By Sandy Lang
Updated: January 20, 2017
Richard Ellis / Alamy

At the end of a steamy summer day a few years ago, I was floating in one of those pools that sometimes appear between tides on Sullivan’s Island. Two dolphins surfaced so close and so frequently, I thought I might get to touch them. Charleston’s beaches can be full of surprises like that—wild animals, fish and birds to see, and people watching, too. The nearest beaches to downtown are on Sullivan’s Island and Folly Beach, and others are on islands further out. Some like Dewees, Capers, Bulls, and other remote spits and island sands near McClellanville and Wadmalaw are accessible only by boat. Dunes, soft sand, and seasonally balmy water (low-to-mid-80s at the height of summer) are what you’ll find. Local tip: for beaches you can drive to, parking is a premium in warmer months, so it’s a good idea to go by foot or bicycle, when you can.

Sullivan’s Island

At this beautiful, three-mile stretch of beach, you can lounge barefoot and bikini-clad alongside millionaires. Whether historic, tiny, mod, or massive, houses here are pricey, and situated near the old Fort Moultrie bunkers, including one that houses a local library branch. My latest post-beach pit stop is Beardcat’s for gelato. I recommend the pistachio.

Folly Beach

The laid-back vibe and good waves at the washout to the east make Folly Beach a favorite of surfers. There’s nothing fancy on the island, just beach bars and cafes, a fishing pier, people in flip-flops and bathing suits, and miles of beaches. Even my dog is allowed during restricted hours in summer.

Kiawah Beachwalker Park

Shhh… not everyone seems to know about this one. Access to most of the 10 miles of beach on naturally stunning Kiawah Island is beyond the gate. But this park on the west end of Kiawah is open to the public, with lifeguards in summer, a snack bar, and umbrella/chair rentals in season, too.

Isle of Palms

IOP always reminds me of long sand beaches, live music, and all of those crazy bikini contests at the Windjammer beach club. The island’s also home to family beach houses and condos, ice cream shops and restaurants, a marina, Wild Dunes Resort, and good SUP paddleboarding on the waterway side. 

Seabrook Island

First, you’ll need to be an owner or registered guest to get inside the gate and to the beach of this community—a condo or house rental does the trick. This woodsy, secluded sea island also offers tennis, golf, and horses. You can even arrange rides on the beach through the Seabrook Island Club Equestrian Center.