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Adults-only pool at the Boardwalk Inn (Courtesy Wild Dunes)

Escape to the beautiful Isle of Palms this summer

Each summer, Washingtonians flee the swamp-like heat of the city in search of salt air and ocean waves. Unfortunately, we all tend to end up at the same spots, whether it’s the collection of Delaware beach towns, Maryland’s Ocean City, or the string of Outer Banks islands.

Crowded beaches filled with fellow D.C.-area vacationers kind of defeats the purpose of a relaxing coastal escape, so this year, consider taking the dune less traveled.

Charleston, South Carolina is guarded by a slew of barrier islands, the closest of which being Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island, and Isle of Palms. Each is just a short drive from the city, and has its own distinct personality.

Our pick for peak summer relaxation, adventure, and indulgence is Isle of Palms. Here’s the inside scoop on the island to help you plan your next beach vacation.

Where to stay

During our recent trip, we checked into Wild Dunes Resort, a Destination Hotel that occupies 1,600 acres of the northern part of the island. This idyllic oceanfront property has three different styles of accommodation:

  • The Boardwalk Inn is located in the heart of the resort, just a short walk from the beach. Those looking for the traditional hotel experience can book one of the more than 100 rooms and suites at the Inn. The entire building was renovated last summer, so it’s fully refreshed and dotted with beach house accents and southern charm. (Rates fluctuate from $99/night to $699/night depending on the season and the room size.)
  • The Village is the center of all the action within the resort community. The mini-neighborhood consists of three buildings with 150 units ranging from one bedroom suites to luxe penthouses. These private, fully-furnished rentals come with plenty of common space and a kitchen so you can stay in whenever you feel like it. (Rates fluctuate from $105/night to $999/night depending on the season and the unit size.)
  • Wild Dunes also rents more than 200 homes, condos, and cottages throughout the property, many of which are beachfront. Depending on your budget and group size, you can opt for standard, moderate, or deluxe accommodations, or splurge for one of the ultra-upscale homes in “The Collection” with five or more bedrooms. (Rates fluctuate from $115/night to $2400/night depending on the season and the unit size.)

While we couldn’t imagine staying anywhere else, there are also a few other lodging options on the island, including home or condo rentals through individual owners or other property rental companies, and hotels such as The Seaside Inn or The Palms Oceanfront Hotel (currently under renovation and reopening this summer).

Where to eat

Wild Dunes has no shortage of dining choices on property, and they are available to anyone, not just guests. Coastal Provisions is the newest addition to the family, located inside the Boardwalk Inn. Here you’ll find seafood, chops, craft cocktails, and modern twists on southern classics. The spacious dining room has a distinctly nautical theme, and the poolside terrace is a lovely spot for dinner al fresco. Huey’s Southern Eats, named after an infamous goose on the island, is right by the Links Course, so you can enjoy quintessentially southern food while watching a round of golf. There’s also an outdoor deck which gets you closer to the action. The Grand Pavilion Bar & Grill is the place to go for barefoot beachside dining. Take in a panoramic ocean view from the deck while noshing on unfussy beachside fare and sipping a cold beer or cocktail.

The resort’s grab-and-go options are perfect for taking a picnic lunch to the beach or on a bike ride around the island. Hudson’s Market on the Village Plaza has deli sandwiches and snacks, as well as wine, beer, and grocery staples. Dunes Deli, the island’s 19th Hole has hot breakfast, pizza, sandwiches, salads, and drinks. If you feel like eating in but don’t want to cook, there’s Dinner Delivered, which brings fully-prepared, multi-course family meals right to your room on the resort.

The island is also home to a lively little beachfront stretch called Front Beach, which is packed with great restaurants. Head to Coda del Pesce for sophisticated Italian seafood right on the water. Check out local favorite Acme Lowcountry Kitchen for down-home southern fare. For breakfast, visit the casual and very popular Seabiscuit Café.

Other notable spots on the island include The Boathouse, which offers local seafood in a casual atmosphere overlooking Breach Inlet, and Long Island Café, a bistro tucked inconspicuously into a strip mall.

Where to play

The beach: Of course, the main attraction here is the beautiful beach. Stroll the shoreline looking for sand dollars and shark teeth, go for a dip, or sit and catch a few rays near the dunes. Unlike the more northerly Delaware and Maryland beaches, South Carolina’s ocean water is pleasant in May and gets to be downright warm as the summer goes on.

Recreation: Wild Dunes has an impressive variety of recreational activities, from tennis and golf to swimming and biking. Play a match or have a lesson on one of 17 nationally-ranked tennis courts, take advantage of the two championship golf courses, choose from the many pools on property and swim a few laps, or rent bicycles and zip around the island.

Water sports: Kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding are popular on the island, so plan to rent equipment and venture out on your own, or take a tour of the waterways via paddle.

Wildlife adventures: When in South Carolina, embrace the lowcountry life. The resort offers crabbing and fishing excursions where you can get your feet wet in the saltmarshes looking for the catch of the day. You can also book a naturalist-guided boat ride to the undeveloped Capers Island hosted by Barrier Island Eco Tours where you can spot wildlife like dolphins, pelicans, and crabs. The trip culminates with an ocean-water seafood boil right on the beach as the sun sets.

Authentic past times: Wild Dunes offers several hands-on classes that teach participants about Charleston traditions. Their blacksmith workshop, led by James Irving of Pirate’s Forge, introduces aspiring artisans to the iconic ironwork seen all over Charleston and then lets them literally play with fire. Participants actually get to pound and shape their own metal piece, like a rose or bottle opener, and take home a meaningful, hand-forged piece of the city’s culture. Other classes include a dive into the art of basket weaving.

Live music: On Front Beach, there are several places to catch live music, like at The Windjammer, a popular beach club, and Caribbean-themed Coconut Joe’s, which has tunes on the rooftop deck.

Charleston: Of course, during your stay, you should make a point to hop over to Charleston, which is just a 30-minute drive away. Consult our weekend guide to figure out what to do in the historic and charming city.