One of the first summers of my memory was spent shuttling between my grandmother's jungly backyard in Charleston and a breezy little cottage a dozen miles away at Folly Beach. The sand dunes, the amusement pier, the Dixie Cups we strung together as walkie-talkies are still warm memories.
Erosion and creeping modernity, alas, have spoiled Folly Beach, but if you want to escape steaming old Charleston in the summer, there are a number of other choices: Sullivans Island and Isle of Palms, just across the Cooper River Bridge; Seabrook and Kiawah, 15 to 20 miles south; Pawleys Island to the north, and the wilder and less accessible Bull, Dewees, and Capers Islands, homes of rare birds, alligators, and mosquitoes.
Right now, until June 7, a retreat to the Low Country shore may be a necessity. Spoleto Festival USA, opening its fifth year, is dominating Charleston, filling a two-week schedule with music, drama, dance, film, and mime and making hotel space scarce in the city.
Sullivans Island is the nearest and, for me, dearest of the neighboring islands. Beach erosion has taken a toll, but the blocks of slightly tacky summer houses with their screen porches and canopies of wisteria looked well preserved on my last visit. Some can be rented for anywhere from $200 to $950 a week through local real estate offices such as Island Realty, 1300 Ocean Boulevard, Isle of Palms, S. C. 29451.
Fort Moultrie, of local military and cultural importance, is pleasantly moldering on the near end of the island. Its National Park visitors center, a bright and upbeat exhibit across the road from the fort, tells of the poets and patriots who passed through. One was Edgar Allan Poe, who used the pseudonym E. A. Perry when he served in the late 1820s, reaching the rank of sergeant major despite a penchant for unsoldierly pranks. An ancient oak he used as the key to the short story "The Gold Bug" still spreads its gnarled arms on Sullivans Island.
Osceola, the great Seminole chief, was imprisoned at Fort Moultrie in 1838 and died before being sent to a Western reservation, indeed before the painter George Catlin arrived to paint his portrait. George C. Marshall, who was a World War II general of the army under President Roosevelt and secretary of state under President Truman, was a commanding officer at Fort Moultrie, saying on his farewell in 1933, "I am going places." From the ramparts you can see the American flag flying over Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Isle of Palms, adjoined to Sullivans Island by a narrow bridge, has a long, fine-grained sand beach, motels and cottages for rent, and on the marshy, wooded far end of the island, a rambling new resort called the Beach and Racquet Club. The club has 10 Har-Tru courts (going up to 23), a smart little restaurant serving gumbos, she-crab soup, and other Low Country dishes, and a golf course with such stunning contours and ocean views that I was almost moved to take up the game myself.
Mount Pleasant, just across the bridge from Charleston, has most of the good eating in the Sullivans-Isle of Palms area. One spot I can vouch for is The Last Catch, a pleasant little cafe wedged between a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King on Coleman Boulevard. This is a meeting of Charleston and Bombay, of catfish and curry, the chef being an East Indian named Dev. He produces an all-India night on Thursday and generally unites the local seafood bounty with his spicy sauces. Dinners run $7 to $9, rice and vegetable included.
The most active sea island in the neighborhood is Kiawah, a 20-mile drive from Charleston. Kiawah is spreading its fairways and condominiums (some say too widely) over the singing marshes and oak forests and along a gorgeous 10 -mile beach. The resort is being developed by the Kuwait Investment Company, but Arab signs are few. For fun, there are two golf courses, a well-landscaped 16-court tennis layout run by Roy Barth, jeep safaris into the tangled outback to see alligators, herons, and abandoned 18th-century plantation houses. Much of the same can be done on neighboring Seabrook Island, which also offers horseback riding on its 3 1/2-mile beach and forest trails.
Kiawah and Seabrook may look like Architectural Digest or Town & Country turf , but the genuine and somewhat eerie Low Country is all around. On an early summer evening I followed the signs to Rockville, an old river town 12 miles away on Wadmalaw Island. This is the home of the rousing Rockville Races, a summer speed-boat championship on the nearby river, but on an ordinary June night the big plantation-style houses are oddly silent behind mossy oaks. Suddenly a dog appears, yapping at my tires; I speed away, back through the moonlit fields of tomatoes, squash, corn, and cucumbers where sea island cotton once grew.
North of Charleston on the road to Pawleys Island (described in this column Aug. 5, 1980) a five-mile turnoff leads into Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, giving out finally at Moore's Landing. Six miles across the water lies Bull Island, a wild and forested refuge of the brown pelican. The Park Service ferry has stopped running, but sometimes you can hook a ride with a government or private boat. Dewees and Capers Islands are likewise remote and rewarding: no golf, no condos, no smart little restaurants, nothing. Believe it or not, they will probably stay that way.