Taking sanctuary at Kiawah Island

Some 20 miles outside of Charleston — and yet seemingly a world away — sits the infinite charms and unmatched natural beauty of Kiawah Island. A barrier island of the South Carolina coast, Kiawah has a long and storied ancient history marked by magnificent Native American culture, European conquest, sprawling agricultural pursuits, and more. But it’s only been recently — over the last four decades — that the island has bloomed as a haven for the rich and famous, a place of soaring oceanside mansions and luxury hotels, championship golf courses and yacht-dotted marinas, all taking full advantage of the serene and seemingly endless beach, river, and creek scene.

The crown jewel of Kiawah Island opened in August 2004 with a name that serves as a fitting moniker for this dreamy piece of Lowcountry paradise. And the Sanctuary Hotel has, in the past eight years, garnered a laudable list of distinctions and awards, including a Forbes Five Star Award, the #1 U.S. Resort Hotel by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report, and the #1 Family Resort in U.S. and Canada by Travel + Leisure Family.

No doubt much of the honor comes from the vast options available to guests of resort. Boasting some 255 rooms and infinite possibilities for relaxation and activities, visitors can personally tailor their experience for every whim and taste. Accommodations range from 3,000 square-foot suites to more simple rooms with ocean or garden views, private villas with scarcely a soul around to three-story homes encompassing every architectural style and sensibility imaginable.

My own experience with The Sanctuary began with a special golf weekend invitation. Arriving on a Friday afternoon, my group was immediately swept up in the grandeur of the lobby, awash in handcrafted iron- and brickwork accented by traditional stone and stucco accoutrements. The rooms were thoroughly comfortable and nicely appointed, and the views of marsh lent an aura of natural seclusion.

Golf at Kiawah is a religion, and the island sports five courses that have hosted several major tournaments (which will include the PGA Championship in 2012). After a day at the Ocean Course, we were transported back to the hotel for a meal at the Sanctuary’s signature restaurant, the four-diamond, four-star Ocean Room. Here, Chef Nathan Thurston and his team serve up epicurean delights highlighted by local produce, meats, and seafood, accented by an award-winning wine list that has received accolades from Wine Spectator. There are also three other dining options at the Sanctuary, running the gamut from casual breakfast and lunch fare to luxe feasts.

The Spa at the Sanctuary—which I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to experience—also touts numerous honors. Drawing its inspiration from the bountiful natural offerings of Kiawah, guests can indulge in everything from seaweed and mud treatments to mineral water baths and waterside massage. There’s a special Gentlemen’s Reward package that pairs post-round rub downs with neck and back skin care and hour-long scrub and steams.

Activities at the Sanctuary abound—from nature hikes to tennis to bike rides to fishing trips—and on my visit I awoke Sunday morning and, rather than play a second round of golf, opted instead for a kayaking trip through the creeks surrounding the property. The October weather was perfect, the water not too cold, and the flora and fauna nothing short of awe-inspiring. The highlight of my paddle occurred when a pair of playful dolphins popped up not 20 yards from me, paying a sort of “good morning” before heading out into deeper water.

Perhaps they were here for the same reason I was—to discover, in this amazing little spit of land—the true meaning of sanctuary.

Peter Rerig is a Senior Writer for Vacations.com.

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