A Day in the Life of a Pawleys Island First-Timer

Like finding out for the first time what rest and recreation really means

By Annette Thompson

We are a beach family. We find inspiration at the shore. The roll of the surf plays like a symphony to our ears, and the sun sparkling on the water fills our imaginations’ paintings.

We’d heard whisperings about Pawleys Island, about how this little four-mile sliver along South Carolina’s Hammock Coast remains little changed from its earliest beginnings, that it offers family-sized beach homes and no traffic-clogged sprawl. We’d heard about how this family or the other one visits year after year. I wondered how newcomers might feel in this place steeped in longstanding traditions. In search of an idyllic atmosphere, our family of four set off to discover the laid-back isle.

We crossed the bridge onto the island at the end of a travel day, as the setting sun burnished the salt grasses bronze. I immediately felt at home while locating our rental house, ditching our bags and setting out for a barefoot stroll next to the waves in the waning light. As darkness descended, the moon lifted out of the ocean, illuminating the tips of waves. Our two young teenaged sons wandered in front of us, skittering in and out of the water and splashing. My husband took my hand in his.

That night we pulled open our bedroom’s window sash, as the sea breeze billowed the little white curtains. The rolling surf played the sweetest background music ever. I don’t think I’ve slept that well in ages.

Day break

In daylight, the essence of Pawleys magnified. We sat amid a string of larger-than-expected beach houses that lined the shore. Locals call the style here “arrogantly shabby,” (forgivable because of the charm and welcome the wind- and salt-worn wooden structures exude). I could imagine three or four generations of the same family bedded down inside each one, sipping coffee and savoring breakfast on the porch overlooking the ocean. As my crew began to rise, they were rested and quiet—a departure from the rush back home.

Time felt different here. The small roads declared a 25-mph limit for driving, and most folks seemed to move at a relaxed pace. I bet our hearts even beat slower on this isle, in cadence with the natural rhythms of waves and tide, sun and moon. We felt ready for a new day!

The marsh life

As the sun rose high enough to warrant sunglasses, we joined the guides from Black River Outdoors for a leisurely paddle along Pawleys Island’s backwaters. We moved our sit-on-top kayaks through the tea-stained brown waters, spying long-legged herons stalking the shallows for minnows, and could make out oyster beds and scuttling crabs along the sandy bottom. Overhead, ospreys soared and dove to snare fish in their talons. Yet because we paddled in saltwater (not fresh), we avoided encounters with snakes and alligators. Our guides allowed that if we paddled the nearby Waccamaw River instead that we just might see those creatures. While my youngest son wanted to explore gator-territory, I was happy to keep to the salt life along the marshes of Pawleys Island.

Afterward, we meandered over to the Sea View Inn, the only business on the island where the public has the opportunity to dine out for breakfast or lunch. You see, other than three commercial properties — the Sea View, The Pelican Inn and the Pawleys Pier Village — there are no businesses on Pawleys. No gas stations. No gift shops. No grocery stores. And, yes, no restaurants.

The Sea View Inn, however, opens its dining room to not only its guests but to the public, as well (with a required reservation, of course!). Breakfast is at 8:30 a.m. and dinner (what I would call “lunch”) is at 1:15 p.m. Evenings at the Sea View are strictly for guests of the inn.

Charmingly, an actual bell is rung to call the hungry to the tables, and, oh my, is it worth it! This is home cooking at its very best and delectable. An exact daily menu has played out at the Sea View for years. Every Saturday, for example, the dinner entree is pork barbecue sandwiches. Every Sunday is fruit salad and crab divine. A structured menu follows on the weekdays, as well, with fried shrimp, fried chicken, pork chops, barbecue chicken, and baked snapper each taking their daily starring roles.

To my delight, we were dining at the Sea View on fried chicken day, and it was perfectly Southern — crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. I don’t know how the staff does it, other than it’s not just cooking, it’s art. In addition to a large fried chicken breast, the rest of the meal included potato salad, squash casserole, sliced tomatoes and biscuits. It ended on a high note, too – the best pecan pie (topped with whipped cream, of course) I’ve ever tasted.

I made a mental note then and there to make a future Pawleys vacation to not only dine here but to stay here, as well. Since 1937, this white clapboard bed and breakfast has welcomed guests to settle into a rocking chair on its screened porch. 

After lunch, we ventured off the island to “the mainland,” where there are, of course, lots of restaurants, shops and places to get ice cream, all, for the most part, situated along U.S. Highway 17, better known as “Ocean Highway.” Much of the shopping is nestled in small hamlets such as The Hammock Shops Village, the Village Shops, and the Island Shops, where eclectic businesses sell everything from Pawleys-themed jewelry and artwork to traditional T-shirts and postcards.

We specifically sought out The Original Hammock Shop, where original rope hammocks have been made by hand since the 1930s. It’s, perhaps, Pawleys’ most famous export – and, we learned, how the region got its moniker of “South Carolina’s Hammock Coast.”

The rope hammock was invented by a local riverboat captain in the late 1800s. His hand-woven design, it seems, made a comfier bed than the lumpy hard mattresses of his time. Our vacation home had one of the hammocks on the front porch. It was big enough for my husband and me, and we curled together reading. We quickly knew it was the souvenir we wanted to take home with us!

Something’s fishy around here

We had left the boys on the island and when we returned, we found them splayed out on the sand snoozing. It’s wonderful how a sleeping teenage son reminds us so much of the wee lads we raised not too long ago.

We had rented seine nets and crab traps from Pawleys Kayaks to try our hands at catching dinner, so we convinced the boys to get up from their beach slumber to help us out. We also cast lines from the marsh bridge to see if we could reel in some flounder known to hang out there.

No flounder found us, but we did corral some mullet with our net—enough to smoke on the grill and blend into a dip for dinner. I stopped by the Seafood Market and brought home some fresh flounder easily enough—and the hubs ordered in some provisions from the local Lowes Good grocery store to round out our larder.

When the sun dipped below Pawleys' horizon again, it seemed that most folks stopped what they were doing to take in the sight. We did, too. As the golden orb dipped into the marsh and the pink, purple and gold light filled the skies, we saluted the end of the perfect island day.

We slowly ambled back to the beach side again to enjoy the moonrise with wine and soda. Toasting our first full Pawleys Island day, we looked to tomorrow. I thought I’d try to stand up on a surfboard in a morning session with the folks from Surf the Earth, and my guys were excited to learn to become true surfing dudes. Meanwhile, Surf the Earth promised to teach safe techniques, as well as info about currents, winds and tides.

My husband surprised me by also suggesting birding—something he’s never mentioned before. But he said his dad took him birding a few times as a kid, and he wanted to share the experience with the boys.

Then it struck me: I’d initially wondered how we’d fit in as first-timers on an island with such a strong legacy. There’s no special handshake, ceremony or popularity contest. After one day, we had become Pawleys’ people. We felt right at home. And when we return again, we’ll be like this family or the other who return here year after year. It’s that simple.

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