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Beauty, Action & Indulgence at South Carolina's Kiawah Resort

When it was time to start planning our family’s summer ‘14 adventure, we decided to expand our borders beyond tours around the Northeast to a destination down South.

My wife Sue and I felt that we were ready for such an expedition.  Our excursions to Vermont, the Poconos, and the Jersey Shore were successes, and we figured that a location below the Mason Dixon line that offered new experiences, culture, and surroundings was worth the longer drive.  Also, our kids were at ages (Eli – 16, Doris – 12) where they could handle a 10+ hour car ride. Whether Sue and I could survive it, we weren’t sure, but we were willing to give it a try.

We took a look at The Greenbrier in White Sulpher Springs, WV and The Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst, NC, but their selection of activities was sparce.  Plus, we preferred a beach location.  The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club in St. Simons Island, GA was appealing, but the 14 hour drive was more than we could endure.  Ditto for Amelia Island Plantation in Amelia Island, FL.

Thinking that the beaches of South Carolina could be an option, we explored some of the choices. The website for Wild Dunes Resort in Isle of Palms, SC had a slick feel to it, but the resort appeared to be somewhat generic, with not enough of the authentic Southern vibe that we wanted.   The Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head seemed lovely, but it came off as a tad remote and nondescript.

Then we found KiawahResort.com, the website for the Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

The look of Kiawah Resort’s properties felt like the South, and while clicking around, we saw that there were plenty of restaurants and activities on Kiawah Island to keep us well-fed and busy.  There also seemed to be a fascinating emphasis on native wildlife and the Resort’s natural surroundings.

Diving deep into the Kiawah Resort site, here’s what we discovered:

  • The Resort’s accommodations, restaurants, meeting facilities, golf courses, and tennis facilities have received dozens of awards from leading industry publications, including the Forbes Travel Guide, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Coastal Living, Wine Spectator, Golf Magazine, TripAdvisor.com, and many more.
  • The Resort’s 12 restaurants feature local produce, fish, and seafood; organic products; and meats that originate from farms with humane animal treatment.
  • The construction of island’s resort and real estate was carefully designed to blend into the island's natural habitat.
  • The Resort’s five championship golf courses (as well as the grounds of its main hotel The Sanctuary) have been certified by Audubon International as Cooperative Sanctuaries.
  • There are no streetlights on Kiawah because it’s illegal:  the artificial light could attract Loggerhead sea turtles away from the beaches, which is where they nest for six months of the year.
  • The Resort is active in harmful materials reduction, solid waste reduction, recycling, and sustainable systems.

Kiawah Resort’s location, offerings, and responsible approach were consistent with our travel goals and support of eco-responsibility, so we locked in their location on our GPS and finalized the plans for our first-ever visit to the land of Dixie.

The drive down Interstate 95 showed a subtle and gradual shift in culinary preferences as we got farther from our home in New Jersey:  signs for Waffle House restaurants, Stuckey’s stores, roadside BBQ joints, and Golden Corral[1] began popping up, and when we saw the kitschy billboards for Mexican-themed rest stop and roadside attraction South of the Border emerge with increasing frequency, we knew that the Garden State was far behind us.

Driving along Bohicket Road, which was the final stretch that led to the turnoff for the Resort, we were struck by the endless canopy of live oak branches that reached out from either side of the road to high five each other over us.  Dangling from these thick branches were ropes of gray Spanish moss (which actually is neither Spanish nor moss), that shimmied in the wind like long ghostly beards.

The official entrance to Kiawah Resort was marked by a small gate house.  We told the guard that we were guests, he welcomed us to Kiawah, and waved us through.[2]

We slowly drove along Kiawah Island Parkway, which runs the length of the island and is the main thoroughfare of island traffic.  Tall Cabbage Palmettos, the state tree of South Carolina, hung out in relaxed postures along the road, as if to say “welcome y’all.  Glad you could join us.  Time to settle in, cool out, and unwind...”[3]

Accommodations

We stayed at the Turtle Point Villas, a concentrated development of two-story condo residences just off of Kiawah Island Parkway.  The Villas were modern, clean, and well-equipped with slick entertainment systems, shiny hardwood floors, and stainless steel appliances (the free WiFi in the Villas, and throughout the entire Resort, was also a very nice convenience).

Along with a large master bedroom and its own adjoining bathroom and a smaller guest bedroom with two single beds and a connected bathroom, our Villa also had…

  • a combo kitchen/laundry area
  • a bright, relaxing sun room
  • a spacious and open living room
  • a wide deck overlooking Turtle Point Golf Course

The Villa was a perfect living solution for us:

  • Sizable closets in every room provided plenty of storage.
  • After long, hot days of busy activity, the space was frosty and comfortable, and we melted into our beds.
  • Lots of sweaty action when the sun was out (and REALLY warm) meant lots of stinky laundry at night, and having our own deluxe machines made the process very convenient.
  • Our big frig was stocked with plenty of food that we picked up from Harris Teeter, a nearby grocery store with great prices and an excellent array of fresh, health-conscious selections.
  • A full-size microwave, stovetop/oven, counter space, and deep double-sink made breakfast prep easy and enjoyable.

For families on the move with full schedules, the Villas are a top option.

Activities

Kiawah Resort offers 90 holes of championship golf on five courses, and has accrued a mondo stack of awards and accolades.  The Resort’s Ocean Course is rated #1 in South Carolina by Golf Digest, was the host of the 2012 PGA Championship and 1991 Ryder Cup, and has gotten rave reviews from Rory McIloy and Tiger Woods. 

Tennis is also popular at the Resort:  Tennis.com rates Kiawah as America’s #3 Tennis Resort, and TennisResortsOnline.com has rated it #1 in the world for seven of the last nine years (currently rated #2).  Kiawah’s Roy Barth Tennis Center features nine Har-Tru clay courts and three hard courts, and the West Beach Tennis Club, has 10 Har-Tru courts and two lighted hard courts.

Unfortunately, since none of us play golf, and we didn’t want to blow our energy wads by attempting tennis in the 98+ degree heat, two of Kiawah’s big activities weren’t part of our itinerary.  However, Kiawah has many other fantastic outdoor activities to keep families busy, engaged, and in motion, including:

Surfing – You might not think that the beaches of South Carolina offer challenging surfing opportunities, and at Kiawah, they don’t.  But for a beginner, they’re perfect.

Doris was eager to give surfing a go at Kiawah’s half-day Surf Camp, which took place on the beaches of The Sanctuary, Kiawah’s luxury hotel, dining, event, and corporate meeting property.  Beginning at 9am and wrapping up at 1pm (a pizza lunch was included), the Surf Camp provided exceptional instruction in surfing basics, and the warm, gentle waves of the Atlantic Ocean made all of the tips and advice achievable.  Using what she learned, Doris was eventually up and confidently riding her board, and as a result, she loved the rush and got hooked on surfing.

If your child is interested in giving some gentle ankle busters a try, Kiawah’s superb Surf Camp is a safe, fun place to get him/her started.

Teen Kayaking – Eli loves a good nature experience, and when he saw that a kayaking adventure was available, he was totally interested.

The two-hour excursion departed from Mingo Point, an area near the beach that the Resort uses for oyster roasts, outdoor events, and barbecues (which we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to experience, but are reputed to be AWESOME).  Eli and his fellow kayakers traveled up the Kiawah Island River, one person per kayak.  Along the route, the group saw beds of eastern oysters, a school of four foot long bonnethead sharks (they’re on the timid side and not dangerous to humans), and lots of native Lowcountry vegetation.  They competed to see who could stand the longest in their kayaks and they spread pluff mud – an olfactory-offending oozy, viscous, dark-brown miasma that’s native to the region - onto their faces and arms[4].

The kayaking was occasionally difficult when the riders were navigating choppy currents, but overall, it was a gentle ride, and the repetitive rowing mechanics helped Eli to achieve a Zen-like state of relaxing, meditative chill.  He loved being in the bright South Carolina sun and floating past the lush coastal environs.  It was a perfect activity for him.

Kiawah Creatures – Eli and I woke up bright and early one morning to take part in the Kiawah Creatures nature walk.

We knew that the Resort was part of a busy and bountiful ecosystem, but when walking and driving around the area, it’s difficult to notice the abundance and variety of diverse animal life that’s all around you (aside from the alligators, that is – they’re all over the place[5]).  The Kiawah Creatures jaunt aims to educate the uninformed about the vast cabal of critters that are everywhere on the island, and how to recognize them all (or at least a lot of them).

The group of adults and their offspring (kids, tweens, and teens) met at The Sanctuary and walked to the beach to begin our creature hunt.  Led by Ally, an energetic and charismatic member of the Resort’s activities team, we learned about – and saw – a menagerie of hidden (and not so hidden) Kiawah inhabitants, including:

  • Sea anemones
  • a Cannonball jellyfish
  • a Horseshoe crab
  • a Loggerhead sea turtle nest
  • a Wax myrtle tree with holes created by yellow bellied sap-suckers
  • a Common moorhen
  • a Great egret
  • a Snowy egret
  • a Yellow-bellied slider
  • a Great blue heron 
  • a Green heron
  • Mosquito fish
  • Tilapia
  • American alligators
  • a Golden silk orb weaver
  • an Osprey

The Kiawah Creatures adventure revealed the vibrant and diverse bionetwork that co-exists on the island with the human guests, employees, and residents.  Ally was a fantastic guide and teacher, and the creatures that she introduced us to seem to be enjoying a safe and comfortable existence.

Night Heron Pool – Doris loves pools.  Once she hits the water, she’ll be in motion for hours.  The Resort’s Night Heron Pool, which is part of the activity-packed Night Heron Park[6], offered a variety of water activities that kept her and Sue[7] busy for a chunk of the day.

There are actually two Night Heron pools in the Park that are located side by side:  a children’s pool and a family pool. 

The children’s pool (which also has cool stuff for teens and adults) has water cannons, a 30 gallon dumping bucket, and dual flume slides, one of which is REALLY fast.  The edge of the children’s pool is much shallower, and offers mini-slides for very young kids.  Parents were able to sit in the water, relax, and cool off, while their youngsters splashed around nearby.

The family pool is a huge rectangle (5,233 sq. ft.).  It was filled with people swimming laps, playing catch with a Nerf-type ball, and floating on inflatable alligators and turtles (the pool is large enough to easily handle all of this activity).  Doris and Sue spent most of their time playing water basketball.  Everyone was friendly, sharing the balls and taking turns.

Though the pools offered a refreshing break from the sun, after a while the heat drove Doris and Sue back to the shelter of our air-conditioned villa.  Because Doris didn’t get her fill during the day (though Sue absolutely did), and Eli had some energy to burn, I brought them back to Night Heron Park after dinner and we hung out in the water until closing time at 9pm.

The evening ambiance at the Park was quiet and serene, with the natural soundtrack of Kiawah’s creatures in the background and the stars high and bright in the sky.  There were just a few people swimming around in the humongous family pool, which is the only one that stays open in the evening.  Doris hung out with a friend who she met during the day and they continued their hoop shooting marathon, while Eli and I tossed a Waboba Water Skipping Ball back and forth.  The pool’s tranquil PM vibe was a relaxing and peaceful break from the raucous daytime energy and high temperatures.

The Resort has a number of other great pools, but for our needs, the Night Heron Pools were excellent.

(NOTE:  Kiawah’s focus on sustainability and environmental consciousness is evident at the Night Heron pools via the availability of free water bottle refills for guests.)

Beach Biking - Families on rented bikes were everywhere around the Resort, and we were very lucky to line some up to use on our last day.[6]

We noticed that a lot of people were riding their bikes on the Resort’s 10 mile long beach, and it looked like a great idea:  the 26” beach cruisers seemed to handle the terrain well and the hard packed sand offered a smooth surface for easy pedaling.

The sun was crazy hot, but we had the wind at our backs when we started our ride.  The gearless bike was silent, so the only sounds were the ocean and the air slicing past our ears.  Clouds painted the sky in graceful, textured shapes, and the horizon was endless.

At our journey’s end, we were sticky, stinky, wobbly from the heat, and covered with wet sand that shot upwards from our tires as we pedaled – but we were all very happy.  The ride was a beautiful interaction with the island’s environs that we all agreed was a highpoint of our Kiawah trip.

(NOTE:  To get around Kiawah Island, guests can either drive or take the Resort’s free shuttles, which take a few minutes to arrive at your pick-up location and then another few minutes to bring you to where you’d like to go.  We chose the shuttle option, since we weren’t confident with our – OK, make that my – navigational abilities, especially at night.[7]

We were driven by the same handful of drivers throughout our stay, and these friendly folks gave us fascinating tidbits of lore, history, and insight about the Island.  Some had lived in the area all of their lives and others were recent transplants, but all really knew their stuff – including the true story being the phrase “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite”, why the deer on the Island don’t get eaten by the alligators, the location of the home of the remaining living descendants of the original Kiawah Island land owners, and where the best plum and pecan trees were located to grab a quick snack.)

Dining

I’ll set the tone here by saying that the meals that we experienced at Kiawah Resort were UN-BUH-LEE-VUH-BLEE delicious.  More on that later.

Stuff that’s worth knowing about Kiawah’s restaurants and dining offerings:

  • Kiawah prefers to hire local chefs, and most chefs are promoted from within
  • Kiawah’s chefs are graduates of America’s top culinary colleges
  • Produce, poultry, seafood, and meat are fresh and locally sourced, and none of their ingredients come in frozen
  • Kiawah’s chefs run their own herb, vegetable, and fruit gardens
  • Kiawah’s chefs can accommodate any dietary restrictions/guidelines for social and corporate events, and can customize menu recipes to clients’ (and diners’) specific tastes

We dined at eight of Kiawah’s 12 restaurants.  Here’s the 411 on our dining adventures:

Tomasso -

Located in the Turtle Point Clubhouse behind the 18th green of Kiawah’s Turtle Point Golf Course, Tomasso specializes in “authentic cuisine from all regions of Italy”.

Interesting info about our dining experience:

  • While it would have been beautiful to eat on Tomasso’s outdoor patio overlooking the putting green and 10th hole, we chose to dine indoors because, you know:  over 100°.
  • Tomasso’s menu offered straight-up classic Italian dishes as well as creations with an unconventional and highly unique twist.
  • Our server was more than happy to adapt particular ingredients in our menu selections to our individual tastes/preferences.

Here’s Tomasso Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Williams discussing/presenting one of his signature[8] dishes:

 

 … and here’s my Yelp review of Tomasso:

Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House

Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House in Kiawah’s Osprey Point Clubhouse offers “Southern BBQ smoked over local hardwoods and complemented by chefs' signature sauces.”

Interesting info about our dining experience:

  • Cherrywood has 12 beers on tap and 40 in bottles, and Sue stuck with Palmetto Amber, which became her go-to brew throughout our Kiawah dining tour (it’s locally brewed near the base of the Ravenel Bridge, which connects downtown Charleston with Mount Pleasant).
  • The succulent bottled sauces on each table were created by Cherrywood’s Chef de Cuisine Jason Cote and his team.
  • Cherrywood’s “mac and cheese” won the People’s Choice Award in this year’s annual Charleston Mac Off, which featured entries from restaurants in the entire Charleston region. Chef Cote’s version of the dish includes four types of cheese (grated in-house), cream, Cavatappi noodles/macaroni, crushed red pepper, and basil.
  • After our phenomenal meal, we took a digestion break by hanging on Cherrywood’s humongous patio, grabbing selfies with the gators chilling in the background (way, way in the background).

Here’s my Yelp review of Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House:

The Ocean Room

Located in The Sanctuary, The Ocean Room is one of only five steakhouses in the U.S. to be the recipient of Forbes 4 Star and AAA 4 Diamond accolades, and is the Resort’s “unparalleled steakhouse experience.”

Interesting info about our dining experience:

  • When I entered The Ocean Room, I was wearing a string backpack that contained some umbrellas (the forecast called for rain).  Once seated, our savvy server immediately put a wooden stool next to my seat, which I used for my string backpack.  Very surprising, very thoughtful, and very cool!
  • It’s actually a disservice to refer to The Ocean Room’s wait staff as servers – they were more like presenters.  Their meticulous, effortless, and almost balletic delivery of our meals to the table, along with their impressively professional and genial demeanors, were unexpected enhancements that were delightful.
  • Knowing that a salad came with Doris’ Dining at Dusk meal selection, and seeing that Doris wasn’t a salad fan, our intuitive and creative server had the chef create a substitute of mélange comprised of some of Doris favorite fresh fruits.  She loved it, and we were mightily impressed.

Here’s Executive Chef and Director of Food and Beverage for The Sanctuary Brendon Bashford discussing/preparing/presenting one of his signature dishes, which is featured at The Ocean Room:

Here’s The Ocean Room’s Executive Pastry Chef Remy Funfrock discussing/preparing/presenting one of his sumptuous[9] signature desserts:

Here’s my Yelp review of the Ocean Room:

Jasmine Porch

Also in The Sanctuary and named “Best Down Home Cookery” by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report, Jasmine Porch’s menu “highlights the abundance of Charleston's seafood, along with certified organic local produce”.

Interesting info about our dining experience:

  • Sue and Eli weren’t too hungry, so they ordered some appetizing appetizers off of the menu.  But Doris and I were pretty famished, and we leaped into a special outdoor buffet dinner that featured wonderful Lowcountry salads, sides, grilled/BBQ’d favorites, and cuh-razy tasty desserts.
  • The fresh farm-to-table vibe was evident in the beauty of all our dishes.

Here’s Jasmine Porch’s HereChef de Cuisine Ryley McGillis discussing/preparing/presenting one of his signature – and most popular[10] – dishes:

Here’s my Yelp review of Jasmine Porch:

Loggerhead Bar & Grill

Billed as a "A Tropical Oceanfront Cafe”, the Loggerhead Bar & Grill is an outdoor eatery that’s situated between the ocean and The Sanctuary, next to The Sanctuary’s main pool.

Interesting info about our dining experience:

  • While Sue and I didn’t partake in any of the elaborate cocktails from the oceanfront tiki bar, they looked delicious
  • Another thing that we didn’t get a chance to check it out was the Friday Family Seaside Buffet, which we heard is big fun

Here’s my Yelp review of Loggerhead Bar & Grill:

Night Heron Grill

Night Heron Grill is an outdoor poolside restaurant within Kiawah’s Night Heron Park complex.  It specializes in lunches, dinners, or “a quick snack and frosty beverage at the bar while soaking in the sun and fun at the pool.”

Interesting info about our dining experience:

  • Free Wifi!
  • The service was fast and friendly
  • Massive fans kept diners cool in the insane heat

Here’s my Yelp review of Night Heron Grill:

Southern Kitchen

Located in the Straw Market at West beach, Southern Kitchen is a "Lowcountry classics kitchen serving breakfast ALL day."

Interesting info about our dining experience:

  • Free Wifi!
  • The coffee drinks (I had an iced mochaccino) were surprisingly delicious
  • The all-day breakfast thing made for perfect lunchtime fare

Here’s Southern Kitchen’s Chef de Cuisine Amanda Thacker discussing/presenting one of her signature dishes:

Here’s my Yelp review of Southern Kitchen:

Ryder Cup Bar

The Ryder Cup Bar is one of two eateries in Kiawah’s Ocean Course Clubhouse.  The kitchen specializes in “casual lunch” fare and “unique bar menu favorites”, and the setting offers “ocean breezes and spectacular seaside beach views”.

Sue and Eli dined at the Ryder Cup Bar, so here’s interesting info about their experience:

  • The much ballyhooed Crispy Shrimp lived up to the hype
  • The ocean view was quite gorgeous
  • The room’s design and compass ceiling were way cool

Here’s our Yelp review of Ryder Cup Bar:

Takeaways

While Kiawah’s award-winning courses and courts make it an ideal destination for golf and tennis buffs, the Resort’s seaside locale, multiple dining options, and rich regional culture will make your visit that much more enjoyable and memorable.  But if you’ve never golfed (like us) and would rather not give tennis a go in unseasonably high temperatures (ditto), Kiawah still offers vast activity options for you and your family to have a spectacular vacation adventure.

Kiawah’s stunning setting, emphasis on compatibility with its natural environment, and unique Lowcountry surroundings create a much different (and IMHO, superior) experience than that of a straight ahead golf or tennis resort.  Plus, the Resort’s policy of purchasing fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and meats/seafood/poultry – combined with their enticing menus featuring authentic Southern/Lowcountry recipes – offer distinctive dining options that are exclusive to the Resort.

Even in a one week stay with fully-packed days, it was impossible for us to sample all that Kiawah Resort[11] and the surrounding area[12] has to offer, and that’s a good thing:  your options are only limited by your adventurousness and the length of your trip.  My prediction is that our journey to Kiawah will absolutely not be our last (although next time, we’ll DEFINITELY fly…).



[1]While there are only five Golden Corral restaurants in all of New Jersey, there are 22 in Virginia, 52 in North Carolina, and 14 in South Carolina – thus the abundance of signage along our Kiawah-bound route.

[2] A big misconception about Kiawah Resort is that it’s a gated community or some sort of private, hoity toity, members only facility.  Not true!  The Resort is open to the public - including non-guests - for business gatherings, social gatherings, or dining in the Resort’s many eateries (more on this culinary awesomeness later).

[3] The settling in and unwinding were easy to achieve, but the cooling out – not so much:  the average daily temperature during our stay was 98°, which was unseasonably warm.

[4] Native Americans would spread pluff mud onto themselves to keep cool in the sticky Lowcountry heat.

[5] They are.  Really, I’m not kidding.  But they stay among themselves and are very used to seeing humans, so if you don’t attempt to do something stupid like try to balance yourself on top of one of them or take a selfie next to one or hand feed one of them a marshmallow (which is a sweet snack that they happen to love), they’ll leave you alone.

[6] Night Heron Park also has basketball and volleyball courts, a running trail, bike rentals, and large fields to play soccer, Frisbee, and catch.

[7] Because of the unseasonably scorching temps, Sue and Doris mostly stayed in the pool and took advantage of the wide range of entertaining and exhilarating water activities that were available.

[8] If you’re interested in renting bikes, you should absolutely arrange your rental a couple of weeks prior to your arrival at the Resort:  the limited number of available bikes get claimed very quickly.

[9] That no streetlight thing on the Island makes driving in the evening a challenge!

[10] Jonathan’s creation was quite delicious, as per Eli’s enthusiastic reaction.

[11] Remy gave me this creation, and I brought it back to our villa to share with the whole fam.  The unanimous reaction to the tasting was something along the lines of “OH. MY. GOD.”

[12] Off camera, Eli and I were supposed to share Ryley’s creation, but the famished and clever lad devoured it while I was speaking to Nicole.

[13] Fitness classes, fishing tours, art classes, motorboat cruises/excursions, surf kayaking, the award-winning Sanctuary Spa, and a whole lot more!

[14] Visiting Charleston, going on plantation tours, etc. etc.

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