Travel

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

No cars, no hotels, no winter blues.

Unsplash/Yohan Marion
Unsplash/Yohan Marion
Unsplash/Yohan Marion

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
Tour Daufuskie, LLC
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.

Haig Point
Haig Point
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.

Unsplash/Yohan Marion
Unsplash/Yohan Marion
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
Old Daufuskie Crab Company
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
The Iron Fish Gallery
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).Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Devorah Lev-Tov is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.