A few years ago, when our youngest was about a year and a half and our oldest was two and a half, my husband Jeff and I did what most other young families do when the flowers start to bloom and we get that first nice spring day – we start thinking ahead to summer time.
“Where we will vacation this summer?”
The previous year, we did what 99% of our Baltimore friends do – we headed to Delmarva and spent a week at the beach in Ocean City, MD. We planned our requisite trip to the boardwalk, a day trip or two up to Bethany, and a stop in Rehoboth. We stayed at our friend’s bayside townhome, a gem of a place with two decks to take in the gorgeous sunsets and was two blocks south of Northside Park – a fantastic gem in north Ocean City with an incredible playground. We had a blast but wanted something different the following year. We wanted something a bit lower-key and laid back; something quieter and at a slower pace. We explored the Delaware shore options, but my husband, an avid golfer, wanted on-resort golf options. I wanted a child-friendly resort with wide sandy beaches and plenty of accessibility. I also wanted a resort with safe, walkable options and a decidedly family feel without seeing a Sunsations every two blocks or having to cross a busy highway to get to restaurants, ice cream shops, or attractions.
Enter Wild Dunes, on the Isle of Palms. The Isle of Palms is a barrier island off the coast of Charleston, SC. The narrow island, about a mile wide, is about six miles long and is a 20-25 drive from Charleston and is bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway to the west and the Atlantic on the east. Wild Dunes is an ocean-front, gated resort on the north end of the island offering two golf courses and one with several holes along the ocean. So we conducted massive research on condos vs single family homes; compared ocean front locations to golf and tennis side villas. Then of course Wild Dunes had its own Boardwalk Inn, a charming ocean front modern hotel. After an extensive search we decided on the Lagoon Villas, a condo two blocks from the 17-court Tennis Center and the Wild Dunes Grand Pavilion – a beach front promenade with open air bar, restaurant, and extensive decks and ocean front pools. The grounds had miles of bike paths and the speed limit is 20 mph throughout. We did our first trip in 2012 and fell in love with the resort, neighboring Charleston, and overall the southern charm of the whole region. We knew instantly this was a place we would long to return to and vacation annually.
Fast forward to Polar Vortex winter of 2014. I had started to vacation plan very early in 2014 thanks to an endless winter and booked our same condo in February. If winter wouldn’t end, surely I would dream of summer and start planning for it. My littles were less little and I was thrilled to plan our first stroller-less (!) vacation that would include four bikes. I visited the website regularly and started….gulp….thinking about picking up my tennis racquet again. I hadn’t played since having back to back babies in 2009 and 2010 and wanted to introduce my children to the game as well. Not to mention my almost 5 yr old would be able to golf at least a few holes with my husband.
As the May came to an end, I had hit the mother load and secured a babysitter from home who was attending college at the College of Charleston. Turns out, she was staying in Charleston over the summer and would indeed be able to come out to the resort to babysit allowing us to have a well-deserved date night during our vacation. Cue the new worlds most important question:
“Where should we eat in Charleston?”
FIG vs. Husk vs. Cru Café vs. SNOB vs. The Ordinary vs. The Grocery. The list is nearly endless. I wanted to try them all. How would I ever decide? Thanks to my in-the-know foodie friends, we decided on FIG and I promptly made reservations.
June came and went in a flash and it was time to pack. I once again got on the Wild Dunes website and discovered that at 8am every day they offered a Tiny Tots Tennis clinic for 4-7 yr olds where the littles could start their intro to tennis. Done and done.
Since we were staying in a condo with a fully equipped kitchen, and we’re the type who does breakfast at our condo and mostly beach or poolside lunches, I pre-ordered my groceries the day before our trip using Harris Teeter Express Lane from the closest HT to the Isle of Palms. I was even able to include beer and wine in our order….so one less stop to make. Oh how I love the south.
Wild Dunes, and to a larger extent, the whole Charleston/Mt. Pleasant area is a friendly, gorgeous area with a ton to do – lovely, safe (read: toddler friendly) beaches, rich history, beautiful architecture, and amazing food.
Within the gated resort, where golf carts and bikes outnumber cars, you can walk pretty much anywhere and beaches are easily accessible. Most beach paths include showers for getting the sand off of feet and beach toys/chairs. The beachfront on IOP is extremely safe for littles – the waves break very far away from the shore and they roll in gently. I don’t recall either of my kids being knocked over at any point by a wave. The beaches are also very wide and since the community is gated, extremely roomy. I don’t have that anxiety that I do on crowded beaches if I lose sight of my child playing in the sand. Also, there is something wonderful about seeing and being on a beach so wide that bikes and joggers pass by at all hours of the day with plenty of room to spare. In addition, all of condo communities within the resort (there are multiple small ‘complexes’) have their own pools and Wild Dunes itself has two ocean front pools, an aquatic center for lap swimming, and a new pool called Palm Cove with a gradual entry.
(cool) tip: if you go to Wild Dunes with toddlers or littles and are not staying in an ocean front complex, do yourself a favor and stay close to the Grand Pavilion beachfront in case you need to make a mad dash for the rest room.
Wild Dunes Resort Activities
In Wild Dunes, most of the action is either on the golf courses (there are two – the Harbor Course and the Links course on the Ocean) or at the Tennis Center. The tennis center features 17 courts with instructions for all levels and USTA sanctioned courses. Several are lit for night play and starting at 7am the courts were always buzzing with activity. Most are har-tru courts with one hard court. The area around the tennis center has a playground and basketball court. Our littles participated in the Tiny Tots Tennis camp every day from 8-8:45am. The instruction was appropriate for their age group and the drills and games kept their attention and were engaging. They took water breaks as needed and the kids – well mine anyway – loved it. After the first lesson they kept asking to play on the short court.
The other action is mostly around the Grand Pavilion area. The GP is the main drag at Wild Dunes and includes several restaurants, a market, an on-site spa, a fitness center, and amphitheater where they showed nightly family movies (free), an ice cream shop, a surf shop, and a beachfront open restaurant, bar and nightly music. It was a two block walk from our condo and the grounds are lovely. There are plenty of ponds on the walk to the GP, and you are well informed of the presence of the resident alligator(s). The kids loved the pond turtles, too.
The Charleston area has incredible food. INCREDIBLE. I won’t even begin to go into how amazing the food is, but suffice to say the whole region is really a food lover’s paradise. But I won’t pretend that my kids have refined palates (ha), so with the exception of FIG, our restaurant choices had to include something that our kids would actually eat. We did venture off the resort for dinners and sightseeing. Our dinner locations included:
- Morgan Creek Grill. This little gem is located near the Isle of Palms Marina and most seating was outside on the two level decks (with inside options if the weather wasn’t agreeable). Views were lovely, of Goat Island and the Intracoastal and west-facing, so you were able to see the sunset. Bonus point – an outdoor bar area at ground level with cornhole. The shrimp and grits are very good here and plenty of boat watching.
- Red’s Ice House. Located on Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant, this is a casual, fun place where the kids LOVE watching the SUP’s and the numerous dolphins and manatees. The grouper sandwich is divine. The vibe is beach shack great food, live music and much to see. Overall, Red’s was my kid’s #1 favorite place to eat the entire week. I think the dolphins had a lot to do with this 😉
- FIG. (Date night!) We labored long around where to eat when we secured a sitter. It came down to FIG. We made reservations about a month in advance and were able to score an 8:30 spot. This left us with plenty of time for pre-dinner cocktails at the Market Pavilion rooftop bar. The bar provided sweeping views of the Cooper River bridge and the historic Charleston market. The breeze was spectacular. The lobby was gorgeous too. As for FIG, it completely lived up to the hype – from the suggested gnocchi and bolognese appetizer, to Jeff’s pork schnitzel (perfection) to my outstanding grouper with romesco and vegetables. And the sticky sorghum cake was gone in a hot second. Service exceptional. We followed dinner with a carriage tour of downtown Charleston and the Battery and stopped for pralines for the kids at Kilwin’s on Market Street.
- Poe’s Tavern. We discovered Poe’s on Sullivan’s Island in 2012 and had to return. Sullivans’ Island is a hop skip and a jump from both IOP to the north and Mt. Pleasant to the west. About three total square miles, it was the sight of a major battle of the Revolutionary war at Fort Moultrie. It is extremely laid back and non-commercial and has about four restaurants including Poe’s. Poe’s is – you guessed it – beachy and laid back and known for amazing burgers and fish tacos. The Annabel Lee was chosen recently as SC’s best burger in the Business Insider’s list of best burger in every state. Seating is first come first served and the porch is always our pick.
- Water’s Edge. Back to Shem Creek for our final supper . Located opposite of Red’s Ice House and a wee bit fancier. The kids like it here (*cough cough* Shem Creek dolphins) and we love the Shrimp & Grits and Grouper.
Off the reservation activities.
Despite my infatuation with the activities on the resort itself, there is so much to do elsewhere around the Charleston area. After three days of beach and pool, we headed to the Splash Zone on Daniel Island. Splash Zone is one of the three water parks run by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission featuring 2 200-ft slides, a Caribbean play structure with slides, wheels and sprays, a 500-ft lazy river and another leisure pool. Best of all, it was clean, safe (I have never seen so many well patrolling lifeguards) and was reasonable – $12 per adult, $9 for kids under 48” and free for kids 2 and under. The kids had a blast and the slides were the perfect size for my littles and really the under 8 yr old crowd. Nearby Whirlin’ Waters in North Charleston and Splash Island in Mt. Pleasant were larger and had even more waterpark fun.
On our one rainy day, we ventured into Charleston for a trip to the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. Located on the Meeting Street “Museum Mile”, the children’s museum is perfect for taking a breather from the walking around that you will surely be doing through the historic district. There is an enormous art room, a medieval “castle” for pretending, puppets and dress up. There’s a water room (plastic aprons provided), a grocery store, a fishing boat replica and many other stations for kids to play. There are always lots of kids at the museum, so your child will basically have instant friends to hang out with. The staff is super friendly and helpful, making this stop a must, especially if you have kids under ten.
Celebrating our Nation’s Birthday
As we do most years, our vacation is either during fourth of July or right after it – there are many options around the IOP/Charleston area for viewing the fireworks. We seriously considered Patriots Point / the USS Yorktown for the fireworks, but thanks to my daughter’s very late nap, a 6pm arrival to board the USS Yorktown wasn’t in the cards. So we ventured down on foot two blocks to the Wild Dunes Grand Pavilion to watch the fireworks on the beach. It was pure southern fun, with the DJ spinning authentic Carolina Shag tunes before the band started live music. World Cup fever inspired kid from the resort to playing a game of pick up soccer before the firework show. The whole Wild Dunes 4th of July festivities are really a slice of Americana, Carolina-coast style.
If you have any thoughts of venturing somewhere that offers a little bit for everyone – a safe beach for littles, southern hospitality that is second to none, golf and tennis for both bigs and littles, biking, amazing cuisine, a historic and charming city with gorgeous architecture, waterparks a hop-skip-and-a-jump away, boating and wildlife all around you, and your choice of beach communities in relative close proximity, consider the Charleston/IOP area. I dare you to find a better place to visit!