Sandy Island is steeped in both history and mystery for many locals and is virtually unknown to Myrtle Beach area visitors. When my husband and I were first married, we’d take our boat down to Georgetown for the day via the Intracoastal Waterway. As soon as we passed what is the backside of Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, we’d see something unusual tied up at the dock at Sandy Island. It was a school bus boat, South Carolina’s only school bus boat. The Prince Washington ferried children from the isolated island to the mainland for generations to catch the conventional school bus waiting for them at the landing on the other side.
While most of Sandy Island-- said to be the largest undeveloped freshwater island on the East Coast-- is mostly owned by the Nature Conservancy, the remaining acreage is possessed by a handful of families who are direct descendants of the enslaved Africans who once worked on the several plantations that had been there. The property has been passed down to subsequent generations for more than a century which has created one of the most unique communities anywhere.
If you enjoy off-the-beaten-path experiences, then you really must visit Sandy Island. But to say that this is a private community is an understatement. You have to know someone in order to tour the island. That person is Captain Rommy (pronounced ROME-EE) Pyatt, the creator of Tours De Sandy Island (https://toursdesandyisland.com/).
Captain Rommy serves as an unofficial ambassador of Sandy Island. And a great one he is. His love for the island is infectious. He shares stories about his ancestors, the history that they made there, and throws in a tall tale or two along the way. He is a wonderful host.
You meet him on the dock at Sandy Island Landing which is at the end of a winding road that is really only identified by its Georgetown County road number, S-22-362, when you look it up on Google Maps. However, it’s pretty easy to find when driving south of Myrtle Beach. You just pass the entrance of Brookgreen Gardens with its large aluminum sculpture, Fighting Stallions, out front done by Anna Hyatt Huntington when she was 74 years old. Then take the first right at the road that does have a green directional sign indicating that you have found the turn for those en route to Sandy Island. Depending on the day and time, you may follow a public transit bus (or a school bus for that matter) as there is a sheltered stop when you reach the landing and a port-a-potty for your convenience. There is free parking for a couple dozen cars, mostly belonging to the island’s residents on the other side of the Waccamaw River.
It was only recently that I discovered Captain Rommy’s tours. A few guests on my trolley tours first gave me feedback that was highly favorable. At this writing, I’ve been twice. The first time was in the spring when I went as a customer. I joined three couples on the captain’s pontoon boat and we set off on the lovely ten-minute ride to the island, but the historical commentary began immediately.
We were shown where rice fields once were and were told that the canal that we were using was cut especially for the residents of Sandy Island. Previously, they had had to access the mainland through Brookgreen Gardens which would prove problematic as the private gardens that are open to the public needed to manage the access to the property. Today, pilings are seen lined up to block the natural inlet to the former plantation and the new canal provided by Brookgreen makes for a lovely start to a Sandy Island adventure.
My second visit was for work. I had partnered with Captain Rommy to create an unforgettable experience for a family reunion group of nearly 40. Once everyone was shuttled over, Captain Rommy gave an informative (and at one point, fairly hilarious…when one of the guests spontaneously became part of the storyline) presentation. Then our group was divided in two.
Half stayed on the deck full of picnic tables for the first seating of a mouthwatering meal of traditional fare. The recipes had been passed down through the years and were expertly prepared that day by Captain Rommy’s mom, aunts and sister. The food was efficiently served in individual boxes and taken to the diners by two beautiful and poised young ladies who are Captain Rommy’s nieces. This particular group was used to good food and they were not disappointed. I believe I overheard some requests for recipes, but I don’t know if they were allowed to be shared or not. Sometimes the best recipes are the secret ones.
Also at the dock is the Pyatt General Store, owned by Captain Rommy’s mom, Beulah. It offers one-of-a-kind souvenirs reflecting the island’s past, African American history, and information on the local environs in that part of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. On my first visit to the store, some of Captain Rommy’s artwork was on display, but wasn’t on my second as it was apparently sold out. I had to resign myself to a postcard with a photo of one of the pieces I had admired before. Both times I couldn’t leave without a local history book to add to my personal library.
The store also has t-shirts, hats, drinks, snacks and bug spray. One of its most notable features is that it boasts the only public restroom on the island. That was sufficient for our large group.
Meanwhile, the other half of our guests boarded a shuttle bus (seating 20) driven by Captain Rommy to enjoy a 45-minute tour of the island. Considering that most of the 9000 acres is owned by the Nature Conservancy, it is a picturesque island to enjoy. In addition to this standard tour, the captain can arrange special excursions for kayaking, photography, birdwatching and more. You can contact him through the tours’ website to set something up.
Visitors will certainly enjoy the tour, but for locals like myself, the whole experience is heightened because you get to visit a place that was always mysterious and inaccessible. Rarely do you find a community that is so secluded that you feel honored to be allowed to see it.
The shuttle makes several stops at a cemetery which is located near the firehouse. Yes, Sandy Island has its own fire department, part of Georgetown County Fire/EMS. There is a fire truck that stays on island, and emergency personnel come by boat when dispatched, if not already on the island when a call comes in.
The next stop is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a former school now used as a community center that was commissioned by Archer and Anna Huntington, the founders of Brookgreen Gardens, in 1932. Prior to its construction, children were taught at home or in a church. The school served students up through the 8th grade. Afterwards, the teenagers would attend Howard High School in Georgetown which would require a ride across the river to get there. The Sandy Island School closed as a traditional school in 1964.
The last stop before the end of the tour is at the church yard of New Bethel Baptist. On both of my visits, everyone on the tour was invited to the following Sunday’s service.
I share with my guests, when I take them south of Myrtle Beach, the places I encourage them to visit on their own like Brookgreen Gardens and Atalaya at Huntington Beach State Park because I’ve loved these places since I was young. Now I include Sandy Island on that list. It is an unforgettable place that is well worth the visit.