Photo by Ruta Smith

A Secret Paradise

A s the sun begins to set behind the waters of Palmetto Lake under a darkening sky, the sound of a crackling fire lulls some to sleep, and keeps others awake late into the night sharing tales and a few tranquil moments, even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Shops, restaurants and vacation destinations closed across the world and throughout South Carolina early last year during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, grinding travel plans for many to a screeching halt. But, a few hidden gems managed not only to find a way to survive, but to flourish during the troubling times.

“I think we are onto something really special here at the Woodlands,” said Roualeyn De Haas, Zun hospitality manager for the Woodlands Nature Reserve. “I would love for people to have a sense of being let in on a secret, and that’s something really exciting about it.”

Local interest seems to agree

Many of the guests are locals, De Haas said, visiting from within 20 miles of Woodlands’ property on Ashley River Road. “They come in and say, ‘Oh, I’m from just up the road,’” he said. “And for them, that’s their little respite, a calm from the storm and a hidden little paradise that many have not heard of until now.”

With densely populated urban areas being potential hotbeds for COVID-19, people went looking for new spaces to get out of the house and keep their distance from others. Across South Carolina, local and state park officials reported a rise in visitors in 2020, just one of the byproducts of pandemic precautions.

Photo by Nathan Bell

“With occupancies up and some parks continuing to reach carrying capacities,” South Carolina State Parks Director Paul McCormack told the City Paper, “We recognize the vital role our parks have played in giving visitors a chance to get away, even if just for a few hours, to a space where they can recharge and relieve stress, while doing their best to protect their health.”

Some ventured even farther away, finding the Palmetto State’s forgotten corners to spend a few nights under the stars. But, pitching your own tent isn’t for everyone.

It’s camping …

“As people want to connect more with nature, they can do that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to sleep on the ground or in a hammock,” De Haas said. “A lot of people don’t have the equipment — they don’t have the tents or the coolers or all the things that come with being outdoors.”

“And for that, glamping comes in perfectly, and that’s where we come in,” he said. “Glamping lets them be outdoors, but doesn’t force them to address the fears or concerns that come with being outdoors.”

Photo by Ruta Smith
Roualeyn De Haas in front of Zun tents at Woodlands Nature Reserve

The popularity of so-called glamping has grown in the last 10 years, particularly in the United States. But in Charleston, as more people looked for more options for safe holiday vacations, more found their ways to the Woodlands. Their Zun tents and glamping experience is unlike the handful of other folks offering a non-traditional camping experience in South Carolina.

“We are the only glamping facility in Charleston,” De Haas said. “There are cabins, but that’s not really camping. The whole thing is that it still has a camping element to it. You’re still outdoors. Our Zun tents are a comfortable immersion — you’re immersed in the wildlife and the nature, not separated from it by four walls.”

The absence of those walls is amplified by the surrounding landscape, a 6,000-acre reserve that puts guests in the thick of the outdoors. Something particular to this part of the world is the property’s blackwater swamp, a unique ecosystem to the Lowcountry and to the Woodlands.

But with colder weather setting in, most traditional outdoor activities are being written off until spring and summer.

Photo by Ruta Smith
The Zun tents face Palmetto Lake, and include: a shared fire pit, picnic tables, showers, toilets, hand-washing stations, two paddle boards and paddle boat

… in style

“When you have someone like me who is an avid outdoor enthusiast, but my partner is not — there’s no way I’m getting her in a tent on a blow-up mattress somewhere,” De Haas said.

The concept of glamourous camping means the Woodlands appeals to a wider audience. And with its amenities being comparable to a cabin, the tents offer comfort even in the cold of February.

Zun is a Chinese word meaning respect, according to De Haas. But he said, it can also be seen as a combination of zen and fun. “You get the peace and tranquility of the outdoors, combined with all the fun of glamping.”

It may be a little less comfortable than a more traditional transient space like a hotel, but the tents still come appointed with king-sized mattresses and fitted sheets and are surrounded by mosquito netting to keep some of the more obnoxious denizens of the nature reserve at bay.

A safer option

One of the reasons glamping has proven so popular since the onset of the pandemic is that the outdoor space lends itself to viral burn, De Haas claimed. Health experts are still researching the effects of sunlight on COVID-19.

Not only that, but the team behind the tents has numerous ways to ensure people are safe. All the paperwork is done online, and entry is protected by a code. “There’s no touching of pens or shaking of hands or handing over of keys,” De Haas said.

And though there are multiple tents set up, they are scattered apart along the lake, so guests don’t see or hear anybody else from their particular site. Though, there is a communal firepit for guests to enjoy some sense of congregation and community within the safety of the outdoors, the space has room to easily social distance.

“My own child hasn’t been able to do sleepovers or playdates for the last seven months,” De Haas said. “But, the Woodlands is an opportunity for families to get together and join around the fire, and that’s such an important thing right now.”

If you go…

The 20 Zun elevated tent cabins are situated facing Palmetto Lake, and include:
• a shared fire pit
• picnic tables
• showers
• toilets
• hand-washing stations
• two paddle boards
• paddle boat

Each cabin is fitted with a king-sized foam mattress, a mattress pad, fitted sheets and solar lights. Guests are invited to bring their own linens, sleeping bags and pillows. Linens are available upon request at an additional charge.

Booking is available online at woodlandsnaturereserve.com, and the standard price of a Zun tent cabin is set at $119 per night. The nature reserve can be found at 4279 Ashley River Road in West Ashley. Call (843) 400-3003 for more information.