Hospitality and black history in the Deep South
A new direct flight makes it easy for Canadians to sample the cuisine, tennis courts, bike trails and other delights of Hilton Head and its sister island, Daufuskie – and to experience a profoundly important part of African-American culture, Bert Archer writes
There's a black metal slatted bench sitting all by itself, overlooking the choppy mouth of the Harbor River near the intersection of Beach City Road and Mitchellville Road, and the intersection of two very different versions of this island off the coast of South Carolina called Hilton Head. One is a resort of the highest order where the leisured wealthy of the American South come to play, the other a profoundly important part of African-American history and contemporary culture.
"Beach City" may not be as pleasingly alliterative as "Hilton Head," but it is more descriptive: The place is surrounded by the things. And with its 24 golf courses, more than 300 tennis courts and 150 kilometres of bike paths and trails, it's been a secret mostly kept from Canadians, who've populated the links of Myrtle Beach, up the South Carolina coast and reachable with a direct flight from Toronto with Porter Airlines. But to put it in a Canadian context, Hilton Head is Muskoka to Myrtle Beach's Wasaga, Whistler to Myrtle's Mount Washington. It's got 3,000 hotel rooms, 6,000 home rentals and a complement of restaurants showcasing the criminally underappreciated crusted, fried and Madeira-infused chunks and cauldrons of Lowcountry cuisine.
Eating's a social event on Hilton Head, no place more so than at Hudson's, a dockside restaurant that operates out of a still partially functioning 1912 fish-processing plant. I shared some fried shrimp, blackened shrimp, crab cake, whole blackened black bass and orange-ginger black bass on the terrace-cum-wharf as I watched the sun set over that same Harbor River into its orange and purple haze. It was dark by the time I got to the mud pie sprinkled with Oreos soaked in clarified butter, and as I sipped a little postprandial, locally distilled Aermoor molasses vodka, a shrimp boat, lit up like a float in the Disneyland Electrical Parade, pulled up alongside the table. A little crowd gathered, and the crew chatted with the restaurant's owners and patrons as they began to unload the as-yet unfried and unblackened shrimp.
Until recently, the few Canadians who did venture down to Hilton Head or its sister island, Daufuskie, had to really want to go there; transferring through Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C., it'd take the better part of a day.
But as of May 1, Air Canada has added daily direct flights from Toronto to the Savannah/Hilton Head Airport. That's just in time for chanterelle season, chef Chaun Bescos's favourite.
The enthusiastic thirtysomething Hawaii native came to Hilton Head via Portland, Ore., and forages the delicate wild mushrooms himself – "You can get 14 pounds in an hour if you find the right spot," he says – and puts them in everything at his Red Fish restaurant, its walls lined with wine bottles you can browse and take to your table.
Things can get convivial on Daufuskie, too, especially if you stay at one of the private resorts and clubs. Haig Point, where I spent a couple of nights, is private enough to bar anyone who's not a member, a friend of a member, or a prospective member (i.e., in the market to buy one of their lots or houses for $50,000 to $3-million U.S.). But Haig Point, it turns out, has two big things going for it. For one, it comes with a built-in Canadian contingent, about half a dozen owners, most from Toronto. When I was there, it was the Kelsons, CEO and president respectively of a risk-management company, who were down with a whole gaggle of friends for a daughter's wedding. They're over the moon about the new direct flight, both for its convenience, and its promise of more Canadians to fraternize with in the heart of the Deep South, where the grand clubhouses can't help but exude the heavy redolence of plantations.
The other thing going for Haig is that it's where the only surviving tabby ruins on Daufuksie are. Tabby is the concrete-like building material, made of crushed oyster shells and ash, that was used for the local slave houses. Each of the Daufuskie resorts – Haig Point, Oak Ridge, Melrose, the Webb Tract and Bloody Point – hews to the property lines of the island's old plantations, and though most of the remnants of that age have been erased, these three tumbledown, room-sized cottages connect you to the history of the land you stand on, in a way resorts the world over mostly try their darndest to efface.
And this is what makes vacationing on these islands more profoundly enjoyable. The other half of that intersection by the black slatted bench on Hilton Head, Mitchellville Road, refers to the first self-governed black town in the South, built, populated and worked by women and men who didn't so much escape their servitude as saunter away from it when the plantation owners fled the oncoming Union forces in 1861. The community's named for General Ormsby Mitchel, a white northerner who helped them set the town up. It was the beginning of what's known now as the Port Royal Experiment, the way Reconstruction should have gone – former slaves being given what assistance they needed to establish themselves as self-sustaining citizens. It didn't last long, though Mitchelville itself lasted a little longer, up until it was mostly washed away by a hurricane in 1893.
But that's all history, and fascinating as it is, it's the Gullah culture – named for the people descended from mostly West African slaves – that gives Hilton Head its pulse, the festivals every couple of months, and the people. You can get a Gullah tour of Hilton Head, for instance, as I did, and be led around the grounds of what used to be Mitchelville – there's nothing left, though I'm told excavations are under way – and Anita Singleton-Prather can tell you a story (Sallie Ann Robinson can tell you similar ones on Daufuskie). She plays a character she calls Aunt Pearlie Sue, one of the house slaves who was liberated along with everyone else on Nov. 7-9, 1861. With her red kerchief, broad accent and carved walking stick, she'll tell you about the day freedom came to Beaufort. "All the coloured peoples was dressed up in the masters' finest clothes. That fancy dress I had made for Missy for last year ball? Couldn't fit me, but I put it on my arm and I just waved it like this and told them Yankees come over here and come bring us freedom, I sure did."
After she's finished, you can wander back over to that bench, which, it turns out, is part of the Bench by the Road project, but people around here just call it the Toni Morrison bench. Funded as a tribute on the U.S. Nobel laureate's 75th birthday, the benches placed around the United States are inspired by something she once said about having written her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved because there were no memorials or 300-foot monuments or even a small bench by the road; "no place," she said, "you and I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves."
It's more than you might expect from an island that's often referred to as the Martha's Vineyard of the South, and it's a big part of why it might be worth flying the extra couple of hours to come here instead.
Air Canada offers daily, direct flights to Savannah/Hilton Head Airport from Toronto from May to October.
On Hilton Head: The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa has an exhibit on the Gullah history of the island, but you'll have to look for it. It's on the second floor, in a loggia overlooking the lobby. There are no signs, but it's there. It's mostly wall-mounted text, but it's pretty good.
Rooms from $350 (U.S.)
On Daufuskie: The island is mostly resorts. I stayed as a guest of Haig Point ( haigpoint.com), but since it's private, I'll recommend the one with the best name, on the southwest end of the island: Bloody Point Golf Club & Beach Resort.
Rooms from $159 (U.S.) off-season with a two-night minimum
Red Fish is a mid-range bistro specializing in forward-looking Southern cuisine seen through the eyes of a local food enthusiast. Expect a lot of fish and, depending on when you go, a whole lot of mushrooms.
8 Archer Rd., Hilton Head
Marshside Mama's is, as the name says, right beside a marsh. Communal tables heighten the good-times atmosphere, as does the raucous live music and tipsy resort patrons at this fish-focused must-see.
15 Haig Point Rd., Daufuskie
Harbour Town Golf Links is gorgeously groomed, as you'd expect, but the real attraction here is the men's changing room. In addition to a terrace and big, comfy lounge chairs, it's got a full-service bar. (The women's changing room, I'm told, does not, alas.)
11 Lighthouse Lane, Hilton Head
On Hilton Head, Lawton Stables will guide you for a couple of hours on horseback, visiting the 600 acres of palmettos, live oaks and alligators that make up the Sea Pines Forest.
190 Greenwood Dr., Hilton Head
On Daufuskie, if you're in the Haig Point market, their stable staff can take you for a bucket-list-worthy ride down one of the few beaches on the Eastern Seaboard with sand packed tightly enough for horses to safely canter and gallop on.
Gullah Celebration takes place every February all around Hilton Head Island, celebrating Gullah food, music, language and crafts .
Juneteenth is a commemoration and celebration of June 19, 1865, when the last slaves in the United States were emancipated. Hilton Head's third annual Juneteenth festival is on June 17 in Fish Haul Park.
Gullah Kinfolk, headed by Aunt Pearlie Sue, puts on an annual Christmas pageant in nearby Beaufort, S.C.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce and Haig Point Club and Community Association. They did not review or approve this story.