KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- Snug behind a security checkpoint that keeps interlopers off this resort island, families are riding bikes on the wide 10-mile beach and a threesome is teeing off on the verdant, palm-dotted Osprey Point course.
Suddenly, the golfers realize they have company. A large alligator is sunning within striking distance. But instead of panicking, they laugh, move closer to take cellphone pics and play on.
Such serenity is the rule on 10,000-acre Kiawah Island, where humans and wildlife coexist in an enclave recently named "America's Happiest Seaside Town" by Coastal Living magazine. Rankings were based on a formula involving sunny days, beach quality, low crime, education of residents and other factors.
Kiawah's anointment makes you wonder: What makes the fewer than 2,000 year-round residents and thousands of vacationers on this barrier island 21 miles south of Charleston so blissful? Are they really? Time to find out.
After a 45-minute drive from Charleston International Airport, the Newton Farms upscale grocery outside the island gates makes a good opening argument for the ranking. On aisles stocked with wines and cheeses from around the world as well as homegrown tomatoes, staffers ask if they can assist. Fellow shoppers - strangers all - say hello. At the exit of the store in the cutesy Freshfields Village shopping and dining complex, workers urge everyone to have a great day.
'Welcome to paradise'
After being vetted at the guardhouse, visitors pass well-tended shrubs, lush palms and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Anchored by the huge Kiawah Island Golf Resort complex with a hotel, homes, condos and restaurants, the island also is served by other rental firms. It has no fast-food franchises, dive bars, stoplights or streetlights (the latter attract sea turtles, which are protected here).
Checking in to one of the privately owned rental units that dot the island is a process accompanied by smiles, "yes, ma'ams" and more than one "Welcome to paradise." Concierges are on call, as is a complimentary Kiawah Golf Resort shuttle that ferries guests wherever they want to go on the island.
Staying in a Golf Resort condo (from about $105 a night depending on the season) is an affordable alternative to a rental house or The Sanctuary, a AAA five-diamond, Forbes Travel Guide five-star property, where summer rates start at about $500 for spacious rooms with four-poster beds. The idea is to dispense "the Southern genteel kind of hospitality," says hotel manager Bill Lacey. A new, less expensive 150-room lodging on the site of the torn-down Kiawah Inn is in the planning stages.
Meanwhile, the one-bedroom condo at 3544 Seascape, owned by a Kentucky woman, is simple but comfortable. Her guestbook welcoming renters is filled with glowing comments and not a single gripe. Renting for $285 a night this time of year, including tax, it's updated with a flat-screen TV and kitchen and bathroom with granite counters.
The condo is an easy walk to a pool with new water slide and the Southern Kitchen, which serves biscuits and gravy - plus bagels and smoked salmon for Northeast tastes. Visitors from the North are the top market for Kiawah, says Mike Vegis, Kiawah Island Golf Resort director of public relations.
"We're corporate America's hideaway," Vegis says over a lunch of beef brisket at Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House. Island lore is that General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt got word of his promotion while golfing on Kiawah.
Politicians cast their votes for Kiawah, too. Both Bush presidents, Bill Clinton and Vice President Biden have visited. Robert Redford stayed in a pillared island home while directing the 2000 golfing movie The Legend of Bagger Vance.
In addition to privacy, golf is a VIP lure. The island, named for a Native American tribe, boasts five courses, including The Ocean Course. Designed by Pete Dye, every hole has water views, and changing winds make play challenging. In August, the course will host the prestigious PGA Championship for the first time.
All this and gators, too
Kiawah also is a center for tennis, biking (rentals can await at your lodging on arrival), kayaking, dolphin-watching, birding and relaxing on the white-sand beach protected by dunes dotted with sea oats. Gators are no problem if you give them space, Vegis says. He knows of no deaths but says a tourist once was bitten after catching a young gator.
In Night Heron Park, home of a day camp for kids and a new water park, Bella, 10, and D.J. Basic, 6, are gingerly petting a small gator held by Kiawah outdoor programming director Elisabeth King. "It feels hard on top and softer below," D.J. observes. The Milford, Conn., family - like many vacationers here - has been visiting for years, says dad Richard Basic. He and wife Cristina were married on Kiawah "because she had such fond memories as a child here," he says.
Memories in the making are all around Kiawah, where in two days, this visitor saw swarms of happy groups on paved bike trails and the beach, heard not one discouraging (or swear) word and learned that staffers are carefully chosen and trained in Kiawah civility, such as using guests' names in conversation.
Kiawah Golf Resort workers who interact with the public cannot have visible tattoos; men can't sport beards or mustaches. No "unnatural" hair colors or dreadlocks are allowed. Though staffers are diverse, the clientele this weekend is overwhelmingly Caucasian. There's an island pecking order: The richest property owners live behind a second security gate, can enjoy a private beach club and play on The River Course (membership in The Kiawah Island Club costs $300,000 for all such activities, not including dues).
If you go ...
Kiawah Island is a 45-minute drive southwest of Charleston International Airport, which is served by carriers including American, Delta, Southwest, United and US Airways.
Where to stay:Kiawah Island Golf Resort
is the big player on the island, with rental condos, townhouses, homes and The Sanctuary resort. Its condo rates start at about $105 in the off-season, near the $200 mark in summer. The Sanctuary starts at about $275 in the off-season and $500 nightly in summer. One-bedroom Golf Resort condos start at $1,055 weekly in summer. Other sources for rentals include: ResortQuest.com
What to do:
Golf on five island courses (one is members-only). Bike on more than two dozen miles of paved trails and on the 10-mile beach. Kayaking, dolphin-watching cruises, tennis and rental motorboats also are available. There are two new mini-water parks and excellent shopping ops nearby in Freshfields Village. The Sanctuary hosts free activities such as summer concerts and poolside movies. A Monday night oyster roast and barbecue at Mingo Point is an island tradition. This year, the PGA Championship
will be played Aug. 6-12 on The Ocean Course at Kiawah.
But everyone participates in old-fashioned good times.
Summer Mondays, there's the oyster roast at Mingo Point. Thursday nights, families swarm through The Sanctuary's Antebellum mansion-style lobby to the pool to watch a free movie on a big screen. Fridays, all ages gather on the resort porch and "Grand Lawn" for a concert. Elders sip cocktails and sit in rockers or lawn chairs; kids kick a soccer ball or caper to oldies played by a band.
To the infectious beat of Mustang Sally on this Friday, moms dance with daughters or sons, dads dance with daughters and couples gyrate in G-rated fashion - grinning and carefree, fanned by a soothing ocean breeze.