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Folly Beach is a go-to spot for Lowcountry surfers and sunbathers

Jonathan Boncek

Folly Beach is a go-to spot for Lowcountry surfers and sunbathers

As the weather warms up, Charleston's shorelines are beginning to beckon. With so many accessible beaches and coastal getaways, deciding where to keep cool can seem harder than it should. Whether you're a college kid looking to party, an adventurous wilderness seeker, or a family in need of some fun in the sun, Charleston has an ideal beach for you.

Folly Beach

It's no surprise that Folly Beach is the No. 1 choice of college students. After all, it's the only sandy shore that allows drinking on the beach as long as it's in a plastic bottle or cup. No glass bottles or cans are allowed. Once you finish your cooler on the beach, head to one of Folly's many hotspots like Rita's, Woody's, Lost Dog Café, Snapper Jack's, the Crab Shack, and the Drop In Deli. Get your margarita fix at the original Taco Boy or head next door for one of Surf Bar's famous painkillers. For an after-beach snack, check out Tokyo Crepes or head over to Bert's Market, a convenience store that dozes but never closes. Bert's is sure to have whatever you're looking for, be it eggrolls, craft beer, or kitty litter. Folly Liquors is conveniently located right next door.

click to enlarge Folly Beach is a go-to spot for Lowcountry surfers and sunbathers - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Folly Beach is a go-to spot for Lowcountry surfers and sunbathers

Known for its mix of mellowed-out locals, the vibe on Folly is decidedly laid-back. The beach is perfect for games like volleyball, cornhole, Frisbee, or a game of bocce. Surfers flock to the narrow stretch of land known as the Washout, where they can be seen catching waves from sun-up to sun-down, especially on stormy days.

Parking by the Washout can be tricky, just make sure to pay the box on the beach-side of the street or a ticket will no doubt await your return. You can also park at one of the area's beach access points for $1 an hour. Parking is free on the streets, but if you're parking on grass or sand, make sure your tires are not touching any part of the bare road or you will be ticketed. For $8 you can leave your car at the Edwin S. Taylor Fishing Pier, a 1,000-foot beauty jutting out into the Atlantic that's ideal for fishing, bird watching, and taking in the view from "the Edge of America." The pier is also close to restrooms, restaurants, vacation rentals, and the Tides hotel. Unfortunately, the much loved Folly Beach County Park on the west end of the island is now closed to the public.

Dogs must be on a leash at all times. From May 1-Sept. 30, dogs are not allowed on the beach from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Sullivan's Island

You won't find hotels, tacky beach stores, or a pier on Sullivan's Island. The richest zip code in South Carolina features a lively main drag called Middle Street that is lined with bars and restaurants, many of which offer outside seating. Chose from Dunleavy's Pub, Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ, Atlanticville, Taco Mamacita, and the always-slammed Poe's Tavern, a gourmet burger joint that was inspired by the author who called Sullivan's home in 1827.

click to enlarge The water off Sullivan's is unusually calm - JONATHAN BONCEK

Visit historical Fort Moultrie, located on the east end of the island or choose from one of the many wooded paths that lead down to over three miles of public beaches. The water off of Sullivan's is usually calm, perfect for swimming but not so great for surfing unless you're looking to learn on some baby waves. No swimming is allowed on the two small sides of the island where the currents can be dangerously strong. Sullivan's is also a popular spot for kiteboarding.

All dogs must have a permit, which you can pick up at Town Hall for $35 for visitors ($25 if you're a local), and they're allowed on the beach from May 1-Sept. 30 on-leash from 12 p.m.-5 a.m. and off-leash from 5 a.m.-noon provided your pooch is under voice control. A much-mocked noise ordinance beginning at 11 p.m. also keeps things quiet at Sullivan's.

The island features no true parking lots, but ample parking is allowed along the sides of the streets, as long as there is no sign stating otherwise. In keeping with the small-town feel, there are no public restrooms, lifeguards, or watersport rentals or sales on the beach. There is also no alcohol allowed on the beach, but if you're trying to leave the island between 3-5 p.m., you may as well wait out the traffic with a mean Painkiller at Fiery Ron's.

Isle of Palms

Just a hop, skip, and a jump from the more residential Sullivan's, you'll find the calm, family-friendly Isle of Palms. IOP offers an expansive, sandy six-mile stretch of beach with over 50 access paths. Home to approximately 5,000 full-time residents, IOP also welcomes throngs of vacationers and tourists who flock there year after year.

Unfortunately, there is a reason IOP is a family favorite — it adheres to a strict laundry list of rules. Most notably, the beach adamantly prohibits alcohol. For families, this is good news — it keeps the college riffraff away. Also on the no-no list are glass bottles, fireworks, overnight camping, bonfires, motor vehicles, and jet skis or motorboats near designated swimming areas. Dogs are allowed any hour of the day but must be leashed, except from 5 a.m.-8 a.m. Remember to respect the dunes by using the access paths and, of course, respect the beach by properly disposing of trash.

click to enlarge The kid-friendly IOP County Park is located just off of the beach - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The kid-friendly IOP County Park is located just off of the beach

If you plan on digging any holes in the sand, you'll have to fill them back in before sunset. This quirky rule is as much to prevent beachgoers from breaking their necks as it is to protect sea turtles making the mad dash toward the ocean after hatching.

As Lowcountry surfers know all too well, IOP's waves are typically flat. But if you're an adrenaline junkie, you might want to try out the island's watersport of choice: kiteboarding. The windy conditions make kite surfing a lot of fun, but be sure to stay 100 feet from swimmers and 200 feet from the boardwalk's pier.

Parking and public facilities abound, enticing out-of-towners with beachside public restrooms, showers, bars, restaurants, and a happening boardwalk scene.

Two parking lots on Pavilion Drive make access to Front Beach a breeze. The first lot offers handicapped and seasonal parking for those with a decal while the second lot offers daily parking for a nominal fee. You'll also find metered parking on Ocean Boulevard between 10th and 14th avenues, but be sure to find the meter, pay, and leave your receipt in plain sight on your dashboard. You can also park on any roadside right-of-way unless marked otherwise. To avoid getting a ticket, be sure you're not blocking a beach access path and that all four wheels are off the road. Keep in mind that the meter maids patrol from 8 a.m.– 6 p.m. mid-March to early October. There is nothing like a bright yellow parking ticket to ruin your beach-day buzz.

The Pavilion area on IOP turns into a hap pening spot during the warmer months, thanks in part to the handful of beachside bars and restaurants with outdoor patios and live music. Acme Cantina, Banana Cabana, the Windjammer, and Coconut Joe's are just a few of the IOP favorites that offer up that uniquely laid-back, island flavor.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK

Adjacent to Front Beach is a quaint stretch of boutique shops where you can stock up on beach-going necessities or treat yourself to a nice, big ice cream cone.

Just on the other side of the island is IOP's city-owned and operated marina. There you'll find launch services, dockage, and fuel, plus plenty of other opportunities for aquatic fun. You can charter fishing boats, go parasailing, rent jet skis, or sign up for an eco-tour of the nearby barrier islands.

Being the vacation destination that it is, IOP has an abundance of lodging options. Choose from an array of condos, hotels, and glamorous beachfront houses available for rent. For an upscale stay, check into IOP's Wild Dunes. A popular spot for weddings, the resort offers full beach access, award-winning golf and tennis facilities, plus a number of on-site restaurants and cafés.

The Outer Beaches

While Folly, Sullivan's, and Isle of Palms are a convenient stone's throw from downtown, Charleston has a number of other sandy-shored destinations worth exploring. From the towns of Seabrook and Kiawah islands to the rustic, laid-back beaches of Edisto, Capers, and Bull islands, Charleston's outer beaches have plenty in store for you.

For fancier frolicking, head to Seabrook or Kiawah, two beaches some 30 miles outside of Charleston. You'll hit Kiawah Island first, home to a luxury golf and beach resort renowned for its wide selection of golf courses and lavish accommodations. Golfers aren't the only ones who delight in what they find there — Kiawah also boasts 10 miles of pristine beaches, extensive acres of marsh, abundant wildlife, exclusive shopping, first-rate tennis facilities, and fine- dining. Privately owned, Kiawah attracts affluent clientele from near and far looking to unwind and indulge. However, the Kiawah Beachwalker Park is open to the public, and it has lifeguards, a snack bar, restrooms, and showers.

Slightly farther out is Seabrook Island, Kiawah's smaller counterpart, where you'll find similar amenities. There is plenty to keep kids occupied — from pools to an arcade. If you're up for spending the dough, you'll find a number of activities at your disposal. Ride horseback along Seabrook's expansive, unspoiled beaches, dine in any of their indoor or outdoor venues, or get a tennis or golf lesson from a seasoned pro.

For something a little less extravagant, Edisto Island is a great option to check out. A scenic 50-mile drive through shady, winding roads leads you to this family-friendly destination. Still relatively uncommercialized, Edisto offers more than three miles of sandy shores, along with options for fishing adventures and tours. The nearby Edisto Beach State Park has camping of all sorts, with 64 oceanfront sites, 33 nestled near the salt marsh, and seven fully furnished cabins available. You'll also find an extensive hiking and biking trail system.

In the opposite direction, out past IOP and Dewees Island, you'll find two barrier islands, Bull and Capers. More for the conservationist, photographer, or true wildlife lover and less for the extravagant resort goer, these destinations offer an untouched look at nature. You can only get there by water, so hop on a ferry, charter a boat, or kayak out to these natural wonders.

As you pull up to Capers Island, don't be shocked if a white-tailed deer darts by or a loggerhead turtle waddles his way up the beach. You'll find plenty of wildlife on this undeveloped island, including raccoons, foxes, alligators, and exotic birds. Boneyard Beach, one of Capers' most popular attractions, has tree skeletons and stumps littering the shore, a result of erosion and weather from years past. If you dare to camp out, you'll need a permit, so be sure to arrange one with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Marine Resources Division.

Once a hideout for pirates, Bull Island is now a major attraction for nature lovers. Most people take the Garris Landing Ferry (843-881-4582), which departs in the morning and brings you back in the late afternoon. While you're there, keep an eye out for the rare red wolf; it's born and bred on the island.

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