Friday, December 14, 2018

Fall at Folly Beach

IT was almost December in Washington DC. Most of the leaves had fallen from the trees outside my office. The days were getting shorter. And there I was, busy chasing after deadlines just as I had for the last twelve months. “You need to get away,” my co-worker said in a rare moment of empathy. I knew I needed to hear the soothing waves, feel the sand under my feet again. But where to go when I had spent so much of the year traveling for work, and didn’t want to spend another six hours or more of my life flying to a tropical beach?

Charleston, arguably the heart of the genteel American south, is best known for its hospitality, colorful history, and cuisine. What doesn’t always come to mind are the many beaches and barrier islands surrounding what used to be the biggest slave port in North America, and what still is one of the biggest centers of trade in the US. Because so many friends had recommended it, Charleston, South Carolina was on my list of places to see when I had time for a quick trip. What a delight to discover that the “World’s Best City” in 2016 according to Travel + Leisure magazine also had the beaches I so desperately needed!

Determined to have my beach vacation, I booked a place on Folly Beach. The town of Folly Beach is actually a barrier island about 20 minutes away driving from downtown Charleston. It is less popular – and therefore quieter – than the other beaches, because it doesn’t have the amenities that families love, such as playgrounds and pools and bathrooms by the beach. Just a 10-kilometer- long expanse of sand, interrupted only by a fishing pier that essentially marks the island’s eastern and western sides. Bliss.

But Boracay it isn’t. Rather than the warm, relatively calm waters of the Sulu Sea, here was the Atlantic Ocean crashing full force onto the shore. Though I was down south, it was already very late in the fall, and the water was colder than the coldest rainstorm back home. The wind was chilly even in the mid-afternoon sun when I arrived. I wondered if I would regret this solo escapade of mine.

It was low tide, and the beach stretched wide in all directions as surfers made the trek into the waves. I couldn’t help it. I took off my shoes and waded into the cold water. The next day, I biked to the western point of the island where I was told the sunsets were magnificent. “It’s just an unbelievable shade of pink,” the receptionist at the inn where I was staying told me. This was on the landward side of the barrier island, where tall grasses and oysters made up the salt marshes that I first thought were calm rivers flowing into the ocean.

As I took in the view, I suddenly saw something black, glistening in the water. It disappeared, then came up again, rising and falling beneath the dark water. My breath caught in my throat. It was a dolphin! No other creature could be this graceful. It was alone, swimming very close to the grass and the mud, probably in search of food. I had read about strand feeding, where a group of dolphins herd a school of fish towards land, and then heave their bodies onto the beach to feed. This unique behavior has been seen mainly in South Carolina and Georgia.

Every day that week I walked on the beach, one day taking a boat to get close to the lighthouse, one afternoon just watching rows of blackbirds on the pier, another morning reading a book at my room’s balcony facing the marsh. The town library had a cart of books that were free to take by anyone, local and tourist alike.

Just before my evening flight on my last day, I took one final walk on the beach, absorbing each glint of light, each murmur of the wind on the sand. I had not gotten my tropical island, but I found this haven of quiet surprises instead. The sunset was stunning, as it had been every day of my stay here. On my way back, I saw an old man in his beach chair, taking a picture of the last rays of the sun with his flip phone.

“Do you sit here every day on the beach?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“Do you ever get tired of it?”

“No,” he said with a smile

Neither would I.
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