Pawleys Island, S.C. — You have to be intrigued with a place that calls itself "arrogantly shabby." That's the message on a bumper sticker I brought home from Pawleys Island, a sandy, sleepy shelf that rides just off the South Carolina coast about 70 miles north of Charleston, an island that has none of the clipped, country-club air of Hilton Head, Kiawah, or Seabrook, and is proud of it.
Come to think of it, Pawleys might better characterize itself as proud rather than arrogant. Up and down the Carolina coast I have met longtime residents who speak with an almost misthey spent with their children, maids, and nannies at the old family beach house on Pawleys. The night before I drove up from Charleston, I heard the following magnolia-scented encomium from a woman who grew up in Kings Tree, S.C.:
"I spent the happiest days of my young life on that island. I remember shagging -- that's a dance -- on warm Saturday nights at the Pawleys Island Pavillion. Of course the most poignant movement was that last Saturday night when the music stopped -- we danced to the Caravelles, the Hearts, Tom Black and the Catalinas -- and the summer was over and we all went back to school. I remember the time I was home in Kings Tree on vacation from college and I heard that the pavillon had burned down. I cried right there at the breakfast table."
I was still a little misty myself as I headed up Us 17 the next morning on the four-lane divided highway that cuts through Francis Marion National Forest. There are at least two stops worth making on the way -- one along the several miles of roadside stands just north of Charlestone where local craftsmen weave and sell baskets, pot pads, and other objects of sweet grass and palmetto strips , and at the little town of McClellanville, which absolutely drips with mossy gothic Southern charm.
Just beyond Georgetown, a turnoff from US 17 leads to a causeway, and suddenly you are across a marshy river and onto the main (and almost only) road on Pawleys Island. Perhaps "shabby" does not describe the Pawleys ambiance; rustic is more like it. The island is only three miles long, maybe a quarter-mile wide from the beach in front of the main row of houses to the marsh-surrounded docks behind them. Some of the houses could have used a coat of paint, and if they seemed on first glance to be less than the huge and rambling structures people told me they would be, they were at the least fetching and unimposing.
I had no one in particular to call on, so I followed a sign to the Cassena Inn and pulled up in front of a wood-frame house with two cars parked on the lawn. When I described Pawleys as sleepy, I meant it literally. I knocked on the door screen, and Mr. William F. Prioleau led me into a partly darkened living room where a young man in jogging shorts -- William F. Prioleau Jr., it turned out, "Will" for short -- lay on a sofa awakening from a midmorning nap.
Once he awoke, though, young Will, whose parents own the Cassena Inn, became a bubbling fount of local knowledge. A student at the College of Charleston, he has spent his summers on Pawleys and even worked for a time weaving the famous Pawleys Island rope hammock, which swings on porches and in gardens all over the South. Will began to describe the weaving process, but first I wanted to know more about the inn, and other island intelligence.
The Cassena Inn is one of four or five inns and rooming houses left on the island, and as Will said, rising from the sofa, "It's a little different from your Holiday Inn." There are 16 simple screen-windowed rooms across the road from the Prioleau house; guests take breakfast at 8:30 and Southern "dinner" at 1:30 in a screen-porch dining room, with long tables and overhead fans; and for the evening meal they go off the island to the many seafood restaurants on US 17 .
With Will supplying the narrative, we drove across the causeway and toured the Hammock Shop ("Home of the Original Pawleys Island Hammock"), a pine-shaded cluster of shops, restaurants, and craft demonstrations knit together by the hammock-making theme. A new plant has been built well off the main road and is not open to the public, but you can watch the ancient art carried out by one Primus Washington in a century-old shed. Mr. Washigton was on his lunch break, but there were various-size hammocks on display in front. The winter hammocks are made of polyester, the ivory-colored ones of 100 percent cotton. "Polyester might last longer," said Will, "but cotton's more comfortable on a hot summer day. Try it."
I swung for a while until Will said it was time to head for 1:30 dinner at the inn. On Pawleys, we called first at the Sea View Inn, one of the more substantial hostelries on the island, a pleasant, breezy building with a large book-lined lounge and a yawning front porch with hammocks and rockers. Page Oberlin, the owner of the 18-room inn, asked me to stay for dinner and sample the Southern home cooking of Geneva Polite, the Sea View Inn's Julia Child.
Will was giving me the high sign, so I thanked Mrs. Oberlin, and in minutes we were dining on the side porch at the Cassena -- broiled flounder corn fritters, biscuits, lima beans, salad. There were eight others at the table, all southerners, and halfway through my first helping of fritters I wished I had the time to know them all better: the mother and teen-age daughter, the couple from Atlanta, the former college girlfriends who were now budding journalists, the gentleman from North Carolina, and of course Will Prioleau, who got a scolding look from his mother for our slightly tardy appearance.
I haven't told you about the beach, which is long and lovely, or the rotting pier, or the condominiums which seem misplaced, but you get the idea about Pawleys Island: It's my kind of place and probably yours.