FOLLY BEACH, S.C. - You don't come here for golf. The nearest links are across the causeways, on the mainland. If you're looking for tennis or spa resorts, you'd do better to head toward Isle of Palms, on the other side of Charleston, or to Kiawah, the next island south. Fancy food? Nothing here tops what you'll find in Charleston.

But Folly Beach is where Charlestonians come to kick back, along with other Carolinians seeking a beach experience less hectic than Myrtle and more down-home than Hilton Head Island.

Locals sometimes say it's more like Key West, Fla. And they may be right. Folly Island, 10 miles south of Charleston on state Route 171, is a barrier island six miles by a half-mile that is glued to bug-filled creeks and just dangling in the Atlantic. Key West, similarly, is at the end of a series of swamp-crossing causeways.

And what vacationers find at the end of each road is a funky respite from the refined (Charleston) or glitzy (Miami).

The considerably smaller Folly Beach (with roughly 2,100 souls - 10 percent of Key West's population) is just as tourist-friendly, but the allure is the beach instead of sightseeing attractions.

What can you do? Well, enjoy the beach experience and, at this cooler time of year, check out the seven blocks of Center Street that pass as downtown.

There's more to both than you'd expect.

From one end of the island to the other, the sand is fine and dries to a pale tan. The variety is in the beachscape.

Mini-Myrtle.

The vibe is more Grand Strand in the midsection: It's where Center Street hits the sea. Add the Holiday Inn and the popular Edwin S. Taylor Fishing Pier, and crowds of sun-seekers materialize out of thick, humid air.

The Taylor rivals the surf for visual attention. Its wood planking is 23 feet above the beach. Extending 1,045 feet, it's the second-longest pier on the East Coast. It's 25 feet wide and often lined with anglers.

The two-story shelter at its tip offers great views up and down the coast. On the other end is popular Locklear's Beach City Grill, a sibling to Locklear's seafood eatery in Mount Pleasant's Shem Creek area.

The Folly Island strand is wide and flat, which means that tides wash a good hunk of real estate with every turn. Hard-packed sand? Oh, yeah. You'll see a number of folks using oversize paddles to whack standard-issue tennis balls across "courts" outlined with sand shovels.

Nags Head style.

Stroll the beach away from Center Street, and you'll notice that crowds thin and beach houses uniformly line up behind the protected sand dunes. Sure, there are periodic public-access points, but parking is more difficult and beach amenities scarce. The look is more Kitty Hawk or Kill Devil Hills.

If reading or snoozing on the sand is your thing, this is your paradise. Rent a house near an over-the-dunes walkway so you won't have to carry your gear very far.

Ocracoke feel.

One slogan bills Folly as "The edge of America," and that feels true at the island's ends.

It's a half-hour walk from the pier to Folly Beach County Park at the southwest end - a spit cornered by the sea and the Folly River and pointing toward Kiawah. The vista is of unbridled nature.

In other respects, the parks people seem to have thought of everything.

Set back from the beach is a raised shelter complex with bathrooms, outdoor-dining area, a staffed snack bar (dog, chips and 16-ounce drink: $3.50), and a shed where you can buy such essentials as a plastic pail and shovel ($1.50), Frisbee ($1.50) and 15-, 30- or 45-SPF sunscreen ($5.95). You can rent a chair and umbrella for $8 a day (have a photo ID with you) and relax knowing there are five lifeguards on duty. Drive on West Ashley Avenue and try one of Folly's rare public parking lots ($5).

The northern end of Folly is more wild.

When the seaside houses stop, you'll soon come to a pocket of activity - the "Wash" or "Washout," a popular place for surfers. This is where the island narrows and where a channel once divided Folly. The waves remain strong at times. Besides surfers, you'll see a rusted-orange pipe snaking along the beach (it's part of ongoing sand replenishment) and piles of broken-up concrete riprap along the road.

Head north to the turnaround to reach a quarter-mile hike to the tip. Park your car - there is no parking lot, and off Ashley Avenue you'll need to feed an honor box ($1 an hour, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; free at other times). Walk around the gate, up the asphalt road to a sand-covered path, and eventually you'll reach the Morris Island lighthouse about 300 feet offshore. There once was a Morris Island beneath it, but erosion washed much of it away. Preservationists have worked hard to keep the 131-year-old beacon from being demolished. It is decommissioned, but it's still a great daytime sight.

This part of Folly is owned by the county park system, so feel free to stroll the beach, which has a desolate, wind-blown quality.

Need more outdoor fun?

Stroll downtown, the seven blocks from the Taylor Pier up Center Street to the park at Folly River. High tide for pedestrian traffic and serious people-watching is Thursday through Sunday.

Merchants on Center wheel out racks of the typical beach tees and other paraphernalia. Late morning until 10 at night, the aroma of cooking seafood seasons the thick air. On the beach, seabirds swoop close to the pier, looking for their own raw-bar feast.

Nancy Linehan and Bob Young, a couple in their 50s from Pennsylvania, were enjoying the view from the upper deck at the end of the pier.

"I like that it's not wall-to-wall hotels, like Myrtle Beach or Ocean City, Md.," she said. When it comes to sheer relaxation, "It's on a par with Clearwater, Florida," Young added.

The island offers "Margaritaville" photo ops.

At 231/2 Center, the front end of a fiberglass shark protrudes from above the law offices of Bolus & Bolus.

Folly River Park has two human-size statues of frogs - one's sitting on a bench, the other is strumming a guitar.

And keep your eyes peeled when you walk past McKelvin's Surf Shop on Center. It's not surprising that Jimmy Buffett is seen here from time to time. The pop star is said to have a place on Folly under an assumed name.

A great retreat when life in his Key West, Fla., neighborhood gets a little too hectic.

A Folly Island Frolic

Folly Island is thought to be a corruption of Foliage Island - it was thick with trees at one time. It was also called Coffin Island, because ships making for Charleston Harbor marooned sick passengers and crew there to avoid being quarantined.

George Gershwin wrote "Porgy and Bess" in the 1930s in a tiny house in a back yard on West Ashley.

Folly's contrary nature guarantees it won't go the way of Myrtle Beach. Aside from the town's only high-rise - the beachfront Holiday Inn - and one gas station, there are no chain businesses.

Staying there

The Holiday Inn Charleston on the Beach is Folly's only hotel. All units have an oceanfront view. Current winter rates (double occupancy): $189; $229 weekend nights. 843-588-6464;

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Two realty firms offering a lot of rental houses on Folly are Fred. P. Holland (843-588-2325) and Avocet (843-588-6699). Rates can run $1,500-$6,000 per week.

Dining there

Center Street, the main drag in Folly Beach, S.C., is only five blocks long, and shopping is limited to a couple of shirt and surf shops. And the only place for groceries on Folly is Bert's (just past Second Street on East Ashley).

It's the dining and entertaining that's interesting.

Because the economy here is visitor-driven, you'll see a number of dive bars on and near Center straightaway. But there's more - and check it out first, because it's all in a few-block area, and not all of it is open all the time.

For tried-and-true seafood, there's

Locklear's

, perched atop the pier. Across East Ashley is the

Terrapin Cafe

, which has a wide and varied sit-down menu and duo-type music most nights. Across is

11 Center

, a wine-oriented cafe that is big on tapas.

Dive-y looking

Snapper Jack's

was recommended for seafood, but after waiting an hour for food that never arrived this summer, I left for busy but manageable

Folly Beach Crab Shack

and its $28 steam bucket - a good-size galvanized bucket filled with king crab, mussels and shrimp.

Best surprise:

Taco Boy

, in an old machine shed that doesn't look too promising. But go: There are 11 kinds of tacos - pork to portobello, all less than $4 apiece - plus quesadillas. It appears to have been decorated by paroled art students and is packed to the rafters with diners of all ages. Quite a cool, airy (and smoke-free) change-up. It's been open about a year, and the traffic is largely word-of-mouth. Definitely worth a gorge.

Also worth it: The misnamed

Surfer Bar

, which recently opened on West Cooper, across from City Hall. It's much more restaurant than watering hole, with tables inside and on a screened porch. (The place is smoke-free.) The menu has American fare - and next to it, usually at the same price, the same item done Costa Rican style. For $12.95, one Costa Rican seafood entree was a grilled 4- by 6-inch tuna fillet on a plate loaded with sides of black beans and rice, salad, and a handful of fried plantains. Take a few minutes to look around the inside walls, festooned with surfing-related plaques and photos. (It's never open for lunch.)

Start your dining day at the fun and funky

Lost Dog Cafe

on West Huron. It's an old house converted to a breakfast/lunch spot. Fantastic coffee (also sold by the bag) and - in addition to pancakes and so forth - fresh croissants. Friendly service and good food fast.

Lost Dog has a slight country-counterculture vibe that plays well with the small but serene public garden next door, on the grounds of the community center/library.

Music

Live music? At the

Road House

(West Ashley), you could find anything from metal to mellow. Charleston-area musicians also play at

Taco Boy

and

Crab Shack

. Concerts are occasionally staged on the beach, and inland at Folly River Park.

There's karaoke and occasional live music at the

Holiday Inn

- and bands play the

Sand Dollar Social Club

.

More information

City of Folly Beach:

» READ MORE: www.cityoffollybeach.com

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Folly Beach Tourism Center and Visitor Information:

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- John Bordsen