Sometimes you’ve got to treat yourself. Between the job, the commute, and the kids, you need to be pampered. Fortunately, you can do that at one of the Lowcountry’s fine resorts. Read on.
When most locals visit the Isle of Palms, they don’t venture far beyond the Windjammer or the county park, but if you hang a left as you enter the island and just keep driving, you’ll find your way to Wild Dunes, an expansive resort that offers something for every kind of vacationer (or staycationer). Like the rest of the island, the resort is peppered with beach houses and condos of all sizes, but the hub of activity is the Village at Wild Dunes, where you’ll find restaurants, tennis courts, pools, shops, a spa and salon, and more.
Wild Dunes offers three basic types of accommodations: beach houses for large groups (think family reunions, bachelorette parties), condos for couples and small families, and the Boardwalk Inn for a more typical hotel setting. The houses and condos vary widely in style and price, while the Inn and the rooms in the Village — which include studios, suites, and penthouses — have a more traditional setup with daily housekeeping and concierge service. Within the Village confines, the Lettered Olive is a popular dining option that attracts as many locals as tourists, and during the summer, the plaza plays host to artisan markets and lively movie nights on the green; grab a bottle of wine at the nearby market beforehand to make it a truly relaxing experience.
The Boardwalk Inn, a 93-room AAA four diamond-rated hotel, is just a few steps from the Village. Just off the lobby, the Sea Island Grill is a popular spot for everything from romantic dinners to post-golf game noshes, and a shaded terrace overlooking the double pools is a sought-after spot to lounge with an afternoon cocktail. The pools, available exclusively to guests of the Inn, boast shady, comfy cabanas with striped curtains for privacy.
A walkway behind the Inn leads to the Boardwalk, which is lined with beach shops and an ice cream parlor, along with Rainbow Row-style houses. It leads to the Grand Pavilion, where a café and full bar is flanked by two more pools overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The eatery churns out typical casual fare, and waiter service is available both at the pool and on the beach so you can keep the Mai Tais coming.
Resort guests might be perfectly satisfied with just eating, drinking, and lounging their days away on the sand, but Wild Dunes tends to attract an active clientele, so their golf and tennis options are also a huge draw. As for golf, the resort boasts two courses, including the challenging Harbor Course, set among lagoons, marshes, and the Intracoastal Waterway. The picturesque Links Course overlooks the ocean. Don’t be surprised it you spot an alligator lounging on the green. Clinics and private instruction are available for golfers of all ages and skill levels.
While golf is huge at the resort, Wild Dunes actually started out as a small tennis club. Their tennis center, with 17 courts, sits in the center of the resort, where tennis pros give lessons and play nighttime games on Mondays to entertain guests. Players can rent a ball machine, get private lessons with the tennis director, or even challenge a pro to a match if they think their skills are up to snuff.
Besides the two main sports, the resort offers other entertainment options through a service called Island Adventures. From a jet ski safari to a champagne sunset paddle to a beachside cookout, organizers can throw together an experience to suit any kind of adventurer. Bike rentals are a hugely popular option for those looking to stay on the island, and its winding trails — not to mention the wide, flat expanse of beach — are ripe for exploring on two wheels. —Erica Jackson Curran
A stay at the Sanctuary on Kiawah is like a stay at the home of an exorbitantly wealthy relative. As magnificent as this resort is, there is still something cozy and instantly comforting about it. Its welcoming exterior is reminiscent of a house, albeit a very large one, while the grand interior is a good introduction to traditional Lowcountry interior design, with its sparkling wood floors occasionally covered by soft rugs and walls decorated with sometimes massive wildlife paintings.
For me, a 20-something single girl who makes less in a week than some rooms at the Sanctuary cost for one night, it was a little intimidating to first step through the hotel’s doors. But once the first flip-flopped family passed me by, I came back down to earth. The utterly accommodating staff greeted me warmly on my arrival, and I quickly took them up on their offer to learn more about the layout of the hotel.
I gave myself a few minutes to regroup in my hotel room, a fifth-floor gem with the most optimal of views in the entire place. And it wasn’t to unpack or settle in, but to sit out on my private balcony. The Sanctuary offers a variety of different rooms with different views, but I would wholeheartedly recommend splurging for an oceanfront — and make sure you pack a sweater, because the sea breeze can get a bit chilly later in the day, and you’ll want to savor every minute of it. You can always layer with one of the thick bathrobes provided for you in one of the room’s closets.
While the hotel is a quick drive from Charleston area attractions, the Sanctuary supplies plenty of excuses to stay put. It’s equipped with a small strip of shops, including branches of downtown’s Tiger Lily florist and Wells Gallery. Get a scoop of ice cream or other snack at Beaches and Cream and find a lounge chair by one of the two pools (one for families, the other adults only), or take the short boardwalk to the beach itself. There’s something to be said for an expansive shoreline, and Kiawah has it; that’s probably why this spot is frequently included in “best beach” lists. Rent a bicycle ($12 for four hours, $18 for a full day) or use your feet like I did and make your way down the coast, past the island’s palatial houses. Each day, the resort also offers a variety of things to do, from hikes to kid-friendly activities, or you can play a game of tennis at either of the two complexes, one just a short walk from the Sanctuary.
Shuttles are provided to various on-property spots, like the Night Heron Park or any of the five championship golf courses. Dining options include the Southern-inspired Jasmine Porch and the steak-driven Ocean Room, located within the Sanctuary. I headed out to the Ocean Course, where you can grab a drink at the Ryder Cup Bar or a full meal in the Atlantic Room, both of which offer unrivaled views of the ocean. Fresh bread comes to the table in a sweetgrass basket at the restaurant, whose menu features sustainable seafood options like local redfish and Carolina grouper. Feel free to indulge in dessert; the Sanctuary’s fitness center is open 6 a.m.-8:30 p.m., offering cardio and resistance equipment, an indoor pool, and special classes.
After dinner, I arrived back at my room to find the lights dimmed and soft music playing, plus a list of the next day’s activities, compliments of the turndown service. I debated watching the stars to the soundtrack of crashing waves for a while before taking the plunge into the massive bathtub in the even more massive bathroom. I probably haven’t taken a bath since my age was in the single digits, but I found it difficult to leave the perfectly warm water even after my skin began to prune. Though some guests may have already spent their day at the in-house spa, enjoying a hot stone massage or reiki or an avocado coconut wrap, it’s the extra little touches, like a pair of cookies left by your bedside, that make a stay extra relaxing. —Susan Cohen
People come by land and by sea to the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina, a luxury hotel on the east bank of the Cooper River that features family-friendly activities and a range of events that attract the locals as well as the tourists.
But locals aren’t just there during the Party at the Point shindigs, which feature local bands in a laid-back resort atmosphere. They’re also invited to tie up their boats at the marina for drinks and upscale tavern food at the dockside Reel Bar, which features a bar made of salvaged teak wood from a shipwreck off the coast of Miami, as well as one of the oldest rod-and-reel collections in the country. A black-and-white photo near the bar shows a fisherman proudly displaying a record-breaking 882-pound blue marlin he caught during a fishing tournament hosted at the marina in 2006, cementing the bar’s legitimacy as a seaworthy hangout.
And while many guests will cross the bridge to Charleston for the restaurant scene, the on-premises Indigo Grille serves up dinner options like oysters, shrimp and grits, and seafood gazpacho.
Visually, there is a lot to take in while sitting on the harbor terrace or on the balcony of one of the rooms. Most of the suites have a water view, whether of the Cooper River or of Shem Creek, and the waterways are often bustling with everything from cargo ships to cruise liners to fishing boats. And with docks that connect along Patriots Point to the Yorktown, a wide variety of boating excursions are available to guests: fishing tours, dolphin tours, eco-tours, and historic jaunts out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Like so many of the locals, the resort has a Hugo story: Originally built as a Quality Inn & Suites in the 1980s, the hotel was wrecked when the Category 4 hurricane slammed the South Carolina coast in 1989. New owners bought the property in 1995, tore it down, and built the tower that stands today. It was reinvented as a Hilton property in the early 2000s, but then the owners struck out on their own, and today it is owned by the Florida-based Brothers Property Corporation. The current owners grew weary of the standard-issue Hilton beige walls and updated the color scheme, seeking to make it feel more like a home.
The effect is more like that of a beach house owned by a thoughtful decorator. The walls and bedding draw heavily from a palette of sunshine yellow, sky blue, and lime green, and the headboards on all the beds feature handpainted beach scenes by local artists. The hallways, too, are lined with paintings from the now-defunct Eye Level Art gallery, as well as porthole-inspired brass light fixtures. The rooms have also been given a modern makeover, with electronic Do Not Disturb signs and eco-friendly pumps for soap and shampoo that cut down on plastic waste from travel-size bottles.
Down by the river, guests can lay out at the pool or on an artificial beach that features volleyball, lawn games, and fire pits for chilly nights. A straw-roof poolside tiki hut offers drinks, frozen and otherwise, throughout the summer months, and waiters make the rounds taking orders on sun-baked afternoons. The hotel staff also coordinate activities for children including movie nights and tie-dye T-shirt lessons.
If guests are so inclined (no pressure), they can do more than just lounge by the water and listen to the seagulls. The hotel offers introductory sailing classes, group day trips to local attractions like Boone Hall, and a five-hour tour of Charleston’s breweries. —Paul Bowers
You won’t find typical resort living on Folly Beach. The Edge of America is an ideal spot for rambunctious locals looking for a day of surf, sun, sand, and maybe some beer and Jack Johnson covers. The majority of those who drive in for the day plop themselves down on either side of the Charleston County-owned pier — families to the left near the ice cream shops and restrooms, singles and groups to the right near the hotel bar and live music.
For those looking to escape the riff-raff and chill in a semi-private tropical paradise resort, keep on going. For those looking to be part of the action, by all means get yourself a room at the Tides, the only full-service hotel on the beach. I recently spent a few nights there during spring break. A once-frowsy Holiday Inn, the hotel was completely overhauled and renamed a couple years ago and is now the sparkling pearl of Folly’s oyster. All rooms face the ocean and are comfortable — it’s the typical two double-bed/one king bed situation. The color palette of deep turquoise, aqua, green, white, and beige is appropriately beachy but not in a depressing pink-and-turquoise ’80s way. It’s made strikingly modern with accents of seagrass, driftwood, and neon lighting in the lobby (seriously, it’s cool). Their restaurant, Blu, is a partner of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative and has figured out how to serve a hearty breakfast buffet and casual lunch fare in addition to a full seafood dinner menu. The nonalcoholic oyster shooters were so good, we went back for a second round.
The Tides staffers, from the managers to the maids to the bartenders, are friendly and casual. You can tell they’re accustomed to sandy flip-flops, wet cover-ups, and the occasional drunkard stumbling through the lobby looking for something to pry open a giant can of boiled peanuts with (this actually happened on my visit). Nothing ruffles them, and they are obviously dedicated to providing their paying guests with what they need, including a phone call to us on the beach when someone from the Drop In Deli showed up in the lobby to deliver our lunch one afternoon. Nice touch. The pool overlooking the Atlantic Ocean is heated, and the elevators are excruciatingly slow (take the stairs if you can find them). On the beach you can rent umbrellas and chairs and charge them to your room.
During our visit, the beach was packed with families digging in the sand, college-aged kids throwing frisbees, folks body-surfing in the cold ocean, a couple of us enjoying icy margaritas from the beach bar, and one guy seriously jamming to the one-man cover band (he sang along and danced to every single song). One of the best benefits of staying at the Tides is the exhaustive opportunity for people watching. By about 3 or 4 p.m. on any given afternoon, some folks have been doing enough beach drinking for things to get really interesting.
Now this is not to judge or slag the Tides, which has no control over the fun-loving folks who choose to set up camp on the beach in front of the hotel. It’s just that these characters are the best way to illustrate the charm of Folly. This is a place where characters still exist, where people are free to let their freak flags fly.
Take Walking Joel for instance. This guy got his name because he literally walks up and down the beach all day long. I noticed him walking by as soon as I hit the beach the first morning. Over the course of the day, I saw him a few more times. When some Folly friends joined us, he walked by again, and I mentioned that I’d seen him seven times if I’d seen him once. “Oh, that’s Walking Joel. He lives down the street from us.” Of course he does! —Stephanie Barna