Amid inland South Carolina's year-round bliss – in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville – the state’s shoreline particularly pops come summertime.

South of Myrtle Beach and stretching to the Georgia state line where Savannah awaits, you’ll find South Carolina's Sea Islands, a stretch of islands each with their own unique ambiance and summer flair.

Your options include the family-friendly and golf haven of Hilton Head, the historic downtown of Beaufort and more secluded options for bird-watching and fishing galore. As you finalize your Palmetto State summer itinerary, there are some key logistical must-knows to truly soak it all in. Here’s the scoop on South Carolina's Sea Islands.

First time in South Carolina? Here's everything you need to know before you go

A stretch of white-sand beach with blue sun shades and people enjoying the sunshine
Hilton Head Island is the best choice for beaches, family vacationers, and golfers © Denise Kappa / Shutterstock

Step 1: Pick a home base

Hilton Head Island

Vibes: Consider this your island destination for staying occupied yet tranquil. Hilton Head is renowned for white-sand bliss, a small-town core and big-time resorts. This is the best option for a family vacation, too, with plenty of quirky activities spanning zip-lining its marshes to an extensive go-kart track, all of which you can find at Adventure Hilton Head and other island spots.

Do: Hilton Head is a golfing destination with nearly 30 courses island-wide. Sea Pines Resort is a top pick, with three courses within its confines, including Harbour Town, which hosts the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage tournament. Otherwise, plop on a beach – Coligny Beach is fully equipped with restrooms, gazebos and benches for a seamless experience.

Stay: The Sweetgrass Inn at Hilton Head Health puts wellness front and center with daily health retreats, nutrition workshops and, for longer stays, a weight loss track, if desired. Beach House is laid-back, with an on-site tiki hut and recently renovated pool.

Eat: Hit Skull Creek Boathouse for a sunset and, within its on-site Dive Bar space, fresh sushi selections. Nectar Farm Kitchen has southern coastal fare down to an art, with sweet potato pancakes and hearty-portioned chicken and waffles.

Folly Beach

Vibes: A 20-minute drive south of Charleston, this is where residents of “the Holy City” head to unwind in the summer. The southern hospitality and general friendliness of Charleston oozes into its beachy neighbor, where locals trade in their bowties and pastel dresses for swim trunks and swimsuits. Its ocean’s edge is dotted with surf shops – like McKevlin’s and Ocean Surf Shop – with a spot known as the Washout being where veteran surfers flock for swells.

Do: For surfing newbies, take a lesson with local mainstays like Isla Surf School or Shaka Surf School, the latter of which hosts kids' summer camps and a Saturday surf and yoga class for women. Folly Beach has a unique saltwater creek and coastal marsh landscape – you can learn all about it and hunt for some shark teeth along the way with a Charleston Outdoor Adventures eco tour.

Stay: For views, each room at the Tides Folly Beach comes with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. Its on-site BLU Beach Bar & Grill has a tiki bar and one-of-a-kind vistas of the Folly Beach Pier which juts into the ocean next door. Regatta Inn is the island’s luxe bed-and-breakfast option, with a daily breakfast spread and golf cart shuttle to the beach.

Eat: Folly Beach is loaded with beach bars with fare and booze that run the full spectrum of no-frills to fancy. Lowlife Bar has a daily brunch from 10am to 3pm with a memorable Maryland-style crab cake, chicken and waffles and a pimento cheese plate. Three blocks off the beach, Jack of Cup Saloons serves up craft brews and sake with a variety of Indian and Asian-inspired dishes.

A road lined with trees that are drooping over at each side and meeting in the middle to form a green tunnel
Drive the oak-lined road down to Botany Bay on Edisto Island © Chris Moore - Exploring Light Photography / Getty Images

Edisto Island

Vibes: Approximately 50 miles southeast of Charleston, this island is dotted with beachside rentals on stilts, stately plantation abodes and stunning beaches. This is a more relaxed vibe compared to Hilton Head or Folly Beach, with plenty of quirky entertaining things to keep you occupied. An example – and not for the faint of heart – is the Edisto Island Serpentarium, with habitats for a variety of snakes, alligators and turtles.

Do: Edisto Beach State Park is arguably the hot spot for collecting shells in the state. Botany Bay is a marshy, bird-watching paradise where shorebirds, wild turkeys and egrets abound. This is a quiet spot for a sunset cruise, too, with Botany Bay Ecotours being a go-to operator.

Stay: Vacation rentals are the norm here. A conglomerate of rentals owned by Wyndham on the southwestern tip of the island offers the most options in a singular place. For golfers, there is a course – the Plantation Course – in the middle of the complex.

Eat: Cute and homegrown are the general culinary vibes on the island. McConkey’s Jungle Shack serves up wings, burgers, wild rum punch concoctions and a famed local sweet tea. Sea Cow Eatery is an intimate diner that’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (minus Monday when it closes at 2pm). Regardless of what time of day it is, keep an eye on its ever-changing homemade pie selections.

Step 2: Book your accommodations

Vacation rentals abound along South Carolina’s coast. In general, individual owners or operating entities open up summer reservations either a year in advance or six months in advance, though it may vary. VRBO, AirBnb and HomeToGo are statewide favorites for rentals. Additionally, you may want to check the state’s tourism website for additional sanctioned options as well as local chambers of commerce.

Across the board on South Carolina’s sea islands, there are options for plopping it at a resort, within a vacation home or at a bed and breakfast and making memories solely on-property. If you’re looking to keep antsy guests or kids occupied, Hilton Head boasts the most things to do. Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort is perhaps the best of all worlds – quietly tucked on the northern edge of the island, exuding a casual vibe with a water slide and within minutes of shopping at Shelter Cove Harbour.

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A shrimpboat heading out for fishing from a small wooden dock
Fishers will want to head out on a trip from Hilton Head to catch trout, grouper and flounder, among others © William Reagan / Getty Images

Step 3: Plan your days

Hilton Head is considered a fishing utopia, where spot-tailed trout, flounder, grouper and even sharks abound. Hilton Head is one of the largest breeding grounds for sharks on the East Coast and, yes, you can fish for them, too. You’ll need to charter a fishing boat – ideally with a captain, too, to make it seamless – and for that FishingBooker is trusted and up-to-date.

Beyond the islands, three city visits may be easily pinned to any South Carolina sea islands itinerary. Savannah, Georgia is within a 45-minute drive of Hilton Head Island – saunters through its brick public squares and along its boutique-filled main drag, Broughton Street, are musts. Charleston – closest to Folly Beach – is a cobblestone street wonderland, with a waterfront park overlooking Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter making for a city-meets-tranquil reprieve. Beaufort – located between Hilton Head and Edisto – is on Port Royal Island and has a historic district worthy of a day trip. Its museum selections span the quirky (check out the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory) to the reflective – the Beaufort History Museum showcases more than 500 years of history with exhibits on plantation culture, the Spanish American War and more.

Step 4: Choose the best places to eat in South Carolina’s Sea Islands

In Hilton Head, the blue crab reigns supreme – crack some at Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks, with vistas of Port Royal Sound and periodic live music. Otherwise, fresh seafood is the way to go along the coast with shrimp and grits, a lowcountry boil and seafood salad being menu norms.

The island towns are also home to some memorable mom-and-pop grocery stores with curated, South Carolina-bred items. Bert’s Market on Folly Beach has it all; stop by for pimento cheese, boiled peanuts and a visit to the deli counter. Palmetto Dunes General Store on Hilton Head Island is a haven for fresh fried chicken and soft-serve ice cream, among other grocery staples.

Step 5: Getting there

Two international airports generally serve as home bases for journeys to these parts. Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is within a 45-minute drive of Hilton Head and more remote adventures in Daufuskie Island. Charleston International Airport is within 30 minutes of Folly Beach and approximately 2 hours north of Hilton Head. Hilton Head Island Airport also offers select domestic flights.

For train travel, Amtrak has a major station in Charleston, with a smaller operation in Yemassee, South Carolina – a taxi ride from the train station to the islands is the seamless option from there.

Step 6: What to pack

Check ahead of time to see what your hotel and/or vacation rental supplies in terms of beach items – they can vary drastically. Depending on what is provided and how much you’d like to pack, it may be wise to bring a cooler, snorkeling gear, goggles, water sports gear and water floats with you. Otherwise, during the summer months, count on using sunscreen, sunglasses, sun protective clothing, sandals and – in swampy areas – insect repellant, daily. Fortunately in the home bases we’ve outlined in (Step 1), souvenir shops sell all of the aforementioned, but count on paying a premium.

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