Isle of Palms, SC, is fancy.
This is where Charlestonians who discover ways to print money in the local tech industry move. Back in the days of easy money, at least.
To be fair, the beachfront mansions, world-class resorts, and six miles of gorgeous white, sandy beaches warrant a visit for any socio-economic class.
Though this beach certainly knows its clientele, with:
- Golf courses
- And delicious restaurants
To suit fancier tastes.
Isle of Palms, SC is a popular summer retreat for locals. Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards ranked it sixth among the top ten North American islands.
Because why wouldn’t they rank North American islands?
Of the various beaches near Charleston, SC, Isle of Palms is one of the area’s best-kept secrets. After all, it combines the best of the Lowcountry and the beach in one breathtaking setting.
History of Isle of Palms
Isle of Palms is thought to be at least 25,000 years old. Which is quite old for a barrier island, as hurricanes and waves typically wipe them out.
The Seewee Indians were the first inhabitants. According to legend, the Seewees greeted the region’s first English settlers from Charlestowne, SC, by swimming to the ships and bringing them ashore. Whatever help the English gave the Seewees is said to have inspired some of them to paddle to England in their canoes.
That endeavor turned out about as well as you can imagine.
Colonial era on Isle of Palms
Isle of Palms has had a few other names since European settlement:
- Hunting Island
- Long Island
Before its final name change in 1899.
More on that later.
According to legend, pirates hid their loot in the deserted dunes and woods of Isle of Palms for safekeeping. That said, nothing has been discovered so far, and I’m sure plenty of people have searched.
The American Revolution on Isle of Palms
During the American Revolution, a 2,500-man British Army contingent attempted to raid a colonial camp on nearby Sullivan’s Island. Many men drowned when the force attempted to cross the treacherous waters of the Breach Inlet between the two islands, and the attack failed.
The Isle of Palms during the Civil War
During the American Civil War, the CSS Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy ship, departed from there. After successfully sinking the USS Housatonic, the Hunley and her crew perished at sea, though the reason remains a mystery.
Isle of Palms develops into a vacation destination
Locals began vacationing on the island in the late nineteenth century. At the time, it could only be reached by ferry.
J.S. Lawrence gave it its current name when he bought it in 1899. A 50-room hotel was built in 1906. In 1912, James Sottile commissioned the construction of a beach pavilion, an amusement park, and a trolley line connecting Mount Pleasant on the mainland to the Isle of Palms via Sullivan’s Island. The Grace Memorial Bridge, which connects Charleston and Mount Pleasant, was built in 1929 to allow vehicular access.
Large-scale residential development began when J.C. Long purchased the majority of the island and built affordable housing for World War II veterans. This was around when the 900-acre (360-hectare) Wild Dunes Beach and Racquet Club development was built as well.
Many shipwrecks were discovered along the shores of the Isle of Palms in the 1960s with the help of Isle of Palms residents:
- Wally Shaffer
- George Campsen
- And pioneering underwater archaeologist E. Lee Spence
Spence was a prolific writer of books and articles about shipwrecks and sunken treasure.
Among the wrecks discovered were Civil War blockade runners:
- Stonewall Jackson
- Mary Bowers
- And the Georgiana
The iron-hulled steamer Georgiana capsized on her maiden voyage. Historical documents highlighted it as more powerful than the renowned Confederate cruiser Alabama and fitted for 14 guns.
Things to do on Isle of Palms, SC
If you’re looking for a sandy spot to set up camp for the day—or the week—you’ve got your pick of the litter. Public beaches account for six of the Isle of Palms’ seven total miles.
Fans of biking in Charleston will delight in the numerous bike paths throughout the island. A golf cart is also a respectable way of getting around, too.
Tennis, shuffleboard, and skateboarding as well as playgrounds and sports fields are available to residents and visitors.
Isle of Palms Beaches
And once you’ve staked your claim, all of the traditional beach activities are doable here, such as:
- Splashing around in the surprisingly calm seas
- Building the ultimate sandcastle
- And playing beach volleyball
The Isle of Palms County Park, in the heart of the island’s coastline, is ideal for families. When the sun and surf get too much for kids, the public beach has:
- Outdoor showers
- Chair and umbrella rentals
- And even a playground
Dog rules on the beach
Few dogs don’t enjoy romping in the sand and salt water. And lucky for them, IOP is one of South Carolina’s most dog-friendly beaches. Dogs are welcome all year and during the day.
Just follow the rules:
Keep your dog on their leash at all times in the park. Leash-free walks are allowed outside the park from:
- 4 pm to 10 am from September 15 to March 31
- From 5 am to 9 am from April 1 to September 14
Kayaking & Canoeing
In my opinion, the best way to experience Lowcountry marsh wetlands is via kayak or canoe. And the marshlands around Isle of Palms are no exception.
Take a sunrise or sunset tour with Coastal Expeditions if you don’t happen to have a kayak lying around.
Not my jam, but if you prefer getting an adrenaline rush on the water, Tidal Wave Water Sports offers everything you need for any water sports. Rent a jet ski, or a boat, and try wakeboarding, parasailing, or a boat on one of their many tours.
And if you’d rather experience the natural world of the area without the upper-body workout from kayaking, head to Barrier Island Eco Tours. They offer both public and private Lowcountry tours, with a focus on the region’s wildlife and natural beauty. Their naturalist-led excursions head to uninhabited Capers Island via winding salt marshes, tidal creeks, and the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s a great afternoon for outdoor adventurers and wildlife enthusiasts. Along the way, you might see loggerhead turtles, bottlenose dolphins, and all sorts of coastal birds.
Speaking of wildlife, many turtles nest on the Isle of Palms during the summer. Their nests, which a local “Turtle Team” carefully monitors, are a huge draw for nature shows and visitors to the island.
If you’re way more into sea turtles than the average person, head to the South Carolina Aquarium in downtown Charleston. The aquarium hosts a sea turtle hospital that treats sick or injured turtles before releasing them back into the wild.
South Carolina’s coastal Lowcountry is a natural paradise for fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts. There are numerous knowledgeable captains and guides available for an unforgettable saltwater fishing charter or boat tour of Charleston Harbor or IOP.
Explore the tranquil tidal creeks that run behind the island. Marsh islands dot the estuary here, providing opportunities to go swimming or cast a net or a fishing line. There are numerous bait and tackle shops nearby that can supply your adventure with everything it needs for a day or a week. The Isle of Palms Marina is a full-service, 50-slip marina with everything you need for a relaxing and enjoyable stay on South Carolina’s coast. You can book a boat tour, a fishing trip, or rent a boat for the day and drive it yourself.
Isle of Palms Golf Courses
Get ready for a golfing experience that is truly unparalleled at Isle of Palms! With its stunning oceanfront golf courses, natural surroundings, and flawless resorts, this place is every golfer’s paradise. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or looking to learn, there are so many options to choose from. Take advantage of professional instruction, and hit the links at either public or private courses. For a truly breathtaking game, check out the Links Course or the Harbor Course at Wild Dunes Resort. Designed by the renowned golfer Tom Fazio, these courses are a true masterpiece, offering stunning marsh views and a par of 70.
Isle of Palms Restaurants
A huge part of experiencing a new place is via my stomach.
And tony Isle of Palms, SC doesn’t disappoint, in that regard. Though that’s no surprise, considering the Lowcountry has some of the best cuisine in the country.
From Southern cuisine, Tex-Mex, to seafood, there’s a lot of variety for a small beach town.
Sea Biscuit Café
Start with breakfast at the Sea Biscuit Café. The little beachside shack has been serving delectable breakfasts since 1968. Even though they serve all of the classics (like biscuits and gravy), the daily specials are unforgettable. Some of the more memorable appearances have included:
- Tomato pie
- Lemon lavender pancakes
- And chocolate banana challah French toast
Coconut Joe’s is perfect for a mid-day meal by the beach. On the main drag of Isle of Palms, fresh seafood and an impeccable ambiance are within easy reach. Shrimp is their signature dish, though you can’t go wrong with a frozen cocktail on their open-air covered deck to cap the end of your beach day.
If you’re looking for dinner after that cocktail, there are plenty of options among the Isle of Palms restaurants. The Boathouse and Acme Lowcountry Kitchen are popular and long-standing restaurants on the island, offering great food and Southern hospitality. For a fancy dinner, Coda del Pesce is a fine dining restaurant that serves Italian seafood cuisine with a Lowcountry flair.
If you’re in the mood for fresh seafood and excellent pasta, check out the daily-changing menu at Long Island Café. On the other hand, if you crave some simple and comforting food, Papi’s Taqueria offers a tasty selection of tacos.
The Windjammer is a distinct IOP staple. Sand volleyball tournaments and live music performances happen regularly at Isle of Palms’ spacious beachfront bar. It’s a great spot for a quick bite, a beer while watching a concert, or simply relaxing. Stop by the establishment after a walk on the beach with your dog, as it’s dog friendly. The Windjammer, open for about 50 years, is undeniably one of the busiest bars on the Isle of Palms and the epicenter of the island’s vibrant nightlife.
And don’t miss their fried pickles.
Shopping on Isle of Palms
Exploring the charming Ocean Boulevard is a quintessential Isle of Palms activity that you shouldn’t miss. As you stroll along, keep your eyes peeled for the plethora of must-visit beach shops and souvenir stores that grace this bustling stretch. Don’t be shy – feel free to pop in and see what treasures await inside each one!
Resorts, hotels, and places to stay on Isle of Palms
Isle of Palms hotels are not limited to just Wild Dunes Resort. That said, it’s the most famous.
Wild Dunes Resort
Aside from the two 18-hole Tom Fazio golf courses, you’ll also find:
- 17 har-tru tennis courts
- Mulitple swimming pools open to both locals and visitors
The best place to stay is the four-star Boardwalk Inn and Grand Pavilion, which has three pools and a pavilion with views of the beach and Atlantic Ocean.
On the vacation rental market, many private homes and condos in Wild Dunes are available for rent. On-site dining options include a variety of eateries serving everything from fine dining to more casual fare, Southern cuisine, poolside dining, and cocktails.
What about places that aren’t part of Wild Dunes Resort?
And you’ll find plenty of rentals on VRBO and Airbnb for everything from waterfront multifamily homes to studio apartments.
How to get to Isle of Palms
Isle of Palms is luxury beach living par excellence.
No wonder it’s a playground for the local wealthy. It’s only a 30-minute drive back to downtown Charleston, and only a 12-mile drive from Mount Pleasant to get to IOP County Park.
The Municipal Parking Lots are the most convenient places to park. Parking tickets are sold at the automated parking kiosks located throughout the parking lot.
You can easily walk along the shoreline once you ditch your car, but 7 miles is a long way to go without a bicycle.
Explore more things to do on Charleston beaches, like Isle of Palms SC
Isle of Palms could be the only place you visit in the Charleston area if you wanted.
But that would be such a shame!
There are plenty of day trips from Charleston (or Isle of Palms) to choose from while you’re here.
Head to Sullivan’s Island for historic sites like Fort Moultrie. Or just enjoy a beach day at another pristine beach with a view of Charleston harbor.
Or drive across the bridge to Mount Pleasant. There, have a meal on Shem Creek, where restaurants line the picturesque waterway. Finish the day watching the sunset over downtown Charleston from the Pitt Street Bridge, one of the most romantic activities in the area.
And don’t miss the various museums, events, and more in downtown Charleston.
Be sure to read the full guide to attractions, activities, and things to do in Charleston, SC, before you go!