We arrived forty-five minutes after the park opened and fifteen minutes before a guided tour of the swamp would begin. Having been told it was the best tour of the day, we held our ground like good little southerners and waited on the dock. Time not wasted. As we chatted with our guide--a young man who grew up in the area, and who gave us bits of information about the park and nearby Cooper River--we watched an otter hike down the nature trail and a smiling bride float on the swamp in a rowboat.
A twisted, but interesting start to our day.
We had the option of taking a rowboat and touring the swamp ourselves, but we wanted to hear the stories. Soon, we joined six others in a boat made of cypress, and as we glided over the black waters, we listened to stories of Dean Hall and its evolution into Cypress Gardens. Our guide explained how the gate system that once flooded the rice fields worked, and why the swamp was black (the water is clear, but tinted from tannic acid from the leaves of cypress trees. Much like a cup of hot tea.) He showed us crumbling, yet picturesque pillars and a bridge over still waters--scenery left from the filming of The Patriot. He also pointed out five alligators, a turtle sunning itself on a branch, carnivorous yellow bladderworts, stunning lily pads in bloom, and a swarm of honeybees plastered to a tree.
During the tour, I wondered aloud why we had yet to suffer one mosquito bite despite floating along in what should have been stagnant waters. Our guide explained the swamp is a balanced ecosystem. Cypress trees growing in the swamp produce an oily substance that covers the surface of the water, trapping any mosquito larvae that is laid there. An abundance of alligator gar, bass, and what the bride called "big daddy catfish" then eat the eggs. I felt a pang of disappointment when the tour ended. It alone was worth the price of admission.
After the boat tour, we investigated the butterfly house, a twenty-five by twenty or so room filled with colorful flowers and even more colorful butterflies. We spent about fifteen minutes inside, watching gorgeous bugs that didn't make me scream flutter about, while others broke free of their cocoon. Then we decided to check out Crocodile Isle, an attraction Cypress Gardens has since had to close due to budget constraints.
Cypress Gardens also has a small aquarium. The South Carolina Aquarium was next on our list, so on this visit, we did a quick walk through. We intend to return, though, and we'll spend more time at this attraction.
Next, we headed toward the nature trail where we'd spotted the otter earlier that morning. The trail is short--only 4.5 miles--and like the Lowcountry, flat and worth the time we took to explore it. We passed a charming wedding gazebo where the catfish-loving bride would soon be married, an abundance of day lilies, and pitcher plants growing in a field. Photos from our visit:
A great day in the South Carolina Lowcountry. For more information on Cypress Gardens, go to www.cypressgardens.info/
For more information on Dean Hall Plantation, go to http://south-carolina-plantations.com/berkeley/dean-hall.html