Each one of Charleston's beaches has its own unique charm, and all are worth a visit. In fact, you can choose a beach that suits your mood. Let's say you're feeling a little rambunctious. Well, then Folly's the place for you. But what if you're in the mood to go kite-boarding? Get thee to Sullivan's, my friend. Read on to learn exactly what makes each one of these beaches near and dear to our sun-burned hearts.
With wooded beach paths, a lively main street, and a ton of history, Sullivan's Island is a relaxing, family-friendly local escape. Populated by weather-worn but well-kept cottages of all shapes and sizes, the island is bordered on the west by Charleston Harbor, where Fort Moultrie, which dates back to the 1700s, overlooks the water. For just a couple of bucks, visitors can explore the fort's surprisingly expansive grounds. Middle Street is the town's charming retail stretch, with sunny outdoor dining at popular restaurants like Dunleavy's Pub, Home Team BBQ, Atlanticville, and Poe's Tavern, named for Edgar Allan Poe, who served a stint at the fort.
After dark, many of the restaurants bring in a partying crowd with live music and flowing drinks. Although some people break the rules, alcohol is not allowed on the beach itself, and violators can be slapped with a $1,090 fine for open containers. There's also a fairly strict noise ordinance after 11 p.m., so keep your voice down if you're traipsing around the neighborhoods late at night.
The island keeps things low-key and natural with no public restrooms or lifeguards. There's no swimming allowed on either side of the island, where the current is dangerously strong, and swimmers should also be wary of going out to the sandbars; they look innocent, but if you get stuck out there while the tide is going out, you'll have a hard time getting back in. Parking lots are few and far between, and they fill up fast, but you can park for free on the side of any street as long as you're off the pavement and there's no sign telling you otherwise. All dogs — even those belonging to visitors — must have a Sullivan's Island permit, which you can pick up at Town Hall for $35 ($25 if you're a local). In the summer (May 1-Sept. 30), dogs are allowed on the beach off-leash from 5-10 a.m. and on-leash from 6 p.m.-5 a.m. If you decide to take your chances, know that you could be fined more than $1,000.
Thanks to several sandbars off-shore, Sullivan's waters are often calm and don't bode well for surfers, though it occasionally offers baby waves for beginning longboarders. However, kiteboarders flock to the island, particularly to Station 28.5. On a windy day, don't be surprised to see hundreds of kiteboarders flying through the air — it's always fun to watch. For watersport rentals and sales, head to the neighboring Isle of Palms. —Erica Jackson Curran
Known for its surf, college-aged eye candy, and fun festivals, it's no secret that Folly Beach is the most attractive local shore for the young adults. Why? Because they allow alcohol. It's easier to just break out your beer can or Solo cup (glass is not allowed) than it is to try to sneak vodka from a water bottle. The bumper-to-bumper traffic is proof that Folly is the place to be on a sunny day.
But it's not just the waves and people-watching that make Folly a top destination — their bar and restaurant scene fits perfectly with the beach's mellow vibe. Center Street has the original Taco Boy, but if you're not in the mood for a margarita, try one of Surf Bar's Painkillers. Lost Dog Café can make you a big breakfast whether you like to get up with the sun or are more into an early-afternoon brunch, and the Drop In Deli has sandwiches, burgers, and even Sushi by Lisa.
Check out the Charleston City Paper's event listings to find out when the next big event is taking place at Folly River Park or on Center Street, like Taste of Folly, the Folly Beach Pub Crawl, and Follypalooza.
Folly is also a great wedding destination – a $25 party permit is all you need to get hitched on the sand, but you'll have to go inland for the reception.
The beach is always open to the public and a great spot for volleyball, cornhole, or Frisbee, but there are some rules to follow. We already mentioned glass bottles, but dogs are also a big issue. Starting Memorial Day and through Sept. 30, dogs are prohibited on the beach from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and they've got to be kept on a leash at all times.
If you can spare some cash, feel free to park at one of the area's beach access points, where it costs $1 an hour. For $6, you can leave your car at Folly Beach County Park. It's a bit of a walk to the actual beach, but they've got public bathrooms, so it kind of evens out. Parking is free if you can find a spot in the grass along one of Folly's streets, but if you don't want a ticket, make sure to keep your tires off the pavement, park with the flow of traffic, and don't park in front of a driveway.
Speaking of tickets, be careful with your trash if you want to avoid a littering ticket that could set you back $1,000 or more. Tickets for bonfires, open alcohol that isn't in a cup, and messing around on the sand dunes can cause a dent in your wallet too.
So grab a surfboard, paddleboard, or even a kiteboard — McKevlin's sells boards on consignment and offers one-hour lessons for $40 — and head to the Washout. Or maybe you'd rather bring along your rod and find a spot on the Edwin S. Taylor Folly Beach Fishing Pier, where you can fish for $3-$10 from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Either way, pack that cooler full of beer and prepare to spend one of the mellowest afternoons you'll ever spend at the beach. —Susan Cohen
Isle of Palms
Of all the beaches in the Charleston area, Isle of Palms offers the most family-friendly shores. But this doesn't come without a price, as it has tons of tourists and a bevy of rules. The beach doesn't allow alcohol, glass bottles, fireworks, camping overnight, bonfires, or, of course, littering. Strict rules may put a damper on things, if you're a college kid looking for a party atmosphere, but they keep the Isle of Palms safe and clean. Pets are allowed, but they must be on a leash at all times (even in the water), except from 5 a.m.-8 a.m. during the summer months, which basically allows residents to get their morning dog walks in before the tourists descend.
Holes dug on the beach must be filled afterward. Not only will it save grandma from falling in and breaking a hip, but it will help sea turtle hatchlings make it out to sea and keep the public safety officers from breaking an axel on their beach carts.
The main watersport at Isle of Palms is kitesurfing due to the open, windy setting. This beach doesn't offer tasty waves, so surfers are likely to be found elsewhere. And if you do surf, be sure to stay 100 feet from bathers and 200 feet from the pier. (Speaking of sports, IOP also offers opportunities for golfers to get their swing on at the Wild Dunes Resort.)
Isle of Palms has lots of places to park. Along Ocean Boulevard between 10th and 14th avenues, meters are $1 an hour. The bigger city-run lots on Pavilion Drive cost $5 per day or you can buy a season parking decal. You can also park on any road right-of-way, but all four tires need to be off the pavement or you'll get a parking ticket.
If you want a beach with a lifeguard, head to the county park at 14th Avenue. There, you'll find restrooms, showers, and picnic tables along with beach chair and umbrella rentals.
CARTA recently added a bus route that drops visitors off at the IOP County Park. The bus stops at Mt. Pleasant Towne Centre every two hours, beginning at 7:45 a.m. Lucky ducks who live within the Route 402 Zone can call and schedule a pickup. Strap your beach cruiser to the front of the bus, pay your $3, and enjoy your day at the beach.
Beachside bars and restaurants include the Windjammer, Banana Cabana, and Coconut Joe's, all of which have outdoor patios and seating. Hucks Lowcountry Table is a great spot for seasonal fare for lunch and dinner. The Front Beach area also has a cute collection of shops with an ice cream parlor and pizzeria. If you're in need of gear, check out Beachtown and the Isle Surf Co.
On the back side of the island along the Intracoastal Waterway, you'll find the marina where you can go parasailing, rent waverunners, and charter fishing boats.
The best place to wed is the Wild Dunes Resort with its upscale amenities, beach access, and open space. The resort even has a team of event planners, if you have the budget for that sort of destination wedding. Another popular wedding venue is the Citadel Beach House. Owned and managed by the local military college, the house is available for event rentals ($2,500-$4,000) and makes for a picture-perfect beachfront wedding and reception.
IOP has a combination of small hotels, condos, and giant beach homes. It's a good place to host a family reunion, as you can probably sleep 36 people in just a couple of houses. Check out Resort Quest or Island Realty for the latest deals.
Overall, Isle of Palms is a pleasant, clean beach that is ideal for families who don't want to worry about alcohol, college kids, or (most of the time) dogs off leash. —Stephanie Barna
The Outer Beaches
While the bustling scenes and glimmering sands of Folly Beach, Sullivan's Island, and the Isle of Palms are convenient to beach-goers, there's plenty more to enjoy and explore. South of downtown, Edisto, Seabrook, and Kiawah islands offer up plenty of opportunities for coastal fun, while the marshy spots north of the IOP at Capers and Bull islands offer more rustic recreational adventures.
The woodsy, mostly rural Edisto Island is located about 50 miles southwest of Charleston, at the southern-most tip of Charleston County. Edisto Beach is a vacation home hotspot, lined with sleepy roads, impressive houses, golf courses, trails, ponds, and funky shops and restaurants. There are more than three miles of wide beaches. Anglers can enjoy great surf and pier fishing (the most serious go for the deep-sea fishing). Edisto State Park features handicap-friendly bike and hiking trails, cabins, villas, and campsites. The Old Post Office Restaurant, a highly acclaimed old-school seafood eatery on Highway 174, recently reopened with a traditional menu of Lowcountry fare.
Seabrook and Kiawah islands are sibling resort communities with broad beaches, luxurious accommodations, marinas, golf courses, tennis courts, and villas. Private, heavily wooded, and handsomely landscaped, these elite, sumptuous beach towns are destinations for well-to-do vacationers and locals alike.
On the south end of Seabrook Island at the North Edisto River Inlet, you'll find Pelican Beach, which is convenient to the island's fancy club facilities. It's easy to get away from the hub of activity at the marina and take in the terrific beach and dune scenery. Peaceful, vast, and uncrowded, Seabrook is a breezy delight.
About 30 miles south of Charleston, Kiawah Island is a popular beach community and golf resort that boasts more than 10 miles of beach and dunes. Much of the property is set aside as a habitat for a variety of plant and animal species, including sea turtles, wild deer, bobcats, and a variety of birds. The Kiawah Island Golf Resort is a major tourist draw. Beachwalker County Park, a wide public beach with amenities located on the western end of the island, is a favorite destination for locals. Situated at the crossroads of Kiawah, Seabrook, and Johns islands, the Freshfields Village shopping area offers a number of shops and restaurants.
Capers and Bull islands are less about resort living and more about exploring the waters and islands of the Intracoastal Waterway and Cape Romain. Adventure-seekers can take a ferry, boat, or kayak past the Isle of Palms Marina and the cluster of houses on Dewees Island toward both destinations.
Accessible only by boat, the approximately three-square-mile Capers Island is a pristine, undeveloped barrier island with plenty of deer, loggerheads, foxes, alligators, and marine animals. There are more than 200 acres of beach backed by marshes and creeks. Campers must acquire a free permit by calling the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Marine Resources Division (843-953-9301).
Bull Island — known as the "gem of Cape Romain"— is a quiet barrier island within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Small roads and footpaths provide opportunities for hiking and wildlife observation. Most visitors take the ferry from the IOP offered by Coastal Expeditions. Boneyard Beach is a quiet stretch of sand along the east side, littered with sun-bleached trees and driftwood.
The boat trip out to Capers and Bull is as fun as the stay. A casual cruise up the waterway offers boaters plenty of dolphin-watching, birding, and fishing. Anglers can reel in spottail, trout, flounder, hammerheads, and snapper from the surf.