Ferry Over to a Warm Island Getaway That’s Closer Than You Think

No cars, no hotels, no winter blues.

As a distinctive nip in the air comes for the northern parts of the world, you might be plotting how to chase warmth and sunshine—possibly without leaving the country in these Omicron times.

Luckily, a middle of the ocean escape is still possible from the contiguous 48. Located in the warm, balmy south, a handful of islands sit just off the coast of South Carolina, ready to welcome your weary, chilled bones.

Daufuskie is a small island only accessible by boat, sat between the more crowded Hilton Head and Tybee islands, near the South Carolina/Georgia border. The island is home to fewer than 400 permanent residents, a stretch of near-perfect three-mile beach, trees dripping with Spanish moss, and dirt roads made for golf carts and bicycles instead of cars. It also has fried seafood, moonshine, an abundance of pony-like horses, and rich African heritage. Here’s everything to know about what to do on Daufuskie Island.

Tour Daufuskie, LLC
Who needs pavement? | Tour Daufuskie, LLC

Cruise around on some wheels—but don’t bring a car

Golf carts and bicycles are the most popular modes of transport along Daufuskie’s mostly dirt and sand roads—cars aren’t even allowed on the small public ferry. While walking is certainly possible, the 9.6-square-mile-island is actually pretty spread out—there’s no central downtown area or anything like that, and most places you’ll want to explore are a few miles apart.

If you opt for wheels, you can rent a golf cart or bike on the island, but you’ll need to make a reservation in advance. If you have your own bike, you can bring it on the ferry free of charge. Fuskie Bikes has electric beach cruiser bikes for rent, and they will meet you at your ferry landing, whereas Tour Daufuskie has ferry and golf cart rental packages. And if you’re staying at Haig Point, a golf cart rental is included in your stay.

Don’t mind if I do. | Haig Point

Don’t stay in a hotel, but do stay in a historic lighthouse or mansion

Day-tripping to Daufuskie is popular and easy thanks to the ferry. But if you do want to stay the night, it’s important to note that Daufuskie, which only got electricity in the 1950s, has no hotels. Instead, visitors looking to stay overnight can find one of a handful of Airbnbs, or spend the night at a historic home in the exclusive Haig Point community and golf club. While a circa-1910 mansion is an option at Haig Point, can anyone really pass up the lighthouse? Not I.

The Haig Point Lighthouse was constructed in 1872 on the northern tip of the island and was in operation until the 1930s. The lighthouse has a traditionally furnished two-room guesthouse with a kitchen, dining room, and porch overlooking Calibogue Sound. Yes, staying there is as cool as it sounds. There’s something really special about seeing a giant flashing light emanating from your home—and it’s impossible to get lost.

The First Union African Baptist Church is an important preservation for Gullah culture. | Unsplash/Yohan Marion

Hear stories from long ago about Gullah culture and war horses

There are a number of tours you can take around the island but the best is Sallie Ann’s Authentic Gullah Tour, which is led by Sallie Ann Robinson, a sixth generation Gullah native who knows pretty much all there is to know about the island. You’ll hear how she and many others are descendants of a large population of freed slaves who made their homes here after the Civil War, fostering the vibrant Gullah culture that preserves many traditions from Africa. Which is a nice change of pace from the otherwise history you’ll hear about the previous slave-labor cotton plantation here and indigenous people massacred by European colonizers.

Tour stops include the 140-year-old First Union African Baptist Church; the Mary Fields School, built in 1934 for Black children, where author Pat Conroy taught in the late 1960s and early 1970s (a proud, oft-mentioned fact); and the Mary Fields Cemetery, which is the largest Gullah graveyard and dates back to the early 1800s.

If you’re interested in horses, stop by the Marsh Tacky Society, which celebrates and protects the native, endangered Marsh Tacky Horse. The animal was designated the South Carolina State Heritage Horse in 2010 and is about the size of an extra large Great Dane (so pretty small for a horse). Tackies, as they’re affectionately called, have a 500-year history in these parts, and their DNA traces them back to Spanish war mounts from the 1500s. The society offers tours where visitors can meet the resident Tackies, as well as private guided trail rides on the island for experienced riders. The Equestrian Center at Haig Point also has a resident Tacky named Nemo.

Old Daufuskie Crab Company
You can fry it, bake it, sauté it… | Old Daufuskie Crab Company

Pair Southern seafood with moonshine cocktails

Daufuskie has a few island specialties, including Daufuskie Deviled Crabs (a mixture of local crab meat with celery, parsley, garlic, green onions, Duke’s mayonnaise, and Dijon mustard placed back in the shell and covered with breadcrumbs before being baked) and fresh oysters, which used to be a major industry for Gullahs. Daufuskie is home to several restaurants, but the ones worth seeking out feel like they can only exist on the island.

In the morning, head to the back of the Mary Fields School to find School Grounds Coffee, a historic two-room schoolhouse turned coffee shop serving drinks like cinnamon bun lattes and raspberry mochas, plus baked goods like cookies and bagels.

For lunch, head to Lucy Bell’s Cafe, which opened in 2016 but seems like it’s been there for decades, sitting under the shade of a giant oak tree. Guests can order delicacies like Low Country Seafood Gumbo, Fuskie Seafood Chowder, Cajun Grilled Redfish Sandwich, and Lucy’s Food Network Famous Deviled Crab Lunch, plus Southern classics like pimento cheese dip with Saltines, fried green tomatoes, and pecan pie for dessert.

At the Freeport Marina is Old Daufuskie Island Crab Co., which has some of the best sunset views on the island and live music on weekends. There, you can also get deviled crabs, plus soft shell crab tacos, pulled pork nachos, and freshly roasted oysters. Be sure to wash it all down with their signature cocktail, the Scrap Iron, named after a historic moonshine made by the Gullah community and made with sweet tea and Firefly vodka.

The Iron Fish Gallery
A lot goes into each little piece. | The Iron Fish Gallery

See artisans at work

Daufuskie’s local artisans have fostered a boutique shopping scene unique to the region. Daufuskie Blues, which is located inside the historic Mary Fields School, was started by friends Rhonda Davis and Leanne McJunkin Coulter in 2013. They create gorgeous custom textiles like scarves and recycled clothing that are hand-dyed with organic indigo—and their blue stained fingers prove it. Indigo plants started being grown in South Carolina in the 1700s and were a major cash crop, though today, it grows wild on Daufuskie.

Next door is Daufuskie Soap Co., which makes lotions, soaps, and scrubs in small batches by hand. Scents like Sea Island Cotton, Beach Music, and Georgia Peach will ensure you remember your Daufuskie Island trip once you’re back on the mainland.

About a 20-minute walk away, Chase Allen welds iron sculptures of coastal fish, mermaids, crabs, sea turtles, lobsters, and stingrays under the name Iron Fish Art. Visitors to his outdoor studio will often see Allen at work, with fiery sparks flying. And if he’s not around, there’s an honor box for you to leave cash or a check if you decide to buy something (or sign your name and number into the guest log and he’ll call for your credit card number).

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Devorah Lev-Tov is a contributor for Thrillist.