South Beach North

This summer, my Livingston, New Jersey hometown newspaper, the venerable West Essex Tribune (yes, I have a subscription), embarked on a very important series: comparing towns, also named Livingston, from other areas of the country. How does their quality of life rate against that in our beloved suburbia? How can they help us improve our own near-perfect bedroom community, where the motto is not it takes a village but it takes a shopping mall?

Admittedly I read the West Essex for its gloat potential. You know, which head cheerleader is currently flipping over the short-lived pep rally of her third marriage, which proverbial captain of the football team is now a plumber with ill-fitting pants and a dad of two sets of chemically engineered twins to boot. Ah, payback. The other items in the paper, stuff like how to rid the pond near the library of geese before they pollute it with excrement -- one goose can produce a pound of shit a day -- and controversies over the placement of traffic lights at the dubious town center, is pure cotton candy for the intellect. Substance, what?

So of course I was inclined to dismiss the "Livingston" columns out of hand. I've always resisted comparing one place to another, even if the identical names do sort of beg a comparative look-see. But then I found myself on South Beach.

Not so unusual. I spend a ton of time and energy on South Beach, contemplating, committing, and recovering from an excess of wining and dining. In fact I'm now waiting out a Veuve Clicquot and lobster cannelloni hangover, courtesy of Pearl and executive chef Frank Jeannetti, who seems to be recuperating himself quite handily after his disabling stint at Billboardlive.

But I stray. The point is, this SoBe isn't in Miami, and the restaurant gems aren't named for semiprecious stones but instead for precious drinks, like Julep's. This South Beach is located on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where I recently spent a week. Lodged firmly in the Low Country triangle that's pointedly highlighted by nearby small cities Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, Hilton Head has its own undeniably Southern character. In other words people are actually pleasant, saying hello when you shop for groceries next to them at the local Piggly-Wiggly. When vacationing in the Low Country, you can almost picture the Miami of the early 1900s, before railroads, gangsters, hotels, models, and banana-republic politics came to define our Magic City.

But it's a bit blurry and dizzying, like a myopic seeing without contact lenses -- while South Floridians can feel nostalgic about the loss of the South in South Florida, when we're immersed in it, we're very much aware that our leg of the country has become both urban and urbane.

Still, despite the plethora of black-eyed peas instead of black beans, some aspects of the Low Country and the New World are almost alarmingly similar. Hilton Head is as built up as Boca, with gated condo communities and upscale eateries and boutiques with the exclusive charm of South Beach and Coral Gables. Its roots, however, are in the rustic artistic community, just as ours are -- or at least once were -- and the cuisine displays as much reliance on regionally sourced ingredients coupled with hometown chef creativity as does Floribbean fare. Indeed Hilton Head is one place where the dining public is as exuberantly outdoors-oriented as here, patrons insisting on porch-and-patio seating at all times, with the exception of that month or two of hard frost that sometimes happens up there.

As far as the South Beaches go, they too are akin, both clogged with restaurants, gift shops, tourists with baby strollers, attractions, and entertainments (read: clowns toting digital cameras). Granted Hilton Head's South Beach central is a marina complex located within a planned community that costs $5 to enter while ours is a little more sprawling and unruly, not to mention free -- until you try to find parking, that is. But given the bald eagle my husband and I spotted in flight over the delta while we were cracking snow crab legs at Land's End, the bird's regal feathers in sharp contrast to the subtropical wash of the setting sun, we might just award Hilton Head's South Beach the leading edge. Sorry, but endangered birds that are considered a national emblem beat out nonpatriotic pelicans dripping beards of hooks thrown by careless fishermen any day.

The sense of kinship became more literal in casual conversation with the manager of the Marriott resort, when we learned that he grew up in Hialeah. And his dad is the proprietor of Christy's and Red Fish Grill. Did we know these restaurants? he asked. Um, yup.

Even more bizarre was a series of events that led me right to Norman Van Aken. In a neighboring town called Bluffton, a burgeoning arts community is happening. It's a little bit blink-and-you-miss-it. Though regional guides are keen on promoting the place, the "historic downtown" area where the galleries are located is hardly commercial, and thank God for that. Little more than one block of shacks that folk artists have turned into studios, the storefronts straggle down the street like preschoolers trying to maintain a straight line by holding onto a rope as they walk.

But some of the painting in particular is quite accomplished, and I was attracted to a series of vibrant canvases, oils of tropical fruits set against tapestry backgrounds done by a woman named Martha Worthy, who had a background in textiles. Would she possibly have mangos in her collection? I asked a woman, another Bluffton artist, at the cooperative gallery where all the town creators show their work (and take turns at tending). She didn't know, but she did give me the number to Worthy's studio.

A quick phone call informed us that Worthy had lent most of her work to Coastal Living magazine for a photo shoot that will appear in the September issue, but she did have a few pieces we were welcome to come view. However, she wasn't quite sure if a painting she had in her studio was of a mango or not. She had just begun incorporating tropical fruits, about which she freely admits "not know[ing] much." She was getting her ideas from a book that she keeps open on her drawing table: Norman Van Aken's The Great Exotic Fruit Book.

The painting wasn't a mango, as it turns out, but a cherimoya. And I bought it, along with two studies of a papaya. Worthy and I also made a deal of sorts: In exchange for shipping and handling costs, I'd provide her with a future commission for a mango painting -- my holiday gift to myself -- along with another tome for both clinical inspection and inspiration: Allen Susser's The Great Mango Book, naturally.

As far as Hilton Head goes, the parallelisms and the intersections of their island and ours are enough to keep me visiting, despite the fact that the pool at our particular venue lacked the all-important beverage center. I like the odd comfort of being away but in familiar surroundings -- sun, sand, ocean, humidity -- at the same time, like the way you might feel spending a weekend at the Loews on South Beach or at the Biltmore in Coral Gables. Both of which, incidentally, have poolside service and pretty good piña coladas.

Another plus is that the Low Country is one day's drive, about eight hours to Savannah and another 60 minutes to Hilton Head (two hours to Charleston), making it a reasonable road trip as long as you pack a cooler.

But just as there are plenty of Livingstons on the map, so are there South Beaches -- on the Cranberry Coast of Washington; in Newport, Oregon; in Troon, Scotland. And I'm thinking it might be my mission to check them out. All of them. Even, if I have to, the South Beach on Staten Island.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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