Kristin Luna, an AFAR Ambassador and proud Southerner, highlights the gorgeous natural scenery and activities easily accessible from Charleston. Add her recommendations to your itinerary.
Charleston offers travelers some decidedly urban charms, starting with its cobblestone streets, craft cocktail scene, and one-of-a-kind boutiques. But you can complement memorable meals and museum visits with at least as many opportunities to experience the great outdoors. Here’s where to get your heart pumping in the South Carolina Lowcountry, whether you want to hike, kayak, or play a round or two of golf.
The greater Charleston area claims some of the most beautiful coastline in the eastern United States, including Kiawah Island, a 10,000-acre private community just 21 miles west of downtown. Visitors can explore its marshy tributaries by kayak, golf at the five championship courses, or attempt to spot some of the island’s many bird species up close. Kiawah’s renowned reputation can come at a price; more affordable options include the Andell Inn or the family-friendly condos on the island. Island Rentals has a collection of more than 350 properties on Charleston’s various islands and beaches.
On neighboring Seabrook Island, you can hop on a horse and go for a trail ride or beach trot. Both Kiawah and Seabrook offer access to Beachwalker Park, which is ideal for families with little ones, though they are only open to those staying overnight on the islands. Golfers test their drive at challenging 18-hole courses, where a round of golf can be paired with bird watching. Seabrook Island was the first golf facility in the state of South Carolina to become a member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.
North of the Charleston peninsula, you’ll find the town of Mount Pleasant along with Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms. While more residential than Kiawah, Mount Pleasant is full of gems such as the 943-acre Palmetto Islands County Park, with paved trails that crisscross the marsh, a playground and 50-foot observation tower, a kayak launch, horseshoe pits, and sand volleyball courts. Travelers who want to explore Mount Pleasant in greater depth should check out new, and reasonably priced, hotels like the Springhill Suites by Marriott Mount Pleasant that are also convenient to Charleston’s historic district.
Back over on the West Ashley side of the river, Folly Beach reigns supreme as the most popular stretch of sand in Charleston, and one of the most famous anywhere in the United States. Drawing a diverse mix of families, locals, couples and teens, the retro beach town has a lively boardwalk scene and a number of bars and restaurants within easy walking distance set against Charleston’s natural beauty. Nearby, James Island County Park has a playground, a water park, kayaking, and an impressive holiday lights display from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
Any must-do Charleston list should include visiting at least one of the stately plantations. Middleton Place’s gardens and working farm on the banks of the Ashley River have been designated a National Historic Landmark and boast blooms year round, as well as costumed interpreters in the Plantation Stableyards. Founded in 1681, the 738-acre Boone Hall Plantation is perhaps the most famous of Charleston’s plantations thanks to its much-photographed Avenue of Oaks, educational performances in the Gullah Theater, a vibrant butterfly garden, and seasonal activities such as berry picking in the summer and oyster roasts in the winter. If you’re traveling with kids, they’ll likely talk you into a visit to the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, which has a swamp walk and petting zoo, as well as Charles Towne Landing to visit the Adventure, a replica of a 17th-century sailing ship, and the otters, bears, and bison at the Animal Forest natural habitat zoo.
Like many coastal towns, Charleston’s pulse can be found in its boating community, particularly at the handful of central docks like Patriots Point. Anchored there, the USS Yorktown was a key player in the World War II offensive against the Japanese and was decommissioned in 1970; it was relocated to the Charleston Harbor a few years later. Visitors can poke around, tour the sailors’ quarters, and even take a virtual ride to the Moon via the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Barrier Island EcoTours offers pontoon boat excursions that allow passengers to fish, catch crabs, and do a little beachcombing. Those looking for a remote experience should book the tour for Capers Island to witness the majesty of Boneyard Beach, a 1.5-mile otherworldly stretch peppered with skeletons of petrified wood. It can only be reached on a tour or private boat hire.
Cap off the perfect day outdoors with a dinner cruise on the Spirit of Carolina, which has both open-air and enclosed dining decks and offers incomparable views of Fort Sumter and the twinkling skyline all lit up at night.