To enter Kiawah Island, you must pass through a security gate. To pass through said security gate, you must have a reservation. And reservations are not easy to come by on this South Carolina barrier island. When I called a few months ago to book a weekend stay at the Sanctuary, the island’s only hotel, I was told they were completely full for the quarter. Would I like to postpone my vacation and reserve something for later?
Not particularly. But I did—and it was worth the wait. Pulling up to the mansion-like hotel with my daughter and mother-in-law, I felt like an aristocrat returning home, not a writer escaping the office. Fifty-foot live oaks twisted around the property, lending the place a historic air that belied its youthful twelve years. Two bellmen opened the double doors leading to the lobby, and we found ourselves surrounded by that rare splendor that compels Forbes and AAA to dole out their highest ratings. Crystal chandeliers glittered from the soaring ceiling. Hand-planed walnut floors creaked beneath our feet. And directly ahead, past the floor-to-ceiling French windows, the Atlantic Ocean lapped the shore.
Kiawah Island is no stranger to this kind of over-the-top opulence. From 1699 to 1974, it was owned by a string of wealthy families—a rumored pirate and his brood, a two-time mayor from nearby Charleston, and a plantation owner who struck it rich harvesting silky Sea Island cotton. The developers who purchased the island in the seventies transformed its 10,000 acres into a luxury residential community and golf resort with five championship courses, including the famed Ocean Course by Pete Dye, named the third-best public course in America by GolfDigest. For thirty years, Kiawah’s accommodation options were limited to villas and rental homes that were very nice, but not necessarily opulent. Then, in 2004, the Sanctuary opened. It wasn’t long before visitors who cared nothing about golf began vacationing on Kiawah Island, drawn simply by its reputed grandeur.
And grand it is. Rooms at the Sanctuary are large—the smallest king room is more than 500 square feet—and each piece of furniture is custom made. Of the 255 rooms, an amazing 90 percent have views of the Atlantic. And if you sink into your deep soaking tub and open the plantation blinds shielding it from the balcony, you can see clear out to the water as you lie in your bubble bath.
As you might have guessed, the Sanctuary’s spa is highly ranked, too—one of only twenty-three Forbes Five Star spas in North America. It offers a host of treatments that bring the beach indoors, such as massages that incorporate warm, polished seashells instead of hot stones.
Speaking of the beach, the one on Kiawah Island spans ten miles, with hard-packed sand that stretches 100 yards from the dunes to the sea at low tide. Giant horseshoe crabs nestle in the tidal pools, and whitetail deer graze in the dunes. We took it all in on a naturalist-led walking tour, and then hopped on a boat for a picturesque dolphin-spotting excursion on the marsh.
There are several dining options on the island—we found everything from a casual Southern joint to a sophisticated Italian restaurant—but the most heralded are the Atlantic Room and the Ocean Room. The former is six miles from the Sanctuary in the Ocean Course Clubhouse, and as its name indicates, it affords diners panoramic views of the Atlantic. Begin your meal as we did, with a glass of wine on the wraparound porch, then move to your table and order Chilean sea bass served with fresh local vegetables. Save room for the sticky-toffee-banana cake, and be on the lookout for notable golfers dining nearby—this place has welcomed the likes of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
The Ocean Room is situated inside the Sanctuary and is one of only a few steakhouses in the nation to earn both Forbes Four Star and AAA Four Diamond ratings. Between its requirement that diners wear “resort formal attire,” its 1,000-bottle wine list, and its steep prices (an eighteen-ounce dry-aged bone-in ribeye will set you back $85), the restaurant certainly made us feel like the rich and famous, if only for a night. And when a server brought my daughter a cushioned footstool on which to place her beloved American Girl Doll, we felt as if we were to the manor born.
On the day we bid Kiawah Island adieu, we approached the security gate and caught sight of dozens of cars idling in the opposite lane, waiting to be admitted. No doubt, these new arrivals had reserved a place on the island months before, and they were eager to begin their immersion in this sumptuous world. Me? I’d come to feel completely at home, and like the mistress of the house departing for her morning errands, I tossed the guard a goodbye wave as we rolled past the gate.
If you love Kiawah Island’s opulent offerings, you might also like:
Sea Island, Georgia
A playground for everyone from Ashton Kutcher to George W. Bush, this gated Golden Isles retreat offers four Forbes Five Star experiences: the Cloister at Sea Island, the Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club, the Spa at Sea Island, and the Georgian Room restaurant. Tee off on three eighteen-hole championship golf courses, ride a horse down the five-mile beach, or take a tennis lesson with former French Open doubles champ Luke Jensen. Sea Island has offered visitors a taste of the good life since 1928, when auto industrialist Howard E. Coffin opened the Cloister and its attending Plantation golf course to rave reviews. In 2006, the entire resort received a $500 million makeover, unveiling a brand-new Cloister hotel, plus a new spa, tennis center, stables, and more. The result is a place rooted in history but abloom with modern-day luxuries. seaisland.com