This private island community is a high-end, natural paradise, best known for its championship golf courses and long stretches of beach.
Kiawah Island is located just 21 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina. Almost all of the island is part of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, a luxurious, gated community. To take full advantage of all that it has to offer (pools, kids' camps, special events), you have to stay inside the gates. The island is most famous for its five championship golf courses, especially The Ocean Course, which has hosted numerous professional tournaments. But there’s a lot more to Kiawah than just golf.
Kiawah Island is set on ten miles of sandy beach, but this won’t be your typical beach vacation. You’re not going to find a boardwalk with tourist shops, gigantic rental homes right on the sand, or any chain restaurants (or even stop lights!). Instead nature takes center stage on Kiawah. About half of the 13-square-mile island is undeveloped. Roaming around the island, you will see herons, egrets, alligators, and maybe a sea turtle (or its tracks), if you’re lucky!
The 45-minute drive from Charleston to Kiawah will set the tone for your visit. You’ll be driving winding, country roads beneath centuries-old Live Oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss. It’s a good reminder to slow down, put away the electronics, and look out the car windows.
As a local, I’ll admit that I didn’t always understand the appeal of Kiawah and felt put off by the gates. It felt like someplace only rich out-of-towners went. But now that I’ve experienced it firsthand, I get it. Charleston has become so busy and congested. On Kiawah, you leave behind the traffic headaches and beach parking pain to truly relax and enjoy your family.
Where to stay?
There are two hotels in the area and many choices for renting villas or houses, either directly through the Kiawah Island Golf Resort or through a website like VRBO or Airbnb. Kiawah is broken up into three areas: East Beach and West Beach (which are on either side of The Sanctuary Hotel) and the super high-end Vanderhorst Plantation (which is behind another set of gates) with gigantic homes. East Beach is the best spot for families. You’ll be close to Night Heron Park and the family and children’s pools, as well as walking distance to Town Center Market.
KidTripster Tip: Unless it’s an emergency, don’t shop at the markets inside the resort; they’re very expensive. Instead hop in your car and drive five minutes to Harris Teeter for a bigger selection and much lower prices.
Our family rented a two-bedroom villa in East Village in December, when my husband ran the Kiawah Marathon. When booking, look at the pictures closely and read reviews, as some of the villas can be a little dated. Also make sure your rental includes access to the pools. Our villa was lovely. It backed up to Night Heron Park, and we loved walking to the free nature center, playing on the playground, and running around the soccer field. In warmer weather, you have access to the Night Heron family and children’s pools, a mini water park with slides and water features. Night Heron Park is also where the resort holds many of its family activities and Kamp Kiawah.
KidTripster Tip: Pack a flashlight. The lighting at Kiawah is kept very dim to protect nesting sea turtles and other wildlife. If you plan on biking in the evening, you also should pack headlamps or bike lights.
If you’re looking for a hotel, there’s only one choice inside the gates, The Sanctuary Hotel. Unlike other high-end hotels where we have stayed with our kids, we always feel warmly welcomed here. (No one wants to spend a vacation shushing your kids!) The hotel has large rooms with balconies; most rooms have ocean views. The service is impeccable. Only guests of The Sanctuary can use the outdoor adult-only and family pools, as well as the indoor, heated pool, and hot tub. Rooms range from $270 to $825/night, depending on the room type, weekday or weekend, and season.
Even if you’re not staying at The Sanctuary, plan a visit to see what all of the fuss is about behind the gates. Either arrive by bike (to bypass the gates) or plan a meal at one of the resorts many restaurants and cafes. There are two sets of gates, so if you want to see the famous Ocean Course make sure to plan a meal at The Atlantic Room ($$$) or Ryder Cup Bar, so you’ll have entrance through both gates. For a full review of The Sanctuary, click here.
The only other hotel choice on Kiawah is Andell Inn, outside the gates at Freshfields Village Shopping Center. This stylish, boutique hotel is a Marriott property. The villa-style guest rooms range from studios to two-bedrooms and have kitchens. Rates range from $235 to $465/night.
KidTripster Tip: There are only two things to do on Kiawah Island outside the gates: you can visit Freshfields Village, an outdoor shopping center, or Beachwalker County Park. In the summer months, Freshfields holds farmers markets, outdoor movies, and concerts.
What to do?
The best way to see Kiawah is by bike. There are over 30 miles of paved bike paths, and you can even ride your bikes on the hard-packed beach. Kiawah rents bikes for every member of your family, including bike seats, trailers, trail-a-bikes, and helmets. The beach is pristine and perfect for long walks, lounging, and sandcastles. The Kiawah recreation department has an entire book filled with kid-friendly activities. It has regularly scheduled holiday events, like 4th of July parades and Easter egg hunts, too. Many activities are free, like sandcastle wars; other tours and classes charge a fee, including nature walks, beach yoga, and kayak and paddleboarding tours.
Of course for many people, the entire reason for visiting Kiawah is to play its five championship golf courses. The resort offers private and group clinics for every golfer in the family. They even have a family tee program, where your family can golf together from the family tees at four of the five courses; Ocean Course is not included. Kids 17 and under are free with a paying adult.
Kiawah is also well known for its tennis programs. There are two tennis clubs on the island that offer classes, clinics, and camps for every member of your family.
Where to eat?
There are over a dozen restaurants inside the gates at Kiawah, everything from pizza and sandwiches to fine dining. Get up close and personal with the Ocean Course by grabbing a meal at Ryder Cup Bar; the final hole of the course is just steps away and just beyond that is the beach. It’s gorgeous! While we were there, families were putting on the 18th hole, and there were lots of little kids running around. The food is really good, and there’s a great selection on the menu from southern favorites like fried green tomatoes to traditional bar food like burgers. Another family-friendly choice inside the gates is Cherrywood BBQ at the Turtle Point Golf Course. I had a pulled pork sandwich, and my husband had the brisket. Our daughter had the award-winning mac and cheese. Thumbs up all around!
KidTripster Tip: Eating at any of the restaurants inside the resort will come with a much higher price tag than the restaurants just outside the gates at Freshfields Village or down the road at Bohicket Marina on Seabrook Island, where LoKal Seabar is a good choice. A more casual choice on Seabrook Island is Red’s Ice House with its canned beer and fried seafood. It’s right on the water, pets are welcome, and many people arrive by boat.
Kiawah Island is located in the middle of the South Carolina Coast. It’s easily drivable from many East Coast cities. If you’re flying, the closest airport is Charleston International, which is about an hour away from Kiawah.
Stephanie Hughes Pratt is a former television reporter and mom to two kids. She is married to a fellow journalist, and the family has lived all over the USA. She suffers from a severe case of wanderlust and is always looking for the next great adventure.