CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Charleston may have a reputation for expensive (and often starched) elegance, but there are options for vacationers who want to kick back at a low-pressure Lowcountry beach: Folly Beach.
In a nutshell: Downtown Charleston is flanked by barrier islands. Up the coast is Sullivans Island and the white-shoes golf/tennis development of Isle of Palms. Down the coast is Folly Island, 12 square miles of eclectic relaxation. Originally known as Coffin Island because ships bound for Charleston would dump their plague victims there, it became a summer getaway for Charlestonians.
These days, huge modern vacation homes mix easily with weather-beaten bungalows. The long, wide beach faces south for great sunrises and sunsets. Center Street — S.C. 171 (aka Folly Road), which connects it to James Island and the mainland over a salty gumbo — is a micro-Myrtle with a sprinkling of Asheville funkiness and Lowcountry manners.
• How to stay there: Weekenders can stay in the one hotel — the beachfront Tides high-rise (a former Holiday Inn) — or one of several scruffy motels off Center Street.
The best way to go is renting a house Saturday-to-Saturday, the rhythm of local lodgings. Rates vary by size and condition as well as season. Overall, cost rises the closer you are to the beach, with streets west of Center a bit pricier overall.
Fred P. Holland Realty (www.fredhollandrealty.com) is the big player in full-service Folly vacation rentals, and there’s a lot of variety in the 200-some properties they handle. They may handle a few too many: The week’s worth of sheets and towels were missing when we checked into a Holland-handled beachfront place on an off-season mid-afternoon; the housekeeper, eventually located in Mount Pleasant, made her delivery several hours later.
Holland is probably the way to book if you have no ties to the area, but if you have friends there, ask them to scout around.
• Before you go: Don’t pack too much. A couple day’s worth of clothes will do — rental houses have laundry facilities, and this isn’t a dress-up destination. Don’t bother with food: Stop at the Food Lion on S.C. 171 just before you hit the marshes.
If you want to fish on the pier (more on this later), borrow and pack your rod and tackle before you leave town.
Bring books you want to read. You can buy newspapers here, and that’s about it.
• Getting around: Get ahold of “Matty B,” the character who rents well-used but well-working fat-tire bikes from his yard, a block north of Center on Huron. It’s $40 for a week, lock included — heck of a deal (843-406-5721).
His stripped-down Beaver Cleaver models are OK for the streets and great for riding on the beach. The trick to beach biking: Ride in the surf-darkened strip closest to land. That ribbon is widest when the tide is going out.
• At land’s end: County-owned Folly Beach Park, at the southern tip of the island, was smacked hard last year by Hurricane Irene. The storm didn’t make landfall, but damage at park compounded an ongoing erosion problem. It’s likely to remain closed this year.
Bike, walk or drive to the other end of Folly and you’ll pass the Washout, a stretch of beach where Hurricane Hugo is responsible for larger waves that surfers love.