The Distinct and Captivating Beaches of Charleston

Charleston, South Carolina is one of the hottest vacation destinations in the country right now. It offers a rich background of American history, world-class dining, and unmatched beauty. While it is tempting to plan a vacation just in the historic downtown, you’re really missing out on a big part of Charleston’s culture if you skip the beach.

You can’t beat restorative time on the beach. Bring a kite or a Frisbee to toss around while you soak up the South Carolina sun. Enjoy the sweet briny waters and the distinct charms of all of the local beaches to really take in the coastal cultures surrounding Charleston and connect to the unique personality of every beach retreat.

The average water temperature is usually above 80 degrees from June through October. Luckily, there are plenty of beaches to cater to every vacation personality. So, pack up the sunscreen and the bathing suits and experience the local favorite beach retreats that best suits your style.

Edge of America: Folly Beach

Whoever coined the phrase “island time” must have been vacationing on Folly Beach! Folly is one of the most popular beaches with the locals, thanks to the laidback feel and bohemian atmosphere.

You won’t encounter any chain stores here. From beach chair rentals to the seafood restaurants, Folly is home to many local businesses. Get your retail fix in the kitschy beach shops on Center Street, and then pop into the bars for some local fried shrimp and cold beer. Most of the locals swear by the street-side food vendors for an easy snack on the way to the water.

Folly Beachimage courtesy of Donnie Whitaker

A stroll on the Folly Beach Pier is also a must. Extending 1,045 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, this is the second longest pier on the East Coast. You can purchase a fishing license and try your luck with the locals or simply watch them reel in their catch.

Make sure you go all the way to the end; you may see a deep sea fisherman pull in a king mackerel. You’ll also probably see some greedy pelicans waiting for the anglers to clean their catch. The pier is the best place to go for restrooms and sand-rinsing showers when your day on the beach is done.

Folly is also home to an array of water sports. Go for a relaxing kayak or paddleboard tour on the Folly River that separates the island from the mainland. The scenery and wildlife are breathtaking.

Near the north end of the island is where the surfers hang out. The popular area called the Washout is home to some of the best waves on the East Coast. Catch some rays from the sand and watch the surfers do their thing, or hang ten yourself with one of the island’s surf schools.

Folly is one of the best places to see dolphin off the coast, so keep your eyes on the water for a glimpse of a glistening flipper, especially during the epic sunsets visible from the Washout.

Poe and Paddle: Sullivans Island

If you want to feel like a true Charlestonian, head out to Sullivans Island. It is just 15 minutes from the historic downtown, but it feels like a million miles away. There is no commercial development on the beach front, so Sullivan’s Island beachgoers enjoy pristine views and white sand.

This beach is lined only with large, beautiful homes, and plentiful sea turtle nests give a glimpse into the diverse aquatic life surrounding the area. The South Carolina Aquarium periodically releases rehabilitated sea turtles back into the ocean from the beach, so check out their schedule when you are planning your trip.

Sullivans Island is ideal for stand up paddle boarding, with plenty of calm inlets to get started. You may even catch the local community of kiteboarders out on a windy day.

Sullivans is also home to thriving local businesses. Though there is not much shopping, the island’s chefs really shine. When you’re ready to stay out of the sun, take a walk over to Middle Street for some truly amazing casual dining.

Sullivan’s Islandimage courtesy of Donnie Whitaker

You’ll find delicious tacos, legendary burgers, and Charleston’s favorite barbecue. Much loved by Charlestonians, The Obstinate Daughter offers delightful wood-grilled pizzas and thoughtful pasta dishes perfect for cozy winter beach nights or a welcomed break after a full day at the beach.

Surprise yourself with a reservation at one of the island’s fine dining restaurants. They may not be as well-known as the popular downtown spots, but their cuisine can definitely stand up to the toughest critics.

Sullivans is also a history buff’s paradise, as it is home to Fort Moultrie. Fort Moultrie was integral to keeping the British out of Charleston early on in the American Revolution. The first fort was built from sand and palmetto tree trunks, which inspired the design for the South Carolina flag and the state’s nickname—the Palmetto State.

Fort Moultrie was also home to famous writer Edgar Allan Poe during his time in the army. While stationed there in 1827, Poe wrote his famous short story, The Gold Bug. Sullivan’s Island still celebrates the author’s brief residence with street names and one of the most popular eateries on the island, Poe’s Tavern.

Resort, Recreation, and Relaxation: Isle of Palms

Just a few miles from Sullivans Island is the picture-perfect paradise of Isle of Palms. While this is a primarily residential beach, the beachfront restaurants and shops on Ocean Boulevard offer the charm of an old fashioned beach resort.

Indulge your sweet tooth with ice cream shops or enjoy some adult beverages with unparalleled views of the Atlantic Ocean. This family-friendly beach offers easy access to public restrooms and beach rentals such as umbrellas and chairs, so it is perfect for introducing your littlest ones to the pleasure of a day in the sand. There are also lifeguards seasonally, so you can relax while the kids play.

While kayaking and paddle boarding are still popular on Isle of Palms, this is also where the serious anglers go for the best charter fishing on Charleston’s coast. You can rent a boat and head out on your own or trust a seasoned local captain to take you right to the best places for both inshore and offshore fishing.

Isle of Palms image courtesy of Donnie Whitaker

Inshore fishermen usually come back with redfish, tarpon, spotted trout, and sheepshead. The more challenging offshore fishing offers trophies such as king mackerel, snapper, tuna, and dolphin. After a long day on the water, head to one of the many local seafood restaurants that will clean and cook your catch!

The highly regarded Wild Dunes Resort is a great place to vacation in a rental home or villa or there is lodging at the elegant Boardwalk Inn. Peppered with vibrant businesses and restaurants, this luxury retreat offers two award-winning golf courses, a tennis center with 17 Har-Tru courts including a stadium court, walking trails, pools galore, and some of the prettiest beaches in South Carolina.

Nature’s Paradise: Dewees Island

If you’re looking for an exclusive paradise to unplug and enjoy the beauty of South Carolina’s thriving beach wildlife, Dewees Island is perfect for you. Dewees is a barrier island off the coast of Isle of Palms and is only accessible by ferry.

The island itself is an unspoiled paradise where you will only find bicycles and electric golf carts. No cars allowed! The Dewees Island Property Owners Association takes their nature conservation seriously. They encourage all visitors to stop at the Nature Center for an orientation to the island’s ecosystem.

Dewees Islandimage courtesy of Donnie Whitaker

A trip to Dewees does take a little extra planning. You’ll need to familiarize yourself with the ferry schedule to get on and off the island, as visitors are not allowed to bring private boats. You will also need to do all of your grocery shopping in advance. There are no restaurants or stores on the island.

Cell service can be a bit spotty, depending on your carrier, but most rental houses have landline phones for your needs. Though Wi-Fi and cable are available, this is a great opportunity to have a completely disconnected family vacation!

There are, however, kayaks and canoes available if you need more activity than just a seat on the beach. The marshes and tidal creeks that surround the island are a must-see attraction. These are some of the most pristine areas on the South Carolina coast. You’ll see many types of birds and fish, and a dolphin may even swim right up beside you.

The Dewees beach is also wonderful for shelling, though the local natural stewards do put a limit on to the number of shells each person can take home. You’ll see starfish, crabs, coral, and many other beautiful beach treasures. Dewees Island has become an annual tradition for many families, and it will undoubtedly be a vacation you will never forget!

View Pristine Beaches from Horseback: Seabrook Island

Take a drive through the countryside on live oak tree-lined roads on John’s Island, canopied in Spanish moss, and you’ll find yourself on the quiet oasis of Seabrook Island. Seabrook Island offers pristine beaches that remained unspoiled over time.

Like every area of Charleston, Seabrook Island has an unique history that dates back to the Colonial era. The barrier island is named for Robert Seabrook who traveled to Charles Town from England in 1679 and led a colorful life in Charleston, including a conviction for trading with pirates. Centuries later, his descendants sold the island for Confederate money, which was rendered worthless after the war.

Seabrook Islandimage courtesy of Donnie Whitaker

Seabrook Island is a private community that offers miles of some of the prettiest beaches in America. Tucked inside the gates, the resort offers 2 championship golf courses, a tournament grade tennis center, a fully-equipped equestrian facility, and a top of the line fitness and aquatics center. Relax in the tranquil beauty of the island or enjoy numerous dining, social and athletic opportunities available every day. Bonus: Seabrook Island is also the only place on the Charleston Coast where you can ride horses on the beach.

The Ultimate Luxury Resort Destination: Kiawah Island

If you have a crowd to impress on your vacation, Kiawah is the place to go. From a world-renowned, award-winning golf course to luxury spas, tennis, and water sports, Kiawah Island has something for everyone. The private island is full of beautiful homes and condos for purchase or rent.

Once you are on this lush resort, take advantage of the opportunity to play the legendary Ocean Course, site of the 2012 PGA Championship. If that course is a little too daunting, there are four other public courses on the island. Don’t get too lost in their amazing views, though; you may have to dodge one of the local alligators who live in the water hazards!

Kiawah also offers great opportunities for kayaking and paddle boarding. For the beginners, head to Mingo Point for a calm marsh creek to build up confidence, then head out into the tidal creeks that surround the island.

Kiawah Islandimage courtesy of Donnie Whitaker

With a couple miles of sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean, Kiawah Island has room for everyone and their interests. Rent bikes to get from the resorts to the restaurants to the beach in style. Reserve some time on one of the many tennis courts or sign up for lessons with their seasoned tennis pros to truly immerse yourself in the resort life. A Kiawah vacation will never leave you bored!

It’s also easy to take the bikes or drive to Freshfields Village, just outside the Kiawah Island gate. This shopping village is filled with upscale boutiques to satisfy even the most seasoned shoppers. There are jewelry stores, toy stores, and plenty of cafés and ice cream stands to satisfy the whole family.

Definitely plan to attend their weekly farmer’s market on Monday afternoons. The local produce and foods are out of this world. You’ll also see plenty of crafts by local artisans that are the perfect souvenir of your low country vacation.

Final Thoughts

No matter which type of beach-goer you are, Charleston’s barrier islands have something for everyone. Avoid the hustle and bustle of downtown and relax with your own vacation home, where you can spread out and enjoy your vacation at your own pace.

These islands are just a quick 15-30-minute drive from the historic downtown area, so you can take advantage of every aspect of Charleston’s rich culture and find out why it is consistently ranked one of the top vacation destinations in the world.