Recently I learned that Palmetto Cheese, the only commercial brand of pimiento cheese I like (and how), comes from Pawleys Island. I attribute that primarily to the fact that I had not heard much of Pawleys Island before I was invited to visit.
Not as recently, we’re talking two months straight, I’ve had “Reach the Beach” by The Fixx stuck in my head. It is almost like my spirit was manifesting some time away to another world.
“I start to drift with the tide
Maybe I’ll reach, I’ll reach the beach
My heart is sealed watertight
Maybe I’ll reach. I’ll reach the beach”
You can reach this beach by traveling just 12 miles northeast from Georgetown or 20 miles south of Myrtle Beach. There is something about a self-proclaimed “arrogantly shabby” town that I can certainly appreciate.
The town of Pawleys Island is not too big and not too small, but the actual barrier island itself is hardly even four miles long. It is essentially just wide enough for one household and has a row of original homes in the historic district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now that I have soaked up some Pawleys Island love for myself I can tell you what it is known for, and rightfully so.
Think of giant palm trees, salt marshes, whimsical hammocks, fishing charters, ghost legends of the Gray Man and Alice Flagg, and most deliciously, the multi-cultural fusion of lowcountry, Gullah-Geechee, and Winyah/Waccamaw Native cultures enmeshed with the American beach lifestyle.
Pawleys Island is one of the oldest beach resort communities on the East Coast, located near the southern end of the 60-mile coastal stretch called the Grand Strand.
The tiny island runs parallel to the mainland, and is close enough that you may not even know it is an island off the coast unless you really zoom in on a map.
A European settler named Percival Pawley was given a federal land grant back in the early 1700s and he named the land after his three sons. The family later sold off parts of the land to various wealthy plantation owners to use for their summer homes.
Typical for most islands, hurricanes often destroy many homes and historic sites over time. One of the Pawleys’ most famous ghost legends is of the Gray Man, who has been spotted countless times to warn people before a bad storm.
In 1954 Hurricane Hazel destroyed almost every new home built in the previous decade, and in 1989 many of those rebuilt ones were destroyed again, and rebuilt yet again. Thankfully the area has not seen any serious destruction for a while.
Aside from pimiento cheese, Pawleys is known around the world for its hammocks. Joshua Ward was a river captain in the 1800s and is credited for inventing this rope and hammock design. They have been sold from the same location in Pawleys Island since the 1930s.
Wouldn’t you love to stretch out on one of these right about now?
The tradition of hammock-making is still practiced in the village Hammock shop and is one of the main draws for tourists. You can watch the hammocks being made by craftsman and purchase them on the spot.
Another example of distinct design Pawleys Island is known for is the gabled roofs, wrap-around porches, and “arrogantly shabby” cypress siding of its homes.
You will not find any chain stores, hotels, or restaurants on the island. When the town incorporated in 1985, residents mandated an ordinance limiting any type of industrial or commercial properties or any such developments.
Only the Sea View Inn, which is now the home of Palmetto Cheese, and the Pelican Inn which is a private home built in the 1880s, are exempt. The community prides itself on being locally owned and boasts the slogan to “Keep Pawleys as it is!”
To get on or off the island you must cross the causeway, and there is so much to see in the extended Town of Pawleys Island.
Salt Marshes and vast area of mud are common here, as remnants of a once-great rice empire.
If you drive around the Pawley’s Island Nature Park you will see lots of private docks and rental homes here, a giant fishing pier, tons of adorable homes, and the Town Hall.
The Pawleys Island Nature Park has no website but is located at 321 Myrtle Avenue surrounding Town Hall, a modest one-story cabin unlike any other town hall I have seen.
Less than 20 minutes north of Pawleys Island is the Hunting Beach State Park in Murrel’s Inlet. Visitors can explore, swim, surf, fish, birdwatch, camp, and relax in these 2500+ acres, however the “guaranteed” alligator sightings in the park’s freshwater lake did not put me at ease.
I loved seeing so many varieties of palmettos, sago palms, and other foliage I do not always get to see out in the woods or in state parks back at home.
Inside the Hunting Beach State Park is the Atalaya Castle, the remnants of a wealthy philanthropist couple’s winter home. Archer and Anna Huntington, the park’s namesake, built this home in 1931.
The windows are barred with uncharacteristically bright Robin’s Egg blue cages but we were able to see inside quite a bit. It was closed for COVID-19 concerns so I did not get a lot of details, but check out this video:
Atalaya, the Spanish term for “watchtower” seems fitting. From the outside it looks a lot more like an abandoned prison or asylum than a seasonal getaway, like the kind of place that you hear blood-curdling screams coming from in the night.
Nearby, we made a brief cameo at Brookgreen Gardens, the US’s largest sculpture park. The Huntingtons also left these gardens behind in their legacy, but we arrived when they were closing.
In the meantime, watch this video to learn more:
It can be difficult finding lodging on Pawleys Island proper, but there are some really incredible places in other parts of the town and beyond.
We stayed just a few minutes away at a resort called Litchfield by the Sea. It was a beautiful and in less than three minutes we could walk downstairs, past the pool, and have our feet in the sand.
Litchfield is a golf resort community with impeccable landscaping, golf cart friendly roads, bike paths, pool, fountains, a club house, tennis complex, golf range, restaurant and tiki bar onsite.
Guests have their own private entrance to the beach and the area is known for being undisturbed, peaceful, and less crowded than most other beaches.
I really enjoyed the pristine sand and clear water. Our gracious hosts set up a giant umbrella that kept me from exposing my milk-white neck to the sun while still enjoying the view and salty ocean air.
Living in East Tennessee, I can not even begin to describe how wonderful it was to not suffer from allergies and dry sinuses for a few days.
On our first day we saw lots of deceased jellies, but none afterward. I had only one encounter with a tiny sand crab and to be fair, I accidentally pinched it first.
I was surprised by how many different and rare species of birds we saw driving around Pawleys and Litchfield. This bird, while not rare, kept me company for the first hour or so of the 3.5 hours I spent on the beach one morning from sunrise until nearly 11 am.
He hopped back and forth so quickly I could scarcely see his little legs move as he plucked up sea critters then switched directions between a 20 feet range.
Occasionally a human speed walker would pass, but never linger. I had the beach to myself.
To keep us out of crowded restaurants, we went to the market as soon as we arrived to stock up on fresh fruit and seafood. I was thrilled to find so many colourful exotic items that are not as easy to come by back at home.
I think we all did a great job making simple meals like steak roulade with sweet potatoes, grilled salmon on toasted garlic buttered bread, and breakfast biscuits.
Biting into a slice of sweet, slightly over-ripe pineapple while watching and hearing the waves is one of my favourite multi-sensory memories of the whole trip.
The nearby Hammock Shops Village is a popular tourist shopping hub that bills itself “The Heart of Pawleys since 1938”. It has over two dozen shops and a couple restaurants. Here you can visit the original Pawleys Island Rope Hammock and watch weavers in action.
We picked up a few treats from High Country Olive Oils which also sells vinegars, jams, jellies, rubs, spice mixes, and other gourmet items. Ole Magick Ways shop has a very limited supply of herbs and magick tools but it was a comfort to see kindred spirits in a mainstream tourist area.
On our last night there, we had cocktails at Bourbon & Burnz which specializes in whiskey, bourbon, and cigars. We were the only guests and sat outside on the patio in fresh air. Their Boulevardier and Old-Fashioned were spot on.
R’Way Pizza was right across the street, and an unnamed informant slipped us some info that after they “close” each night, they sell $1 pizza slices to in-the-know locals who enjoy standing around chatting in the parking lot as long as they like.
Maybe it was because I don’t remember the last time I ate pizza prior to this, or because it was just so nice to be out somewhere (still distanced) in public, but we had such a great time here and the pizza is FIRE.
We sampled a bit of everything including the bacon and cheese, Margherita, and Buffalo chicken pizzas plus the quesadilla and pimiento cheese burger. Don’t judge us.
One unfortunate part about traveling while taking precautions against COVID-19 is that we had to just accept that a lot of places we wanted to see would be closed. In this case, we missed seeing the Hocobaw Barony, Pawley’s Island Tavern, the famous Pelican Inn, and Barefoot Landing. Next time, for sure.
Honestly though, my favourite moments were sitting out on the beach late at night, sprawled out in the sand listening to Motown and Russian post-punk/goth bands, tumblers full of booze, laughing, watching the stars, and listening to the waves.
I have never cared for the sun and sand throughout my life but because of my experiences here, I can not wait to go back.
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