South Carolina islands have gathered humans for centuries; from the indigenous peoples of the ancient Americas; to the earliest, wealthy European settlers; to the slave and plantation sea cotton traders; to the golf course magnates of the recent past. Beaches, history, fishing, golf, and the appreciation of wild, lowcountry nature draw visitors from all over the world to the islands of South Carolina year round.
There are six significant islands on coastal SC, (listed from north to south): Isle of Palms/Sullivan’s Island, Folly Island, Kiawah Island, Edisto island, Hunting Island, and Hilton Head Island. There are other islands in-between, but we’ve chosen these six as the most likely destinations for visitors to the Carolina coast.
When you visit the South Carolina Lowcountry region, you’re going to end up on an island. Here are the best ones to familiarize yourself with, and why you should or shouldn’t give them your time. Enjoy!
Folly Island is a seven-square-mile island in Charleston County, about 15 minutes from downtown Charleston. The gathering point on the island is the town of Folly Beach, a California-style beach town lined with restaurants and surf shops. If a day of sunbathing and boogie boarding fits your agenda, or perhaps a simple afternoon inspecting the swimsuits of fellow beachgoers, then the summery vibe of Folly Island makes this your kind of place.
Once upon a time the Union Army used Folly Island to prepare an attack on Confederates in Charleston, but these days you’re more likely to see a dolphin, turtle, or tatted-up surfer than anything resembling a soldier. You’re also going to spy an enviable string of beach mansions.
Why you’re visiting: Active beach town close to the city. Surfing. Co-eds. People watching.
Why you would go somewhere else: Crowded at times. Parking.
As with many other South Carolina islands, Edisto Island belonged to indigenous peoples centuries before plantation owners grew indigo, rice, and cotton on it’s fertile shores (MAP). The primary draws to this island are Edisto Beach, the Wyndham Ocean Ridge resort, and Edisto Island State Park. The park has a playground, an education center, and beachfront campsites.
And then there’s Driftwood Beach, one of the absolute best things to do in the Charleston area. Located at Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve, Driftwood Beach is an ancient seaside forest lost to erosion. What is left is the work of Medusa, a village of dead, upright trees in a vast, lonesome landscape of shell-covered shores. Driftwood Beach is 100% worth the drive to Edisto Island (link).
Why you’re visiting: Prehistoric looking driftwood beach.
Why you would go somewhere else: Out of the way location.
Hilton Head Island in South Carolina showcases 12-miles of immaculate beaches and twenty-three championship golf courses. Self-dubbed, “America’s Favorite Island”, HHI sees visitors from all over the world year round– a true destination island with a salubrious southern climate beloved by golfers and vacationers alike.
As a resort island that caters to the affluent, HHI boasts numerous high-end resorts, spas, pro-shops, bars and restaurants. For the rest of us, Hilton Head shares its beatified history of Native American life, sea cotton plantations, Civil War lore, and natural wonder. Hilton Head carries an air of casual exclusivity — a vibe that invites anyone can afford it, but to mind their manners and play along. Read more about Hilton Head island here.
Why you’re visiting: Golf. Clean, family vacation. A few points of interest.
Why you would go somewhere else: Homogenous. Could be boring for non-golfers.
Located off the coast of Beaufort, Hunting Island is not only the most popular State Park in the state of South Carolina, but one of the last undeveloped sea islands in the SC Lowcountry. Don’t arrive here looking for a crab shack serving umbrella drinks by a pier in the marsh, as you’ll find less than a shuttered gas station to meet your needs.
There are two incredible reasons that make Hunting Island one of the best South Carolina Islands to visit. 1. A 136′ lighthouse. Although no longer used as a functioning lighthouse, the tower is a fixture at the state park and is open to visitors. A Climb to the top costs $2 and gives tremendous perspective of the surrounding areas. 2. A spectacular driftwood beach. While not as dramatic as the one on Edisto island, Hunting Island’s dead beach forest is equally vast and even more remote. When you arrive at the beach near the lighthouse, turn right and walk past any and all signs. You’ll find it over a mile down the way.
Why you’re visiting: Secluded, driftwood covered beach. Awesome lighthouse. Close to Beaufort.
Why you would go somewhere else: Out of the way location. Few amenities or attractions.
Sullivan’s Island has a locals-only feel in the best possible way: Lowkey crowd, a little bit of shopping, a couple of restaurants, and a whole lotta sand. This is a wealthy corner of the city where the houses are extra large and the beach feels almost private, (but it’s not — it’s for all of us to enjoy). On the south end of the island is Fort Moultrie, of Civil War fame. The history involving Fort Moultrie is cool — the SC flag is derived from it.
Isle of Palms is the other famous beach community in Charleston (along with Folly Island). While it isn’t all that different than Sullivan’s Island — a small inlet is all that separates them (map) — It’s a little closer to civilization and has more commerce, so it feels more commercial. Nonetheless, the quality of beach and mansion are every bit as nice as Sullivan’s. Some consider this the best Charleston SC beach.
Why you’re visiting: Close to Charleston. Clean, wide beach in a nice community. Fort Moultrie.
Why you would go somewhere else: Not much to do.
Kiawah is as close to a golf mecca as the greater Charleston area has to offer. The island is home to five championship courses, most notably The Ocean Course designed by Pete and Alice Dye. Unbeknownst to me, the Dye’s are considered the “first family of golf course architecture.” And with that final nugget I’ll ask my agent to book me on Jeopardy!
So if you don’t golf, why do you care about Kiawah Island? I’ll give you three reasons: 1. The river dolphins here — yes, river dolphins — perform a fishing technique found only in one other place on earth in which they circle the fish and force them onto the beach, after which they beach themselves and feast (photo below). 2. A legion of pelicans (photo above) collect on the south-eastern most point of the island. 3. There is an amazing restaurant at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort called The Ocean Room. The ambiance of the island is similar to Hilton Head, but there is less entertainment.
Why you’re visiting: Golf. Quiet, family getaway. River Dolphins.
Why you would go somewhere else: You don’t golf. An hour drive from Charleston.
The Carolina Coast is an treasure in the American south. From soft-sanded beaches to plantation relics to tournament courses to salt marsh estuaries, the countless, alluring touches of this region can transform a vacation into something that lives in your memory forever.
Even if you only visit one South Carolina Island, you’ve partaken in a tradition that goes back thousands of years. We hope you enjoy your time in the Lowcountry as much as we did.
To learn more about all the things to do, see, eat, and experience in and around Charleston SC, be sure to read our Complete Guide to Charleston.
God Bless, y’all, and thanks for reading!
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