Though a large percentage of the town of Folly Beach was destroyed in Hurricane Hugo, enough of its funky charm is left to make it worth visiting. Called “The Edge of America” during its heyday from the 1930s through the ’50s as a swinging resort getaway, Folly Beach is now a slightly beat, but thoroughly enjoyable, little getaway on this barrier island.
Though as with all areas of Charleston , the cost of living here is rapidly increasing, Folly Beach still reminds locals of a time that once was, a time of soda fountains, poodle skirts, stylish one-piece bathing suits, and growling hot rods.
Folly Beach’s main claim to larger historic fame is playing host to George Gershwin, who stayed at a cottage on West Arctic Avenue to write the score to Porgy and Bess, set in downtown Charleston  across the harbor. (Ironically, Gershwin’s opera couldn’t be performed in its original setting until 1970 because of segregationist Jim Crow laws.) Original Porgy author DuBose Heyward stayed around the corner at a summer cottage on West Ashley Avenue that he dubbed “Follywood.”
Called Folly Road until it gets to the beach, Center Street is the main drag here, dividing the beach into east and west. In this area you’ll find the Folly Beach Fishing Pier (101 E. Arctic Ave., 843/588-3474, Apr.–Oct. daily 6 a.m.–11 p.m., Nov. and Mar. daily 7 a.m.–7 p.m., during winter daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m., $5 parking, $8 fishing fee), which replaced the grand old wooden pier-and-pavilion structure that tragically burned down in 1960.
Back in the day, restaurants, bars, and amusement areas with rides lined the way up to the old pavilion. As the premier musical venue in the region, the pavilion hosted legends like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. The new fishing pier, while not as grand as the old one, is worth visiting—a massive, well-built edifice jutting over 1,000 feet into the Atlantic with a large, diamond-shaped pavilion at the end. Fishing rod holders and cleaning stations line the entire thing.
Out on the “front beach,” daytime activities once included boxing matches and extralegal drag races. In the old days, the “Washout” section on the far west end was where you went to go crabbing or fly-fishing or maybe even steal a kiss from your sweetie. Today though, the Washout is known as the prime surfing area in the Carolinas, with a dedicated group of diehards.
Another attraction, humble though it is, is Folly Beach County Park (1100 West Ashley Ave., 843/588-2426, www.ccprc.com , May–Labor Day daily 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Mar.–Apr. and Sept.–Oct. daily 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Jan.–Feb. and Nov.–Dec. daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m., $7 per vehicle, free for pedestrians and cyclists) at the far west end of the island. Swim, tan, and relax, maybe under a rented beach umbrella.
At the far east end of Folly Island, about 300 yards offshore, you’ll see the Morris Island Lighthouse, an 1876 beacon that was once surrounded by lush, green landscape, now completely surrounded by water as the land has eroded around it. Now privately owned, there’s an extensive effort to save and preserve the lighthouse (www.savethelight.org ). There’s also an effort to keep high-dollar condo development off of beautiful, bird-friendly Morris Island itself (www.morrisisland.org ). To get there while there’s still something left to enjoy, take East Ashley Street until it dead-ends. Park in the lot and take a quarter-mile walk to the beach.
To get to Folly Beach from Charleston , go west on Calhoun Street and take the James Island Connector. Take a left on Folly Road/Highway 171, which becomes Center Street on into Folly Beach.