A vacation on Sullivan’s Island offers all of the outdoor fun you’d expect to find in a South Carolina beach town—and a little something extra: a complex historic legacy.
Located at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, the island is named after Florence O’Sullivan, who served as captain on one of the first ships to arrive in the area in the 17th century. O’Sullivan was stationed on Sullivan’s in 1674 and assigned the job of firing a signal cannon to warn Charles Town of incoming ships.
Between 1619 and 1808, the island served as the entry point for approximately 40 percent of the slaves brought into North America. Any ships carrying ill passengers or crew members would be quarantined on Sullivan’s to prevent the spread of deadly diseases like smallpox and cholera.
It played an equally important role as a military outpost in the defense of Charleston during both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Fort Sullivan, as it was originally known, was still being constructed when the British Royal Navy attacked the island in 1776. The soft palmetto logs used to build the walls absorbed the incoming cannon fire, preventing the British from taking Charleston. The town commemorates the June 28, 1776 Battle of Sullivan’s Island each year with its Carolina Day festival.
The fort went on to be renamed Fort Moultrie in honor of the colonel who defended it during the famed battle. Among the men stationed there in later years was Edgar Allan Poe. Today, the fort is a national monument open to the public for self-guided tours.
Another must-see attraction is the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse. It was built in the early 1960s to replace the light on Morris Island that was in danger of being destroyed by erosion. Still in operation today, the 140-foot black and white structure features a unique triangular and slim design. You’ll have to enjoy this landmark from the outside as it is closed to the public.
As beach towns go, Sullivan’s Island has plenty to offer with 2.5 miles of creamy white shoreline. With the Intracoastal Waterway on the north side of the island and Beach Inlet to the east, it’s also a favorite destination for fishing, paddleboarding, kiteboarding and kayaking.
While there is little commercial development on the island, the center of town features two blocks of charming galleries, shops and restaurants, including Poe’s Tavern, named for the famous author of horror classics like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.”