In the summer, the crowds can almost overwhelm Folly Beach. The long, thin island packs up with cars vying for parking spots as beach visitors come for the surf and sand. But come fall, the beaches thin out; the little eateries and shops slow down, and you get a feel for what Folly once was and sometimes still is: a quiet beach and island community where the locals can be themselves.
So even if you’re staying on the Charleston peninsula proper, pack the car for a day trip out to the island, which is only 20 minutes away. Groceries and other retailers on James Island along Highway 171 (Folly Road) will provision you, and before you know it, you’ll be crossing over the marshes of Bowen’s Island and entering the little strip that is the heart of Folly Beach.
For the morning, rent bicycles or a golf cart and venture to the northern tip of Folly Island. A path at the end of Ashley Avenue (the one and only road on the northern tip) leads to a rustic part of the beach which is always a bit emptier, and where a small inlet separates Folly Island from neighboring Morris Island.
Gaze out at the ringed remnant of the Morris Island Lighthouse, notable for the fact that it’s no longer located on land. Erosion has separated the former navigational beacon from its namesake, and the lighthouse now stands in shallow waters, slowly being reclaimed by the Atlantic Ocean.
Afterward, enjoy some beach time, either out on this northern reach, or back near the heart of Folly Beach, perhaps under the shadow of the Folly Beach Fishing Pier. The public pier, which extends over 1,000 feet into the ocean, is the second longest such pier on the East Coast, perfect whether you’re casting or strolling.
Surfers are regular sights here when off-coast storms bring small but steady swells to the beach. A variety of surf shops on the main road can sell or rent you the gear you’ll need to ride the sometimes waist-high waves. If the swells aren’t in, the beach is perfect for swimming; the waters often stay warm until the first weekend in November.
Back in town, make a lunch stop at Taco Boy, a cantina in the heart of Folly Beach (it now has a second location in Charleston proper). Pair cervezas or margaritas with traditional tacos; if the buzzing bar and dining-room area is too loud, ask to hide away out on the rear patio.
For the afternoon, head back to the beach for a walk to explore the long strand south of the Folly Beach pier. There are parking areas with beach access dotting Ashley Avenue, or head to the southern end of the road and explore a county park where the beach wraps around the terminus of the island.
For a little more adventure, venture to Crosby’s Dock, located just off the island along Folly Road. Not only can you pick up fresh seafood here immediately after boats unload their catch, but an outfitter rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. The tidal inlets on the backside of Folly Island make for a perfect kayaking trip with the promise of smooth water, lots of wildlife and perhaps even a bottlenose dolphin sighting.
For dinner, Bowens Island Restaurant is just a few minutes back toward Charleston. The restaurant dates back to the mid-1940s, and over the years the Bowen family was primarily serving oysters to the shrimpers, fishermen and locals in the know. After a fire in 2006, the little structure had to be rebuilt, but the legend lives on and it’s still one of the perfect places to gather with friends and eat a plate of shrimp or some fresh oysters. The word is out about Bowens Island, so don’t be surprised if the gravel-and-shells parking lot is packed when you arrive. At the busiest times of year, you may have to queue up a long wheelchair ramp that leads to the upper-level restaurant and deck.
Finish the evening with live music. Both Loggerhead’s and the Surf Bar tend to bring in local performers for energetic sets, or if that’s too much, end the day with a quiet walk back along Folly Beach and listen to the Atlantic Ocean surf rhythmically pound.