The original homes of Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud Plantations are but a whisper of the glory days of Edisto Island's Golden Age. The sea island cotton raised on these plantations was famous for its high quality and highly prized throughout Europe. It all ended when they become occupied by Northern troops during the Civil War and were devastated at its end. Bleak Hall was burned in a fire and barely traceable ruins are what's left of Sea Cloud. What remained after was finished off by the boll weevil. That's Botany Bay's history in a sea shell. If you want the full historical details visit Edisto Island Museum.
This would be my first visit to Botany Bay. I have seen photographs and read articles, which only heightened my desire for a visit even more. I have been to Edisto Beach in previous years, driven past what has become known as the mystery tree, but had no idea the entrance to Botany Bay was right there. That realization came to me when we turned off of Highway 174.
The drive on Botany Bay Rd was magical. A dense canopy of old oak trees covered the dirt road. We passed cultivated fields of sunflowers and corn before arriving at a kiosk manned by an older gentleman who requested me to sign in and gave me printed material. It was a guide for taking a driving tour of the preserve with 15 marked locations of interest and an explanation of their significance. I am a beach person, so my focus was on the two miles of unspoiled shoreline accessible only by foot. From the kiosk, it was another two mile drive to the beach parking area where a sign reminded patrons of what was prohibited on the beach-notably shell collection.
We continued down the marsh path toward a thick line of trees common to the barrier islands that opened up onto Botany Bay's beach. The resulting view was everything I had envisioned and more. Weatherworn palmetto trees grayed by the salty sea breezes and age lined the sea shelled beach. As we walked, looking for the ideal spot to plant our chairs, we soon became aware of a custom peculiar to the beach. Visitors indulge in a practice of lining the trunks of downed trees with sea shells and hanging them on their branches. I saluted this custom by honoring it with a gesture of my own. I hung a couple of hand-picked shells on my ears while we sat.
We let the whole experience wash over us like the waves rolling onto the beach. I stepped into the warming surf for a swim, but walking into the waters was precarious due to the numerous sharp shells. Some people came to fish, some came to look at the shells, some came to photograph and some laid out blankets under beach umbrellas. I came because Botany Bay Plantation personifies the reasons why I love Charleston and the Lowcountry. It was idyllic.