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Kiawah Island mixes prehistoric with modern luxury in South Carolina

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — If you're looking to play some of the best golf available in the South, while dumping a warm bucket of luxury all over you, you couldn't do much better than Kiawah Island.

The place is a dichotomy. On one hand, you have an island that is pretty much the way it's been since prehistoric times: osprey and egrets patrol the shallow waters, alligators lurk in the marsh, hundreds of species of birds twitter in the trees. There are 10 miles of beach, 30 miles of paved, biking tails and riverside oyster roasts.

The luxury factor, though, has been here for only the last few years, relatively speaking, well after the Kiawah Indians "left."

The Kiawah Island Golf Resort offers the Sanctuary hotel as well as private, luxury homes and villas for rent, from one to six bedrooms and interspersed throughout the 10-mile island. Villas rent from $106 to $782 per night and the luxury homes go from $1,400 to $13,650 weekly.

As far as real estate, lots start at $230,000 and range up to $9.5 million, homes start around $700,000 up to $29 million and villas and cottages go from $340,000 to $1.18 million.

The Sanctuary has been getting the most publicity of late, and is indeed an impressive building, with wide-planked, oak parquet floors — it's like stepping back to a simpler time when they took time with their architecture. The service is excellent, sometimes bordering on smothering.

The resort, about a half hour from Charleston, was named among the top 10 North American resorts by Conde Nast Traveler. It has 255 guest rooms and suites, from $275 to $625 a night, all with five-fixture baths, large marble showers, dual vanities, shuttered bathroom windows and ocean-view balconies. They also have 27-inch televisions, thick terrycloth bathrobes and DVD players.

Guests also have a private concierge level, twice-daily maid service and a slew of 24-hour services, including concierge, front desk service and room service. And, of course, they'll shine your shoes.

Walking into the lobby, you know right away you're going to be pampered, with the grand lobby bar, martini bar, and oceanfront poolside grill.

The Sanctuary has a "nature-based luxury spa" with 12 massage, facial, body treatment and steam rooms with domed ceilings and hardwood floors, and a full-service salon. There is also a 65-foot-long indoor pool and a special studio for yoga, tai chi and other new-age stuff.

Resort guests have their choice of golf courses, and they would surely choose at least once Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, where Pete Dye took a Carolina seascape already blessed by nature and used some of his subtlest strokes, which must have been difficult for an eccentric, over-the- top designer often loved and often equally hated for changing the way we look at golf courses.

No golf course in the world has ever improved on nature, but this one comes closer than most, and the way Dye did that was let the location's natural beauty remain in its simplest state.

What is a seascape anyway, but dunes, water, wind and hardy growth lashed by salt spray? That's what this part of the Carolina coast was and what it still is; it's the way Dye guides you through it as you play a centuries-old game that qualifies as artistry.

There is no fancy bunkering, but there is plenty of sand, the same sand that has lay there for millenniums, which Dye had the intelligence to leave mostly untouched. Forget country club rules: take a practice swing when you land in it — and you will.

Hack at it as much as you want, ground your club if you like, even in the middle of the cart paths, unspoiled by asphalt or concrete. This is one artist who doesn't mind the masses taking swipes on his canvas.

"We let them know it's not an easy course," Kiawah spokesman Mike Vegis said of those who stay at the Sanctuary and want to play Ocean. "Some of them come here and play the Ocean course exclusively, the true, hard-core masochists. Most resort players will come out here to play once, just to say they played it, and then go play the other courses."

Another option is the Osprey Point course. The course is known for two things that set it apart from other Kiawah courses: its playability and the sheer number of large reptiles that like to sun themselves on the course, while ignoring posted traffic regulations.

"I've seen 13 of them lined up against the clubhouse," Vegis said.

The members seem to like this course as much as the gators, for the same reasons. Since the course is more open than the Ocean Course, Turtle Point or Cougar Point, there is more room for the gators to get sun and more room for the golfers to find errant shots.

Indeed, Osprey has wide landing areas and most of the hazards are on the left, good news for right-handed high-handicappers, most of who deal unsuccessfully with their slices.

The island is home to another famous golf course, Cassique, designed by Tom Watson and part of the private Kiawah Island Club, where members get access to three clubhouses. Watson had Scotland's links courses in mind when he designed the course. Since the winds off the Atlantic are such a factor, Watson designed the course to play a number of ways, depending how hard and from which direction the wind is blowing.

As far as dining, the Sanctuary's Ocean Room is the swanky restaurant on the grounds, with jackets required (they have some if you're slothful and low-brow enough to have forgotten to bring your own).

The chef's name is advertised so you know it must be high-falutin.' It specializes in "New American" cuisine and promises an "inspired evening of dining." There's a lot of mahogany and fancy ironwork with views of the Atlantic, plus plush, oversized chairs next to a fireplace.

The Jasmine Porch is more casual, serving "Lowcountry" dishes and fresh seafood. Try the roast corn and baby crab bisque. It also has a great breakfast buffet.

The Loggerhead Grill and Beaches and Cream are seasonal restaurants and the Lobby Bar is where the nightlife on the island happens, such as it is. There is piano entertainment Tuesday through Saturday.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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Dates: March 5, 2018 - May 27, 2018
Experience golf at its best on five fully renovated championship courses in pristine condition. Villa accommodations start at just $228/person/night or you can upgrade to The Sanctuary Hotel from $437/person/night.
Price range: $228