Despite its expansive size and proximity to the major tourist destinations of Charleston, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, and Folly Beach, Wadmalaw Island is a refreshingly unpopulated, quiet, and authentically local realm of the South Carolina region, with just a couple of surprises for visitors hidden under acres of live oaks.
Bordered by Johns Island to the South and West, and roughly a 15-30 minute drive from the aforementioned destinations, Wadmalaw Island is refreshingly small, and greets its rare visitors with genuine hospitality, but limited large-scale amenities. There are no major restaurants, hotels, or shopping centers on Wadmalaw Island, but this suits most locals and visitors just fine. A fun locale for a day-trip outside the city or off the beach, visitors will find a healthy handful of exceptional reasons to visit this unspoiled corner of the Lowcountry, besides the lush green landscapes.
The island is an estimated 10 miles long by 6 miles wide, which certainly makes it large, but not as big as its neighbor, Johns Island, one of the largest isles on the Eastern Seaboard. It's separated from the Atlantic by Johns Island and Kiawah Island, and separated from the mainland by the Wadmalaw Sound, and the only way on and off the island is via a small bridge on Maybank Highway that crosses Church Creek. Perhaps it's because of this isolation that Wadmalaw Island remains so small, with just over 2,500 year-round residents, but surprisingly, the region has always been a mildly popular place to live, and is older, at least by English history standards, than the city of Charleston itself.
The island was named after the original Wadmalaw Native Americans who took full advantage of the exceptional Lowcountry farming and fishing centuries before the English settlers set foot on the South Carolina shores. When the English did arrive, Wadmalaw Island was one of the first SC regions they explored, specifically by Captain Robert Sandford and his crew in 1666. After claiming the land for the English, 148 colonists were sent to the region. They survived for four years in the region, thanks mainly to the generosity of the local natives, until they relocated to present day Charleston.
The region remained sparsely populated for centuries afterwards, gaining national attention in 1960 when the Lipton Company decided to use the region as grounds for an experimental new tea farm. Sold to Mack Fleming and Bill Hall in 1987, the farm was converted to a genuine working Tea Plantation, and began mass producing the country's only homegrown and American made tea. Today, the Charleston Tea Plantation is the only "tea garden" in the United States, and is one of the region's most famed attractions, with regular factory tours and scenic trolley tours through the tea fields available year-round.
Wadmalaw Island's other big attraction, which also coincidently enough revolves around beverages, is the Firefly Distillery and Irvin~House Vineyards, a 48 acre vineyard and local landmark that holds the distinction of being the only domestic winery in the Charleston County Lowcountry. This expansive site rose to fame after it produced the nation's first Sweet Tea Vodka at the Firefly Distillery, (now a popular and mass-produced drink by vodka makers from around the globe.) Today, the expansive attraction which is recognized by a rustic looking main building flanked by live oaks and Spanish moss, has a world of entertainment for visitors of all ages, including plenty of walking trails, a petting zoo, a stunning seasonal garden, and of course the winery itself. A great spot to pull up a patio chair and enjoy an ice cold drink or a glass of wine in the shade, the Firefly Distillery and Irvin~House Vineyards offer tastings year-round, and is a very popular spot for Charleston locals and regular visitors to sit back and enjoy a drink on Charleston's "back porch," aka, Wadmalaw Island.
Other than these main attractions, however, Wadmalaw Island visitors won't find too many other distractions to take away from the miles of marshlands, woods, and live oaks around every bend of the small paved roads that wrap around the region. There are a very small handful of vacation rental homes and cottages available in the area, rented mainly by out-of-town owners, but no major hotels, shopping malls, or restaurants along the 43 square mile island. For city-dwellers, this desolation is actually quite refreshing, and many urbanites and beach bums consider an afternoon or evening exploration the major attractions of the island a relaxing excursion, and a much-needed breather from South Carolina's more crowded areas.
Bring a relaxed attitude and a bit of an appetite for a beverage or two, and spend a day outside the world of Charleston County's more popular locales, exploring the road less, and hardly ever, travelled. With a small selection of attractions that are nonetheless some of the most acclaimed in the Lowcountry, exploring Wadmalaw Island, the self-proclaimed "Back Porch" of Charleston, is a breezy adventure that will leave any visitor in high spirits.