Above: The light, the sand, even the air, is softer in Kiawah.
What makes a perfect island? Warm tropical water ideal for hours of surfing? Check. Towering palm trees, frolicking dolphins and uncrowded beaches where you can wander for miles without seeing another soul? Check. Check. And check. How about a quick ninety-minute flight from JFK? No, we’re not talking about Bermuda. We’re talking about what’s been—up until not too long ago—the best-kept secret of the South. Kiawah Island.
This little gem has managed the nearly impossible; it’s become a world-class beach attraction without falling into the tourist trap of cheesy T-shirt shops and souvenir penny squishers. Kiawah is a private island resort, meaning only those who own homes or are staying at the resort have access. It is located just twenty-one miles from the darling of the South, Charleston.
With seven golf courses (five public, two private) on less than ten square miles, Kiawah has become a go-to for the golf set and in 2012 played host to the PGA championships. But if hitting the links isn’t your thing, no worries. You can paddleboard with dolphins in the morning, then enjoy a sun-soaked bike ride down the ten-mile beach and settle in for a proper Southern meal by the marsh, where the roasted oysters are delivered by the shovelful and the sweet tea is endless. Here is our beginner’s guide to a Southern getaway you won’t forget.
WHERE TO STAY
There is only one hotel on the island, and not surprisingly, it’s an award-winner. The Sanctuary Hotel is the perfect mix of Southern gentility and beachfront casual. Those looking for more space can rent anything from a one-bedroom condo to a sprawling oceanfront mansion located throughout the resort island. Access to many amenities, including the wildly popular family pools with waterslides and splash zones, is only granted to guests who book through the resort, so keep this in mind when looking at VRBO rentals.
WHAT TO DO
Take a kayak or paddleboard for a leisurely ride through the fragrant salt marshes and out to the Kiawah River. The river is tidal and at low tide it’s easy to watch the dolphins strand feed, which means they work as a team to push the fish onto the beach for a fresh lunch. Dolphins can also be seen during any of the motorboat excursions and sunset cruises that depart from the Nature Center.
Though golf may get all the glory, tennis on Kiawah is no forgotten stepsister. The tennis program has been rated No. 1 in the world for many years running and offers everything from an afternoon lesson to weekend-long tennis camps for women. Rent a bike and take a ride on the beach or along the more than thirty miles of bike trails that meander through the island.
The combination of gentle waves and warm water make this an ideal place to learn to surf. Book a private lesson through Carolina Salt Surf Lessons and former pro Kyle will meet you at the spot of your choice and bring a soft board and photographer. He guarantees you’ll stand up on the board or your money back. Take the kids to nearby Eden Wind Farm for a morning of “horse buddies.” For $85 your budding horseman will learn to groom, tack and ride a friendly school horse.
Here, Fishy Fishy
Channel your inner Quint (for all you Jaws junkies) and head out on a shark fishing expedition (safe for kids, we promise). Join a crabbing excursion or just go the DIY route and drop a chicken leg tied to some string in one of the many ponds where crabbing is not only allowed, but a rite of passage. There is a kids’ fishing tournament every Wednesday during the summer months at nearby Bohicket Marina. For $5 you get a line, some bait and a chance to win free ice cream.
Mingo Point Oyster Roast: Every Monday night this Southern barbeque spot serves up fire-roasted oysters, ribs, collard greens, pecan pie and more. Live music and a view of the river complete the vibe. A little advice: Skip lunch that day because you’ll want to eat it all.
Movie Under the Stars: On Thursday nights The Sanctuary Hotel sets up an outdoor movie screen and projects a family-friendly movie complete with popcorn and snowcones. Nonhotel guests are welcome and there is a full bar.
Bagger Vance Photo Opp: Even if you don’t play golf, the Ocean Course is not to be missed. It boasts the most oceanfront holes of any course in the Northern Hemisphere and was the site for the movie Bagger Vance. As the sun sets, families in seersucker and shorts gather on the porch to enjoy ice-cold drinks with a view of the putting green and ocean.
Oyster season in South Carolina runs from September through April.
KIAWAH BY THE NUMBERS
10 miles of sweeping beaches
5,000 acres of marshland
305 acres of lakes and ponds
123 acres of parks and preserves
5 championship golf courses open to the public
24 tennis courts