To the west of Charleston, a chain of islands offer a laid-back lifestyle and a range of outdoor activities in a quickly developing area. 

Largely suburban James Island is closest to the city, with nearby Johns Island growing rapidly. Wadmalaw Island has still retained its largely rural character, and in Kiawah and Seabrook islands, retirees and vacationers enjoy upscale, gated communities. 

Throughout the area, a network of rivers and creeks offers multiple opportunities for boating, and the beach is never too far away. 

On James Island, sandwiched between downtown Charleston and Folly Beach, a popular county park includes saltwater fishing, a dog park, wooded trails, and grassy meadows. There's also a water park and climbing wall. Entrance to the park is $2, and there are campgrounds and cabins available to rent. 

Several events are held inside the park, including the two-mile Holiday Festival of Lights, a half-marathon and 5K, the Reggae Nights Summer Concert Series and a fall harvest festival.

Traffic usually bottlenecks on the way to nearby Johns Island, the state's largest island, just over the Stono River. Thousands of people have moved there in the past few years, with the crush of people often outpacing the roads in the area. 

Some locals are still working to retain the historically rural feel of the area, however. While frustrating for commuters, narrow country roads are lined with picturesque live oak trees. Along Maybank Highway, a larger artery through the north part of the island, restaurants, bars and breweries offer nearby entertainment. 

Continue south on Maybank to reach Wadmalaw Island, the least developed of the west-area islands, where country life is still very much the trend. Wadmalaw is also the site of the only U.S. tea plantation. At the southern end is the village of Rockville, home to an annual regatta. 

Kiawah and Seabrook islands are both exclusive seaside respites for retirees and vacationers. In Kiawah, a planned community with 10 miles of beach and nine golf courses includes a deep appreciation of local wildlife. The town's wildlife biologist has been conducting a tracking program of local bobcats, and a dedicated group of volunteers comb the beach in the summer to protect sea turtle nests.

Though Kiawah is gated, it includes one public beach, Beachwalker County Park, which is often rated as one of the best beaches in the country. A new, $125 million senior living facility is also slated for the island. 

On Seabrook, residents and visitors have access to two championship golf courses, a tennis center and equestrian center, a fitness and aquatics complex and beaches that offer a great opportunity to spot dolphins. Nearby Bohicket Marina & Market boasts marsh and waterfront views in a quaint environment. 

And in between the two islands, growing Freshfields Village offers shopping, restaurants and a park space that often hosts entertainment.