People & Places

Barrier islands offer sun, surf and seafood for beachgoers

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Spring break is just around the corner, and many Eastern Iowans long have had their sights set on warm weather destinations.

Of course, Charleston, S.C., is an ideal spot for some fun in the sun where you also can soak up some southern hospitality, delicious dishes and fascinating history. Visitors flock to the well-known South Carolina Aquarium and the historic Charleston City Market. They take carriage tours through the cobbled streets and explore grand plantations. Some take in the area’s story-filled history by standing in the spot where the first shot of the Civil War was fired or hopping a ferry to visit Fort Sumter National Monument.

But just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Charleston are a slew of beaches and vacation towns that have a personality all their own. Here, you can find history and delectable eats, along with some of the most well-known and relaxing beaches on the East Coast. Over the last few summers, our family has become acquainted with the barrier islands surrounding Charleston, and we’ve found they offer a relaxing beach escape that leaves us longing to return again and again.

Folly Beach

Welcome to the “Edge of America,” as the locals like to say. Located just 15 miles from downtown Charleston, Folly Beach rightfully claims itself to be one of America’s last true beach towns. The feel on this barrier island is very laid back and the funky, come-as-you-are vibe welcomes thousands of visitors from near and far.

There’s a lot of action packed onto the island, which covers only 12 square miles.

The beach always is busy with sunbathers, volleyball players and vacationing families, to name a few. Surfers often take to the water just offshore.

Perhaps most notable is the Folly Beach Fishing Pier. Some 24 feet wide and extending more than 1,000 feet into the Atlantic, you will see dozens upon dozens of fishermen and women looking to hook their next big catch. A whiteboard mid-pier lists the current record holders in each fish category for the season. For a small fee in the shop at the end of the pier, you can rent a fishing pole for the day and try your luck as well.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of great places to shop and eat all along Center Street, which as you guessed, runs down the center of the very walkable (or bikeable) island.

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One of the most notable spots is Bert’s Market, a corner grocery store that is anything but ordinary. It offers free coffee all day (which helps support its tagline that “they may doze, but they never close”), a fantastic organic deli and a great selection of beer and wine among other grocery items. The store has a hippy vibe and certainly is one of Folly Beach’s hidden gems.

While we visited, we came to know Folly Beach as a taco Mecca as well. Taco Boy, right on Center Street, offers a great selection of small tacos and Mexican appetizers. Its cocktail and cerveza menu makes it a great spot for an afternoon drink when you need a break from the sun. Try the frozen screwdriver with a Grand Marnier floater.

Then, a few blocks away, in a courtyard behind a small home is Chico Feo. This can’t-miss spot offers up some of the most delicious Mexican food in a setting that makes you feel like you’re at a friend’s backyard picnic. The menu is simple: a couple of varieties of tacos, goat curry and Cuban rice and bean. Paired with a cold beer or the house made cucumber lemonade sake, you’d be hard pressed to find a more authentically relaxing spot on the whole island.

Of course, what would a visit to the beach be without a traditional seafood dinner? Bowen’s Island Restaurant, on its own 13-acre island, is a must while you are in the Charleston area. It offers a variety of fresh seafood daily (it is known for its oysters) cooked up and served in a family-friendly, casual atmosphere (you can even sign your name on the wall). Go for the seafood platter ... you won’t regret it. And the views from this dining spot are magical. Make sure you arrive in time to watch the sun set.

Because the island is situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Folly River, the waterways surrounding Folly Beach have much to offer in environmental education. A popular way to get in touch with the natural wonders surrounding Folly Beach is on a kayak or paddleboard tour.

During our visit, we boarded a small 12-passenger boat piloted by an environmentalist with Tideline Tours Salt Marsh Adventures. We set off on a two-hour tour of the fascinating salt marsh — which is teeming with all the sea creatures you’d find in the Atlantic Ocean — while our guide shared his knowledge of the unique ecosystem. Dolphins (who frequent the salt marsh) swam right next to our boat while we learned about the marsh’s role in the Civil War. Perhaps the best highlight of the tour was our stop at Morris Island to view the Morris Island Lighthouse. Built in 1876, the lighthouse no longer shines but stands about 300 yards off shore, as a beloved historic landmark. We spent time combing the beach for sand dollars and interesting shells, chasing small crabs across the sand and watching dolphins play just off shore.

Isle of Palms

Only a few island hops north of Folly Beach, is Isle of Palms, another notable South Carolina barrier island that beckons visitors. Here the feeling still is relaxed, but Isle of Palms has a much slower pace than found amid the bustle of Folly Beach.

Again, only minutes from downtown Charleston (across a different bridge with fantastic views), Isle of Palms offers a gorgeous expanse of sand with far fewer beachgoers than you’d find on Folly Beach. It’s a perfect spot for sunbathing as you listen to the sounds of the ocean.

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Isle of Palms also boasts a good-sized marina that is a fun pit stop for travelers and adventure seekers, especially those interested in fishing, whether in the saltwater marsh or in the ocean.

We had a guide take us out on the salt marsh where my husband caught a bonnethead shark. On another excursion in the deeper waters of the ocean, my son snagged a couple of flounder that we fried up as fish tacos for dinner.

We also enjoyed another ecotour while vacationing on Isle of Palms. We went through Barrier Island EcoTours this time and were transported on a wild island excursion. We visited Capers Island — one of the few undeveloped barrier islands in the area — and were fascinated by the natural coastline. The island is owned by the state of South Carolina and managed by the Department of Natural Resources. The beach is referred to as a boneyard, because of the many sun-bleached tree stumps left along the eroded coastline. The kids felt like we were stranded on a deserted island and couldn’t be happier to explore. On the way back, we stopped to catch blue crabs as the sun was setting.

The slower pace of the island is due in part to the fact that Isle of Palms has less of a commercial district than Folly Beach. But it still offers a selection of quaint beach shops and a Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream stand to satisfy one’s sweet tooth. Plus, the less crowded feel makes it especially ideal for biking around the island.

Isle of Palms offers a host of fantastic restaurants, most boasting an impressive seafood selection and great ambience. Morgan Creek Grill is located at the marina and is a fun spot for enjoying dinner while watching the fishermen and tourists come in at dusk. The Upper Deck is a great open air dining option.

The BoatHouse at Brecht Inlet was a particular favorite given its location right at the edge of the salt marsh and the obvious love of Southern cooking coming from the kitchen. While we enjoyed more seafood, we felt as if we were sitting on top of the water. The kids were delighted to watch the pelicans fly in.

Acme Lowcountry Kitchen is another great spot for seafood. In yet another laid back setting (although this time not on the water), you can enjoy a variety of seafood dishes. Its breakfast and Sunday brunch menus are especially satisfying and my son still raves about the flounder stuffed with crab meat dish he enjoyed on one visit.

One last stop

While visiting Charleston’s barrier islands, our family has stayed only on Folly Beach and Isle of Palms. There are several other islands to check out, including Sullivan’s Island, James Island and Kiawah Island.

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If you venture beyond Folly Beach and Isle of Palms be sure to seek out one hidden gem — the Angel Oak. Located on John’s Island, this 1,500-year-old tree is a sight to behold. It towers 65 feet over visitors, but it’s the sprawling and draping limbs that dip and dive around the grounds that leave tourists and locals in awe. There’s just a tiny gift shop good for some postcards and sweetgrass baskets made on the spot, so bring your camera and try to capture the immensity of this unique tree. It’s another fantastic discovery among the saltwater marshes and lively islands near Charleston, S.C.

More information: www.charlestoncvb.comvisitfolly.com or www.iop.net

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