Travel

How To Explore Folly Beach Like a South Carolina Local

Relax, slow down, it’s Folly.

Two centuries ago, maps of the Lowcountry’s coast included several “Folly” Islands, named for the dense foliage that held these narrow spits of sand in place. Only on today’s Folly Beach did the name stick. A steady stream of hurricanes and drunken bachelorette parties do their best to keep the moniker relevant.

There’s a single two-lane causeway crossing the salt marsh to get on and off the island, which contributes to the end-of-the-road vibe. In the 1980s, when Ocean Surf Shop founder Bill Perry needed a catchy slogan for t-shirts, he dubbed Folly “the Edge of America.” Despite the questionable geography, it stuck. The Edge is a mindset, and the “Relax, Slow Down, It’s Folly” sign as you turn onto East Ashley Avenue helps set the mood.

But Folly today isn’t the beach your grandparents may remember, when an oceanfront pavilion hosted Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s not the original Americana haven it was in the 1930s when the island rapidly expanded as a day trip destination and George Gershwin summered here to work on Porgy & Bess. There’s no more amusement park, bowling alley, shag dance club, or oceanfront promenade. That can all be found in Myrtle Beach.

On the other hand, Folly has settled into its new role as a laid-back, family vacation paradise, with six miles of beach that boast consistent waves for surfing, productive shark tooth hunting at low tide, and nearly two dozen restaurants -- some so imaginative that they draw regular downtown diners away from Charleston for dinner. Masks are required inside any restaurant or public building for staff and patrons, and while walking on the sidewalk or anywhere you’re not able to maintain six feet of distance from others (that’s just on Center Street or the pier, really).

If you’re filling a day, lazily whiling away a week, or just trying to snag a couple of socially distant hours in the sand away from crowds, here are the must see, sip and eat spots in Folly Beach.

Folly Beach Fishing Pier
Folly Beach Fishing Pier | Cvandyke/Shutterstock

Where to beach

There’s no bad spot to drop your blanket in the sand, but if you want to be easily walkable to Center Street’s restaurants and bars, you’ll need to park near the Folly Beach Fishing Pier. There's a $5-15 pay lot at the pier (depending on season and day), and several nearby private lots that pop up on peak summer days. It’s worth a lap to find a free parallel parking spot, but get every inch of tire off the road and park with the flow of traffic to avoid a ticket.

The further you get from Center Street, the less crowded the beach will be -- and the easier it is to ensure you can maintain comfortable and socially distant personal space. Folly’s streets are numbered in either direction from Center. Apart from holidays, you’ll have plenty of room to stretch out after the 4th block, headed east or west.

The west side is quieter and terminates into Folly Beach County Park ($5-15 parking, lifeguards in season), an ideal spot for a long beach walk, with views across the Stono Inlet to Kiawah Island. Headed east, the island narrows at the Washout (14th block), where legit shortboarders and intense little groms jockey for waves. From the 15th block to the lighthouse, East Ashley Avenue is the island’s only road all the way to the Morris Island Lighthouse, so head to the far east end if you’re seeking solitude.

A few years back, they banned alcohol on the beach and, currently, dogs are prohibited on the beach between 10am-6pm. Local law enforcement is monitoring social distancing rules, including no groups larger than three, except for families.

Where to eat

Folly eateries reflect the crowd-pleasing nature of a vacation community. You can load up on fried shrimp and Jimmy Buffett vibes at The Crab Shack, or venture just across the causeway to LoLo’s for a flounder po’boy with a marsh view. If you’re not in a hurry and don’t mind having your first beer while you wait in line, the best fried seafood platter in town is at Bowens Island, a family-run institution since 1946.

Despite the watery environs, Folly’s best restaurants aren’t seafood-centric. Unassuming Jack of Cups is the locals’ choice for its seasonal, vegetarian-friendly menu that’s heavy on curries and noodle bowls. Equally popular is LowLife Bar, where the tantalizing double cheeseburger originated at the owners’ other joint, New York’s famed Mother’s Ruin. Order an “Erik Estrada” frozen piña colada for dessert.

If you’ve got a family to feed, Woody’s Pizza is an island staple for eat-in or delivery, known for its pesto pie or the classic Woody. There’s honey on every table for your crust, or maybe your whole slice -- once you try it you won't eat pizza without it.  For a supremely casual island experience, roll up to Chico Feo straight from the beach for a trio of mahi, chicken, and pork tacos or Cuban beans and rice (add pork, always). Top off your gut with a double-scoop cone of local Wholly Cow ice cream from Bert’s Market across the street.

In the morning, arrive early for a table at Lost Dog, where the huevos rancheros and shrimp and grits take the edge off any hangover (the mimosas -- $3 on Monday -- don't hurt, either). Rita’s Seaside Grille offers a solid alternative on crowded weekend mornings, with a menu of biscuits and Bloodies that always satisfy.

During the COVID-era, the city has allowed Center Street restaurants to reclaim on-street parking spaces as outdoor seating, enabling socially distant outdoor dining. Still, many restaurants -- at 50 percent capacity -- can quickly feel full on busy weekends, especially around the entrance areas, and mask mandates are only as good as the enforcement and public adherence. Folly Beach is a tourist destination that attracts all kinds.

Where to drink

If you’re drinking before dark, prioritize the view. Pier 101, the made-for-tourists sandwich and seafood joint holding prime real estate on the Folly Beach Pier, has a full outdoor bar, allowing you to order a cocktail and stroll a thousand feet out over the ocean. Note that although the restaurant will remain open, the existing wooden pier will be demolished and rebuilt throughout most of 2021 and is expected to reopen in 2022. Next door, BLU at Tides hotel sports a beachside bar and oceanfront outdoor dining -- it’s quiet and fancy in the evenings, and a bit rowdier on summer afternoons.

A block off the ocean, Loggerhead’s sprawling deck includes a bar built into a VW van, and a friendly contingent of local regulars drinking the day away. Or get elevated at Snapper Jacks, where the third-floor deck boasts ocean views and a surprisingly good sushi menu.

After dark, Surf Bar fills with dancers rocking out to local funk and Americana bands. Order a Painkiller and leave a signed dollar bill on the ceiling. If you’re bar hopping, switch it up with a local craft beer at the Drop In Bar & Deli, a local stalwart for hefty sandwiches, hand-rolled sushi, and live bands.

Where to stay

Folly has one true hotel, and it's hard to miss. Tides towers over Center Street as you drive onto the island. After it was constructed in the 1980s as a Holiday Inn, the city passed regulations to prevent further buildings of its height. The oceanfront views are spectacular and service is friendly and accommodating. A few boutique inns compete, including Water’s Edge Inn and the Regatta Inn (each on the west side, fronting the river), and the new Folly River Lodge, next to the boat landing.

Most visitors stay in vacation rental homes, ranging from mother-in-law suites to whole house rentals via VRBO and Airbnb. The island is at its widest between 2nd block west and 8th block east, so if you book a house along Erie, Hudson, Huron, or Indian Avenues, be aware that the walk to the beach is slightly longer. Beyond 3rd block west and 4th block east, homes are far enough away from Center Street to avoid heavy competition for parking, and the beach is generally less crowded -- a pro for families keeping their eye on small children.

Mr. John's Beach Store
Mr. John's Beach Store | Let Ideas Compete/Flickr

Where to shop

Center Street supports two thriving surf shops, each with its own ethos and general good vibes. McKevlin’s opened in 1965 and still holds true to its “no pop outs” values, selling only hand-shaped boards (including rentals at $9/hour), plus a full array of bathing suits and accessories. Across the street, Ocean Surf Shop sells and rents boards (including SUPs) and posts a detailed daily surf report to their site each morning.

Mr. John’s Beach Store, the oldest still-operating business on the island, is a must stop for its eclectic array of shells and Folly-branded apparel. Before any of the fluorescent-lit souvenir shops lining Center Street (and seemingly every tourist beach in the Southeastern U.S.), there was Mr. John’s, and it’s still holding strong. You’ll pay a slight island markup, but it’s possible to fully stock your groceries at Bert’s Market. Fill up a growler with local craft beer and pick up a t-shirt or a gourmet panini from the Wooden Spoon deli on your way out.

If you’re on Folly on a Monday (except during winter), the Folly Beach Farmers’ Market is the spot to snag local jewelry, CBD honey, and kombucha. The market -- and all outdoor vendor events -- paused for COVID-19 and will return when the city deems it safe to host events.

What to do

You’re forgiven if you do nothing. That’s kind of what coming to the beach is all about. But if you’re feeling antsy, there's plenty to see and do here. Start with a walk through the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve at Folly’s far east end. The view of the Morris Island Lighthouse emerging from the waves (the island around it eroded away) is a memory worth more than any souvenir.

If you’re tired of just watching the waves but question your ability to actually catch one, up your game with a lesson from local surf legend Kyle Busey. His private, one-hour instruction via Carolina Salt Surf Lessons start at $45 and will quickly take you from kook to confident.

Folly’s island-wide 25 mph speed limit makes it an ideal place to explore by bike. Cool Breeze rents cruisers for $15/day, including fat wheel bikes and baby seats and trailers. If you need more than just bikes, Folly Beach Adventures’ outpost next to the post office also rents paddle boards, golf carts, kayaks, and beach gear.

For an immersive natural experience, rent kayaks or charter a dolphin-spotting tour with Captain Dickey at Flipper Finders. Its sister company, Charleston SUP Safaris, leads paddleboard tours from the same office by the boat landing. Local naturalist Weatherly Meadors also takes groups on the water, including to Morris Island, via Tideline Tours.

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Stratton Lawrence is a writer, editor, and Airbnb host on Folly Beach, where he lives with his wife, photographer Hunter McRae, and their two children. He's the author of Folly Beach in Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series. His ideal evening is a sunset paddle-surf session and a curry bowl from Jack of Cups.