Sullivan's Island is the Lowcountry's family-friendly beach town 

Oasis by the water

Wide, white sand beaches beckon visitors to Sullivan's Island

Jonathan Boncek

Wide, white sand beaches beckon visitors to Sullivan's Island

With no public bathrooms, no hotels or B&Bs, no public parking lots, and no garbage bins, you could be forgiven for thinking Sullivan's Island isn't very keen on visitors.

However, Sullivan's is bluffing. The island welcomes visitors, and thanks to a "no beachfront commercial development" law, the beautiful 3.3-mile sandy beach appears to be the town's greatest priority and for good reason. It is a pristine natural oasis a mere 15 minutes from Charleston.

The beach is wide and flat, backed by sand dunes and filled with child-friendly tidal flats. These are perfect for the youngsters who flock to the wave-free water in search of seashells and treasure. Emptying and filling with every tide, the water is refreshed yet warm, and parents can relax into their beach chairs a bit more knowing that the deepest area is still only knee high.

Divided into beach entry points by stations — a remnant from the time a trolley would drop visitors at different stations, it's now an easy way to rendezvous with friends. Station 18 is at one end, near the lighthouse while Station 32 is the other end of the island closer to Isle of Palms. For those braving the ocean, the waves are fun, the sand is soft, and dolphin sightings are a daily, if not hourly, occurrence.

The town itself is, in a word, charming. Despite the extravagantly priced homes, the dress is beach casual and the main mode of transportation is golf cart. At one point or another, you'll find yourself on the accurately named Middle Street where the majority of the 10 restaurants and a handful of businesses are located in a three-block stretch.

Where to Eat & Drink

Café Medley
Coffeehouse
2213 Middle St.
(843) 793-4055
cafemedley.com

The sole coffee shop on the island, Café Medley is popular for a reason — its coffee is really good. But be warned: service focuses on kindness over speed, resulting in even longer lines on the weekend. The bagels are good — try the lox, but the croissant with ham and cheese is addictive. All baked goods are made locally, and there's hand-scooped ice cream to make the tots happy. With free Wi-Fi, it's an especially nice way to while away the morning, sitting on the front porch people watching. Average main: breakfast sandwiches $5; lunch $8.

Taco Mamacita
Mexican
2213-B Middle St.
(843) 789-4032
tacomamacita.com

Not to be confused with the more local Taco Boy, Taco Mamacita is a Tennessee franchise, which set up shop three years ago. Its menu is far from traditional. Thai, Caribbean, and Peruvian were just a few of the flavor profiles featured on the taco heavy menu. It's pretty reasonable with prices and atmosphere and is a decent option if you're in the mood for some spices. A handful of solid craft beer choices are on tap. The margaritas are made with shaved ice — on the rocks isn't an option — but that icy blend makes the fresh squeezed juice really pop. Average main: $9.99.

Dunleavy's serves up pints of Guinness just blocks from the beach - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Dunleavy's serves up pints of Guinness just blocks from the beach

Dunleavy's Pub
Irish Pub
2213 Middle St.
(843) 883-9646
dunleavysonsullivans.com

With beer-can lined rafters and road signs tacked to the ceiling, this pub feels very classic . Framed photos on one wall feature Dunleavy enthusiasts sporting the namesake's shirt in various global locations. While often filled with tourists looking for a Guinness, it's just as likely to have regulars return for their char-grilled wings and eight-ounce ground chuck burgers served on locally baked bread. This place isn't fancy but Manager Jamie Maher likes it that way. He's proud to announce the acceptance of credit cards for the first time in 22 years. In a town with overtly tourist friendly options, sometimes basic and comfortable is the most refreshing option of all. Average main: $9.

High Thyme Cuisine
American Bistro
2213-C Middle St.
(843) 883-3536
highthymecuisine.com

When you tire of burgers and wings, when the tacos get old and fried seafood soggy, High Thyme is a balm for your burnt out palate. It's American food, done well, at a decent price. The décor is non-existent, so make sure you grab one of the seats on their patio, a prime people-watching spot. With a big bowl of lightly curried mussels or tasty sashimi tuna for appetizers and mushroom risotto and steak for mains, the menu is all over the map while still being familiar. It's the kind of restaurant the entire family will likely leave happy and well fed. Average main: $24.

click to enlarge Poe's Amontillado burger is a towering, cheesy masterpiece - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Poe's Amontillado burger is a towering, cheesy masterpiece

Poe's Tavern
Burgers
2210 Middle St.
(843) 883-0083
poestavern.com

Featuring Edgar Allen Poe paraphernalia as décor and calling it the egg and bacon cheeseburger the Tell Tale Heart, Poe's has become a bit of an icon on the island. This place is busy year round, and in summer, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., it's packed with visitors who often line the sidewalks waiting for a table. This tourist destination has figured out what works and stuck to it — really good burgers plus awesome fries. The menu hasn't changed in a while, but for people who only come once a year, they are thrilled to be ordering the same delicious classic again and again. Yeah, at $12.25 a pop, the burgers are not cheap but for that particular price you can get the Annabel Lee, a half-pound burger and a crab cake. Average main: $11.

Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ
Barbecue
2209 Middle St.
(843) 883-313
hometeambbq.com

Get ready to get messy. This is the place to eat your food with your sea-salted fingers. Casual to a fault, it's packed to the rafters with kids, partiers, and grandparents, all vying for a seat to nosh on what many claim is the best barbecue in South Carolina. It's rare to find someone who hasn't been to Home Team and has picked out their "not to be missed" menu item whether it's the pork belly sandwich, macaroni and cheese, or ridiculously good smoked chicken wings with Alabama white sauce. One thing that certainly can't be missed is their far too famous Painkiller, renamed the Gamechanger due to some copyright silliness. This frozen, super-blended boozy combo is just what you need to revive and refresh after a day of too much sun. But be warned: the O.J., pineapple, and coconut drink packs a punch. Average main: $10.

Sullivan's
Seafood
2019 Middle St.
(843) 883-3222
sullivansrestaurant.org

No beach town is complete without a seafood restaurant, and Sullivan's happily fits the bill. A staple in the local dining scene for decades, this no-frills venue is built on traditions with people returning every year to eat their favorite dish. Some swear by the crab legs, others say the crab dip. At the far end of the hustle and bustle on Middle Street, it's easy to overlook the small, dining spot if not for the handful of regulars waiting to get a seat to sample the Southern seafood fare: fried okra, fried shrimp, fried fish. Fast, fresh and delicious. After a day at the beach, all of the menu looks appealing. Average main: $15.95.

click to enlarge Start supper at Salt at Station 22 with some pretzel bread - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Start supper at Salt at Station 22 with some pretzel bread

Salt at Station 22
Modern American
2205 Middle St.
(843) 883-3355
saltstation22.com

Celebrating one year on Sullivan's, Salt is at the higher end of the spectrum of dining options. The staff works overtime to ensure a return visit, changing the menu drastically every day. Sticking with two pastas, three flatbreads, three fish, one chicken, a burger and a steak, the menu then radically diverges from there. The daily ceviche is the most popular dish, and for $15 you can throwback lime-soaked Florida white shrimp, Cape Canaveral swordfish, golden tilefish with leche de tigre, and crispy yam chips. The kitchen is so committed to serving local produce that should a menu item not be locally sourced, it's stated up front. This is good eating. Average main: $25.

Obstinate Daughter
Italian
2063 Middle St.
(843) 416-5020
theobstinatedaughter.com

The Obstinate Daughter, the latest from Chef Jacques Larson, is the best-designed restaurant in town, with its nautical lighting, open kitchen, and thick-beamed wood ceiling. The enormous white countertop bar invites patrons to eat oysters while enjoying their drinks. Luckily, the owners continued on this path of pleasing the customer with traditional Italian menu focused on seafood, including pizza, pasta, and small plates. Made for sharing, they come out of the kitchen as fast as they're made and are quickly devoured: the griddle octopus is chewy, served with white beans, and packs some heat. This would be a downtown foodie haven except it's having too much fun at the beach. Average main: $16.

The Co-Op Grocery and Deli
Deli
2019 Middle St.
(843) 882-8088
thecoopsullivans.com

If you're heading to the beach and you forgot to grab lunch, head to the co-op for their freshly made sandwiches. While the California Turkey is it's most popular option, the homemade chicken salad is creamy and delicious. Alternatively, if you're leaving the beach late and need to pick up dinner, this is your best bet. While there are a handful of choices like mac-n-cheese and quiche, it's the chicken pot pie for $15 that will blow your mind. Stock up on beer, wine, penny candy, and local goods like pickled okra and black bean salsa, all from South Carolina vendors. Average main: $6.

What To Do

click to enlarge Fort Moultrie has been protecting Sullivan's Island since 1776 - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Fort Moultrie has been protecting Sullivan's Island since 1776

Fort Moultrie
1214 Middle St.
(843) 883-3123
nps.gov/fosu/historyculture/fort_moultrie.htm

Situated directly on Charleston Harbor with a view on Fort Sumter, this bastion of American history is open every day from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and is free to those who wish to wander in the sun. The indoor museum is inexpensive and offers more information about how the first fort on Sullivan's Island was attacked in 1776 by the British in a nine-hour battle by nine warships. Having emerged victorious, the fort was named for its commander, Colonel William Moultrie. In 1809, a newly refurbished and rebuilt brick fort stood in its stead. It was a stronghold of Confederate military during the Civil War and has been in use by the U.S. military for over 170 years.

Sullivan's Island Lighthouse
Station 18½ St.

Crossing over the Intracoastal Waterway, you can spy what some could argue is the ugliest lighthouse in the country. Still working, the last lighthouse ever built by the Coast Guard is distinctive for it's unique triangular shape. Built in 1962 to a height of 140 feet, it's also the only lighthouse with an elevator as opposed to a staircase, although you'll never know since visitors are only allowed on the grounds, not inside. More visually appealing is next door's boathouse built in 1898 and used by the men manning the lighthouse.

click to enlarge When you're burnt out on beaching it, take the kids to Stith Park - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • When you're burnt out on beaching it, take the kids to Stith Park

Stith Park
Middle Street across from Station 21

Right next to the Fire Station, J. Marshall Stith Park is a fantastic little gem often ignored with the beach so nearby. But with a gazebo, multiple tennis and basketball courts, and two playgrounds, it's a nice alternative should the sand start blowing or the sun get too hot. The young kids' playground is shaded by trees and is entirely gated, which is great for containing roaming toddlers. There's also a playground for the older set, as well as a wall for practicing and perfecting your tennis serve.

Sea Level Yoga
(843) 412-6122
sealevelyoga.com

Hillary Johnson is a one-woman yoga class to go. Her weekly yoga class on the beach meets at Station 26 for the summer months. Donation based, you pay what you can afford as you downward dog to the dunes and greet the ocean with a sun salutation.

African-American History
Various locations

While you might not be able to tell based upon the sprawling estates and golf carts scooting about the small neighborhood streets, Sullivan's Island was the Ellis Island for about 40 percent of African Americans alive today. Charleston was a main port of entry for slaves who were first quarantined on this island. Fort Moultrie National Monument now has an African Passage exhibit which documents this painful history. Also, on Station 22½ is a small dedicated site featuring the few remaining gravestones of an old African American cemetery.

Kite surfing
1313 Long Grove Drive
Mt. Pleasant
(843) 388-9300
catchsomeair.us

Head to Station 28.5 to watch kite surfers tackle the wind and sea simultaneously. From May — September, kite surfing is limited to launching between Stations 28-32 or at Station 12- 19. Once 100 yards out, you can ride anywhere along the island. To rent your own, stop by Air & Earth on the way out to Sullivan's to get gear or sign up for a lesson.

Sealand Adventure Sports
2205 Middle St.
(843) 330-8156
sealandsports.com

Waves on Sullivan's are mostly shore break, which means they're more suitable for long boards except when a storm's brewing. Hit the waves when the wind is blowing northeast, preferably off shore and when it's mid- to high-tide. There's only one spot to go where there's surf — Station 22, known as Bert's Bar (named after a Sullivan's bar that's closed). Sealand Adventure Sports can outfit you for a day of trying to catch a wave.

Nature Adventure Outfitters
Shrimp Boat Lane
Mt. Pleasant
(843) 568-3222
kayakcharlestonsc.com

The backside of the island is on the Intracoastal Waterway, which is a great stretch of water for paddle boarding. Be wary of tides on either end of the island though. Station 26, known as Poor Man's Landing, is where to go if you're interested in hitting the ocean. Makes sure you wear water shoes because of oyster beds. Like surfing, if you're on the ocean, you need a leash, in addition to a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device and whistle. Nature Adventure Outfitters on Shem Creek is on your way to Sullivan's and can get you on a board in no time.

Sealand Adventure Sports Bike Rental
2205 Middle St. Ste D.
(843) 330-8156
sealandsports.com

Bikes will run you $25 a day at Sealand Sports. Whether you're looking for a road bike or a beach cruiser, this shop has just the thing, and helmets and baskets are included.

Accommodations

Sullivan's might be the place to go, but it's not the place to stay. There are zero overnight accommodations on the island. There are, however, about 50 or so privately owned vacation rental homes that the town makes no effort to promote, so if you're really keen to stay on the island, try a real estate agent who might know more.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

Music

Dunleavy's Pub
2213 Middle St.
(843) 883-9646
dunleavysonsullivans.com

The first Tuesday of every month features Carroll Brown and friends — an old country act with a stand-up bass, fiddler, and banjo that plays for a low-key atmosphere. In the summer months, Saturday — and soon to be added Sunday — will have solo acoustic acts at 9 p.m.

Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ
2209 Middle St.
(843) 883-313
hometeambbq.com

This is the place to go for music in town. With one of the restaurant owners booking music acts, they're able to bring in a lot of up-and-coming musicians. Every single Friday and Saturday night, year round, this bar is the last to close on the island. The typical cover is $5 for a band that could range from blues to bluegrass, jazz to Americana. Plus, from 7-10 p.m. every other Sunday throughout the summer is a free act with performers like Joel and Ward of Sol Driven Train.

Pet Tips

Sullivan's is one of the best beaches for dogs. In addition to free doggie bags at every beach access point, dogs are allowed on the beach all day long from October to April, requiring them to be on a leash from noon-5 a.m. This result is morning doggie madness, with canines cavorting and playing as far as you can see during the brunch hours. Come summertime, the rules get stricter, with off-leash fun limited from 5-10 a.m. Dogs are then not allowed back on the beach until 6 p.m. and then only with a leash. Also, all dogs on the island must have a dog permit from the Town Hall: it costs $35 and lasts from January to January. Whether you visit for a week or buy it in December, the cost remains the same. Town Hall (2050-B Middle Street). (843) 883-3198.

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