Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Folly Beach

Until now I’ve only gone to Folly Beach on a rushed daytrip. Two hour’s drive from my land-locked home in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, it is my nearest beach, dubbed “the edge of America” by locals. Nostalgic for my coastal roots in Shoreham Beach, England, I love the low-key bungalow-beach atmosphere. But I’ve always hankered to stay longer, envisaging a cute cottage on the coast with barbecues on the sand to the sound of Beach Boy tracks from an old-fashioned portable stereo.


However, when friends from Canada were visiting with their young daughters, it soon became apparent that catering and cleaning up my dream cottage would not exactly make for a relaxing holiday. Thus, we found ourselves checking into the 1980s Tides Hotel which dominates Folly Beach’s Center Street to the west and hugs the seashore to the east.
Tides inside is stylishly decorated in beach pastels with driftwood-edged mirrors and a subtle sealife motif. It was originally a Holiday Inn but was renamed in 2009 by the new owners, Jon and Lisa Weitz, who also manage 185 rental properties on the island. The atmosphere there is casual, although – thankfully - you have to wear cover-ups in the public areas and dress for dinner in more than just a bikini. Still, you can get away with flipflops 24-7.
After the friendly check-in, we found our interconnecting rooms to be airy and modern with comfy chairs and table that could be positioned in the patio doorway to take full advantage of the sea air and ocean views over morning coffee or early evening aperitifs. Quiet at night, sleep was further enhanced by the option of forgoing A/C and opening the room up to the white noise of waves and the tranquility of starry skies.
Having arrived hot and harried from our two-hour drive, getting on the beach was our first impulse and it is propitiously right outside the hotel’s pool deck. The Atlantic waters are warm and the swell strong enough in August for fun but not too forceful for swimming. It is wonderful to wake up right on the beach and dash into the depths for an early morning dip before breakfast. However early we got up, there was always a parent-kid team already hard at it building castles and kingdoms in the sand. We loved walking along the six miles of long flat beach, among the joggers and bikers, disappearing into the horizon in that shimmering mirage effect produced by the combination of crystalline sand, sea, sun and warm air. Later in the day, the area right in front of Tides fills up with colourful umbrellas, towels and chairs but if you walk along in front of the beach bungalows, the shore is almost empty.
With fine dining on site, it was bliss to be able to put the kids to bed with a favourite book or video on their I-Pad and go downstairs dressed up for an adult dinner in a classy restaurant! If you chose a room on one of the lower floors, you would probably be within baby monitor range. BLU opened in 2009 and is a contemporary combo of local Lowcountry cuisine and Mediterranean influences such as tapas and paella. To my husband’s delight, they even serve paella for one – unknown in Spain where it is always for a minimum of two people. One of Charleston’s few oceanfront eateries, BLU maximizes the sea and pier views with outdoor tables and a bustling beach bar with live music at the weekends. The house-made chips and dip, served in a trendy conical paper contraption, go particularly well with the cocktail menu. Much of the food is locally sourced and sustainable, earning BLU the Platinum Certification from South Carolina’s Aquarium Äôs Sustainable Seafood Initiative.
Although the breakfast buffet at BLU is a convenient and tasty option, we also found it fun to explore the neighbourhood for variety. We found the community so compact that, once parked in the hotel’s convenient free carpark, we could stroll almost everywhere. Finding many of the lunch and dinner venues closed in the morning, we were gratified to stumble upon the humble-looking, renovated trailer reinvented as Black Magic Café.
Advertised on Center St as a “healthy eatery and espresso bar”, it is colourful coffee shop on W. Erie Ave, with vibrant paintwork and artsy beach and sea-scapes created by local artists and photographers. It has an opulent washroom clothed in magical, black décor to justify its name. Like Starbucks, Black Magic offers designer drinks but its granola grub is more extensive, incorporating customized omelettes and interesting bagel mixes. Both locals and tourist families mingle here, attracted by the casual atmosphere, under 10s menu, library of children’s books and free Wi-Fi. For lunch, Rita’s restaurant and pub is great for cheap and cheerful shrimp, seafood and salads and the Piggly Wiggly is just five minutes drive onto James Island if you want to pick up picnic produce – or as my Canadian friend did, pose for a photo by the amusing sign.
Tides is right next to Folly Beach Pier, one of the three top surf areas on the barrier island although surfers are warned by large overhead signs to keep clear of the dangerous currents churning around the pylons. Although the sea is calm most of the summer, occasionally surf is up - especially when there’s a hurricane brewing up in the Caribbean. Before the storm hits full-on, surfers appear from all over the area to make use of the waves. For the past five years, Surfers Healing has also held its annual August camp here, right in front of Tides. Professional surfers from all over the world congregate to introduce the exciting sport to young kids with autism. When we were there, Hurricane Irene was boiling up and the waves were just right to give both amateurs and professionals an adrenalin rush.
The Pier also serves as a popular fishing spot, with regular tournaments held there. Extending over 1,045 feet into the Atlantic, it is also a handy dolphin and sea-bird look-out and is used throughout the summer as a venue for “Moonlight Mixer Shaggin” sessions. Now I know this is a dance, I am no longer shocked by the nonchalant use of what is rather rude slang in England.
Shopping is fun at Folly with many stores flaunting $5 rails or “Nothing over $7.99”. From cheap and cheerful to high end, boutiques woo the tourists with gaudy tie-dye t-shirts, brandname board shorts, and handkerchief-hem dresses. You can also rent or buy all the paraphernalia for surfing, kayaking, jetskiing, paddle boarding and boogie-boarding.
What beach holiday would be complete without icecream? Tides has cleverly cornered that market with the poolside Sugar Shack, advertised to passersby with a colourful cartoon ice-cream sign in the hotel forecourt. The shop is arrayed with multiple-flavoured cornets, gigantic lollipops, barrels of candy and cabinets of gobstoppers, looking like a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film set, and irresistible to young and old.
With just three days and two nights at Folly Island, we had time for one foray into Charleston (20 minutes away) where we combined some highspeed, power purchasing in King Street’s funky boutiques with a horse-and-cart tour around the city’s historic district. The carts operate on a lottery system whereby the guide picks from various coloured cards which dictate the route, reducing equestrian snarl-ups around the city’s winding streets. The hard-working horses seem to know the way without any directions from the drivers. A great educational way to see the city with kids, going by cart also reduces the street heat and feet stress.
As you return to the beach, you drive under a canopy of immense oaks draped with Spanish moss before crossing Ellis Creek. Next you cross the salt marshes to James Island over a causeway bridge which traverses swampy wetlands used to represent Vietnam in the making of the film, Forrest Gump. The main road through James Island is full of big box stores, boat outfitters, and a strange proliferation of pet parlors and doggy daycares, making us wonder if all the tourists bring their pooches on holiday for pampering. There’s a second causeway linking James Island to Folly and the whole area is very pretty, dotted with shrimp boats, waterfront houses with their own jetties and pristine bird habitat.
With bottlenose dolphins proliferating in both the ocean and the calm waters protected by the barrier islands, a boat ride was high on the kids’ bucket (and spade) list. We were lucky enough to spot a mother and baby team during our guided tour and learnt lots about the wildlife, ecosystems, history and geography of the area. Curious about the name “Folly” - which semantically suggests stupidity or recklessness - we discovered that early English explorers named it after the dense, low foliage which covered the area. During our two hour trip, the dolphins provided the drama, but we also enjoyed the antics of the white egrets, majestic herons, osprey and brown pelican patrols who fished feverishly alongside us in the oyster-lined tidal creeks.
Reluctant to leave next day, we vowed to come back again for another quintessential family beach holiday on Folly Island, perhaps for a whole week next time and use it as a relaxing base to explore Charleston and the beautiful barrier islands.
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