The Barrier Islands lie just beyond the city limits of Charleston, South Carolina. Exploring them offers the ideal opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle, soak up some sunshine along the coast and enjoy a wealth of outdoor adventure. Each island offers its own special allure, with everything from wild, unspoiled beaches to historic lighthouses, world-renowned golf courses and all sorts of things to see and do.
A local favourite, Folly Beach is the closest beach to downtown Charleston, just 11.5 miles south. A mecca for surfers and anyone who wants to experience a laid-back beach lifestyle, it’s ideal for relaxing and soaking up the sunshine as well as enjoying all sorts of activities on the sand and on the water. In between, there are plenty of shops to browse and eateries for fueling all those adventures.
Whether you’re new to the sport or highly experienced you can take advantage of one of South Carolina’s top surfing spots at the pier of The Washout. With surfboard rentals and lessons available, it’s the perfect place for learning to ride the waves. There are options for all skill levels ranging from small gentle waves to 10-footers on a good hurricane swell. Just kicking back and watching the action with expert surfers ripping it up can make for a fun afternoon.
Other water sports
If you’d like to get out on the water on something other than a surfboard, kayaking and paddle boarding are popular too. You’ll be able to navigate waterways boats can’t reach, following winding creeks while watching for dolphins along the way. Charleston SUP Safaris offers experts that will teach you how to paddleboard on the Folly River, guiding you through the saltmarsh ecosystem while searching for the local wildlife. Swimming, fishing, wakeboarding and even flyboarding are options as well – flyboarding is a new water sport that may be the most thrilling of all. You’ll soar up to 20 feet in the air, experiencing the sensation of flying, propelled by a high volume of water. There are multiple options for boat tours too, like Flipper Finders’ excursions through the backwaters of Folly Beach in search of the wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the area year-round.
Other than beach strolls, exploring the area on two wheels is a favourite activity at Folly Beach. Both beach bikes and electric bike rentals are available, allowing you to cruise across the sand right along the surf and throughout the island, enjoying the salty sea air and all of that picturesque ocean scenery.
Shopping and dining
Pick up your souvenirs at Mr. John’s Beach Store, sip a cold brew at Pier 101 Restaurant & Bar, and enjoy waterfront dining paired with live music at Rita’s Seaside Grill.
Kiawah Island boasts 10 miles of unspoiled coastline and is often ranked among the nation’s most beautiful barrier islands, with sands as soft as silk. It’s a residential community that incorporates a renowned luxury resort, the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, famous for its five golf courses, including one of the world’s best, as well as hosting a unique shopping village in a preserved, natural maritime forest setting. Kiawah is also home to sand dunes and marshes with abundant wildlife like sea turtles, whitetail deer, alligators, bobcats, seabirds and more.
The resort offers numerous activities to choose from, like standup paddleboarding and kayaking adventures through salt marsh habitat. You can also rent a SUP at The Sanctuary Hotel and head out on your own. While perhaps not as famous for surfing as Folly, both group and private lessons are available to get you up on the waves and riding on your own in not time. You can also sign up for a walking tour for close encounters with alligators and the myriad of bird life, though the biggest draw for this island is for golfers. The resort hosts 90 holes, including the legendary Ocean Course that’s often ranked among the world’s best, with 18 holes right at seaside.
After a day of adventurous pursuits, you might want to refresh and re-energize with a visit to the spa. The Sanctuary Spa at The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort has a menu that includes a variety of ways to pamper yourself, allowing stress to melt away. The Island Stone Massage uses the heat from warmed, smooth, oiled stones that help to relieve sore joints and tense muscles while calming and healing body and soul.
Shopping and dining
The island’s 5-star Sanctuary Hotel hosts a number of clothing boutiques, and art gallery and more, while Freshfields Village offers all the basic necessities along with unique shops. On Tuesdays throughout the summer, the farmers’ market is held here on the square, with vendors selling handcrafted wares and locally-grown foods as well as fashions and all sorts of treats. Kiawah Island Golf Resort hosts over a dozen cafes, restaurants and lounges with menus showcasing seasonal ingredients from the Lowcountry’s fishermen and farmers, including everything from fresh-caught seafood and authentic Southern cuisine to premium steaks.
Seabrook Island is the place to go when you’re looking for an especially tranquil atmosphere. This residential beachfront community is home to over three miles of pristine stretches of sand that are much quieter than what you’ll find on many of the neighboring islands. It also hosts a full-service equestrian center, a tournament-grade tennis center, two championship golf courses and a fitness and aquatics complex.
Activities and attractions
Fishing is one of the top activities here, with charters available on South Carolina skiffs providing the chance to catch baskets of crab and shrimp or compete to see who can catch the biggest fish. The island’s lush marsh estuaries, including North Edisto River, are a good spot for hooking species like flounder, spotted seatrout and redfish. Families won’t want to miss the Pirate of Charleston boat tours, where the kids get to dress up like pirates to sail the high seas on a pirate ship. Bike rentals are available for traversing the island’s trails to savor the beauty of its many beautiful sights on two wheels. No matter what your pick, thanks to the island’s preserved, protected environment, you may be able to glimpse deer, sea turtles, Bottlenose dolphins, alligators and all sorts of birds that peacefully co-exist with humans in this lush natural area.
Shopping and dining
While amenities are limited on this peaceful isle, the Seabrook Island Club offers several options for both indoor and outdoor dining, like the Pelican’s Nest, a casual oceanfront eatery where you can dine while gazing out at the Atlantic, with requent dolphin sightings and colourful sunsets creating a uniquely fabulous atmosphere. The Palmetto Room is the Club’s fine-dining restaurant, with a menu that features dishes with locally-grown ingredients and fresh-from-the-water seafood. When it comes to shopping, you’ll find a pro golf shop at the Island House for picking up golf gear, including the latest golf fashions, clubs and accessories, while the Seabrook Island Shoppe is the place to go for summer clothing, pool toys, ice cream, snacks and drinks.
Isle of Palms
Just 12 miles from downtown Charleston and you can be enjoying the postcard-perfect beach on the Isle of Palms that has been attracting visitors and locals alike for generations. It’s the star of the show as an ideal place to unwind while sunbathing or catching a glorious sunset. This residential and resort community is a hotspot for surfing, fishing, swimming and recreational activities of all types, with six miles of public beach as well as miles and miles of bike paths and a practically endless list of shopping, dining and entertainment options.
Head to the marina and you can rent a boat to explore the island’s gorgeous bays, or take out a smaller vessel like a canoe or kayak to venture through the marshes, backwaters and creeks on the inland area of the island. Guided kayak tours are available too. Paddleboarding is popular and can be enjoyed on the intracoastal waterway, in the marsh and in the surf. If you’re into more adventurous thrills, hit high speeds on a jet ski, or reach dizzying heights while paragliding. The Isle of Palms County Park features especially enticing ocean frontage with a designated beach swimming area, complete with lifeguards during the warmer months of the year. Stroll the boardwalks, picnic, play sand volleyball, or just hang out on the sand, with beach chairs and umbrella rentals available. The island also hosts championship golf and tennis.
Shopping and dining
The Island Time Beach Shop is the place to go for beach essentials, gifts and souvenirs, including local art. At My Favorite Things, Bubba the parrot will welcome you in to check out the wide range of collectibles and treasures, including postcards, mugs, hats, clothing, seashells, beach towels and many other items. When it’s time to dine you’ll have multiple options, including Mexican fare and seafood at the local favourite, Acme Cantina, and Coconut Joe’s, a beachfront bar and eatery where you can dine on signature dishes like coconut shrimp with a view of the surf and the sand. The rooftop deck is an ideal spot for sipping specialty cocktails while listening to live music after dark.
Sullivan’s Island may be just 3.3-square-miles in size, but it packs a punch when it comes to beautiful beaches and water sports, all just minutes from downtown Charleston. A beach lover’s ultimate playground, it’s also home to the Charleston Light, a unique narrow, triangular structure that serves as a popular spot for selfies. Still mostly undeveloped with a laid-back atmosphere that’s enjoyed more for its beauty than amenities, Sullivan does have a handful of eateries and art galleries.
Paddle the Intra Coastal Waterway on a standup paddleboard, cruising the coves and inlets on the backside of the island or try out the relatively new sport of kiteboarding, with lessons available for all skill levels via Sealand Adventure Sports. It’s fun just to watch the array of colours out on the water, with kiteboarders and their vibrant gear effortless sailing over and around the waves that can change direction in just a split second, while racing at impressive speeds. The outfitter also offers SUP yoga and surfing lessons as well as bike rentals that make it easy to get out and pedal around the island, discovering picturesque views around nearly every corner. History buffs can visit Fort Moultrie, a national monument that spend two centuries defending the city of Charleston too.
Shopping and dining
While there is limited shopping on this island, Mount Pleasant can be reached with just a five-minute drive and is home to a wide range of shopping centres and malls. Sample the local fare, including tasty fish tacos and gourmet burgers, at one of the outdoor cafes like Poe’s Tavern, named after the literary icon who was stationed at the fort in the early 1800s. The Obstinate Daughter is popular with foodies, serving unique dishes like griddled octopus.
Explore Charleston and the best of the South with these recommended tours & stays