THE LOWCOUNTRY REGION: HOME OF THE GULLAH COMMUNITY

Several years ago when Bruce and I visited Charleston, one of the things that intrigued me most was the Gullah culture. It was our first time in the Lowcountry, and we were unfamiliar with the customs, creole language, and cuisine of the Gullah people who are descendants of enslaved Africans and live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia.

Today, we visited Penn Center on St. Helena Island which is the heart of the Gullah community. Founded in 1862, it was originally the first school for freed African Slaves. In addition to traditional subjects, trades and marketable skills such as agriculture, carpentry, and homemaking were taught. As the students learned, they utilized their new skills to help sustain and maintain the school.

Closed in the 1940’s, Penn became a central meeting place for those involved in the civil rights movement. It was a safe place blacks and whites could sit down together to discuss strategy and issues; and, it is also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly began his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1974, Penn Center was designated a National Historic Landmark District, and is the only African American landmark district in the nation. Today, in addition to the museum, the center offers educational and cultural programs related to the history of the Sea Islands and Gullah people.

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One of the things I enjoyed seeing most at the museum and Welcome Center was the display of sweetgrass coil baskets woven by members of the Gullah community.

Originally used as a way to clean rice using the “fanning” method, rice was placed in the baskets to separate the hull from the seed after it was first broken up with a mortar and pestle.

A craft passed down from mother to daughter, there are now over 1,500 people involved in some aspect of basket making. These baskets were woven by Jery Bennet Taylor and are sold at Penn Center:
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SCENES FROM PENN CENTER AND ST. HELENA ISLAND

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BEAUTIFUL BEAUFORT

Since moving to the East Coast in 2009, Bruce and I have taken our kayaks with us to explore the waters around Sanibel Island (twice), St. Augustine, and Laguna Beach– all in Florida. This time, we opted for a Lowcountry adventure and chose to visit Beaufort, South Carolina.

Located between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia, Beaufort is situated along the Intracoastal Waterway. It is a kayaker’s paradise with more than 200 marsh islands to paddle around, 175 species of wetland birds to observe and photograph, great fishing (Bruce is going for redfish), and plenty of bottlenose dolphins to watch while Bruce is busy catching those reds.

South Carolina’s second oldest city and The Sea Islands surrounding Beaufort were first discovered by French explorer Jean Ribaut more than 450 years ago. The city of Beaufort wasn’t founded, though, until 1711 by the English.

This quaint and historic city is known for its ongoing revival and celebration of Gullah culture including its cuisine which blends flavors from Africa and the West Indies. Frogmore stew (also known as Lowcountry Boil) is a Gullah dish that dates back hundreds of years and originated in the Frogmore area of St. Helena Island near Beaufort. A combination of shrimp, sausage, corn, onions and potatoes; it’s the most famous dish of the region. We plan on enjoying some of it during the Shrimp Festival next weekend.

Our home-away-from-home during our visit is a wonderful rental we found through VRBO. This is the owner’s second home; his main residence being in another beautiful city, Ithaca, New York.

This place felt like home the moment we stepped inside. Built in 2012, it’s still very modern and new, but casual and comfortable. The kitchen is awesome; one of the main draws for Bruce who loves cooking up the local shrimp and fish. Another selling point was the view of the marsh from the house, including the screened-in porch. (Stay tuned for photos in another post.) The Spanish moss-covered huge oak trees on the property surrounding the house were a bonus. The best feature, though, is the long private dock over the marsh, and the boat landing just down the street where dolphins can be viewed feeding just 50 yards from the boat ramp. This morning, I paddled out to watch them.

We couldn’t beat the house’s location, especially with it being so close to the historic downtown area full of antebellum homes featured in movies such as The Big Chill, The Prince of Tides, Forrest Gump, and more.

Our first several days here just zipped by. We arrived last Tuesday, and mid-week was spent settling in and exploring the area. It was love at first sight!

We had hoped to take three different kayak trips with Kim and David of Beaufort Kayak Tours; however, the weather didn’t cooperate, and we ended up having to settle for just one before they left for vacation. That tour was on Friday, and it was a gorgeous, calm evening on the water following a day of rain and thunderstorms that kept us holed-up indoors.

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Our guides, Kim and David

The group (joining the kayak club for the tour, and using our own kayaks saved us $40 each!) launched off Fripp Island Inlet and headed out to the marsh across the way. After stopping to see a huge bald eagle nest, we paddled back out to the open water to see the dolphins. There is a particular spot where they are known to feed, and when I say “they”, I mean that literally. There were pods of dolphins all over! In just about any direction I pointed my kayak, I would eventually see dorsal fins pop out of the water without waiting too long. On three different occasions, we saw a dolphin jump high out of the water! Unfortunately, I missed the shot each time. After all, this isn’t Sea World where the Dolphin Show hostess instructs you to “have your camera ready, because Flipper is going to jump through that hoop high in the air when I blow the whistle!” Rather, photographing dolphins in the wild is more like herding cats.

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Just as I was aiming to get a nice shot of Kim, she pointed to a dolphin jumping out of the water.  He was long gone before I got a shot.

Having said that, I did manage to get these two photos. The second was shot– no joke– no more than six feet from my boat:

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