You don't travel 900 miles from Springfield to Kiawah Island, S.C., for the nightlife. Unless you count sunset hikes under a sea of constellations or drinks in the grand lobby bar of The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
You come to quiet Kiawah Island for the 10 miles of uninterrupted beach.
Thanks to strict covenants, island homes are required to be set back behind the secondary dune line and do not invade the shoreline. The only resort property located near the beach is The Sanctuary (a member of Preferred Hotels and Resorts), which also is set back off the dunes and situated in a manner respectful of the water views. At low tide, beach lovers enjoy more than 100 yards of sand from the dunes to the ocean. Children run back and forth from the water's edge, their buckets filled with water for sand-castle moats, while shellers with their own carry-alls comb the tide line for sand dollars, olive shells and other sea treasures.
South Carolina is home to several popular beach destinations, including Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, each with its own personality and style. In the past 40 years, Kiawah has been developed with care and attention to the natural resources of the island.
Yesterday and today
A barrier island located 21 miles south of Charleston, Kiawah originally was home to the Kiawah Indians, who fished and hunted here during the 1600s before contracting smallpox and measles from the Europeans. Those epidemics wiped out the Kiawah population.In the years that followed, the island was occupied by alleged pirates masquerading as planters (1699); the heirs of a Revolutionary War hero, Gen. Arnoldus Vanderhorst (1802); lumberman C.C. Royal (1951); the Kuwaiti Investment Corp. (1974); and now The Kiawah Island Golf Resort (since 1988).
Today, Kiawah enjoys the benefits of a master environmental plan from the 1970s that has protected the sand dunes from being over-developed.
Surprisingly, not everyone is obsessed with the pristine beach. Golfers flock to Kiawah lured by no fewer than five championship golf courses, which have hosted prestigious tournaments that include The Ryder Cup in 1991, the 1997 and 2003 World Cups, the 2005 PGA Professional National Championship and the Senior PGA Championship in 2007.
Today, island staff is hard at work preparing for the 2012 PGA Championship. Outdated buildings have been torn down to make way for additional shuttle parking, while resort announcements include encouragement to "Make your reservation now!"
If your golf game needs help before you try out for the professional men's tour, consider the island's golf academy for private lessons, group clinics or half-day to one-, two- or three-day golf schools.
At the Tommy Cuthbert Golf Learning Center, you can go high-tech with a state-of-the-art computerized video-swing analysis system, seven covered hitting bays, an Astroturf putting surface (in case of inclement weather) and a practice bunker and green.
You don't have to leave your family behind, either. There's a seasonal family tee program, in which participants all play from a "family tee" marker for nine holes of golf. Children under 17 play free of charge.
If your swing involves a tennis racket instead of a driver, you won't be disappointed by the two world-class tennis clubs that include 23 clay courts and five hard courts, plus a practice court with an automatic ball-retrieval machine. There are a variety of clinics and camps to help you improve your score, including junior and adult programs.
However, your age and ability aren't held against you at the free clinic hosted by Kiawah's tennis pros on Monday mornings from March through October. They even offer a 30-minute Tiny Tots program to introduce tennis to young children (between 4 and 6 years old) on weekdays.
If relaxation is your sole aim of traveling to Kiawah, The Sanctuary doesn't disappoint. The entrance drive to the resort, which opened in 2004, is flanked by mature trees. Landscape architects brought in the world's largest mechanical spade to transplant more than 400 trees, including 160 50-foot live oaks.
Immediately upon entering The Sanctuary, ocean views draw guests in through the sitting areas of the resort. The ocean vista occurs naturally because the hotel site was raised 20 feet in order to allow unobstructed views from the first floor. Sink into comfortable yet elegant furniture in spacious sitting rooms with high ceilings that overlook the ocean. Many of the hanging portraits, paintings and accessories appear as if they are old family heirlooms.
Even the floors add plantation-style character. During construction, the hand-planed walnut planks found throughout the common areas were shaped into irregular lengths and widths and then purposefully constructed for the occasional creak.
The next "wow" moment happens when guests walk toward either the east or west end of the resort. After being commissioned in 2003 to paint four murals measuring 28 by 22 feet for The Sanctuary, artist Karen Larson Turner created oil paintings that draw visitors away from the vastness of the ocean and immediately into the Low Country. The first two murals in the East Grand Stairway showcase early morning marsh scenes, while the second two murals at the West Grand Stairway depict the marsh at sunset.
At the top of the West Grand Stairway, behind custom-designed wrought-iron doors, the jacket-optional Ocean Room is open for dinner only and offers hand-selected cuts of beef and chops.
Lunch can be a more affordable splurge for diners at the refined but relaxed Jasmine Porch. While taking in garden and poolside views, you can choose from a menu filled with regional specialties, including the decadent "She Crab" Bisque and fried green tomatoes. Or choose more traditional Low Country dishes, such as shrimp and grits and slow-braised pork sandwiches with Southern slaw.
For a family on the go, the Beaches and Cream shop offers express breakfasts and lunches as well as a dozen varieties of ice cream plus cookies, biscotti, pralines, truffles candy and other treats for those with a sweet tooth. They also brew specialty coffees, lattes, cappuccinos and mochas for a caffeine fix.
As one might expect, the resort rooms offer luxurious accommodations at rates between $270 and $825 per night, depending on the season and style of room. Rentals of one- to four-room villas and luxury homes also are available at other locations throughout Kiawah Island.
You likely won't spend much time in the room, however. Activities abound on the island, including swimming, marsh-creek canoeing, ocean kayaking, back-river excursions, bicycling, cookouts, oyster roasts, guided night hikes, nature walks and much more.
The Night Heron Park Nature Center acts as a logistical hub or "activity central." Visitors can purchase books, toys, clothes and nature accessories or wander around the educational plant and wildlife exhibits that include local snakes, lizards, turtles and three young alligators for visitors to observe. The staff provides basketball and soccer balls for adjacent courts and fields, pool towels and registration information for the naturalist-led walks, tours and programs.
During the summer, Kamp Kiawah is offered for children ages 3 to 11 with supervised island adventures. Tweens and teens can participate in Teen Survivor games, photo scavenger hunts, dance-offs and more. There also are sand-sculpture contests, movies, beach bashes, bingo and ice cream socials designed with the entire family in mind.
If this all sounds too hectic, don't forget that 10-mile ribbon of beach. Throw some snacks and towels in the bag, rent an umbrella and chairs and set up camp for the day - or the sunset. At Kiawah, nothing quite compares to watching the waves and listening to the surf.
About Kiawah Island
Nearby Charleston attractions
Story published Friday, July 1, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 4 )