A deer at dawn at the Sanctuary on Kiawah Island, S.C.
Driving through South Carolina in an
Audi S5 Sportback reveals diverse attractions.
Audi S5 Sportback reveals diverse attractions.
As we wound down the coast roads, through tidy Colonial-era towns under a bowed canopy of Spanish moss, the Lowcountry made the Audi S5 Sportback feel less like a wonderful, powerful automotive statement and more like a time machine.
We wanted to put the vehicle through its paces, of course—to feel its 354 hp/369 lb-ft at our disposal, not to mention enjoying its head-turning appeal and that indescribable feeling of being on the open road and finding your destination by chance or luck.
There was something about this particular trip when the whole concept of change and time felt very relative. It was a striking realization that sometimes change happens all at once, but sometimes, change is sporadic. That some places evolve at different paces and sometimes you don’t even notice it—until you learn to look behind the counters or to go down the side roads or to ask the right questions.
The highways and backroads of a Lowcountry road trip in an
Audi S5 Sportback.
Audi S5 Sportback.
TIMELESSNESS AND THE NEXT BIG THING
There’s nothing particularly notable about a drive that takes you from one of the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta, Georgia, to Charleston, South Carolina. It’s mostly interstate driving, which in an S5 has an enormous appeal but also a sense of responsibility and restraint not to let things get too carried away.
But it’s easy to discover the eclecticism that exists just off the highway off-ramps, unveiling an old, startling kind of spirit. You feel it in the surprises that appear once you start exploring: the five-star vegetarian meal among faux taxidermy, the gentle deer at sunrise nibbling on the bushes that hug the dunes at a world-class golf resort, the old buildings and modern art in its cities, artisanal watermelons from ancient seeds, and timeless crafts from the ancestors of escaped slaves.
We started in Charleston, one of the jewels of the Lowcountry—and America, for that matter. Nestled in the 18th century neighborhoods and substantial, hip spaces like Redux Contemporary Art Center, we looked for an unassuming corner store that very consciously straddled the line between the past and the next big thing.
Inside, the pull of the past made the modernism of the cuisine and thoughtfulness stand out. The brainchild of John Schumacher, a former food and beverage director for the Charleston RiverDogs minor league baseball team, and his partner Bill Murray (yes, that Bill Murray), Harold’s Cabin celebrates a former neighborhood general store in the city’s Westside neighborhood that grew into a trailblazing gourmet food and cheese deli in the 1940s and ’50s, under the guidance of Harold Jacobs and his wife, Lillian.
Sense how Audi drive select feels in different modes, the Dynamic helping us take the corners of country roads with particular precision.
While the Jacobs eventually moved their business to a larger building, Schumacher and his team meticulously renovated the old spot on Congress Street, which still had the old sign attached to the building, to honor Harold and his family.
“This was an institution, an old one,” Schumacher said. “There are three generations of people who remember it here, and once we got to know the story, to know the soul of the business, we got to the heart of it.”
The vibe is rustic and ironic, with a signature jackalope painting taking up most of a wall and an iconic “salty raccoon” logo (named for a signature drink made with scorched rosemary) found on restaurant merchandise, but the soul is real. The veggie-friendly food, prepared by chef Trevor Smith, incorporates fresh produce not just from local farmers but from a rooftop garden that provides a bounty for the chef’s Forage Board, best described as a vegetarian charcuterie served on a wood plank. While no two are alike, Smith piled ours with roasted mushrooms, greens, raw cherry tomatoes, ground mustard, pickles, and a variety of homemade sauces serving as a “nibble,” as Schumacher calls it.
UP FROM THE LOWCOUNTRY
About two hours northwest of Charleston, you’ll find Sumter, S.C. We took country roads most of the way, winding “up” from the more coastal definition of the Lowcountry, but the country was mostly similar—lush and green, dotted with swamps where both slaves and revolutionaries who opposed the British could have possibly hidden to escape or to fight another day.
Not surprisingly, it’s a part of the country where families go back generations. Sometimes that leads to generational grudges and conflict. Other times, it leads to delicious watermelons.
Nat Bradford is an organic farmer on a small family farm just outside Sumter. On his eleven acres, he grows amazingly tender collard greens, a rare delicious kind of peanut, okra and a brand-new crop of industrial hemp. But his main crop is one of legend and family pride: watermelons.
It seems easy to dismiss, but these heirloom watermelons inspire not just devotion from those who have been able to enjoy their deeply sweet and fragrant flesh but even an agricultural war between rival farmers who would like the seeds for themselves.
The watermelons have been around since Bradford’s namesake, Nathaniel Bradford, started farming them in the 1850s. They were once a dominant late-season melon, but as farming became more mechanized and shipping became paramount, they faded from the scene and were thought to be extinct.
When a handful of seeds turned up in a seed bank, they were brought to the Bradfords. A few seasons in, they have become a favorite for South Carolina chefs and the watermelon-savvy public lucky enough to be part of the crowd who’ve pre-bought the crop.
The few extras of the harvest find their way into Bradford watermelon brandy, watermelon ales sold in the Charleston area, and two particular favorites: watermelon molasses and pickled watermelon rinds.
“It’s all about flavor. So people can experience flavor again,” Bradford said. “It’s why we do all this. We have people who are 80, 90 years old and when they try it, their eyes well up with tears. The flavor: It’s what they remember from when they were young.”
GREENS TO GREENS
We caused a bit of a stir in the Audi S5 Sportback while we drove around Sumter. A gas stop brought a lot of questions and comments. Some individuals complimented the design, while some wanted to take it down the highway and “see what it could do.”
Unfortunately for them, but luckily for us, we were able to see what it could do. Feel how the B-cycle combustion allows us to engage more power. Sense how different Audi drive select modes feel, the Dynamic helping us take the corners of country roads with particular precision.
About two and a half hours down a combination of Lowcountry roads and interstate highways, we took the Audi S5 Sportback from collard greens to putting greens—where era changed again, from traditional (although totally organic) farming to modern (but timeless-looking) luxury.
The Kiawah Island Resort, an exclusive beachfront and golfing destination, had offered us a night at The Sanctuary to experience the luxe life in a lush setting. Twenty-five miles or so down the coast from Charleston, the resort has played home to some of the biggest moments in recent golf history, hosting majors, international cups and our own Audi quattro Cup amateur golf competition.
With five courses designed by golf legends like Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye and Gary Player, the resort offers golfers a true range of styles and challenges. From the breathtaking Ocean Course and its famed 18th hole to the “Scottish-style” course at Oak Point, it’s a true golf Mecca for enthusiasts.
But, as The Sanctuary’s name spells out, it’s also a place to unwind. Just beyond loping dunes is the Atlantic Ocean. When built, the hotel site was actually raised to 21 feet above sea level so the first floor would receive unobstructed views of the sea.
At dusk, the place takes on a peaceful aura of pinks and purples bouncing off the steel-blue water. At dawn, we found a small family of bucks walking on the dunes. At all times, the pace and amenities helped us maintain the relaxed pace that the Lowcountry demands.
For 30 years, Verna Holmes was a teacher in Beaufort, a charming small city on Port Royal Island in South Carolina. It’s a little closer to Savannah than Charleston but not too far from either. It’s famous for a few things: being very close to Parris Island, where the Marine Corps Recruit Depot resides; having a historic downtown filled with buildings from the early 19th century; and being the unofficial capital of the Gullah people, a proud and unique group of slave descendants who cultivated rice in the area.
Over the nearly 350 years they’ve been in the area, the Gullahs kept a distinct Creole language and culture, one that an estimated 125,000 Gullah individuals still speak and revere. Many were the descendants of runaway slaves who managed to evade capture in the reedy, difficult-to-navigate Sea Islands of the area, but the “Gullah Corridor” runs from Wilmington, N.C., down through Jacksonville, Fla.
Holmes saw the culture at a crossroads. So when she retired from teaching, she decided to honor it by opening Momma Lou’s, an unassuming restaurant in Beaufort. Named for her mother, Holmes took classic Gullah foods—often based on meats, cuts and vegetables that “masters” wouldn’t eat, according to Holmes—and became a headquarters for the larger Gullah community, featuring their famed handcrafted baskets, books about their heritage, and other Gullah-owned businesses.
As Holmes made us a special version of her Frogmore Stew (an irresistible dish of corn, potatoes and shrimp in a spicy broth), she talked about why she took on the project of running a restaurant and how the past needs to play a role for the future of the community. “I’ve always lived through this food,” she said.
“It was part of who we were and are. My mother cooked it for us and I cooked it for my kids, to tell them about where they are from.”
With her husband, Matt, Holmes runs the eatery, which is reputed to be the only true Gullah restaurant in all of the area. She sees Momma Lou’s as a place where she can teach a younger generation of Gullahs where they came from. Always the teacher, she has laminated placards of Gullah history on every table. She holds court as former students come in for the greens, the black-eyed peas, the gumbo and the revelatory shrimp and okra.
“It’s tough to get the younger generation to feel the same kind of pride we do about our heritage, but they are coming around,” she said. “We have a unique story—a unique past.”
SQUARES AT THE END OF THE ROAD
There it was again, the idea of the past and how it can change. Gullahs, golfers, artists, architecture. The Lowcountry seemed like a hundred different years in a hundred different miles, depending on where you were and when you talked to someone.
By the time we reached Savannah, Ga., our sense of time felt distorted. We wandered around that beautiful, decadent city on foot mostly—marveling at the squares that dot most of the historic districts of the city and delighting in the sense of mischief that hangs in the air. It was sweltering and slow. Historic and modern. Haunted and optimistic.
In the morning, we drove out to the Wormsloe State Historic Site, just outside of town under the long, iconic canopy of live oaks. The park spoke to the variants of time encountered throughout our trip. It spoke to the area’s long history of slavery but also of its beauty and its boundless future. We were at the end of the road, but we looked forward to going back.