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Kiawah Island is rated as having the "Second Most Romantic Beach in America" by National Geographic Traveler. Kiawah Island is unique among the barrier islands, unlike Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach, commercial development is virtually non-existent. This island was meticulously planned to be environmentally sound and very relaxing. A semi-tropical climate hosts alligators (often seen basking in the sun on the banks of Kiawah's many lagoons), sea turtles, bobcats and some very friendly dolphins. Along with over 40 miles of bike trails, there are five world-class golf courses, several tennis courts, and 10 miles of the most beautiful beach on the Altantic Coast! Other activities available on Kiawah Island include boating, sailing, surfing, parasailing, canoeing, kayaking, shelling, fishing, sightseeing and plenty of wildlife viewing. Kiawah is a gated community with restricted public access. Public access to the beach is available at Kiawah Beachwalker County Park. http://www.ccprc.com/index.aspx?nid=1411
Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island
You can't enjoy the complete Charleston experience if you don't pay a visit to one of its beautiful beaches while in town. Three public beaches are within a few minutes' drive from downtown Charleston. Each is distinctly different from the others, and each offers its own special brand of Lowcountry fun and relaxation. What all of the Charleston area beaches have in common is that the waters are generally gentle; the slope is very shallow (walk in a hundred feet and you might only be in water up to your knees); the surface is smooth (no coral, few shells) and the water is greenish-brown with limited visibility (not good for snorkeling). The gentle slope of the beach results in hugely varying tides - the difference between water coverage at low vs high tide can be 50 or more feet, and at lunar high tides some beaches might leave very limited beach space. (Helpful to check tide tables and go out when it's not high tide) Beach water temperatures are at their warmest (85 degrees) from June through September; October and May are also quite "swimmable" but you will see people in the water and on the beach year-round. Even in the hottest part of the summer, expect the beach to be breezy and cooler and very pleasant. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen and beach chairs (which can be rented) as the sand is solid and probably moist - better for chairs than for towels. You will not find high rise hotels or condo developments on any of the local beaches.
Hopefully the following information will help you decide which part of the Atlantic Ocean is best for you!
Folly Beach (11.5 Miles from Charleston - Reference a local map for directions)
Also called "The Edge of America," this community characterizes the laid-back, easy-going beach lifestyle. Folly Beach is six miles of beach front and isn't overly commercialized - the Tides Hotel is the only hotel on the beach. Though a good number of the homes on Folly have been or are being renovated, it is common to see many smaller, older homes all over Folly. If you enjoy the crowds, go to the beach in front of the hotel and by the fishing pier. If that's not your style, head farther north toward the Washout (named the Washout because homes standing in that area were washed out), where surfers take on the waves. There are numerous fun restaurants and bars and a good amount of souvenir shopping along Center Street which is the main drive in that are within walking distance of the beach.
Folly Parking - You can park in the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission lot for $7 all day. There are metered parking spaces beside many of the beach access points, and a few privately-owned lots on the island. The park is at the east tip of Folly Beach where Ashley Avenue ends. Since parking can be a problem here, suggestions are to arrive before 10:30 am on weekends during prime season. Rest rooms available. Paid parking available at Folly Beach County Park at the west end of the island. http://ccprc.com/index.aspx?NID=61
Folly Dog Rules - Dogs are allowed if they are leashed, but you can't take your pet on the beach from May 1 through Sept. 30 between 10 am and 5 pm. Check Town of Folly Beach website for more details as rules can change from season to season and year to year.
Folly Alcohol Rules - Folly no longer allows any alcohol on it's beaches.
Isle of Palms (13.7 miles from Charleston)
This barrier island boasts six miles of white-sand beaches and luxurious beach-front homes and is the most commercialized of the three area beaches. A few restaurants, shops and bars are oceanfront or second row, while a few others are walking distance of the beach. In the "heart" of the oceanside shopping area is a free public restroom with outdoor showers suitable for rinsing (not lathering!) . IOP is a big sea turtle nesting area - it is a "lights out" area at night as turtles become disoriented. Illegal to leave pits or large sand castles on the beach after you leave - fill pits in and smash sand castles down - for human and turtle safety reasons. This beach is patrolled by officers in beach vehicles numerous times daily. The northernmost tip (from about 45th street and north) of the Isle of Palms is the resort known as Wild Dunes, which is a gated resort community with full-time residents and weekly or monthly rentals. The Boardwalk Inn is available for shorter-term rental and has its own pool, restaurant and other features. There is a large marina around 41st street on the marsh side of the island, where there is a market, bait shop and boat launch. One may also rent kayaks and boats here or arrange for chartered cruises. The marina has immediate access to the Intracoastal Waterway, a mostly inland waterway stretching from Maine to Florida.
Isle of Palms Parking - Coming off the IOP Connector, go straight through the light. The Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission lot is on your left. You can park there for $7 all day and use the facilities - rest rooms, showers, and picnic area. At busy times there will be a back-up to get into the lot, so plan accordingly . In the main part of town (Front Beach) parking is metered - pay at a pay station and place your receipt in view on your dashboard. There is also free parking along residential streets, but pay close attention to signs to avoid getting ticketed or towed.
Isle of Palms Beach Safety - Most of the IOP beaches have calm water and nice breezes. The exception is the area near Breach Inlet - in which winds typically are much higher, sand bars come and go very quickly (sometimes stranding swimmers) and the water can be treacherous. Do NOT swim in Breech inlet or too near Breech Inlet. Fines can be hefty. (see more info below) [Note the two acceptable spellings of Breach/Breech inlet!] There have been many drownings in this area over the years!!
Isle of Palms Dog Rules - IOP has new regulations for dogs - dogs of residents or property owners must be licensed. You do not need a license if you are only visiting. There are certain hours when dogs may be off leash. Dogs may be on the beach during the day, but must be leashed at all times, even in the water. Signs are posted regarding when dogs are and aren't allowed on the beaches. Pick up a clean-up bag before you hit the beach to avoid a hefty fine.
When can dogs be on the beach off leash?
From 5:00AM until 9:00AM April 1st through September 14th and 4:00PM until 10:00AM September 15th through March 31st. Dog owners must have leash in hand, have their dog under voice command and must clean up excrement. At all other times, dogs must be on leash and under complete control, even in the water.
Is there a place where to take a dog to play off leash?
Yes. A dog park located behind the Recreation Department at 24 Twenty-eighth Avenue.
Isle of Palms Alcohol Rules - Alcohol is not allowed on the beach and it is not uncommon for IOP Police to stop and do cooler checks - particularly when there are large groups of younger people. Well-behaved adults have been known to take alcohol on the beach in plastic containers with no difficulty, but they are taking a risk at getting fined.
Breach (Breech) Inlet - UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SWIM OR EVEN WADE IN BREACH INLET OR EVEN NEARBY. Each and every year people DIE here. This can not be emphasized enough!! There are extremely treacherous currents in the area due to the force of ocean water passing between the islands as the tides change. There are sudden and steep drop offs, shifting sands similar to quick sand and very strong current. Even very strong swimmers (a Marine) have died here. Breach Inlet is located between Sullivans Island and the Isle of Palms.
Sullivan's Island (9.6 miles from Charleston - reference area map)
This is the most natural of the three beaches. Sullivan's Island is popular among local residents and visitors who want to avoid the crowds. Views from the beach include Ft. Sumter, Morris Island Lighthouse and the Battery. Great place to watch cargo ships come and go and to see the cruise ships and the Ravenel Bridge. There are no public restrooms except at the Fort Moultrie Visitors Center. Restaurants are clustered about 2-3 blocks from the ocean along the drive in if you're coming from the Ben Sawyer Bridge. .
Sullivan's Parking - Parking is limited and can be a problem during the beach season. Visitors must park wherever they can find a spot along Sullivan's streets, being mindful of posted signs, fire hydrants, sprinklers, landscaping, mailboxes and driveways.
Sullivan's Beach Safety - Sullivan's Island is closest to the Cooper River, where cruise ships, container ships and barges are commonly seen in shipping channels. Near the "bend" area, expect that sudden, unusually high "washes" take place after a large container ship has passed close by. On the north end of Sullivan's, currents are absolutely treacherous near the Breech Inlet area and unfortunately there are few years with no drownings. Breech Inlet is the waterway between Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms. Swim in areas far from the inlet and if there is any undertow, get out of the water and move to an area with no undertow. Due to large sandbars in that area, it is easy to feel comfortable in shallow water, but tides come in fast and high and have left many people stranded and in need of rescue, so beware.
Sullivan's Dog Rules - All dogs must have a Sullivan's Island-issued dog license that they must wear at all times, even visitors. License is $35 and requires certificate from your vet of rabies vaccination, rabies tag is not considered proof. Dogs are NOT permitted on the beach from 10am to 6pm May 1 through September 30. Sunday mornings on Sullivans is a doggie "free for all" - dogs may be off leash but within voice command of the owner. Sunday mornings you will see as many dogs as people on the beach. Clean up bags for pet messes available near main beach access points - clean up after your pet or get fined.
Sullivan's Alcohol Rules - Alcohol is not allowed on the beach, though as with Isle of Palms, well-behaved adults have been known to take alcohol on the beach in plastic containers with no difficulty, but they are taking a risk at getting fined.