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No shoes required to experience flavor of local beaches

Can you tell which beach the author is enjoying? Image provided.

By Laura Union

Charleston’s beaches may look similar at the shoreline, but their different personalities may be seen and heard. They all boast endless amounts of sand, water and traffic, so choosing a beach to visit for a summer’s day is more about finding your people. I recently stopped and sat awhile at each, taking note of their unique personas.

Folly Beach, with its tumultuous history, has held its reputation for sticking it to The Man. Colorful, bohemian and teeming with the scantily clad, Folly is what any young person imagines a beach town should be: restaurants, bars and locals who invite you to their backyard barbecues. It is a youngest child, unpretentious and full of mischievous opportunities. Its patrons are an even split of vacationing families and beaten-down locals looking to let off some steam. At any given time there are scattered low-tide fishermen, die-hard joggers and occasional metal detectors wielded by people in streetwear. Early mornings before the sun gets too high show a parade of local pups that run and splash and collect sand in their paws for later, all the while held on-leash by their humans.

Back in the day, Folly was a pirate’s hideout, an unmarked burial ground and a training park for Confederate soldiers. Now it’s a jungle of foliage and wooden bungalows for both longtime and brand-new Charlestonians who are wholeheartedly devoted to beach life. Leather-skinned locals ride their bikes to tucked-away eateries that tourists may miss. Music can be heard from speakers facing the main street or live bands playing from rooftops and patios. On one end, the county park provides parking and restrooms. On the other, handfuls of surfers park their vans at the Washout or trek the closed-off length of road to see the Morris Island Lighthouse.

Late one morning, I watched a young woman pull her dog through the dunes in a wagon. At the shoreline she lifted the big brown Lab out and placed her in the sand. The dog was an old gal with only one of her hind legs, but this didn’t stop her. Her human ran alongside her, holding the dog’s hip, acting as a suspended hind leg, as she splashed through the water until her back leg buckled, and then she sat to rest. Don’t let the gray muzzle fool you; the old gal still had some speed in her. She would sidle up to greet walkers and shell collectors for a few head pats before hobbling back off toward the sea. The longer she played, the longer her breaks lasted.

When she was soggy and spent, her human hoisted her back into the wagon and headed up the dunes towards home. They looked as though they could use an extra hand, so I helped push the wagon through the soft sand at the top of the beach and learned that Lauren, the dog, always loved coming to the beach as a younger pup. She wouldn’t let a lost limb and a bit of age take that away from her. Folly is full of these types of people, folks devoted to the good things in life, whether that’s a dip in the ocean, a meal with friends, a quick nap in the sun or perhaps a fruity beverage.

If Folly is the wily little brother, Sullivan’s Island is the high-achieving older sister. She gets good grades, works nine to five and plays the violin. Her shores are lined with structurally sound, classic homes with doors that close properly and windows you can see through — things Folly hasn’t prioritized yet. There is a certain amount of decorum maintained on Sullivan’s that lives up to the idea of gracious Southerners minding their own business. Few groups of beachgoers are rambunctious and loud. Dignified older couples stroll the beach at a glacial pace. New parents collect shells as their toddler staggers along. Even the vacationing children curb their lighthearted shrieking. You can always count on the oldest child.

In its early years, Sullivan’s was used both as a military outpost and as a quarantine station for sick passengers aboard colonial ships. Today its main street is dotted with restaurants and small shops inhabiting clapboard buildings painted in tasteful, neutral colors. The rest of the island highlights its residential vibe. There are less rentals and no inns on Sullivan’s, creating a slightly less busy beach for lounging. I’ve decided that Sullivan’s is the place to be seen. For every person wandering around in damp swim shorts, you’ll find a well-dressed couple sporting trendy hats and beach bags somehow void of sand. People look nice on Sullivan’s. The folks there are just as content to wine and dine as they are to sit in the sand. I was also delighted by the maritime forest. Rare as an empty parking space on the island, this dense forest between the dunes and the land protects the very island itself and provides a home for the wildlife. How very responsible of Sullivan’s.

This leaves Isle of Palms, or Jan Brady in this case, who can blend in to any kind of company. She acts right when her parents are around, but give her some free time and a margarita, and Jan — I mean, Isle of Palms — can hang with the best of them. She is dignified by proxy. Her literal connection to Sullivan’s and Mt. Pleasant, helps to maintain her reputation as “ladylike,” but the proximity to downtown Charleston brings in college students, intrepid cruise ship passengers and the folks too old for college but too young for the suburbs who have recently fixed up a house downtown. The oldest recorded history of the Isle of Palms shows the native tribes hospitably welcoming the English explorers — just like Mike and Carol taught her to do. In contrast to the sordid timeline of Folly Beach, Isle of Palms was uninhabited until the moment it became a resort vacation town.

The short time I spent on the Isle of Palms one morning showed me an amiable blend of the two other beaches. It has the liveliness of Folly with the proud air of Sullivan’s. Here I found many more vacationing clans, all stacked under umbrellas too small for a family of four. The beach is wide at low tide, lending itself to troves of sunbathers and toddling, sandy architects. Instagram girls take pictures their parents wouldn’t approve of while a grandmother crowds generations together to take photos with a disposable camera. I watched a group of college guys toss a football in the blazing sun, unburdened by the heat and humidity. Somehow I was sweatier than the lot of them and found myself wondering if people-watching was a more effective form of exercise.

What a treat it is to live in such a place. Pundits suggest that you can’t move away from the water once you have lived so close to it. I think this is true but only because you’d be at a loss for proper human observation once you got too far from the shoreline. Who do you giggle at — I mean ... study — when isolated on a mountainside or surrounded only by acres of open grassland? Beaches are where the good stuff is, where you are equal parts anthropologist and subject, a wallowing sand creature turned linen-clad restaurant patron. Where else can you live a life of such motley opportunity with no shoes required?

Laura Union is a native Charlestonian with a fondness for people-watching and boiled peanuts. She works in the event industry and lives on James Island with her husband and two lazy dogs.


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