Enticing Edisto Island

Probably the best-kept travel secret in the great state of South Carolina is Edisto Island
and its surrounding geography. This consists of a barrier island with a truly pristine
ocean beach and miles of marshland on the other boundaries. Originally inhabited by the
Edistow Indians, Edisto Island still bears the imprints of its first occupants. Spanish
settlers also exerted their influence over the island a hundred years before it was
purchased, very reasonably, from the Indians by the English in 1674. Early settlers
prospered, living off the bounties of the sea, as well as by cultivating lucrative crops,
such as rice and indigo. The War Between the States came and went with federal occupation
in most of the plantation homes, causing major destruction of an architectural era. Some of
the homes were rebuilt to their original grandeur, but the planters switched to cotton
production. Today the cotton is gone, a victim of the boll weevil, and the fields bear
vegetables and melons. The island possesses as nice a state-park facility for motorhome
camping as you’ll find anywhere on the East Coast. There are two campgrounds, boasting a
total of 108 sites. The main camping area fronts the Atlantic, featuring a beach that
stretches for 1 1/2 miles of fine sand and seashells. Many campers spend hours collecting
the abundant shell and fossil remains along this gorgeous shore. On the main campground is
an Indian burial mound that is said to be more than 4,000 years old. Each of the
campgrounds offers water and electric hookups, and a dump station is located close by.
Almost every site is populated with some of the tallest palmetto trees in the state,
providing a tropical feel to the camping experience. The park features a gift shop, ocean
swimming and fishing, a picnic area with a shelter, a four-mile nature trail, a boat
landing and special summer nature programs. The primary nature activity from May through
August is protecting the nests and nesting habits of the endangered loggerhead sea turtles.
The program for Edisto Beach State Park is ably administered by Ranger Elaine Freeman,
along with a posse of volunteers who dedicate themselves to trying to improve the
one-in-10,000 odds a sea turtle has of making it to adulthood. Edisto Beach considers
itself fortunate to be a prime nesting site for the turtles, and Ranger Freeman is very
sincere in sharing her love of the species with any campers who might be interested.
Loggerhead turtles require a dark, quiet beach to successfully nest, and we can only
imagine how long they have been using this stretch of “heaven.” The second campground,
aptly called Live Oak, is located about a half-mile from the ocean, north on State Route
174. When you turn into the entrance, you are surrounded with the most beautiful,
moss-draped live-oak trees imaginable. The vegetation is so prolific that you feel as
though you have your very own piece of land, yet you are sharing it with 34 other campers.
The campground is bordered on one side by a creek with a picturesque marsh; on the other
side are heavy woods that enhance the rustic atmosphere. Needless to say, there is an
abundance of birds and wildlife to interest the most avid nature lover. Four miles north
from the beach on Route 174 is the only true serpentarium in the state. This educational
facility features a modern display of snakes and other reptiles from the region and around
the world. Alligators and turtles swim in large ponds in the outdoor gardens, while other
reptiles bask in the spacious indoor solarium. There is an indoor/outdoor theater where
interactive shows explain the purpose for reptiles in nature and how they benefit mankind.
This facility is one of the foremost in the South for providing raw venom from a number of
poisonous snakes for antitoxins. As for the cuisine of this delightful area, the best way
to enjoy the true flavor of the ocean is eating what comes from the sea. Of course,
catching, cleaning and cooking fresh-caught fish is the best way, but, for some of us, it’s
too much trouble. After years of visiting this area, I have discovered the next best thing
is located on the other end of the island (about two miles from the campground) at Bell
Buoy Seafood on Dock Site Road. Weldon Bell is the proprietor of the seafood business and
also the main fish wholesaler at Edisto. The key to Weldon’s success, however, is the
kitchen that he built a few years ago behind the store for his wife. Gwen and her
experienced staff clean, prepare and cook the seafood fresh from the dock and then convert
it into some of the tastiest ready-to-cook casseroles you will find anywhere. Seldom do I
leave Edisto without several items from the Bell Buoy Seafood Store in my freezer
compartment. If you prefer to have your meal prepared and served with expertise, you will
not be disappointed with The Old Post Office. Since before the turn of the century, this
has been a popular meeting place for Edistonians. Over a period of years, however, the
building had fallen into disrepair. Two local families refurbished the structure, located
at the entrance to the village on Route 174, establishing the ultimate in casual dining.
Try the shrimp and grits or the scallops and grits or try Firecracker Flounder, Deviled
Crab Cakes or Carolina Ribeye. All are prepared and presented beautifully at a reasonable
price. On the other side of the island, to the west where the sun disappears, is the Sunset
Grille. Perched on top of the Edisto Marina building at the entrance to Big Bay Creek, the
restaurant is owned by the same folks as The Old Post Office, but offers more of a
steak-and-seafood fare. As the name implies, making a visit close to sunset affords some of
the most gorgeous views you will find on the East Coast. The sun setting over the South
Edisto River and several miles of salt marsh create a scene that will be remembered long
after the visit ends. The Sunset Grille has enormous windows that take advantage of this
free show. There are many areas along the west end of the beach that also allow for the
same beautiful sight. One of the unique things about visiting these Carolina barrier
islands is the opportunity to enjoy sunrise and sunset from virtually the same location. As
a landscape photographer, I always marvel at both gifts of nature and have never seen two
exactly the same. Edisto Beach is a part of the ACE Basin buffer zone around the ACE Basin
National Estuarine Research Reserve. The ACE Basin encompasses 350,000 acres of wetlands
that include the watersheds of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers (for which it is
named), forming one of the most unspoiled estuary reserves in the country. Visitors can
experience this tranquillity with canoe and kayak rentals, wildlife tours of all kinds and
self-guided nature trails. There is the opportunity to enjoy natural beauty from any
campsite at the park as well. If you are looking to get away from it all, Edisto Island
surely offers the key. It is located at the extreme eastern end of State Route 174, off
U.S. Highway 17 between Charleston and Hilton Head.

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