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The Weekender: Santee State Park

(The Weekender is a first person travel series highlighting short getaways with less than a four-hour drive from Augusta. The Weekender is an opinion column.)

SANTEE, S.C. —The advice resonated with me — Go somewhere you’ve never been at least once a year.

And that’s one of the main reasons I started traveling to places that aren’t too far from my backyard and writing about them.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a story about Patrick Krohn, an Aiken photographer I once worked with at The Augusta Chronicle. He shared his experiences of being an artist in residence with the South Carolina State Parks. He’d done two of them — one week at Hickory Knob near McCormick and a second week in another year at Poinsett in Sumter County.

MORE: Aiken photographer tells of experiences at state park

Rondette cabins on Lake Marion. Photo by Charmain Z. Brackett

I always do some research when I write a story, and that led me down a rabbit trail. I’m not sure how I ended up at the Santee State Park page, but I soon found myself staring at rondette cabins on the 110,000-acre Lake Marion.

 On the lake, not on the shore, not next to the lake, not near the lake, but ten of the cabins are built on a pier on the lake.

That’s what drew me to Lake Marion — two hours east of Augusta.

An ultimate bucket list item is to stay in a water bungalow in Bora Bora, but since that’s probably not going to happen any time soon, if ever, I opted for rondette cabins on a lake.

My husband’s birthday fell on a Saturday, and it seemed like the perfect time to get him away. If he’s not on the job, he’s usually working on some project around our house or for a family member.

Cypress trees near the rondette cabins. Photo by Charmain Z. Brackett

Place me around water, and I’m good. I’ve always been interested in photography. When my kids were younger, I shot tons of dance-related photos. With no dancers in the house, I’ve turned my lens on nature — landscapes, flowers, trees, water, wildlife.  I knew that Santee would be a great place to take some shots.

You never know what type of weather you’re going to get during the winter months. Will February be freezing and rainy, or will it be 70 degrees and sunny? We were somewhere in between not cold but not sunny either. Not too rainy, not too cold to take some walks on the 10-plus miles of trails at the site.

 And the park wasn’t too crowded. I’m sure the rondettes are hard to book most of the rest of the year, but in February, they were relatively empty except for us and a family who spent the weekend fishing with catfish in mind.

An egret landed near my spot on the dock after dark. Photo by Charmain Z. Brackett

The first night I sat on the dock. I took a few images of the lake at dusk as the shadows began to fall. The cypress trees provided a unique backdrop. Some were in the distance, but others were nearby — decorated in colorful, errant fishing lures with Spanish moss serving as tinsel. I was surprised when I heard an unfamiliar bird call and saw an egret land only a few yards away. I was even more surprised to see the grainy image my camera picked up in the blackness.

The next morning, we set out to find the Sinkhole Nature Trail. The park contains many sinkholes which according to the Santee State Park website “are caused when the limestone underneath the surface erodes away and the ground opens up.”

The ¾-mile loop features wetlands and canopied forest area, but there were no signs of alligators lurking beneath the black water thankfully. I did keep some distance from the water’s edge just in case.

Wetlands on the Sinkhole Nature Trail. Photo by Charmain Z. Brackett

 We also walked a second trail with equally pretty landscapes and subjects for photographs and no alligators.

We did make one side trip into Santee. My husband wanted to have a meal out for his birthday.

On the way, we passed Lone Star Barbecue and Mercantile with its unusual menagerie of animal statues and its historic building. The business wasn’t open at the time, so we kept driving. We found some fast food places and not much seemed appealing until we stumbled upon Clark’s Inn and Restaurant.

Established in 1946, the eatery has an English pub feel, complete with coffered ceiling, heavy wood and fireplace.

Not knowing it was my husband’s birthday, the hostess seated us at “the best seat in the house”  in front of the roaring fire.

 We went for lunch, but had we known its dinner menu before finding Clark’s, we would’ve opted for the later dining option instead for the full experience.

 Lunch featured tomato bisque soup and a cranberry bleu cheese salad for me, and a panini and corn chowder soup for him. Since I didn’t make birthday cake, he ordered an apple crisp ala mode and two spoons.

The view of Lake Marion at dusk. Photo by Charmain Z. Brackett

 If I’m ever back in Santee, I’d definitely eat at Clark’s again. I might even want to stay in one of their rooms.

The gift shop looked intriguing, but it was closed for inventory.

Back at Santee, the rondette cabin and its location on the water didn’t disappoint. The sway of the waves reminded me of my times aboard cruise ships and the views were worth it.

Santee State Park has an interpretative center on site providing the history of the area. There’s also a small general store to pick up those items forgotten in the packing process. In addition to the rondettes on the water, there are 20 pet-friendly cabins on land and more than 150 camping spots.

Charmain Z. Brackett is the publisher of Augusta Good News. Reach her at Subscribe to the newsletter here.

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