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7/14/2008 The Tifton Gazette: Edisto: A South Carolina barrier island with distinctive appeal
By Christine Tibbetts
This is not a backward place; I was never without cell phone service and rarely without WiFi during a seven-day beach holiday in July. Two great bookstores make that available if you can't pick it up from your beach house or neighbors.
What's missing are high-rise hotels and condominiums. Traffic jams. Crowds on the beach. Boisterous party groups. Litter.
All good to do without in my notion of a family vacation. Or a solo visit. You can really relax and read, chill on the beach or along the bike paths winding through neighborhoods all over this island.
Seems an important discovery to me since tall buildings cast shadows on so many of America's beaches, elevators and condos replacing low-slung cozy cottages.
Edisto is south of Charleston, an easy day visit from your beach house, and a good arrival airport location. Savannah works too for flights and rental cars.
The drive in sets the tone: leave bustling Interstate 95, decompress a bit on route 17 and then really breathe deep under the canopy of live oak trees on Highway 174.
That's it. Three roads, each merging into calmness. Palmetto Boulevard is the final merge, the main street, with houses on one side facing the beach and on the other side featuring thick grassy yards. Crossing Palmetto to the ocean is easy.
Loggerhead turtles like Edisto too, returning from May through August to lay their eggs on the beach, a hundred or more in one nest.
Diligent volunteers and naturalists erect frames of wood with orange tape to mark the spot, and deliver stern warnings to turn off your outside lights from dusk to dawn.
I know because I got one. Actually two. My family of 14 turned out to be slow learners so thank goodness for the turtle watchers.
Mama loggerheads intending to lay eggs are confused by lights and turn back to the sea, losing their eggs in the waters. Babies who hatch 50 – 70 days later from a proper nest might follow the light of a house instead of the moon and stars over the sea and never grow up.
Edisto Island's 4 1/2 miles of beach seem to benefit from other caretakers too. Four-foot vertical slats arranged in semicircles catch the sand and support replanting of dune grasses. It's easy to walk between them - this is not punitive, keep-someone-out fencing.
As I chilled, I liked knowing the beach was reclaiming itself. A lot of the credit goes to an $8 million beach re-nourishment project in mid-2006.
Clearly someone's paying attention on this barrier island, but nicely; progress didn't interrupt pleasure.
After Hurricane Wilma I saw gigantic pipes spewing sands sucked up by vessels off shore in Cancun, so I know beach re-nourishment can be intrusive.
Most of my family of 14 never left the house and beach except taking turns going to the municipal center to fill jugs with free water, finer tasting than the salty version coming out of the faucets, or to deliver empties for recycling.
You can even recycle oyster shells here.
Exploring pleases me as much as jumping the waves and burying my feet in the sand with a book in my hands, so Edisto's history tours, marsh kayaks, book stores, nature center and art galleries added extra pleasure. The Before Edisto antique shop enticed us in on the way out, with so many treasures we had to repack the car to take some home.
I lured a different relative or two to go along each time. Ever met a family with everybody liking the same things?
The Pink Van Tour winds along canopy roads, around plantation homes and into church yards and cemeteries.
A morning with Marie Asbill makes you an Edisto insider, learning the history, figuring out how families function every day and discovering a little about local characters.
Her grandfather was born here, so Marie's tales go way back. I like that kind of storytelling more than docents with scripts.
It was 1923 before a bridge connected Edisto to the mainland, and 1950 before people stayed year round. The original hand crank wooden drawbridge was replaced in 1954.
Marie took her van of visitors inside the 1886 Trinity Episcopal Church with handsome bead board walls built by a freed slave after the Civil War. The building's beautiful but these folks also worship on the beach all summer with an 8:00 a.m. Sunday service near the state park.
Classic Greek revival architecture frames the Presbyterian Church, built in 1830 and completely renovated in 2004; via the Pink Van tour you can go inside, around the grounds and in the graveyard.
Wealthy planters worshiped here, and elsewhere on Edisto, when Sea Island cotton was a prosperous crop; rice was not a staple because the water is so salty.
In recent years, tomatoes have been big agricultural business but I heard local people say migrant worker concerns reduced the planting this year.
Locally grown fruits and vegetables do spill over the counters at George and Pink's.
"I've lived here all my life," Pink says, but told me she has no idea why her name was chosen.
Their veggies are a mile or so down a dirt road under a grand canopy of live oak trees. Eddingsville Beach is the name of their street, once a route to the site of a resort of beach homes offering alternatives on the water to the wealthy plantation residents.
The 1893 hurricane referred to frequently on Edisto as the "great Island storm" washed it all away.
I found a bit of some family's pottery on that beach, and a fossilized turtle shell. My route to the beach was through the marshes in a kayak. You can paddle five miles enjoying the grasses and birds with tour guide Elin Ohlsson, and stay about 20 minutes on this shell-filled pristine beach, or take a five-minute boat ride and linger two hours.
Both are beach vacation bonuses. Ohlsson came to Edisto from her native Sweden five years ago, and she knows more about tides and wildlife than I've learned in 35 years living in the south.
"It's a hungry world out here," she says, "and the tides rise and drop six feet in six hours, bringing life in this estuary."
She delighted pointing out laughing gulls, marsh wrens and their round nests, black skimmers and orange-beaked oystercatchers during my morning paddle.
Call ahead to arrange this experience with Edisto Island tours, but not more than a day or two. Much depends on tides and moods; this is not a high-powered corporate operation but rather a personal, caring-for-the-land-and-waters place.
Just showing up is OK at the state park; pay a small entrance fee to enjoy a beautiful stretch of oceanfront, or camp out.
Bike or walk from there to the Edisto Interpretive Center, open Tuesday through Saturday. You can drive in too.
Part of the state park system, this is a great place to experience estuary wildlife, interactive displays, pottery shards from the Eddingsville Beach resort lost in the hurricane, bones and fossils and trails through the maritime forest. Classes too several times a day.
I took the two easy strolls from the back of the Interpretive Center, learning a little about oysters, which filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and checking out some historical signs about coastline surveys from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico ordered by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807.
This is a good place to find out more about an estuary with open water, salt marshes, fresh water, wetlands, uplands and maritime forests.
Edisto Island indeed is a diverse place, and I never made it to the Historic Preservation Society Museum or the Serpentarium with native and visiting snakes, alligators and turtles.
Hope it's all still calm if I'm lucky enough to return.