoning Board, a decision that was recently upheld in appeals court.

2. Brays IslandBrays Island Beaufort SC

Location: Northeast of Ridgeland on the Pocotaligo River

History: Brays follows the typical trajectory of Sea Island history: Native American habitation dating back thousands of years, plantations in the antebellum era, Union occupation followed by collapse after the Civil War, a period of isolation and rural poverty, purchase by wealthy Northerners, and, finally, development into residential communities. But the novelty of Brays is that its last owner was a conservationist and outdoorsman who wanted future generations to have access to the same pursuits he enjoyed, so he brought in a renowned landscape architect to help realize his vision of a sporting paradise. Most of the land is owned communally; homes blend into timbered lots with extra parcels between them, and a “gentlemanly Southern plantation lifestyle” is preserved.

Life on Brays: Once described by a homeowner as “summer camp for adults,” Brays Island Plantation bills itself as America’s premier sporting community. A day at Brays could include hunting, shooting, fishing, horseback riding, dining on quail or swordfish. Invited guests can stay in the historic Brays Island Inn — a Georgian-style plantation house dripping with Southern charm — and listen for the hounds while ambling through piney woods in their chaps.

Not-so-fun fact: William Bray, for whom the plantation was named, was killed along with his family by the Yemassee Indians after repeatedly cheating them.

3. Barataria Islandpotoato, bull, barataia_island

Location: In the May River between Bull Island and Hilton Head.

How to get there: In a small boat via a maze-like network of creeks at high tide.

What to do: Explore the woods, look for buried treasure (pirate, Civil War, or prohibition-era rum runner) or maybe hide some of your own.

Fun fact: Remnants of pylons on the eastern shore indicate an old dock where livestock was once offloaded to graze.

4. Bull Island

Location: Nestled between Bluffton, Hilton Head and Daufuskie on Bull Creek and the Calibogue Sound.

History: Old-timers remember the exotic wildlife once spotted on Bull Island — buffalo, big-horned sheep and zebras brought in by wealthy Northerners who used the island as a personal hunting ground. One of these was Alfred Lee Loomis Jr., son of a prominent physicist from New York, who palled around with the likes of Einstein and helped develop radar during WWII. Loomis Sr.’s escape was Hilton Head, nearly all of which he owned, but when he sold it, Loomis Jr. moved family headquarters over to Bull Island. Today it remains undeveloped, and current owners plan to keep it as a private hunting preserve.

5. Potato and Little Potato Islands

Location: Across the May River from Bluffton.

History: A lot of strange lore surrounds this pair of small islands reached only by water. In the late 1940s Bluffton native Nathanial Peeples founded an order of contemplative monks on what was then called Good Shepherd Island. Bluffton old-timers recall hearing the pealing bell that called the monks to prayer throughout the day, but otherwise it was ghostly silent. At some point Peeples led his flock to the Everglades, and no one really knew what happened to them after that, while later visitors to the old monastery site told of getting a creepy vibe there. But that could be because by then the island was home to Harry Cram, an unruly character immortalized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He renamed the island Devil’s Elbow after being exiled there for bringing shame to his wealthy and respectable family up north. This was a common occurrence back when Bluffton was still a sleepy fishing village, and locals proudly say it’s the reason their town is founded on eccentricity. Among many wild-but-true tales about Cram is the time he shot two Marines through the head after they swam across the May River in scuba suits and held diver’s knives to his son’s throat in an attempted robbery. Godspeed the curious trespasser who dares investigate Potato Island now.

Callawassie and Spring Island Beaufort SC6. Callawassie Island

Location: North of Bluffton on the Okatie/Colleton River.

History: The Yemasee tribe is said to have bestowed the name Callawassie, which means “calm waters,” and archeological surveys have found ancient burial mounds here that date back 4,000 years. The earliest English settlers came in 1711 to subsistence farm and raise livestock, but later they cashed in on commercial crops like indigo and Sea Island cotton. Sugar cane failed, but the tabby ruins of Callawassie’s old sugar mill are unique in the state. After the Civil War the Union seized Callawassie with promises to redistribute its acreage among freedmen, but instead a scheming Union general took it over for his own interests. During the next century the island was mostly populated by poor farmers and sharecroppers until its development into a gated residential community in 1981.

Life on Callawassie: Residents enjoy the typical amenities — golf course, club, pro shop, tennis courts, parks, pools, even a butterfly garden. There are also clubs for paddling, clay shooting, gardening, photography, and charitable giving.

Fun fact: A very rare patch of virgin, subtropical magnolia forest has been found on Callawassie. Naturalists speculate that its growth over a shell midden might have prevented successive generations of occupants from cutting it down, as the earth underneath was unworkable.

7. Spring Island

History: In precolonial times the upland areas of Spring Island were longleaf pine savanna. These got cleared for Sea Island cotton fields worked by enslaved Africans whose Gullah descendants lived in tenant houses on Spring Island until well into the 20th century. After Emancipation no one tended the fields, so live oaks grew in to form the characteristic forests seen today. Collins Mitchell, also known as John Fripp, was born into slavery on Spring Island and sold with his family in Charleston just prior to the Civil War. He escaped to join the Union Army and was miraculously reunited with his family later on Spring Island, where he died a free man in 1910.

Life on Spring Island: Known for its low-density design that obscures houses and showcases nature in a deliberately unmanicured way, Spring Island’s guiding philosophy was “a community within a park, rather than a park within a community.” One third of the land was put into residential home sites, one third into community property and amenities, and the remaining third into conservation. Spring Island has a vegetable farm, horse stables, nature trails, tabby ruins, golf course, art gallery and farm-to-table restaurant.

Fun fact: There were once free-flowing freshwater springs on the island, though it’s not clear whether that’s how it got its name.

8. Cat Island

Location: South of Lady’s Island between the Coosaw River and Port Royal Sound.

History: Cat Island was once the site of an early American nudist camp. Founded by New Yorkers in the 1930s, it was based on a utopian ideal; members grew their own veggies and cavorted vigorously in the elements. Locals made a lot of “fishing trips” to spy on them, but when the law was sent to arrest these so-called “naturists” for indecency, officers got so embarrassed by the sight of all the naked people running down to greet them that they turned tail and fled. Eventually the colony failed due to financial problems, but to this day people swear it was the mosquitoes.

Life on Cat: With secluded luxury real estate a mere five minutes from downtown Beaufort, residents here get the best of all worlds. The island is still known for its Edenic habitat and features a recently renovated golf course that’s as good for bird-watching as it is for playing golf.

9. Lady’s Island

Location: North of Beaufort, connected by bridges to downtown and Port Royal.

History: Once home to the Coosaw tribe, this large island was named for Lady Elizabeth Axtell Blake, wife of the governor of South Carolina. There were once as many as 30 plantations on Lady’s island, primarily in indigo, but they were ravaged by Union troops during the Civil War. The island remained rural, agricultural and fishing-based until the latter half of the 20th century, when many of the old plantations and timber tracts were developed into residential communities.

What to do: Launch a boat at White Hall or Sams Point landings. Get seafood with a view at the Fillin’ Station or Lady’s Island Dockside.

10. Distant Island

Location: Four miles south of Beaufort

Life on Distant Island: Just a ten-minute drive from downtown, residents have their own private world. They go crabbing off their docks, take sunset cruises from their landing, gather on their village green, work their community garden, stroll along their waterfront and enjoy their panoramic tideland views. Distant Island was developed by the Trask family, which purchased it for farming after WWII. It still has lots for sale.

11. Gibbes Island

Location: South of Lady’s Island and downtown Beaufort.

What to do: Gibbes Island is known primarily for the Secession Golf Club, which occupies about half of its real estate. With sweeping views of the surrounding marsh, this walking-only course invites strolls with a caddie to appreciate one’s surroundings. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the club removed the Confederate flag from its logo and renamed tees named for Civil War generals to instead honor prominent figures in the club’s history. They did not, however, go so far as changing the name, Secession.

12. Cane Island

Location: South of Beaufort and Lady’s Island.

History: One of the most recently developed Sea Islands, Cane used to be a daffodil farm before being zoned for high-density planned development with commercial and residential properties.

Dataw Island Beaufort SC13. Dataw Island

Location: Six miles east of Beaufort

History: Dataw Island History & Learning Center preserves native artifacts and the Sams Plantation Tabby Ruins Complex. The public is invited to book a guided tour free of charge (

Life on Dataw: This private, gated island offers residents two golf courses, a marina, fine dining, a spa and a nature preserve on an adjacent hammock. Besides their love of history, Datawites are known for commitment to philanthropy.

Fun fact: The name comes from the legend of King Datha, concocted by a Native American who was captured by Spanish explorers in 1520. He claimed that a king living on the island grew to the size of a giant through consumption of magical herbs, and by the time British colonists arrived, the story was widely popularized.

Coosaw island Beaufort SC14. Coosaw Island

Location: East of Lady’s Island on the Morgan and Coosaw rivers.

History: Penn School — the first of its kind for freed Blacks in the South — dispatched an alumnus to teach at a one-room schoolhouse on Coosaw Island in the 1920s. A photograph of barefoot students outside a primitive wooden cabin bears a note written ruefully on the back by a Penn School faculty member: “It is to such conditions that our graduates must go.”

What to do: Stop by Naturescapes Nursery ( for native plants, or Lott Farms (82 Coosaw River Drive, Beaufort) for free-range chicken and quail eggs. Check out one of the most complex and well-conserved shell ring sites in the state at South Bluff Heritage Preserve.

Daufuskie Island Beaufort SC15. Daufuskie Island

Location: Between Hilton Head and Savannah in Calibogue Sound

How to get there: Take the Daufuskie Island Ferry ( from Buckingham Landing in Bluffton, or catch a water taxi from Old Town Bluffton through May River Excursions (

History: Artifacts and shell middens around the island bear tribute to Native American presence dating back 9,000 years. During the 1700s, the southernmost tip of Daufuskie was the site of several skirmishes between European settlers and Yemassee Indians, resulting in the name Bloody Point. Over 200 years later, the Bloody Point Golf Club and Resort went bankrupt. (An Indian curse?) During the Revolutionary War, Loyalists on the island clashed violently with Hilton Head’s Patriots. Daufuskie’s plantations were abandoned during the Civil War, but freed slaves returned to create a close-knit community that persists to this day. Pat Conroy’s famous novel, The Water is Wide, was based on his time teaching at a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie, and his portraits of island residents are unforgettable.

What to do: Quiet, bridgeless Daufuskie has long offered an underdeveloped counterpoint to the bustle of the mainland. Take a horseback ride along the beach, or rent a golf cart to explore miles of dirt roads tunneling through the forest. Book a Gullah Heritage Tour with local diva Sallie Ann Robinson, or do a self-guided tour by downloading the Robert Kennedy Historic Trail Guide. Visit local artisans at Silver Dew Pottery, the Iron Fish Gallery, Daufuskie Blues Indigo Dyed Textiles, or Daufuskie Island Wine and Woodworks. And try to find someone selling deviled crab.

Fun facts: The name Daufuskie comes from a Muscogee word meaning “sharp feather.” Oysters from Daufuskie were once some of the most coveted in the world, before pollution in the Savannah River made them unsafe to eat. Rock star John Mellencamp has a getaway home here, and native son Roger Pinckney VII has written several entertaining books about life on the renegade island.

Pritchards Island and Fripp Island - Beaufort SC16. Fripp Island

Location: North of Hilton Head and east of Beaufort, Fripp is the most seaward of all South Carolina’s islands.

History: Beginning in the 1700s, Fripp belonged to a series of St. Helena plantation owners who used it primarily as a hunting retreat. It was originally named Reynolds Island, but after being inherited by Sarah Harriet Reynolds, the name got changed to Prentiss Island when she married Otis Prentiss. Sarah was widowed at age 21 with four small children, and when she remarried William Fripp, the island’s name changed again. In the 1960s Fripp was developed into a private, gated resort community.

Life on Fripp: Residents and vacationers enjoy fishing, paddling, tennis, golf, biking, fine dining, riding around in their golf carts and, of course, hanging out at the beach.

Fun fact: A popular legend holds that Fripp was actually named for British privateer (a.k.a. government-sanctioned pirate) Captain John Fripp, who used the island as a base for attacks on French and Spanish ships and was later awarded it in a land grant. There is no documentation to support this colorful “history,” but that doesn’t stop people from hoping to find buried treasure on Fripp.

17. Pritchards Island

Location: Northeast of Hilton Head and southwest of Fripp, between Trenchards Inlet and the Atlantic.

History: In 1983 Atlanta businessman Phillip Rhodes donated Pritchards Island to the University of South Carolina on the condition that it be used exclusively for coastal research. Later the USC Research House was constructed on stilts overlooking the Atlantic, providing a laboratory as well as accommodations for students who worked to protect loggerhead sea turtles and study the island’s ecosystem. Beach erosion and storms have battered the house to the point of being scheduled for demolition.

How to get there: Pritchards is open for public visitation, but accessible only by boat.

What to do: Enjoy bird-watching, shelling, and trekking through the boneyard amidst the wild solitude of a pristine barrier island beach.

Harbor Island Beaufort SC18. Harbor Island

Location: 15 miles outside Beaufort, between St. Helena and Hunting islands.

History: Like many of the remote barrier islands, Harbor was uninhabited and used as a hunting and fishing ground by locals for decades. When a bridged highway was constructed between St. Helena and Hunting Island in the 1930s, the way opened for developers; Harbor was purchased by the same company that did Fripp, and today it is an exclusive, beach-front gated community.

Life on Harbor Island: Residents and guests enjoy three miles of white-sand beach, outdoor pools, a putting green and courts for tennis, basketball and volleyball. The bird watching is outstanding, and dedicated turtle patrol volunteers monitor for loggerhead nests throughout the season.

19. Hunting Island

Location: 15 miles east of Beaufort.

History: The island was uninhabited during colonial times and used for hunting deer, alligators, wild boar, birds and other game. The lighthouse was constructed in 1859, blown up by Confederates in 1861, reconstructed in 1875, then dismantled and moved inland in 1889 after a big storm eroded the beach. In the 1930s Hunting Island was developed into a state park by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and today it is South Carolina’s most popular; Hunting was named one of the best beaches in the South by Southern Living Magazine. Hurricane Matthew devastated the island in 2016, closing off parts of the park for several years.

What to do: Camp in a tent or RV. Hike or bike eight miles of trails. Check out live alligators and turtles at the nature center. Swim at the beach and be amazed by the dynamic erosion process visible in the “boneyard” of dead trees.

Hilton Head Island, Beaufort SC20. Hilton Head Island

Location: South of Charleston and north of Savannah on the Atlantic Ocean.

History: Before the arrival of Europeans, the New World was a populous place, home to complex agrarian societies. But contact with the first explorers resulted in contagion, and as the strangers sailed away, the Indians began to die. By the time the next wave of explorers came, indigenous civilizations were already weakened and depopulated by epidemics. Ancient shell rings on Hilton Head tell the story of tribes who gathered here to harvest the fruits of the sea, but within a century of European settlement, they were all killed, enslaved or displaced. Captain William Hilton, sent from Barbados to find new horizons for land-hungry sugar barons, sighted the island in 1663 and named it after himself. Before the American Revolution it was home to only a small handful of farmers, but the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars saw a boom time for wealthy planters of rice, indigo and cotton. When Hilton Head fell to the Union, slaves who were considered “contraband of war” came in droves to the Union encampment here, and eventually a community called Mitchelville was organized where Blacks could self-govern and live as free people even before Emancipation. After the war ended, the Union cleared out, and Hilton Head lapsed into rural poverty; the Gullah scratched out meager but autonomous lives for generations, weaving their cast nets and sweetgrass baskets in the isolation of the Sea Islands. Then the big land-grab began all over again, with development schemes that pushed or tricked the Gullah out of their homes. In the 1950s Sea Pines was built by pioneer Charles Fraser, who is credited with creating the model for environmentally friendly resort communities. But he also started another trend: security gates. Today approximately 70 percent of Hilton Head lies within private “plantations” occupied primarily by Whites and serviced by Blacks and Hispanics. Sea Pines itself removed the word “plantation” from its name in order to avoid negative associations.

What to do: Explore the island’s history and ecology at Coastal Discovery Museum. Take a dolphin cruise or guided paddle trip. Go horseback riding in Sea Pines Forest Preserve ( or parasailing at the beach. Pedal the island’s many miles of bike trails. Check out ancient shell rings at Sea Pines, Skull Creek and Green’s Shell Enclosure. Learn about Hilton Head’s Black history by taking a Gullah Heritage Trail Tour, or visiting the Gullah Museum and Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.

Fun facts: At last count there were 300 tennis courts, 24 golf courses, six marinas and 10,000 bike racks on Hilton Head. The Sea Pines Lighthouse is not a real lighthouse. Neon signs are banned here. Michael Jordan used to have a home in Wexford. During the 2022 nesting season, 423 loggerhead sea turtles laid their eggs on Hilton Head’s beaches.

Horse Island and Little Horse Island Beaufort SC21. Horse Island and Little Horse Island

Location: Between St. Helena Island and Harbor River.

History: In the 1950s a local family introduced Shetland ponies and marsh tackies, which multiplied to produce a small feral herd. Wild horses have roamed the woods and marshes here ever since, despite threats like starvation, a rare equine virus and getting hit by cars. In recent years they have been cared for by volunteers with a retired veterinarian at the helm.

Morgan Island Beaufort SC - Monkeys22. Morgan Island

Location: North of St. Helena Island on the Morgan River and St. Helena Sound.

History: Known as “Monkey Island” by locals, this off-limits area is home to 4,000 rhesus monkeys. In 1979 the first individuals were brought from Puerto Rico, where a colony bred for biomedical research became alarming when escaped monkeys caused viral outbreaks in humans. So the colony was relocated to uninhabited Morgan Island as part of a larger effort by the federal government to breed research animals domestically.

The island is owned by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which leases it in a lucrative contract to Charles River Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company that says it only cares for the monkeys and does not conduct on-site research. Each year hundreds of monkeys are shipped to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which uses them in experiments to further the prevention and treatment of diseases affecting public health. However, U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace has called the research “barbaric” and “unnecessary,” and says she can’t look at pictures of monkeys injected with MRSA, ebola and tuberculosis because they are too “gruesome.” The island is closed to the public, but that hasn’t stopped Travel + Leisure from calling it a “unique destination” and encouraging people to ride by on a boat for monkey-spotting. 

Parris Island Beaufort SC23. Parris Island

Location: In the Port Royal Sound north of Hilton Head and west of St. Helena Island.

History: In 1562 a French expedition led by Jean Ribault dropped the first European colonists on Parris Island in hopes of establishing a settlement. But they revolted and killed their leader, then built a ship and sailed back to Europe. Four years later the Spanish founded Santa Elena on the island and made it the capital of La Florida; ruins of this elusive town were only recently found near the golf course.

By 1706, the island had come into British hands and was later named after Colonel Alexander Parris. During the Civil War, it was a Union coaling station, and afterwards it became a coaling station for the U.S. Navy. A Marine Guard was assigned to protect it, and the barracks erected to house them were later turned into a Marine officers’ school. By 1915 Parris Island had become the Marine Corps Recruit Depot that now puts 17,000 individuals through boot camp each year. Recruits undergo 13 punishing weeks of hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, survival swimming and land navigation, plus a curriculum of military history, etiquette and core values. At the end, they face the Crucible, a grueling 54-hour event in which their physical, mental and emotional stamina is tested; would-be Marines march 48 miles with 50-pound packs, cross water obstacles, carry “wounded” comrades, and endure simulated combat with minimal food, sleep and water. Parris Island trains male Marine recruits east of the Mississippi and all female recruits. 

What to do: There is limited public access to Parris Island, but visitors are invited to go on a self-guided tour, play at The Legends Golf Course, and take in the Parris Island Museum. Be sure and check in first at the Douglas Visitors’ Center.

Pickney Island Beaufort County SC24. Pinckney Island

Location: Between Hilton Head and Bluffton.

History: Although today it is a wildlife refuge, archeological evidence shows a rich history of human habitation dating back 10,000 years. In 1708 a fur trader took possession of the island, and after he died the property was sold to Charles Pinckney, a prominent planter. His wife, Eliza Pinckney, is remembered as a gifted botanist and businessperson who revolutionized the colony’s agriculture by developing indigo as a cash crop. She never lived on Pinckney Island, but her son Charles Cotesworth Pinckney — a Revolutionary War veteran and later a presidential candidate — brought in 200 enslaved Africans and began transforming the island into a plantation, complete with residence and ornamental gardens on what is now called White Point. The Pinckneys held onto the island after the Civil War, but without their enslaved labor force they couldn’t keep the plantation running, and eventually it was sold off to Northerners who managed it as a hunting retreat. In 1974 the final private owners donated it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the condition that it be made into a National Wildlife Refuge.

What to do: Walk, run or bike the 14 miles of trails, or venture off-trail to explore the woods and marshes. Take a picnic, a camera and a bird ID book. Kayak the creeks and marshes around Pinckney by putting in at Buckingham or CC Haigh Jr. Landing.

Port Royal Island, Beaufort SC25. Port Royal Island

Location: North of Hilton Head and east of Ridgeland. The towns of Beaufort, Laurel Bay, Seabrook and Port Royal are all on Port Royal Island.

History: With the second-deepest harbor on the eastern seaboard, Port Royal was very attractive to French, Spanish and British colonists, who vied for its possession, displacing Native tribes along the way. In 1711 Beaufort was founded, making it the second-oldest town in the state. The Yemassee demolished it four years later, but it was quickly rebuilt as a southern outpost of British territory, and by 1860 it was one of the richest towns in America, thanks to the Sea Island cotton and rice planters who made it their retreat. Later the town and surrounding Port Royal Island went through decline but blossomed again during WWII with the economic impact of the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot, the Marine Corps Air Station and the Naval Hospital.

What to do: Take a horse-drawn carriage tour of historic Beaufort. Bike the Spanish Moss Trail. Stroll around the pedestrian-friendly village of Port Royal, including the Cypress Wetlands Trail and the Sands Beach. Pay your respects at the Beaufort National Cemetery.

Fun fact: If you say Port Royal with a French accent, that’s the original name. It means “royal port” and was bestowed by Jean Ribault in 1562.

saint helena island Beaufort SC26. St. Helena Island

Location: 5 miles east of Beaufort.

History: An important stronghold of Gullah culture, St. Helena is best appreciated through the lens of Black history. Thousands of enslaved Africans worked the plantations here, only to be abandoned by their owners when the Civil War broke out. In a program called the Port Royal Experiment, these former slaves proved their self-sufficiency by effectively managing themselves and the land without White masters. But a few short years later, President Andrew Johnson terminated the program and restored the land to its former White owners. Some never returned, and much of St. Helena was retained by Blacks as heirs’ properties. A more enduring component of the program was the Penn School, the first educational facility for Blacks in the South. Founded by Northern abolitionist missionaries, it offered an education to St. Helena’s residents until 1948, when the state began providing public education. Penn School then became Penn Center, a cultural and historical institution devoted to preserving the Gullah legacy. It was an important base for organizers of the Civil Rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have drafted his “I Have a Dream” speech while staying on property in a little wooden cottage.

The isolation of St. Helena meant that Gullah culture was well-preserved in all-Black communities that retained their language and traditions, often sparing those who grew up in them the humiliation they would have faced in segregated towns on the mainland. Residents grew okra, collards, watermelon and corn, raised chickens, cattle and hogs, hunted wild game and got shrimp and fish out of the creeks. Even today the island just feels different. Rather than becoming yet another densely developed resort, St. Helena has taken steps to preserve its rural identity by barring condos and gated communities; but natives are still vulnerable to development pressures, such as losing their land at tax sales after values are driven up by wealthy outsiders. 

What to do: Visit the Penn Center and ruined Chapel of Ease. Check out the shops and art galleries of Frogmore. Grab a bite at Gullah Grub or the Shrimp Shack. Buy fresh seafood at Gay Fish Company or Bradley Seafood Market. Get U-Pick strawberries at Dempsey or Barefoot Farms. Ride around and experience the laidback Lowcountry of yore in the working fields and docks.

Fun facts: Two legendary figures of St. Helena history are folk artist Sam Doyle, who painted his friends and neighbors on scraps of corrugated tin, and Dr. Buzzard, the formidable voodoo man and root worker. There was actually a succession of Dr. Buzzards dating back to a witch doctor from Africa.

saint phillips island beaufort sc27. St. Phillips Island

Location: Between St. Helena and Pritchards Island

How to get there: Book a ferry ride from Hunting Island State Park (

History: Unlike most of the Sea Islands, St. Phillips was never colonized or logged. Its remote shores and enchanting virgin forests drew the eye of media mogul and conservationist Ted Turner, who grew up in Savannah and wanted to keep a slice of the Lowcountry the way he’d seen it as a kid. In 1979 he purchased St. Phillips, attached a conservation easement to the deed, began building trails and managing the habitat for native wildlife (for example, by eradicating invasive feral hogs.) His family vacationed there for 40 years in a modest home overlooking the ocean, but in 2018 he sold it to the state for $4.9 million, despite having previously put it on the market for $24 million. St. Phillips is now part of Hunting Island State Park and open to public visitation. Ted Turner’s house can be rented for either $2,400 or $4,000 per night, depending on whether you want it to be open for public tours during the day.

What to do: The beach is nice, but the really unique and spectacular aspect of the island is its mature subtropical maritime forest. Go in cool weather to have the most enjoyable hiking experience.

Fun facts: St. Phillips appears in an aerial view as though a cat has scratched its claws over it. This is due to the pattern of upland forest and rainwater troughs created by ancient sand dunes.

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