Fancy a relaxing getaway? Jump on your plane and escape to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Considered one of the most beautiful barrier islands on the East Coast, the island is known for its private and gated communities, first-class golf courses and 10 miles of pristine beaches.
A short drive from Charleston, the island makes a great base from which to explore the rich history of one of America’s best-preserved colonial towns, unique Lowcountry cuisine, and thriving nightlife. Kiawah Island is a luxurious retreat, a playground for the wealthy, and a peaceful nature preserve for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
The lay of the land
A low-lying coastal region along the South Carolina coast, Kiawah Island is an aquatic paradise. More than 60 ponds and lagoons dot its landscape. The approximately 10,000-acre island is separated from its nearby barrier islands, Johns Island and Seabrook Island, by the Kiawah River, and to the north by its confluence with the Stono River.
Salt marshes, maritime forest, sandy beaches and dunes make up the island’s ecosystem, which is home to diverse wildlife including alligators, 140 species of birds, white-tailed deer, bobcats and turtle endangered Atlantic Loggerhead. Recognized for its efforts to save loggerheads and their habitat, the island was commended in 1981 by the Izaak Walton League with a National Conservation Award.
About a 30-minute drive from the island, historic Charleston sits on a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, which flow into a deep-water harbor. America’s first “planned” cityscape, early settlers who knew the narrow, winding roads of Europe, intentionally laid out the streets of Charleston in a wide, straight grid, making it one of the easiest cities to navigate. Browse.
A natural area with its own nature reserve, activities on Kiawah Island tend to revolve around the outdoors. The Kiawah River and its many ponds and lagoons offer those equipped with a rod and reel the opportunity to fish for southern flounder, speckled trout, black drum, redfish, and more. Fly fishing is also popular in the marshes of the Kiawah River. Travel 20 to 50 nautical miles east in the Atlantic and you’ll find some of the best offshore fishing in the world. With multiple artificial reefs and its proximity to the Gulf Stream, anglers fish for tuna, mahi mahi, sailfish, wahoo, grouper, snapper, marlin, and other game fish in the area. Several fishing charters are available.
Crab is also a local pastime. Near Blue Heron Pond you will find a community crabbing pier. No license is needed for recreational crabbing if using three or fewer handlines in South Carolina creeks. Just make sure any crabs you catch are over 5 inches from point to point and have no egg sacs. Check the regulations at dnr.sc.gov.
With over 30 miles of paved trails and a generally hard-sand beach, Kiawah Island is also a cyclist’s paradise. Encompassing 8 acres of natural habitat, Marsh Island Park is a favorite biking destination. Pedal along its wide wooden paths to the park’s observation tower for stunning views of the island.
Located on the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, the Heron Park Nature Center gives you the opportunity to observe wildlife up close. Animal exhibits include local diamondback turtles and a 10-foot-long Burmese python. The resort also offers nature tours that include dolphin encounters, bird watching, and alligator adventures, as well as recreation programs, such as kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, yoga, shelling and surfing.
For swimming and sunbathing, visit Kiawah Beachwalker Park, the island’s public beach. The beach takes its name from the broad, usually compacted strip of sand that leads to the ocean shore, the perfect surface for walkers or cyclists.
If tennis is your game, the island has a court for you. The Roy Barth Tennis Center and West Beach Tennis Club, both operated by Kiawah Island Golf Resort, have hard courts and Har-Tru clay courts open to the public and available by reservation.
Haven for golfers
With five public championship golf courses on the island, it’s no surprise that Kiawah Island is a top destination for golfers. The island is known worldwide for its Ocean Course, which offers 18 holes with ocean views and hosted the 2021 and 2012 Professional Golf Association Championships. Also operated by the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, the courses at Turtle Point, Oak Point, Osprey Point and Cougar Point are also making a name for themselves. Each course has its own set of challenges and, like the Ocean Course, is covered in seaside paspalum, which is known to be the turf of choice for professional golfers.
Kiawah’s Freshfields Village offers a low-key, upscale shopping experience for visitors to Lowcountry Island. High-end retail stores, one-of-a-kind boutiques and local artisans come together in this open-air hub. You’ll find everything from island/resort apparel, custom furniture and home accessories, from handcrafted jewelry to handmade soaps and perfumes, sporting goods, pet supplies, and eyewear. A spa, grocery store and pharmacy are also available.
Dining options on the island cover a wide range. For a taste of Lowcountry fare, try Jasmine Porch at Sanctuary. The restaurant’s seasonal selections include locally harvested seafood and organic produce. Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House is a stop on the South Carolina BBQ Trail and won Best Pulled Pork at the Festival of Discovery BBQ Competition. At Freshfields Village, you can choose from lighter fare, like sushi, wine, cheese, and charcuterie, or enjoy the staples, like pizza, subs, and ice cream. Hege’s restaurant offers classic French cuisine and Cantina 76 is a popular hangout for Mexican cuisine.
For a faster pace and even more restaurant selections, take the 30-minute ride to Charleston, which is known for its authentic Lowcountry and Gullah Geechee cuisine. Dishes like Shrimp and Grits, Oyster Stew, Crab Soup, Lowcountry Boil, Crab Rice, and Coconut Cake follow the eating habits tied to the roots of the region. Look for Nigel’s Good Food or Rodney Scott’s BBQ to get started.
When the lights go out, Charleston is the place for nightlife. Nightclubs range from Cocktail Club, a sleek speakeasy-style bar that serves specialty cocktails on a rooftop terrace, and The Belmont, which shows classic black-and-white movies while sipping craft drinks, to Deco Nightclub Charleston , which features “the biggest upscale dance floor in the heart of downtown,” and Dudleys, an LGBTQ-friendly bar that features drag performers, karaoke and dancing.
Named after the Kiawah Indians who lived on the island before the 1600s, the island’s Native American history dates back to at least 2000 BCE, as evidenced by dense sites of shell middens, as well as potsherds and stone fragments found on the island. In the 1670s, as European settlers moved in, Native Americans pushed west. The only structure still standing from the earliest days of settlement on the island is the Arnoldus Vanderhorst Plantation House, circa 1801. The Vanderhorst family owned the island and raised cattle and grew cotton and indigo there, until until she sold the property to CC Royal in 1951. In 1974, Coastal Shores Inc., a Kuwaiti company, purchased the island from the Royal Family Trust. The Plantation House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now fully restored and privately owned.
Looking for a restored plantation you can visit? McLeod Plantation Historic Site in nearby Charleston is a 37-acre property with a restored home, farm buildings, and slave quarters that will help you understand the history of the place. Established in 1851, the plantation is also home to the McLeod Oak, believed to be over 600 years old.
Another interesting historical site in Charleston is the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, built in 1771. During the Revolutionary War, the British used the ground floor of the building as a prison. The Exchange was also where South Carolina rulers ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and where public slave auctions were held before the Civil War. Next to it, you will find the oldest in continuous activity
liquor store in the United States
A visit to the area wouldn’t be complete without taking the ferry to Fort Sumter, a national park that sits on an island built into Charleston Harbor. The fort dates back to 1829, when soldiers began building it as part of American defenses against foreign invaders. Occupied by Union forces on April 12, 1861, it was the first Federal installation to be shot down by the Confederate army. The ensuing battle marked the beginning of the Civil War.
Despite its Civil War past, the city of Charleston has more than 3,500 well-preserved buildings that showcase early American architecture. Recognizing the value of its history, the city passed the nation’s first historic district zoning ordinance in 1931.