Following history on our Hammock Coast, South Carolina family vacation
I’ve always thought the best stories are the fairytales immortalized in children’s books and on the big screen. But, what if they’re actually the tales of people and places that thrive under the radar? That was a question I found myself asking on our recent family getaway to the Hammock Coast. Halfway between South Carolina’s most well-known spots, Charleston and Myrtle Beach, this lesser-known locale is rich in history as well as pristine beaches. I was eager to share it with my husband, Dave, our 13-year-old daughter, Laney, and our 11-year-old son, Carson.
THEN AND NOW
After checking into a beautifully restored antebellum bed & breakfast, our trip started with a trolley tour of the town through Swamp Fox Tours. Dating back to 1729, Georgetown is one of the state’s oldest cities. Many of its original structures still stand, marked by plaques honoring their status in the National Register of Historic Places.
But Georgetown’s hometown hero was even more famous than its historic buildings. Dave was fascinated to hear our tour guide talk about how the Hammock Coast was the stomping grounds of the notorious “Swamp Fox.” Although we’d never heard of him before, his real name was Francis Marion, and it turns out we were already familiar with his escapades leading a guerilla militia during the Revolutionary War. He was the inspiration behind Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot—a very cool story that’s certainly no fairytale.
At the recommendation of our guide, we drove the 15 minutes to Pawleys Island to catch the sunset there. While Dave and I sat back, Laney and her brother messed around with photos on their phones. In an uncommon act of patience (maybe influenced by the relaxed island pace), Laney showed her little brother how to take a time lapse video. In return, he did cartwheels and handstands on the sand to give her a subject in the golden hour.
Our evening excursion only whet our appetite for the shore. The next day, we were back on sand even before our normal weekday alarms would have gone off. This time it was on Garden City Beach. Dave and Laney started with a jog along the water’s edge. Carson wanted waves, so he and I began the day with a splash. The four of us swam, played catch, snacked and relaxed all the while appreciating the clean, uncrowded, natural playground. We dried off with a walk along the pier, where Dave and I chatted with a couple of anglers with their lines in the swells while the kids peeked over the railing trying to spot creatures.
FAMILIAR FACES AND A CASTLE FORTRESS
“You want to go to a garden?” Dave asked Laney, puzzled, as we left. Unlike Laney and me, he had little interest in flowers. “Don’t worry, Dad,” Laney reassured him. “Brookgreen Gardens has a thousand things to see. Plus there’s a castle really close by.” “A castle?!” we heard Carson shout from the backseat.
Originally a rice plantation, Brookgreen Gardens is an expanse of lush vegetation painstakingly landscaped to complement its world-renowned sculpture collection. It’s also home to boat tours, a labyrinth, indoor art exhibits and a zoo. It was artsy Laney’s Eden, but we all enjoyed walking among the bronze, terra cotta and wax figures waiting around every corner. Always a goof, Carson enjoyed mimicking their poses. “It’s like the mannequin challenge!” he insisted, referencing something he’d seen on the internet.
True, this was the age of viral videos, but here at the gardens, I felt transported back in time. On my left was St. Francis, Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary. On my right: Adonis, Dionysus and Aphrodite. Dave and I felt like proud parents when the kids recognized the busts of Don Quixote, Charles Dickens and Hans Christen Anderson. We had to explain who Virginia Woolf was, but then they returned the favor at the “Fall of France.” It depicted the German occupation during WWII—an event both kids had clearly studied in school.
After posing for a family photo next to the Swamp Fox statue, we headed across the road to Huntington Beach State Park to see Atalaya Castle, the former Huntington residence. Anna Huntington was an early 19th century sculptor. Some of her pieces were on display in Brookgreen Gardens, which she and her husband Archer had gifted to the community.
Atalaya, meaning watchtower in Arabic, was a peculiar sight: a sprawling single-story stone fortress flanked by palm trees. In some places the ivy and vines climbing up the walls. It’s a shame no one still lived in this 30-room castle. The arched brick porticos opening up to the large inner courtyard gave me home envy. Yet another impressive feature was the 40 foot-tall-tower. “It used to hold a 3,000-gallon water tank used by the Army Air Corps,” said our tour guide. “The Huntingtons moved out in the early 1940s and let them use Atalaya during WWII.”
At the sound of “WWII” the kids’ ears perked up. I knew they were looking forward to sharing this story about an abandoned castle on American soil with their teachers. It might even be news to them, too.
A FRIEND OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS
The next few days of our vacation were a glorious blur of beaches, boating and golfing. We were in complete vacation mode. But whether we were on a boogie board, in a pontoon boat or pitching from the sandpit, we couldn’t escape the sense that we were somewhere historically significant.
On our last day, we visited one of the area’s premier attractions, Hopsewee Plantation. With its columns and upper and lower porches running the entire width of the house, the two-story white structure epitomized Colonial architecture. But what distinguished this plantation home from others also dating back to the 1700s, was the fact that people still lived here. During the “Cellar-to-Attic” tour, the homeowners explained how they see themselves as stewards of a property the public should have a chance to visit. After all, it was the childhood home of Thomas Lynch Jr., one of the 56 men who signed the most important document in American history.
“Mom, did you know the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress on July 2nd?” Carson asked. “In other words, America is two days older than people think.”
STORIES TO COME
After visiting Hopsewee, we drove a few miles up the road to the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center and nature reserve to get even more of a nature fix. I would say it was a fairytale ending, but I’d rather not think of it as a conclusion. Stories have been made and told here for generation upon generation, and luckily, there’s no end in sight.