You’ve already been charmed by Charleston, maybe even made the trip to some of South Carolina’s best small towns like Bluffton, Georgetown and Mount Pleasant. But there’s a lot more awesomeness waiting to be discovered in the Palmetto State…or, shall we say, just off the coast. South Carolina has some really incredible isles that are perfect for vacation, whether you’re intrigued by pirate lore, love exploring salt marshes, fancy a birdwatching holiday or just need a stress-free escape where wild horses run free. Here, the best South Carolina islands and where to stay on each one.
The 12 Best South Carolina Islands to Visit
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- Why We Love It: natural beauty, outdoor activities, water activities, shopping, upscale amenities
- Where to Stay: Rustic Anchor Condo, Seaside Villa 378, Marriott's Harbour Point and Sunset Pointe at Shelter Cove
One of South Carolina’s most popular tourist destinations for a plethora of reasons, Hilton Head Island offers an incredible mix of natural wonder, upscale delights and outdoor activities. You can book whale watching and dolphin spotting boat charters, hit the links, go cycling, hiking and kayaking, play tennis and polo, do some shopping, snap pics in front of the red-and-white-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse and, of course, catch some rays on the beach.
- Why We Love It: scenic, quiet, small town vibes, marine life viewing
- Where to Stay: The Little Red Guesthouse, Deluxe Oceanfront Sycamore Cottage, Avenue of Oaks Cottage
No doubt you’ve heard of Hilton Head Island and Savannah in the neighboring state of Georgia. Sitting just off the coast between these well-known vacation destinations is a tiny hidden gem called Daufuskie Island with a population of just 500 residents. There aren’t hotels or big-name attractions. Instead, it's a place of peace, quiet and magical natural wonders—bottlenose dolphins bob in the waters and loggerhead turtles nest on the shore.
- Why We Love It: luxury amenities, private beach, golf, outdoor activities
- Where to Stay: Charleston Kiawah Island/Andell Inn, Beachfront Home, Luxury Cypress Point Home
In terms of true vacation destinations, Kiawah Island is a hole-in-one. It has a huge gated luxury beach and golf resort with loads of swish accommodation and amenities like world-class fairways. You don’t need to be a guest to explore the island, which is open to the public. Daytrippers from Charleston often drive over to enjoy the sandy beaches, hiking and biking trails, tours at Heron Park Nature Center and Marsh Island Park.
- Why We Love It: natural beauty, undeveloped, wildlife viewing, kayak tours
- Where to Stay: The Tidewatch, Oceanfront High-End Remodel, Sea Shell Lane
A pretty, undeveloped barrier island oasis, Capers Island is the perfect spot for a family vacation. Beaches, maritime uplands and salt marshes provide the perfect backdrop for outdoor adventure. It’s excellent for birdwatching and wildlife peeping. Be sure to bring your camera to the eye-catching “boneyard beach” where old tree stumps dot the sandy expanse. Bonus: accessibility from Charleston means no long travel days with the kiddos.
- Why We Love It: birdwatching, natural beauty, undeveloped, protected beaches
- Where to Stay: Luxe Tropical Resort Escape, Quaint Beach Cottage, Dolphin Point Townhouse
By now you’ve likely gathered that birding is a big deal in South Carolina. Deveaux Bank, a horseshoe-shaped spit of sand at the mouth of the North Edisto River estuary, takes it to the next level as the island actually encompasses a 215-acre sanctuary that’s a protected nesting habitat for many sea and shorebirds. If you’re keen to see eastern brown pelicans and black skimmers, hightail it over to Deveaux Bank.
- Why We Love It: close to downtown Charleston, birdwatching, golf, private beaches, natural beauty
- Where to Stay: Renovated Seabrook Island Cottage, Spectacular Seabrook Island Villa, Oceanfront Townhome
Seabrook Island is a downright dreamy place to live or visit. A lot of people choose to reside in this private, oceanfront community. That’s because it’s pretty as a picture with natural beauty galore, nationally recognized birdwatching, two award-winning golf courses, near-empty beaches, a racquet club, an equestrian center and stunning houses we’d happily call home. And the fact that it’s just a few miles from downtown Charleston yet retains a sense of seclusion definitely helps, too.
- Why We Love It: natural beauty, undeveloped, birdwatching, wildlife viewing, outdoor activities
- Where to Stay: The Creek House, Oceanfront Townhouse, Litchfield By the Sea Condo
A nature lover’s dream, Bear Island feels rugged and remote despite sitting just an hour outside Charleston. This undeveloped and pristinely beautiful 12,021-acre Sea Island is part of the ACE Basin estuarine reserve area and managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. That translates to ample opportunities for bird watching (it’s among the top-ranked spots for twitchers in the entire state) and wildlife viewing, fishing, hiking and biking.
- Why We Love It: family-friendly, laidback vibes, beaches, outdoor activities
- Where to Stay: The Bird’s Nest, Sunset Repeat Condo, Tito’s On Deck
For a fantastic family-friendly holiday, consider Edisto Island. A laid-back Lowcountry Sea Island not far from Charleston (some people even call it home and commute into the Holy City, just to give you a sense of proximity) that’s approximately 68 square miles and has loads of low-key appeal in the form of sandy beaches and outdoor activities for all ages, including hiking and camping in Edisto Beach State Park.
- Why We Love It: resort vibes, golf, tennis, wildlife viewing
- Where to Stay: The Surf Shack, Frippin’ Out Condo, FrippinFun House
Fripp Island doesn’t scream "Shiver me timbers" in that really obvious sort of way. But its treasure hunting past is really interesting and the legends live on. Though, these days, the most seaward of the barrier islands feels a lot less pirate and more residential vacation resort with sandy beaches, tennis courts and golf courses. It’s also a designated wildlife sanctuary. Visitors and residents frequently see great blue herons, wood storks and dolphins.
- Why We Love It: scenic beaches, boat tours, birdwatching, good eats
- Where to Stay: The Sea Islander, Port Royal Landing, Anchorage 1770 Inn
If you’ve spent some time in South Carolina or are generally familiar with the Palmetto State, Beaufort probably rings a bell. Port Royal Island is the island where the aforementioned seaside city resides. There are beautiful beaches, scenic walking trails, boat tours and tons of opportunities for birdwatching. It's also a popular pick for foodies, specifically seafood lovers who come from far and wide to sample fresh-caught Lowcountry fare.
- Why We Love It: scenic, natural beauty, golf, private community
- Where to Stay: Callawassie Island Home, Home in Okatie, Luxury Golf Course Home
Callawassie Island may be one of the hundreds of barrier and sea islands, but this 880-acre private slice of paradise just 17 miles from Beaufort sets itself apart from the rest with its coastline, tidal creeks, lagoons, salt marshes and moss-draped trees. There’s also a butterfly garden and a golf course. Callawassie Island is accessible via the half-mile-long causeway that connects it to the mainland as well as by boat.
- Why We Love It: scenic, natural beauty, water activities, dining
- Where to Stay: Captain’s Quarters Cottage, Waterfront Home on Stono River, Sailor’s Rest Apartment
Sure, bigger isn’t always better. But, then again, sometimes size ups the appeals of a place. Sprawling 738 acres, Johns Island, the largest island in South Carolina and famously a filming location for The Notebook is enchantingly beautiful with miles of wooded trails, farms and lakes. Back to the whole size thing…its most famous feature, the massive ancient Angel Oak stands a whopping 65-feet tall and shades an area of 17,000 square feet.