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The Insiders’ Guide to Folly: Find beach bliss at the Edge of America this summer with advice on where to eat, drink, play, and explore from three local experts

The Insiders’ Guide to Folly: Find beach bliss at the Edge of America this summer with advice on where to eat, drink, play, and explore from three local experts
June 2022
PHOTOGRAPHER: 

Discover this scenic, funky slice of the coast through an island artist, pro surfer, and chef





As temperatures climb, landlocked beach lovers flock to Folly, the “Edge of America” outpost that packs in more characters, adventures, and sights than its six miles of beaches should be able to withstand. “It almost can’t hold any more,” warns local artist Chris Kemp. But in true Folly fashion, the town goes with the flow.

With bars, restaurants, and shops back busier than ever after years of pandemic shutdowns, it helps to have a plan when heading to this scenic, funky slice of the coast. So we asked three island insiders—Kemp, pro surfer and Shaka Surf School founder Jenny Brown, and Jack of Cups executive chef-owner Lesley Carroll—to share their picks for the best of Folly Beach eats, drinks, outings, and hidden gems.

We also offer a glimpse into their worlds, as it’s the people who set this barrier island community apart from other coastal enclaves dotting the Eastern Seaboard. “Folly is filled with musicians and artists, skaters and surfers,” says Brown. “It feels like a boho, eclectic melting pot of dreamers.”

Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve on the east side of the island offers views of the historic Morris Island Lighthouse and the full moon.

Explore

Many in that melting pot of dreamers can be found riding the waves at The Washout, the stretch of East Ashley Avenue flanked by the beach on one side and the marshes on the other. With no houses blocking the wind—only the road, with metered parking, separates the two—the waves are said to be among the best on the coast. The beach at Sixth Street East, where Shaka Surf School (shakasurfschool.com) operates, is another popular spot. For the uninitiated, Brown offers surf camps from June through August. Children need to be comfortable swimming to begin lessons—usually around age seven. “They’re micro. They get in, and they’re like toy boats,” she says, whistling while moving her hand sideways. If they’re not ready, she recommends lots of boogie board practice before starting lessons. But, she adds, there’s no age limit. “We have 45-year-old women come all the time,” she says. “Surfing is a solo, soulful art, where you can do your thing and have a blast and bond with the ocean.”

While there are plenty of adventures on the island, Folly’s true spoils are in its natural resources. Topping our insiders’ lists is the often-secluded beach fronting the historic Morris Island Lighthouse (1750 E. Ashley Ave., ccprc.com). Park at the far east side of the island, then walk along a graffitied path to the scenic cove dotted with driftwood.

Kemp and his wife, Julie, went there on one of their first dates. A group from Revelry Brewing, where he designs cans and merchandise, foraged ingredients such as juniper, sea bean, and red bay leaf for Revelry’s Strange Islands beer. Brown likes to gather there with women friends to perform rituals before the full moon, which “comes up larger than life,” she says. “I feel like we’ve lost rituals. For centuries, people have connected with the earth and the environment. People wonder why they’re depressed and need drugs. They don’t plug in.”

On the opposite end of the island is the Folly Beach County Park (1100 W. Ashley Ave., ccprc.com). Its Dunes House has picnic tables, a snack bar, showers, and a sprawling deck with exquisite views of both the Atlantic and the Stono River. The park is an ideal base for a beach stroll, offering views of Skimmer Flats bird-watching area and Bird Key sanctuary, home to species including brown pelicans, royal terns, and snowy egrets.

Folly is also home to endangered loggerhead sea turtles, whose hatchlings face a variety of risks, including human interference, animal predators, or disorientation from artificial lights. Folly Beach Turtle Watch Program (facebook.com/follyturtles) leads morning walks to check on nests and educate participants about the plight of the ancient creatures. That’s how Brown learned that females travel thousands of miles to the spot where they were hatched to lay their own eggs. “They come back to that same stretch of land on Folly Beach,” she says. “Is that not phenomenal?!”

The perfect way to capture the post-surf, -swim, and -exploration Zen of Folly is with a massage by Jenifer Mahanes at Sacred Body Massage & Healing Arts (213 E. Ashley Ave., sacredbodymassage.org). “I would go to her right now if I could,” Brown says. “I love, love, love massage.”

Every day is a party on Folly, but the Fourth of July Festival’s beachside fireworks is next-level fun. There are festivities throughout the year (visitfolly.com), from the inaugural Mermaids and Mateys event in September to the New Year’s Eve Flip-Flop and Giant Meatball drops—Folly has two countdowns!—as well as the Bill Murray Look-A-Like Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day.

(Left to right) Brunch at Lost Dog Cafe is a must; Chico Feo’s tacos, tree canopy, and laid-back island vibe draw a steady stream of regulars and visitors; The sunsets, as well as the fried seafood and oysters, at Bowens Island are the stuff of legends. Allow plenty of time, or you’ll be watching the sun go down while in line for a table.

Eat & Drink

With a large garden and a fisherman husband, Brown often eats at home, but her first choice for eating out is Jack of Cups Saloon (34 Center St., jackofcupssaloon.net). She appreciates the rich plant-based options from Carroll, who is a vegetarian. Brown is partial to the spicy Thai noodle bowl and veggie burgers. “Lesley’s a really creative chef and changes the menu every couple months,” adds Kemp. Current dishes include Cap’n Crunch deviled eggs and boiled peanut ravioli. “It’s an eclectic menu, but you can always take a shot in the dark and know it’s going to be good.” 

Post-surf, Kemp and his friends usually wind up at Chico Feo (122 E. Ashley Ave., chicofeos.com), where he loves the ramen bowls. “It’s no frills. It reminds me of being in Costa Rica,” he says. “And they always have good live music there.” When Carroll and her partner, Nick Della Penna, aren’t running their own kitchen, they go there for tacos, goat curry, and relaxation. “It’s outdoors, but you have the canopy of trees around you,” she says. 

Lowlife Bar (106 E. Hudson Ave., lowlifebar.com) serves “upscale bar food with a cool vibe,” says Kemp, who recommends the shrimp roll, chicken sandwich, and burger. Carroll compliments the vegetarian options—salads, falafel burgers, avocado toast—and the great cocktail list and local beers. It’s a family-friendly spot with a kids menu and daily brunch, but it’s also open late nights for grown-up fun. “Everyone can find something,” she says. Even dogs are allowed in the outdoor bar.

Lost Dog Cafe (106 W. Huron Ave., lostdogfollybeach.com) is the island’s go-to breakfast spot, where Brown craves the huevos rancheros. Kemp, who commemorated Lost Dog’s 20th anniversary with an illustration on the April cover of The Folly Current, also gets takeout lunch there: the turkey wrap “unleashed,” with sun dried tomatoes, pesto, and mozzarella. “It’s a landmark,” says Brown, who notes that Lost Dog supports the free surf camp she runs for kids with cancer.  

Carroll likes to stop for sandwiches at The Drop-In Bar & Deli (32-B Center St., dropindeli.com): “It’s a great food-and-bev late-night spot,” she adds. When Kemp’s in the mood for a “bar bar,” he heads to Sand Dollar Social Club (7 Center St.). “I always meet a character in there,” he says. 

Dine with a View

  • BLU Beach Bar & Grill (1 Center St., blu-follybeach.com) for beachfront dining. “You’re literally right there,” says Carroll, who recommends appetizers and drinks by its tiki bar.
  • Bowens Island (1870 Bowens Island Rd., bowensisland.com) is the quintessential Charleston spot for sunset views. The lines can get long, warns Carroll, but the sunsets are “stunning.”
  • Crosby’s Fish & Shrimp Co. (2223 Folly Rd., crosbysfishshrimp.com) has a food truck on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Take seafood tacos, burritos, and other prepared dishes to the dock and watch the dolphins.
  • Pier 101 (101 E. Arctic Ave., pier101folly.com) reopened in March after closing for two years while the Folly Pier is being rebuilt. Carroll checked it out and enjoyed the ricotta salad and fried bananas.

(Left to right) A trip to Folly isn’t complete without a stop at Bert’s Market; Every Wednesday from 5 to 9 p.m. local artisans descend upon the parking lot of The Washout restaurant to sell their wares, such as handmade soaps, jewelry, and paintings.

Shop

McKevlin’s Surf Shop (8 Center St., mckevlins.com)—which opened in 1965 in a storage room at the Folly Bowling Center, where Rita’s Seaside Grille (2 Center St., ritasseasidegrille.com) now stands—is one of the oldest surf shops in the country and the heart of the Folly surf community. In fact, it was owner Tim McKevlin who led the charge against efforts to ban surfing at The Washout in the ’90s just as his grandfather Dennis McKevlin fought an island-wide ban two decades earlier. As a professional surfer, it’s only natural that Brown is a regular at McKevlin’s and Ocean Surf Shop (31 Center St., oceansurfshop.com). In addition to bikinis, hats, and other staples, she buys her sunscreen from them because they only sell reef-safe products. “How many people are getting in the ocean right this minute all over the world with crappy sunscreen that’s crushing our coral reef?” she wonders. 

Brown also heads to Bert’s Market (202 E. Ashley Ave., bertsmarket.com) for sunscreen, as well as to-go veggie wraps, kombucha, and coconut waters. The corner store, which has been open 24/7/365 since its debut in 1993, describes itself as “the rockingest grocery in town.” It stocks everything from fishing gear and its “Wall of Wine” to guitar strings, organic groceries, and 75-cent hot dogs. Fans of the institution—and there are legions—can even pick up a Bert’s T-shirt designed by Kemp. “My child begs on her hands and knees, ‘Can we please go to Bert’s?’” Brown says. “I bribe her with it all the time: ‘We’ll go to Bert’s, if you do this....’”

Behind the counter at Mr. John’s Beach Store (20 Center St.) is a photo of a little boy and his father. That’s owner Paul Chrysostom and his dad, John, who opened the store in 1951. It carries souvenirs and shell crafts, as well as sunglasses, towels, and other beach provisions. It’s where Kemp stops in when he needs a new beach chair. “It’s a Folly staple,” says Carroll. 

She also likes Islander (36 Center St.) and its sister store, Native (23 Center St.). They each offer a large selection of souvenirs—Folly hoodies, mugs, stickers, and so on—as well as toys, floats, and other vacation essentials. 

On Wednesday from 5 to 9 p.m. in The Washout Bar & Grill parking lot, Folly Beach Art Village (41 Center St.) features artisan booths, food, drinks, and live music. “They sell tie-dyes, lotions, and homemade jewelry,” says Brown. “It’s a cool, family-friendly way to support local artists.” And while the Folly Beach Farmers Market closed during the pandemic, it reopened this year in partnership with Mosquito Beach Farmers Market (Sundays from 3 to 7 p.m., Mosquito Beach Road, off Sol Legare Road just before Folly Beach). It sells local produce and features Gullah entertainers and tribal artwork, devoting proceeds to restore Mosquito Beach, a historic Gullah-Geechee community that welcomed African Americans when Jim Crow laws kept them from other beaches.

Artist Chris Kemp is the face behind this mural at McKevlin’s Surf Shop and the cover art for each issue of The Folly Current (inset). The April issue celebrated the 20th anniversary of Lost Dog Cafe.

Sea Kemp - Artist Chris Kemp fills Folly with color

Folly left its mark on Chris Kemp soon after he arrived in 2014. It’s where he works, surfs, and hangs out. He went on one of his first dates with his wife, Julie, near Morris Island, married her a few years later just past The Washout, then married her again the following year at Folly Beach County Park. “We had a COVID wedding, so we did it twice,” he explains.

For good measure, Kemp (artofkemp.com) has left his mark on Folly, too. His designs have graced posters, T-shirts, board shorts, and hats for McKevlin’s Surf Shop, Chico Feo café, Bert’s Market, and Flipper Finders boat tours. That’s Kemp’s work on the giant mural on the side of McKevlin’s. And on the cigarette butt receptacles that the Surfrider Foundation placed at the beach accesses to reduce litter. And on each cover of The Folly Current (follycurrent.com).



He says his pieces are inspired by the sights, sounds, and “humorous people-watching” around the beach town. Working at McKevlin’s has given him plenty of inspiration. “You’ll see all kinds of characters coming through,” he says. That’s where, after arriving here from the Outer Banks, he landed his first job, starting as a clerk, then as the in-house artist. “I moved here because there was more work,” says Kemp, who grew up outside Baltimore. “I came down here and was like, ‘Hey, does anyone need T-shirt designs?”

There were more than a few takers. In addition to his gig at McKevlin’s, he began creating merchandise for Chico Feo and lived above the restaurant for a year. Owner Hank Weed officiated his second wedding in October 2021, one year after their immediate family–only ceremony.

“There are so many good people here,” he says. “It’s easy to walk around and see all your friends,” pointing to the sunflower surfer mural on the side of Mr. John’s, which was designed by another Folly surfer and artist, Kate Barattini (rabbitholemediums.com). “There are so many creatives on and around the island.”

Personal Recs: Sunset Cay Ship Store (66 W. 9th St. Ext., facebook.com/sunsetcayshipstore), where Kemp and his friends buy small liquor bottles, then watch the sun go down from the marina. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s there,” he says.•Beach scavenging for “anything that’s washed up,” then taking it home, painting it, “and turning it into something else,” he says. “It’s a free canvas.”•Bike rides along East Ashley Avenue to the Morris Island Lighthouse; visitors can rent bikes at one of the many outlets, such as newcomer Cruz E-Bike Rentals (cruzebikerentals.com).

Jenny Brown can be found leading wave riders from her Shaka Surf School at Sixth Street East.

Jenny From the Block - Pro surfer Jenny Brown rides the Folly wave

From her usual spot on Sixth Street East, Jenny Brown scans the horizon. Her gold bar necklace, a surf competition trophy etched with “Wahine,” Hawaiian for “female surfer,” gleams in the morning sun. “There’s a storm coming,” she says. “You see how much white water’s in here?”

Brown, an all-star pro surfer with the Eastern Surf Association, grew up in Garden City and has surfed Folly her whole life. She and her husband, Chris, “sailed into Charleston 23 years ago and never sailed away.” They lived on the boat for seven years, the last three with their daughter, Grace. Brown taught yoga, worked at coffee shops, even ran a commercial fishing boat with Chris, before opening Shaka Surf School 19 years ago with a friend, who eventually moved back to Argentina.

These days, surf lessons at Shaka are a rite of passage for local children and visitors. Brown, who has raised two of her own wahines—20-year-old Grace, second-in-command at Shaka, and “sweet Georgia Brown,” who’s “every bit of 13” and a champion surfer in her own right—takes her role as steward of the surf seriously.

“Kids are so in the moment,” she beams. “They’re stoked all the time. They’re like, ‘Yeah!’ even when the waves are, like, yay big,” her hand hovering inches above the sand. “That makes surfing fun. It makes everybody appreciate nature and the ocean and the birds and the dolphins and just where we are. You’re just in the here and now. There’s nothing else.”

Two surfers slipping into their wet suits stop to say, “hi.” As they race toward the water, Brown says it’s that community that has anchored her to Folly for 23 years and counting. “There’s a big booming bunch of surfers here who support each other and have a rowdy time,” she says. “I’m the rowdiest, probably. And I love that—that I can be myself.”

Personal Recs: Yoga on the beach with Serenity Tree Yoga (serenitytreeyoga.com). Hunting for shark teeth: “You’ve got to have a good eye for it.” Brown’s had plenty of practice, as her mom started her when she was a wee one. Pro tip: They’re often black, shiny, and triangular and are most plentiful near the pier after storms or high tides. Vedic astrology readings with Corey Dowds (eyeoftheveda.com). “We’re not writing the holy grail and giving our firstborn child,” she says. “It’s just an overview, and you ask, ‘What can I take from this?’ Why is that so woo-woo?”

Top Tours

Brown has surfed in locales around the world, but she’s never seen more dolphins than she does at Folly. A great way to spot them is by taking a tour. Absolute Reel Screamer Charters (97 Center St., follybeachcharters.com) specializes in private, dog-friendly, dolphin-watch boat tours. “How can you not be like, ‘Oh, my god! There’s a dolphin!’” Brown says. “It’s magic!” Tideline Tours (66 W. 9th St., tidelinetours.com) leads kayaking expeditions, sunset and sunrise cruises, culinary tours, shark teeth and fossil searches, and sailing charters on a 43-foot catamaran. It also has educational programs covering topics such as marine mammals and sailing. Flipper Finders (83 Center St., flipperfinders.com), with merchandise featuring Kemp’s artwork, offers kayak tours and rentals, while its sister company, Charleston SUP Safaris (charlestonsupsafaris.com), leads stand-up paddleboard tours, as well as yoga and fitness instruction, camps, and private lessons. Kemp doesn’t have the eye for shark teeth like Brown does, but he plans to use a gift certificate he has for Chuck Gainey’s Island Cove Charters (island-cove-charters.business.site), which leads shark teeth tours and fossil searches. 

Jack of Cups executive chef-owner Lesley Carroll puts her unique spin on dishes such as her rich curries and one-of-a-kind offerings like Lil’ Bao Wows, steam buns with fried tofu, gochujang caramel, fresh herbs, sesame seeds, and sprinkles.

Kitchen Creative - Lesley Carroll feeds Folly’s funky appetite

Those who have tasted the curry mac and cheese at Jack of Cups Saloon will have a hard time reconciling the fact that owner and executive chef Lesley Carroll has no formal culinary training. Her education consisted of watching videos, reading cookbooks, and absorbing as much as she could while working front-of-house jobs around town.

In fact, Carroll couldn’t land a kitchen job when she arrived here in 1999, which makes Jack of Cups’ success all the more extraordinary. “I feel like it helped me to break the rules a bit,” Carroll says. “You don’t feel held inside of this box because you don’t really know what the box is supposed to look like.”

She and her work and life partner, Nick Della Penna, found inspiration when they landed the space on Center Street in 2014. Chico Feo and the now-shuttered ’Wich Doctor were proof that the little beach town had a flavor for global cuisine. “They really paved the way for us,” Carroll says.

Like their neighbors, she started experimenting with internationally inspired dishes in her tiny kitchen while Della Penna built the booths, bar, and ever-expanding outdoor patio. They had begun curry nights at Tin Roof in West Ashley before opening Jack of Cups, and a friend’s dad was so impressed that he offered to teach them how to cook dishes from his homeland of Bangladesh. “That opened my eyes to a world that is so big you’ll never get to go to all these places, but you can try to bring them into your kitchen and share them with other people—as long as you do your research and honor the ingredients,” she says.

With only a one-year lease at the start, the Riverland Terrace residents were intimidated about being outsiders on an island that felt insular. “But we didn’t need to worry,” Carroll says. “All you have to do is have a Folly sensibility of just being kind to people.”

During the pandemic, they ran a pop-up out of Paddock & Whisky near their home, but when they reopened on Center Street, they were “crazy busy. “ She credits the Folly community. “I don’t know if we would have made it without them. Folly’s a special town that will be in our hearts forever.”

Personal Recs: Bounty Bar (15 Center St., @thebountybar), Royal American’s sister bar that opened in April, has filled the late-night, live-music void left when Surf Bar closed last summer, Carroll says. “We’re all very excited about it.” Center Street Coffee (18 Center St., palmsapparel.com/csc) is a morning stop for most islanders. “We definitely rely on Center Street Coffee for all of our caffeination needs,” says Carroll. “There’s a line out the door, because the coffee’s nice and strong.”

Play Nice - Despite its laid-back rep, Folly has plenty of rules for beachgoers visitfolly.com

Here are a few tips to keep the peace

  • Keep dogs off the beach between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. until September 30 and on-leash at all times.
  • Park with all tires off the asphalt to avoid tickets.
  • Plastic bags, Styrofoam, balloons, glass, cigarettes, and alcohol are prohibited on the beach. 
  • If traffic’s bad, park at the south end of James Island and bike to Folly. 
  • Stay off the fragile sand dunes.
  • Lights out between 10 p.m. and dawn to avoid confusing Folly’s endangered sea turtle hatchlings that are heading back to sea. Also fill in any holes in the sand so they don’t fall in.
Resources: 

Photographs by Chris Rogers; (Street) Amanda Bouknight; (aerial) Justin Morris; illustration courtesy of Chris Kemp; courtesy of Charleston County Parks & Recreation; Justin Morris; Michael Barnett, @themilkywaychaser; Chuck Gainey; Aleece Sophia; Melinda Smith Monk