I fell in love in Kiawah — twice.
The first object of my affection was the island itself. To experience the euphoria I felt, you need only imagine yourself behind the wheel. You have just turned off the main highway and are traveling through South Carolina’s Low Country on a narrow ribbon of road framed by live oaks with spindly limbs draped in Spanish Moss.
The stately trees form a natural tunnel that eventually gives way to vast patches of Spartina grass set among picturesque marshes. Roll down your window, and you can smell the piquant odor of pluff mud, the rich, soft soil that produced some of North America’s best varieties of rice prior to the Civil War.
The romantic road continues to wend its way toward the blue Atlantic. Circle the roundabout, cross a bridge, and you have arrived on Kiawah, a barrier island 21 miles south of the romantic Old South city of Charleston that served as the magical backdrop for what turned out to be two perfect days in paradise.
Love At First Sight
While the name of this island may sound Hawaiian, Kiawah takes its name, in fact, from Kiawah Indians whose chieftain led English colonists in 1670 to settle at what became Charleston. And while it would be a stretch to say that the Kiawah’s first inhabitants would still recognize their island, developers have been extremely kind, and Kiawah’s natural habitat, by and large, has been preserved over the centuries.
Kiawah enjoys sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean framed by oaks, palmetto trees, wild grasses and the dunes that are home to sea turtles and coastal wildlife. To imagine yourself in Kiawah, think of an African safari. Wildlife is so abundant, and so important to the island ecology, that Kiawah Island Golf Resort employs naturalists year-round. Here, you’ll see bobcat, alligators (numbering more than 600) and other animals. On one morning during my stay, I saw a buck, with a stately rack of antlers, on the beach. Kiawah never fails to surprise with its awe-inspiring beauty.
“Because Kiawah was developed with the ecology in mind, we’ve been able to have an island that can protect our wildlife and provide luxury accommodations for our guests,” says Elisabeth King, director of outdoor programs for Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
Hidden among the oaks and palmettos and bobcats and alligators are five championship golf courses, world-class tennis facilities, villas, privately owned homes and The Sanctuary, a 255-room luxury resort that looks as if it has been maintained since the antebellum days of the Old South.
Kiawah’s natural beauty serves as the magical backdrop to the enchantment of The Sanctuary. Some of that beauty, however, has been improvised to good effect. The approach road, for example, is lined with majestic live oaks, transplanted at a cost of $2 million.
The resort that comes into view is a modern version of a grand 19th century Southern seaside home. The effect is so convincing that it would hardly be surprising if Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler were to greet you as you pull up your car under the covered reception area.
Inside, the grand lobby is furnished with oriental carpets and antiques, but lobby’s best feature perhaps is the oversized windows that look across an immaculately maintained lawn, sloping downward slightly to provide sweeping views of the dunes and the ocean beyond. You can immediately picture yourself in one of the rocking chairs on the lobby terrace, sipping a tall, cool Mint Julep, contemplating nothing more than the ceaseless rhythm of the sea.
Yes, it was love at first sight.
Earlier, I said that I had fallen in love twice on Kiawah. The second object of my affection was a blue-eyed blonde. She stood there in the lobby of The Sanctuary, a statuesque beauty, poised and confident when our eyes met. She smiled at me, and I smiled back. I know her affection for me will endure long after the few days we spent together at Kiawah. I know, because she is my 13-year-old daughter.
I fell in love with her and my 11-year-old son, as I do each time I get to spend time with them, partly because of the place. Though The Sanctuary provides every comfort you can think of, it is free of petty distractions.
One evening, the three of us enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Ocean Room, which offers luxurious oceanfront dining with a menu designed by nationally acclaimed Chef Kevin Ives. And though we were tempted by the desserts on the menu, we decided instead to walk to the nearby Market at Town Center to share a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Three spoons dipping into a carton of Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream, while sitting in rockers overlooking the pond where we had seen an alligator earlier in the day, makes for an amazing bonding experience. The romance of a Southern night was at work too. The crickets chirped loudly, frogs croaked, and the sky appeared as if artists were painting pastels in broad strokes on a blue canvas. I thought to myself, “This is as good as it gets.”
I was wrong.
It Got Even Better
My son suggested that we go to beach to “wade into the waves” at night. The Sanctuary’s shoreline is broad, with a mixture of sand, from hard-packed, which is why you can bike along the 10-miles of coastline, to powdery. Renowned “Beachologist,” Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, has named Kiawah one of America’s Top 10 Beaches several times.
When the kids and I walked out onto the beach, we could see the first stars overhead. On the horizon, out in the Atlantic, were shrimp boats, with nets spread wide and lights cast upon the ocean.
Enveloped in darkness, with a gentle breeze blowing and the sound of the waves lapping the shoreline, we walked and contemplated some of life’s most perplexing questions: “Dad,” my son began, “why do people move their arms when they walk?” I searched my mind for a plausible answer, “For balance, I suppose.” Satisfied, he continued, “Well, why does the right arm go forward when the left leg goes forward? Have you ever tried putting your right arm and your right leg forward at the same time?” He wanted his limbs to be in unison with one another, and so he began to walk the talk. We never laughed so hard as we laughed in Kiawah.
We stopped to look at sand castles, majestic palaces that had been washed away by high tide earlier in the day, and after an hour or so, we returned to our own castle.
The Sanctuary features some of the largest and most luxurious guest rooms in America, averaging more than 540 square feet each, and quite a few connect, which is a good thing for trips involving the extended family. The spacious balconies overlooking the ocean are particularly glorious at night or in the morning. I enjoyed sitting on the balcony with a cup of coffee to watch the sunrise.
The five-star, five-diamond Sanctuary rapidly established itself as one of the top-rated American resorts since opening in 2004. The resort’s facilities are all first rate, with a fitness center and a spa whose combined efforts will leave you feeling toned, scrubbed, rubbed and thoroughly pampered. In fact, the spa at The Sanctuary is one of only three in the United States to earn a five-star rating.
The Sanctuary has two oceanfront restaurants, plus other dining choices. Jasmine Porch is the more casual of the hotel’s two year-round restaurants, designed to look like an old-time stable.
With walls built from authentic Charleston brick, oak-plank floors and windows that overlook the ocean, Jasmine Porch creates a lovely setting for traditional Lowcountry cuisine composed of fresh native ingredients with a nod to seafood. Dine on the terrace and breathe in the ocean air while enjoying chef’s specialties.
Jasmine Porch features a grand buffet breakfast, which includes made-to-order omelets, hot breakfast specialties, fresh pastries, fruits, cereals and such Southern specialties as grits and gravy.
Time To Get Active
With a fully belly, the active-minded may enjoy bike riding on more than 30 miles of trails, kayaking or all the golf and tennis they can handle. As would be expected of any resort in the Carolinas, Kiawah offers several challenging golf courses, including one designed by Jack Nicklaus at Turtle Point that Golf Digest has rated among the top 10 courses in South Carolina.
Guests at The Sanctuary get priority tee times at Turtle Point and other Kiawah courses. These include the Ocean Course designed by golf architect Pete Dye. The Ocean Course features more seaside holes than any course in the northern hemisphere. Recognized as one of America’s premier golf destinations, Kiawah hosted the 1991 Ryder Cup, the 2007 Senior PGA Championship and the upcoming 2012 PGA Championship.
And if you prefer to chase balls that bounce more, Tennis magazine rates Kiawah as one of the nation’s top tennis resorts, with its 28 hard-surface or Har-Tru clay courts.
To avoid any complaints about nothing to do in the evening, the Kiawah community and The Sanctuary go to great lengths to organize activities, with a special event on tap nearly every night. Live music performances take place on the lawn at The Sanctuary, and there are lots of family friendly activities at nearby Night Heron Park. We spent one evening with 100 or so others watching a comedic magician, while kids dipped into ice cream.
On The Water
On our last morning, we headed out to Mingo Point for kayaking. It is also here, on Monday nights, where the weekly oyster roast takes place. The Sanctuary provides free shuttle service to the oyster roast or to anything else we wanted to see or do on Kiawah, eliminating the navigating and parking hassles that cars create.
The shuttle drivers gladly carried us into the nearby Freshfields Village, which offers dining and shopping. Visitors can browse through local produce and crafts, linger over a meal at one of the lovely restaurants or visit shops featuring national brands. Beautifully landscaped, Freshfields also schedules daily events, ranging from live bands to festivals for kids.
An eco-sensitive resort community sprawling across 10,000 acres, Kiawah is characterized by magnolias, live oaks, pine forests, and many acres of marsh. Recognizing the fragile nature of beautiful Kiawah, The Sanctuary has taken steps to preserve the flora, fauna and wildlife there. The resort is certified by The Audobon Society for its efforts on behalf of the island’s birds, and the restaurants there have taken the initiative of emphasizing sustainable seafood on their menus. Many guests appreciate the effort, making a $2 per night contribution to The Nature Conservancy in the hopes that more natural paradises such as Kiawah can be spared excessive development.
There’s no better place to appreciate Kiawah’s natural beauty than from the water, and so we set out on open kayaks to explore the tidal marshes. The paddling was easy, even against the gentle current. We stopped to admire oyster beds and listen to the melodies of Marsh Wren, who made their nests in the Spartina grass.
Paddling down narrow inlets we often were at eye level with the pluff mud. Residents and longtime visitors joke that you know you’ve returned home when you can smell the pluff mud. No doubt, we were home.