From wild dolphins to fine dining, Seabrook Island, Charleston beckon

  • Tracey Teo
  • For the AJC
12:00 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 Travel
Bottlenose dolphins exhibit an unusual behavior called strand feeding in coastal South Carolina. CONTRIBUTED BY PATRICIA SCHAEFER

In the coastal town of Seabrook Island, S.C., visitors gather at Pelican Beach, the point where the Edisto River meets the Atlantic, and wait for low tide. The excitement is palpable as everyone scans the waves. An observant photographer signals that he has spotted a fin, and soon, the water is studded with them.

Finally, the big moment comes. Like soldiers preparing for battle, a pod of bottlenose river dolphins get into formation and charge the shore in a formidable amphibious assault that sends a school of mullet flying through the air as though they were shot from a cannon. The hapless fish flop on the sloped beach before becoming fodder for this feeding frenzy.

The dolphins intentionally beach themselves, open their mouths wide, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth, and ravenously gulp down as many fish as possible before their physiology forces them to return to the water.

Brown pelicans and seagulls join the mayhem, flapping and screeching as they greedily devour leftovers.

The South Carolina Lowcountry is one of the few places in the world where this unusual behavior called “strand feeding” can be observed. What humans must be taught in corporate team-building exercises, wild dolphins do naturally — work together toward a common goal that benefits the whole group.

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Many visitors to Seabrook Island, S.C., bicycle to the beach. CONTRIBUTED BY WESLEY K.H. TEO

Seabrook Island is a resortlike gated community that offers world-class golf, tennis and miles of sun-drenched beaches, but for nature lovers, wildlife is the main attraction, and there are many ways to observe the marine life and terrestrial fauna that flourish in this complex ecosystem of fresh- and saltwater habitats.

Hit a hiking trail, hop on a bike or charter a boat and zip through marshy backwaters spiked by tall Spartina grass.

For equestrian-minded folks, there’s nothing more exhilarating than checking out the island’s natural beauty on horseback. The Seabrook Island Equestrian Center sets this destination apart because it’s one of the few places in the region where horseback riding on the beach is allowed. Trail rides through the maritime forest are also available.

There’s an excursion for every skill level, so whether you want a pony ride for a child or an advanced ride suited only to the most accomplished equestrians, the center has got you covered.

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Seabrook Island visitors enjoy horseback riding on the beach. CONTRIBUTED BY SEABROOK ISLAND EQUESTRIAN CENTER

Most riders want something in between.

Cecile Shaw, the barn manager and guide, sees many of the same families year after year, and she derives satisfaction in watching the progression of their equestrian skills.

“We have visitors that have grown up with our horses. They probably came here with their parents or grandparents and did a pony ride. That was their segue into riding,” Shaw said. “For some people, believe it or not, that first ride took them all the way through college on an equestrian team. For others, it might just be an annual experience.”

Either way, an early morning ride along a deserted beach can be a vacation highlight.

After all, starting the day with dolphins frolicking in the waves or majestic osprey diving for fish is a rare privilege.

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Charleston is only a 45-minute drive from Seabrook, and many detour to this charming port city celebrated for its antebellum mansions and dynamic food scene before concluding their vacation. The Holy City is steeped in history, but it’s not frozen in time. On the contrary, there’s always something new.

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The boutique inn 86 Cannon opened in Charleston, S.C., in February. CONTRIBUTED BY WESLEY K.H. TEO

Take 86 Cannon, for example. This boutique inn in a circa-1860 Charleston single house opened in the up-and-coming Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood in February following an 18-month renovation.

Thanks to Charleston-based designer Betsy Berry of B. Berry Interiors, this three-story antebellum gem doesn’t feel like a house-museum where you can’t sit on the furniture.

Classic French flourishes add a touch of romance to the five guest rooms while the common areas combine midcentury touches with Southern style. Comfy sofas and chairs seem to say, “Come and sit a spell.”

Perhaps the most inviting aspect of the inn is the upstairs piazza (porch), where guests gather to chat over complimentary wine and cheese every evening.

When it comes to fine dining, the big news is McCrady’s, chef Sean Brock’s flagship restaurant that helped propel him to culinary rock star status years ago. The reason for all the buzz now is Brock’s recent reimagining of the overall dining concept.

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Kitchen staff at McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., plate a course for the new tasting menu. CONTRIBUTED BY WESLEY K.H. TEO

After being temporarily shuttered, the restaurant reopened last fall as a house divided — in the best way possible. McCrady’s and McCrady’s Tavern offer two distinct dining experiences. McCrady’s Tavern is a laid-back eatery heavy on local seafood — delicious, but not unique.

McCrady’s, in its new incarnation, is a different story. To get there, diners pass through a heavy wooden door in the tavern that looks like a portal to the past, but, paradoxically, leads to the future — the future of fine dining in Charleston, anyway.

Brock says the upscale, multicourse tasting menu “is about showcasing the flavors and ingredients of the South, but with a global perspective gained from my travels.”

The dining room accommodates only 18 people, and the most coveted seats are the 12 that surround a U-shaped counter with a view of the open kitchen.

The mood in the kitchen is intense, the staff laser-focused on every detail of each course. Tweezers in hand, they huddle together over small plates like surgeons performing a delicate operation, meticulously placing every piece of parsley and edible flower petal.

Whether it’s aged, grilled beef served with farro-stuffed cabbage or thinly sliced cobia on a bed of fresh, summer corn, each dish is a work of art.

Seabrook Island and Charleston are two very different, but equally fascinating, sides of the Lowcountry. One is wild and raw; the other is sophisticated and refined. Together, they form a unique pocket of Southern culture that draws visitors from around the world.

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