Like the rest of Charleston, the beaches on the Holy City's barrier islands have interesting histories of their own. Sullivan's Island was a stop for the pirate Blackbeard and the setting for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Gold Bug”. Kiawah Island once was home to wild horses. Just north of Folly Beach is Morris Island, where the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment earned its “Glory” during the Civil War.
You simply cannot go wrong on a beach choice here. There is something for everyone and every vibe.
Kiawah and nearby Seabrook offer several beautiful golf courses and tennis courts. On Kiawah, you will find one of the state’s most beautiful beaches and the posh Sanctuary hotel.
Laid-back Folly Beach offers some of the state’s best surfing and a bohemian vibe where the locals are as entertaining as the waves.
The Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island, just north of the city, offer wide beaches with plenty of watersports and great places to eat.
Edisto Beach, while a short boat ride away, is a little further removed from Charleston by car but well worth the drive. The state park here offers cottages as well as campsites. There is fishing, boating access and trails, including the Spanish Mount trail that leads to the second-oldest Native American pottery site in South Carolina.
While you're on Edisto Island, don't miss Botany Bay, a land preserve managed by the state Department of Natural Resources. It has the most pristine beach you will find in South Carolina.
Places to stay
You will find hotels at Folly, Isle of Palms, Kiawah and Seabrook. The Tides at Folly has beachfront rooms along with a funky restaurant and bar. The Boardwalk Inn is in the Wild Dunes Resort and offers guests a short walk to the beach and top-notch service. The Sanctuary at Kiawah is right on the beach and offers spacious rooms with every luxury, an indoor pool and spa, as well as an outdoor pool.
Each of the beaches also has condos and private homes for rent, typically on a weekly basis. The sizes and prices vary from one-bedroom condos to houses that will sleep 20. Here are a few agencies that handle beach rentals: for Wild Dunes, Isle of Palms and Sullivan's, try Island Realty; for Folly Beach, try Avocet Properties; for Edisto Beach, try Edisto Realty; and for Seabrook or Kiawah, try, Kiawah Island Golf Resort or Beachwalker Rentals.
Things to do
Take a charter from the IOP Marina to fishing – inshore or offshore. Typically your trip will include all the equipment you need, a captain and a fishing license. If you’d rather watch the fish than catch them, the marina offers harbor tours.
You can learn some of Sullivan's history at Fort Moultrie, a quiet windswept grassy area away from the sun and surf and stand where Revolutionary War hero Col. William Moultrie turned away an assault by nine British warships.
If you are renting a beach house during your stay, you’ll need something to cook. The best place to start your local shopping is Rosebank Farms on Johns Island to get fresh fish and veggies. Be sure to get some grouper and Johns Island tomatoes in season. The kids will love the farm animals, including a miniature Brahma cow, goats, pigs and bunnies. Roosters and chickens wander among shoppers, and the farm has a Marsh Tacky, South Carolina’s official state horse. Right nearby is the Johns Island Museum, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1868 that takes visitors on a 4,000-year history of the island from Indians through the Civil War.
Folly is known for its surfing, and McKevlin’s Surf Shop will rent you a board and put you in touch with an instructor if you need one.
Island Bike and Outfitters has all the equipment you will need to enjoy Edisto’s natural resources.
Where to eat
Each Island has many wonderful places to eat, but a few of favorites are The Boathouse at Breach Inlet between Isle of Palms and Sullivan's. Offering great views of the water on all sides, The Boathouse gets crowded as soon as the weather gets warm, so reservations are recommended.
At Sullivan's, check out Poe’s Tavern for burgers, salads and fish sandwiches; and the Obstinate Daughter for everything else from Geechie Frites to cappelletti stuffed with foie gras to the Lt. Dan pizza — shrimp, arugula pesto, Nicoise olives and artichokes.
Over at Folly, things are a little more laid back at The Crab Shack, with its year-round outdoor seating and wonderful seafood boils and raw bar and Taco Boy with its inspired margaritas and fish tacos.
The Ocean Room at the Sanctuary is Kiawah’s signature steak house. You simply cannot get more luxurious than this. A Forbes four-star and AAA four-diamond rated restaurant, the Ocean Room offers steak for every taste, seafood and local specialties.
At Edisto, you have to try the SeaCow Eatery for breakfast. It is a small place, but the food is oh so good. And for dinner, check out the Old Post Office, which has its own crab cake recipe and serves everything with grits.
At Seabrook, the must-visit place is Red’s Ice House. Located at Bohicket Marina, it is for folks who like seafood, local beer, live music and a beautiful sunset.
Off the beach on Johns Island is the Fat Hen. This bistro mixes the best of France with the local meats and produce of the Lowcountry. You can get duck confit or shrimp and grits, pomme frites or collards. The food and service here are fantastic, and it is especially great for a large crowd. It is extremely popular with the locals as well as visitors, so remember to make reservations.