At Pleasure House, an oyster farm on Virginia's famed Lynnhaven River, visitors can choose from several tours, including a boat ride and lunch featuring fresh oysters at a table in the water and a jump into the river to get their hands dirty by harvesting bivalves themselves.
That sort of experience might be coming to the Charleston area soon. Tom Bierce of the Charleston Oyster Farm says they want to start providing tours of their farm in the Stono River near the Sol Legare boat ramp off of Folly Road. Bierce harvests oysters with Caitlyn Mayer, a geology lecturer at the College of Charleston, and his twin brother Peter, a former employee of the S.C. Department of Resources who has a degree in marine science.
They sell oysters to area restaurants, but their business plan to harvest more has been stymied by public opposition to floating cages, which some neighbors have said would interfere with their enjoyment of the creek. So they've had to start brainstorming other ways to increase revenue and make their location work.
Bierce, a former dock builder and commercial diver, already has his captain's license; he believes the three partners can offer a unique eco-tour covering water quality, oyster farming, and the culture of the area that includes the historic African-American community of Sol Legare, where they process their oysters at Backman's Seafood.
Farther down the coast in Beaufort, Larry Hughes has established the Lowcountry Oyster Trail, modeled after the one in Virginia, to develop a roadmap for tourists interested in exploring local culture surrounding the waterways and places like Charleston Oyster Farm should they move forward with tours.
He says its purpose is to "focus visitors on the mariculture and the seafood and those cultural icons that crystallize the Lowcountry and hospitality."
Virginia's oyster trail, established in 2015 with the backing of then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, encompasses the aforementioned Pleasure House Oyster Farm as well as restaurants, shops and other growing grounds.
The physical trail is currently still in the works, says Hughes, a former marketing and communications specialist who has lived in the Beaufort area for 20 years. While the oyster trail is a for-profit operation, Hughes has set up a 501(c)(3) fund with the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry to help fund marine research.
His long-term goal is to pass the trail on to the state to manage and grow as an economic development project. He also says it's an important tool for educating people about environmental stresses on the marine ecology.
"We want people to learn to love (oysters) and understand that if the environment continues to be under attack, we won’t have them to enjoy."
Whether tourists will be attracted to such a trail in the Lowcountry remains to be seen. Dawn Dawson, director of corporate communications at the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, says there's no data to suggest interest in oyster tourism is emerging. Still, she can envision local tourism bureaus marketing it.