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.
At Folly’s northern tip, beach-facing Ashley Avenue ends. Walk the quarter-mile trail, and the sand hills will part to show you Morris Island lighthouse — a once-working beacon where channel shifts gradually ate away the island until the beacon, out of business 50 years now, is all that remains. The tower is about 300 yards out, with a nice view of Charleston Harbor behind it.
• When you’re hungry: If you’re renting a house, figure out how often you want to dine out vs. using the kitchen. It seems like a no-brainer — why cook? — until you figure out the cost difference … and until you go to Crosby’s Fish & Shrimp Company (843-795-4049).
That’s the fresh seafood market on S.C. 171, a small place perched above Folly Creek. Their boats work the area. The prices are reasonable enough, but the freshness and variety are what does the trick — plus, you can get items you won’t find elsewhere, like triggerfish.
The best breakfast is at Lost Dog Cafe on Huron Street (off Center) where the walls are plastered with several hundred dog photos. From 6:30 a.m. until closing (3 p.m.), you can get coffee, fresh bakery biscuits and gravy and the like ($1.25-$8.95).
A couple of eateries along Center push seafood; try the Folly Beach Crab Shack (www.crabshacks.com) where you can sit indoors or outside. Buy a mixed bucket of snow crab legs, oysters and shrimp for $26.99 or $41.95.
This time of year, they serve Gulf select oysters from Alabama. The oysters straight out of the Folly River are cluster oysters, and in season — fall through spring — they’re available here and elsewhere.
If you’re a fan of Locklear’s seafood in Mount Pleasant, S.C., head to their operation here: it overlooks the fishing pier and has indoor/outdoor seating.
Don’t miss Bowens Island Restaurant, which is surprisingly easy to do. On the S.C. 171 causeway, watch for the Bowens Island Road sign on the southbound side. Turn there and wind over about five miles of swamp hills to the restaurant, owned by the grandson of the Bowens who started it in the 1940s. It looks like something out of a Robert Mitchum movie — a group of weather-beaten structures, one of which is the eatery famous for seafood. It’s open Tuesday-Saturday nights; just walk up the stairs to the rambling dining room. The whole operation faces the Folly Creek flats, and the view at sunset is fabulous. Take note of the floor, too: Paintings on it are from a 2010 James Brolin flick called Angel Camouflaged.
As oyster season ends, shrimping season begins. The fried shrimp here is widely acclaimed; eat locally caught shrimp whenever possible.
Also noteworthy: Taco Boy (www.tacoboy.net), whose machine-shed exterior on Center Street hides a bright and somewhat bizarre art-students-must’ve-done-it look. The 16 or so tacos on the menu include the Korean-style kimchi beef as well as portobello mushroom. All are fantastic. But at $3.25 and up, you’ll eat a hole in your vacation cash if you go there too hungry.
• People, places: Check the shops, bars and cafes on Center Street; it dead-ends at Arctic Avenue, where you’ll find the sea-facing Holiday Inn and the fishing pier. The back of the hotel has an outdoor bar and terrace seating that faces the beach. The Edwin S. Taylor Fishing Pier is long and huge — 23 feet above the water and extending more than 1,000 feet into the sea. It’s a great place to stroll; keep an eye peeled for dolphins frolicking. It costs $8 to fish, $3 for kids. (No fishing license is required.) Dream big: a 100-pound tarpon was hauled in from here.
And then there’s Bert’s Market, two blocks north of Center on East Ashley Avenue. What looks like a dingy convenience store holds an amazing array of goods — wines, imported and domestic beer and fresh sushi; laundry detergent as well as motor oil. As such it’s an eclectic place where tourists and locals cross paths and linger for directions and tall tales. There’s also a dress mannequin (not for sale) wearing an apron, and a long-hair or two behind the counter. Their motto is “We may doze but we never close,” and indeed it is open 24/7.
• Side trips: It’s an easy drive to downtown Charleston. Going the other way, you can kill a couple hours visiting the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island (walking and factory tours are free; www.charlestonteaplantation.com) and, en route, taking a look and photo at the enormous Angel Oak on Johns Island (www.angeloaktree.com). It’s thought to be about 1,500 years old.
• Culture: Art? Well, the Bolus law firm has the front half of an enormous fiberglass shark mounted above its door on Center Street. It was already there when the attorneys moved into the upstairs office. “We were privileged to hang our sign underneath the shark head,” Keith Bolus deadpans.
Music? Clubs and restaurants offer everything from lounge to hard rock, especially toward weekends.
This is the beach, remember. You’re here to relax.
That’s what brought George Gershwin here in 1934. He vacationed long enough at 708 W. Arctic Ave. to judge a local beauty contest and write Porgy and Bess.