Dream Town: Isle of Palms
Colorful Lowcountry Community
With the bustling city of Charleston fading in the rearview mirror, a sweet, balmy breeze from the surrounding marsh streams through open car windows on the way to Isle of Palms. The Intracoastal Waterway is incandescent in the sun and, just before arriving on the island, the landscape opens to reveal an expansive view of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean.
Isle of Palms is a skinny, 7-mile-long South Carolina barrier island. Here, the vibe feels both Southern and tropical—neighbors spend balmy evenings together on screened-in porches, sipping sweet tea and bourbon and watching for pods of dolphins in the surf.
Palm trees line the aptly named Palm Boulevard, where—past a smattering of shops and one grocery store—lavish homes face the water on one side, and oak-tree shaded communities with new homes preside on the other.
Though Isle of Palms is known for its soft beaches and beautiful Lowcountry-style houses, fewer than 5,000 residents live here year-round. (That number grows to 20,000 in the summer months.) "You can go to four-star hotels, restaurants, and the symphony in Charleston, and within minutes you're back on the beach," says resident Sandy Ferencz.
The town was established after WWII as an affordable place for service families to live and build housing. And while some of the original homes still exist—at prices starting around $350,000—today, houses with a water view start at $1.7 million.
Most of the isle's pastel and pale-colored houses are new—damage from Hurricane Hugo required a majority of the island to rebuild. But residents say it takes more than a storm to shake their island lifestyle.
"Our doors are open—music is playing, surfboards are out. It's a dream," says resident Cortney Bishop.
Main Street: Ocean Boulevard is the waterfront's main drag, with surfboard rentals, shops, and other finds interwoven with restaurants and bars. The Windjammer, the island's staple watering hole, is always packed with residents looking for an afternoon beer.
Restaurants: Morgan Creek Grill on the Marina serves local fare, namely crab cakes with stone-ground grits. At Long Island Café, a hearty salmon B.L.T. and she crab soup is the star at lunch, along with fresh spinach salads with seared tuna and housemade dressing.
Beach: Front Beach is a wide stretch of shore that residents frequent with dogs (on a leash). The island has six continuous miles of beach, which is unrestricted and free to the public. (And the water is Caribbean warm throughout most of the year.)
Activities: At beachside County Park, where many gather for picnics, you can tap in to a beach volleyball match. A Saltwater Tour with Nature Adventures takes kayakers through the Intracoastal near playful dolphins and manatees.
Why We Love It ...
1. The View: From the rooftop bar at The Boathouse at Breach Inlet, you'll see scenic Sullivan's Island; the surrounding waters are known for jumping dolphins, shrimping boats, and brown pelicans diving for their dinner.
2. The Boating: You'll find vessels of all kinds in the slips at the crowded marina. Sunset cruising and island-hopping adventures are year-round activities for residents. "It's easy to get to Dewees Island, Goat Island, or Capers Island to spend the day on the beach," says Bishop.
3. The Fishing: Charter fishing is king in the waters surrounding the island, where mackerel, trout, redfish, spotted bass, and even shark become the prize catches for anglers aboard Capt. Peter Brown's Saltwater Charters boats.
4. The Conservation: In 2002, Isle of Palms became the first city in South Carolina to garner Blue Wave designation, environmental certification for clean beaches. And the city's "turtle team" monitors and protects local sea turtle nests (40 nests per year on average) as well as the adorable hatchlings.