Welcome to Part 2 of a 3-part series on the beaches of South Carolina designed to help you and your family choose the coastal area of the Palmetto State that best fits your idea of a fun and fabulous family beach vacation. Part 1 covered The Grand Strand’s exciting and entertaining atmosphere. Part 2 offers an overview of the Charleston-area and its beautiful and diverse beaches. Part 3, coming soon, will give the low-down on the fabulously family-friendly Lowcountry.
Charleston Area Beaches
Charleston (pronounced “Chahl-ston” by the natives) has long held a strange attraction for me. Growing up in Northeast Tennessee, we looked forward to visiting our extended family in Charleston nearly every year. From its history and alluring culture, to the vibrancy and architectural delights of the downtown, to the brilliance of the beckoning beaches, it was love at first sight. And I’ve been held captive to Charleston’s charm ever since.
There are many options for where and how to stay. If the beach is part of your plan, you’ll want to know which beach is best for your family and your type of fun.
The Legend of the Pineapple
Charleston’s hospitality is legendary. The fine people there love their traditions, and the culture of hospitality is a long-standing tradition that never goes out of style. As you walk around the streets of the city, gaze upon the magnificent homes, and peer through the gates into the lovely gardens (spying through the gates is actually encouraged in this city!), you might notice a motif that is prominent throughout – the pineapple.
Though there is some controversy as to how it came about, the “Legend of the Pineapple” is typically believed to have begun when Charleston was a shipping port in the Colonial Days. Captains would come home from trading voyages bringing foreign souvenirs with them, including the exotic pineapple. The captain would spear a pineapple on the fence outside his house to let his family, friends, and neighbors know that he had returned home safely to Charleston. It was an invitation to let friends know they were invited to join him for dinner and hear about his adventures and exploits.
In modern times this hospitality translates into throngs of tourists who love to visit Charleston every year, in season and out. There is always something new to explore. Carriage and walking tours will immerse you in stories of the region. Plantations and gardens are perfect places to while away the hours. Enjoy nature, conquer a sporting adventure, attend cultural events.
Visitors also find ample shopping to overwhelm the senses (and the wallet), gastronomic delights to be devoured, and beautiful beaches to comb. The “open gates” and laid-back vibe the natives exude make everyone feel at home and makes you want to visit again and again. What’s not to love?
Modern Day Water World and More
Charleston originally encompassed just the 127 square mile peninsula. But I’ve discovered that Charleston proper actually takes in at least eight different areas:
- Downtown/The Peninsula
- The Isle of Palms (which includes Wild Dunes)
- Sullivan’s Island
- Daniel Island
- Mount Pleasant
- James Island (which includes Folly Beach)
- Johns Island
- West Ashley
And for the purposes of this article, I’m adding in Capers Island and Bull’s Island, just north of Charleston. I’m also adding Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, and Edisto Island/Beach, all just south of Charleston proper. As you can imagine, Charleston and its surrounding islands make up an enchanting modern day water world.
If historical tours, fine dining, and shopping is your thing, I recommend booking lodging downtown on “the Peninsula.” There are many hotels and B&B’s from which to choose. You’ll still find plenty of waterside breezes as you stroll the Battery and White Point Gardens. Also, you’ll want to spend time visiting Daniel Island, Mount Pleasant, Johns Island, and West Ashley. Each is mainly residential areas without ocean side beaches, but they offer many fabulous entertainment, historical, outdoors, educational, and dining experiences
I could go on and on about the virtues of this city and every little distinct area within. But in this post I’m focusing on the beaches, and how to choose the best one for your family vacation. They each have their own unique personality, so I highly recommend you plan several beach vacations to the area to experience them all – or plan on staying a while so you can get around to each and every one.
Northern, Undeveloped Barrier Islands
These upper islands, which include Bulls and Capers Islands, located several miles north of Charleston, remain mainly undeveloped and uninhabited (except by wildlife). If you are looking for a day or overnight adventure to experience Charleston beaches’ “wild side,” set aside some time in your vacation to explore these natural beach beauties.
Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Bulls Island: “Shrouded in oak, palmetto, magnolia and pine and populated by a staggering variety of creatures both local and migratory, this increasingly threatened stretch of oceanfront wilderness is considered the jewel of the 66,000-acre Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.”
Charleston’s “wilderness” is located just 20 miles north of the city, and as they say, “it’s not for everyone.” But if wildlife is your thing, and you are looking for an opportunity to see more than 293 species of birds, the most significant nesting site of loggerhead sea turtles north of Florida, one of the densest populations of American alligators north of the Everglades, pristine, undeveloped shoreline, including “Boneyard Beach” – more than one mile of shoreline adorned with the skeletonized remains of oaks and cedars — and if you want to enjoy more than 16 miles of maintained trails and roads throughout a 5000-acre island, then Bulls Island IS for you.
To get there, you will need to go by water. The Bulls Island Ferry runs throughout the summer twice a day on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Also, check the website for other adventures, such as the Beach Drop, Island Quest Field Trips, Sunrise Photography Expeditions, overnight adventures, kayaking, tours of the Cape Romain Lighthouses, or even chartering your own customized, private adventure. This is an adventure you will never forget – the chance to experience a Class 1 wilderness location, relatively unchanged and unaltered by man.
Capers Island is another classic, undeveloped barrier island. It’s located just 15 miles north of Charleston, and about three miles from the mainland. Owned by the state, it is only three miles in length, and accessible only by boat. It is protected by the state and federal government from any type of development and remains uniquely unspoiled.
There are many options for visits, to take part in fishing and blue crabbing excursions, educational opportunities for school groups, and private and public excursions for other groups or individuals. In the summer, you can schedule a trip for the Lowcountry Boil Beachside Cookout on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Sunset cruises Sunday through Friday in the summer will allow you to encounter dolphin and loggerhead turtles.
Beach Islands of Charleston Proper
There are several beaches that are a short and simple drive to the beautiful and historic downtown Charleston peninsula. If you stay at one of these island getaways you’ll be able to spend part of your day in the city touring the sites and feasting on Lowcountry cuisine, and be back on the breezy beach in no time flat!
The Isle of Palms
The Isle of Palms (IOP), within which the Wild Dunes Resort resides, is located only 12 miles north of downtown Charleston just over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and past Mount Pleasant. It is a very family-friendly beach crowd, due to the many rules, such as no alcohol on the beaches.
Condominiums, townhomes, beach homes, and a couple of hotels make up most of the island. Most of the beach homes for rent were rebuilt or renovated after Hurricane Hugo in the 1980s, and are of the large, multi-family style homes. There is plenty of parking, including metered parking, troughout the island. There is a marina on the Intracoastal Waterway side of the island, with plenty of aquatic fun and rentals available.
With a quaint shopping and dining area on the beach side, you will find a bustling and active atmosphere, with live music at the beachfront bars and restaurants, beach volleyball, and families relaxing and playing on the beach. For quieter beach areas, head to the Wild Dunes Resort, which is a gated community on the island. Here you will also find championship golf, tennis, and parks.
My favorite stay on the Isle of Palms was in a 3-bedroom villa within Wild Dunes. We could sit on our back deck overlooking the intracoastal waterway, marshes, and golf course, head out our front door directly to a semi-private swimming pool just steps away, or walk two blocks via a lush and sandy path to the beautiful beach.
Sullivan’s Island is a barrier island just south of and connected to the Isle of Palms by a small bridge over Breech Inlet. It offers more of a “shabby chic” high end, residential beach vibe.
Preservation is key here, with many of the homes still owned by the original Charleston families and full or part-time citizens. There are no resorts or hotels on this small island and very few short-term rentals.
Sullivan’s Island has a long military history of protecting the harbor of Charleston, and is known for its lighthouse and Fort Moultrie, which is actually a series of fortifications that were built to protect the city of Charleston. The first fort was built of palmetto logs, which inspired the flag and nickname of South Carolina, “The Palmetto State.”
Several restaurants here are destinations in and of themselves. You’ll find no public parking areas, though there is plenty of free parking available on the side roads. In keeping with the small-town, residential feel, there are no public restrooms, lifeguards, watersport rentals or sales on the beach. There is also no alcohol allowed on the beach.
My family always takes a few hours to visit Fort Moultrie and walk along the beach looking for shells near Charleston Harbor, watching the large freight barges pull in, followed by dinner at Poe’s Tavern or Sullivan’s for fresh seafood and a chance to enjoy the crowds.
Folly Beach is known as the “Edge of America” to the locals. It’s located just 11 miles south of downtown Charleston, on Folly Island, just over the causeway from James Island (a residential area). Folly Beach has become well-known as a popular surf spot on the East Coast, especially in an area on the island known as “The Washout.”
Folly is the most laid-back, eclectic, casual beach community of Charleston, complete with a small little beach town with surf and gift shops, fun restaurants and bars, and the iconic Folly Beach Fishing Pier. The original Folly Beach Pier was built in 1931, and included a pavilion, boardwalk, and ocean front hotel. In those days, it was THE place to see and be seen, catching performances by big bands, such as Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Glenn Miller.
After a fire destroyed the pier in 1957, a second one was built with a boardwalk and modern hotel, including a skating rink, Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and carousel. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, young people went in droves to dance to The Temptations, The Tams, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Otis Redding.
Sadly, this pier also burned down in 1977, and the new one was not built until 1995. Today it extends more than 1,000 feet out over the ocean and is best used for walking, taking in beautiful views, and fishing. There is also a restaurant, gift shop, public restrooms and showers, and fishing tackle rental and sales.
Fun at Folly Beach
Folly Beach is also the only beach area in Charleston that allows alcohol, as long as it is in a plastic cup or bottle, making it a popular destination for the college crowd. There is a hotel and a few condos, though most of the lodging is made up of rental houses.
Folly Beach County Park, located on the south end of the island, is a great place to spend the day on the beach, with seasonally available lifeguards, parking (for a small fee), outdoor showers, restrooms, and a snack bar for the public.
My family used to rent a beach house here in the summer and enjoy walks down the pier and trying to learn to surf from the locals. Favorite dining spots include the Lost Dog Cafe for breakfast, Taco Boy, Folly Beach Crab Shack, and Rita’s Seaside Grille. Also, if you drive down to the north end of the island and find a parking space, you can take a beautiful and romantic stroll out to the Morris Island Lighthouse. I highly recommend this at sunset.
Southern Outer Islands
The Southern “Outer Islands” of Kiawah, Seabrook, and Edisto are located about 30 – 50 miles south of Charleston, and are perfect for family beach getaways.
Kiawah Island is a privately-owned island. It’s home to a luxury golf and beach resort, The Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, and privately owned luxury beach homes. Ten miles of pristine beaches, extensive acres of marsh, abundant wildlife, exclusive shopping, first-rate tennis facilities, and fine-dining attract more affluent vacationers to this island paradise.
The Kiawah Beachwalker Pier is open to the public, and has parking, showers, restrooms, lifeguards, and a snack bar. Freshfields Village, a uniquely planned town center, has become a gathering place on Kiawah, with its eclectic boutique shopping, dining, and events.
Accommodations on the island are found at The Sanctuary Hotel, Andell Inn, and in home, condo, and villa rentals. Favorite dining spots on Kiawah include Jasmine Porch and Atlantic Room. My family loves to visit the nearby Angel Oak, estimated to be more than 500 years old, on Johns Island. I cannot express how beautiful and haunting this natural treasure is, despite the crowds visiting there day in and day out.
Seabrook Island, smaller and yet similar in style to Kiawah, is located just a little farther out past Kiawah. A gated community edged by 2.5 miles of beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, Seabrook Island is home to an incredible range of wildlife and a thriving ecosystem. Its winding streets are lined with live oaks and hanging Spanish moss surround private, uncommercial, rental villas and condos. Tennis, bike-riding, and golf are just a few of the activities on this beautiful barrier island.
Edisto Island, finally, is located about 50 miles from Charleston. This family-friendly island is very laid-back and mostly uncommercial, with more than three miles of sandy shores to enjoy. Fishing tours, hiking, and biking trails abound, and Edisto Beach State Park offers campsites on the beaches and marshlands, as well as a few cabins available for rent. Other accommodations include condos and mostly “shabby chic” beachfront homes. This island is a great place for families to get away from it all, while remaining within reach of all there is to do in Charleston.
The Final Analysis: Natural and Diverse Beauty in Abundance
The South Carolina beaches surrounding Charleston abound in beauty and natural wonder and boast a diversity of experiences that has kept my family returning time after time. As an Appalachian girl from the mountains of Northeast Tennessee, I have been blessed to vacation in Charleston and enjoy its breezy beaches every single year of my life. Ican honestly say that I have never gotten bored or run out of new adventures and things to see and experience.
This post simply covers a few of the beaches surrounding Charleston – but there is so much to do in Charleston itself! If you’ve never been, right now is a great time to start planning your first of what I’m sure will become many trips to the beaches of Charleston.