The Sanctuary on Kiawah - My Family Travels

South Carolina's premiere vacation home resort maintains its eco-focus in a new luxury spa hotel that pampers guests with the latest amenities.

Twenty-one miles south of historic Charleston, South Carolina, lies the barrier island of Kiawah. Blessed with 10 miles of wide beach and 10,000 acres of natural maritime woodland and tidal marsh, the privately-owned island is home to loggerhead turtles, fox, bobcats, myriad bird species and the American alligator.  And more recently, one of America’s great resorts.

Truly a Sanctuary

Visitors to Kiawah can rent one of 600 villas and houses or stay at The Sanctuary, the island’s sole resort, where our family stayed this autumn.  Regardless of accommodations, guests have access to all of Kiawah Island’s many amenities (more about that later). 

The Sanctuary is spectacular.  The resort’s owners set out – with a large amount of bravado – to create one of the most luxurious resorts in America.  It appears they have succeeded.  Opened in August, 2004, The Sanctuary’s 255 guest rooms and its public spaces fit in rather unobtrusively with the island’s landscape, thanks in part to more than 200 transplanted Live Oak trees.  Even at full capacity, the resort seems oddly underused and peaceful.  Although luxurious, the resort retains a sense of relaxed southern grace and charm, so spirited children blend in to the quasi-residential look and feel.  The resort is designed to feel as if it has been around for decades, with a mix of antiques and new furniture and a lobby floor made from reclaimed walnut planks that intentionally give and creak. The Sanctuary’s guest rooms are twice as large as typical hotels rooms, and nearly all have views of the ocean and beach.  Families using adjoining rooms will have more space than many city apartments and bathrooms verge on the decadent.  The luxurious details continue outside. Three outdoor pools, including an adults-only infinity pool and a 12-inch deep kiddie pool, are steps from the dunes and the wide, packed-sand beach, which offers great jogging, shelling, body surfing and tidal pools at low tide (though no lifeguards).

The Sanctuary’s spacious, sunlit fitness center (ages 16 and up, complimentary to hotel guests) sports a TV set at every cardio-station and a 65-foot indoor pool (all ages).  Most luxurious of all is The Sanctuary Spa, which utilizes indigenous ingredients for many of its specialty treatments.  My Signature Massage – with warm grain and herb-filled wraps placed on key tension points – left me feeling like a blissful wet noodle. Fortunately for the bill-payer, spa treatments for teens are limited to facials only.


Blissful Dining

The food and restaurants at The Sanctuary are a solid step above typical resorts, even at poolside.  We lounged on an all-weather sofa and ordered a delightful lunch from the creative tropical menu at The Sanctuary’s poolside Loggerhead Grill before a rolling Dixie storm chased us under the outdoor bar’s roof.  The Jasmine Porch, with exposed brick and ceiling fans, seems right out of downtown Charleston and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in an informal setting.  The Ocean Room (jackets required for men) is the main evening event: mahogany paneling, wrought iron, tall ceilings and chandeliers, all overlooking the surf – a perfect spot for our 10 and 11-year-olds to practice their cotillion skills!  There also are four lovely golf clubhouse restaurants a short shuttle ride away.

The wait staff in the resort restaurants often went above the call of duty. When the gourmet dessert offerings at the Jasmine Porch didn’t appeal to our kids, our server popped across the hall to the (closed for the evening) Beaches & Cream candy and ice cream store for scoops of mint chocolate chip ice cream.  In the Ocean Room, the staff was quick to prepare a simplified version of the filet mignon for our kids – and they even scared up some raw carrots and ranch dip!  Service throughout the resort was genuinely friendly with just the right amount of formality.

Not fans of large breakfasts, we usually opted for The Sanctuary Gourmet in the lobby for a fresh cup of coffee and croissant or bagel.

Town Center Market next to The Sanctuary also serves breakfast, as well as gourmet sandwiches, brick oven pizzas and reasonably priced seafood dishes for lunch or dinner.  And there is a kids’ menu and a wide range of groceries at the Market if your little ones just want some Fruit Loops and milk.

Family Fun Programs

All families staying on the island can enroll their children for a fee in the highly respected Kiawah Kids Program based at the 21-acre Night Heron Park, a short walk from The Sanctuary.  Kamp Kiawah, housed in an open-air pavilion during summer, is also bustling during the holiday seasons with the typical array of children’s activities: sports, crabbing, face painting, crafts, environmentally sensitive nature hikes and scavenger hunts.  Kamp Kiawah is designed for ages 3-11, although when we visited the activities were geared toward the younger set.

During summer and holiday season, teens can take part in complimentary activities such as “Teen Survivor,” late night movies, photo scavenger hunts, karaoke, paint tag and dance contests. In addition, a Junior Naturalist Program ($15 per person) is offered for ages 10-15 with Nature Photography, Herpetology and a Naturalist Shadowing Program.

Family-together activities on the island might include Family Jeopardy, a beach party, oyster roast, winter holiday events, a Kiawah Karnival, an ice cream social, water aerobics or sand sculpting contests. Many of these are complimentary to resort guests.

Communing With Nature For All Ages

In addition to the kids’ camp, Night Heron Park focuses on eco-related diversions, this destination’s specialty. We admired the 30-minute “Reptile Round Up” ($2 per person) with a naturalist who allows kids to touch indigenous wildlife, such as a corn snake, box turtle and local baby alligator. The park’s Nature Center has interesting displays of caged snakes and birds and a nice little gift shop. The Park, used by all island residents, also has an outdoor pool and facilities for soccer, basketball, sand volleyball, fishing and even a bike rental spot.

One overcast morning we took a Marsh Creek Canoeing Excursion ($30 per adult, $10 for kids ages 6-10) through the salt marshes for a close-up observation of Kiawah’s birds, crabs and fish. The same naturalist who conducted the Reptile Round Up pointed out the herons, egrets and eagles and answered questions about the area’s unique ecology. By the end of the two-hour tour, our kids’ interest waned a bit – or maybe they just got tired of paddling.

Another naturalist escorted us on a Gator Walk, a 90-minute hike across bridges and trails and past ponds in residential neighborhoods. Some alligators would swim right up to the bridge when we approached, apparently because many people feed them despite signs discouraging it. We also saw plenty of birds (our naturalist was a birder), scads of butterflies, a couple of snakes – and even a bobcat.

There are numerous other nature excursions such as birding walks, evening beach walks and sea kayaking. The favorite way of exploring Kiawah is by bicycle, which can be rented ($12/half-day with helmets; infant carriers available) and returned at The Sanctuary and numerous other spots on the Island. Thirty miles of paved, flat trails wind through neighborhoods, across bridges and right up to ocean access. But the best biking is on the hard-packed sand where we pursued sand pipers and flocks of sea gulls and chased each other right into the surf.

Tennis Magazine ranked Kiawah Island “Number 1” among tennis resorts.  Island guests can play at world-class facilities with 23 clay courts, five hard courts and complete instructional facilities and pro shops. Our kids missed the opportunity to participate in the junior tennis clinic during our stay, since the clinic runs only on weekdays during off-season.

The famed Ocean Course (designed by Pete Dye who claims, “There’s no other golf course in the Northern Hemisphere that has as many seaside holes,”) is one of five lovely golf courses that provide plenty of options and challenge. Numerous professional tournaments have been held on the island, including the 1991 Ryder Cup and the 2001 and 2003 World Cup tournaments. The resort offers clinics and workshops, as well as a Golf Learning Center with hitting bays, an instructional putting area, classrooms and video studio.

Tired of all this pampering and fun? The Sanctuary offers transportation or planned excursions into historic Charleston City for antiquing, restaurants and a change of scene.

Kiawah’s broad range of top-notch offerings will appeal to the beach lover, golf or tennis nut, nature enthusiast, foodie and spa junkie. With the addition of The Sanctuary resort, Kiawah ranks as one of America’s great family destinations.

South Carolina’s Charleston International Airport is 35 miles from Kiawah Island. Among the vacation rental homes, one to four-bedroom villas start at $99-$449/N and three to six-bedroom houses rent from $319-$2,340/N depending on amenities and season. Rates at The Sanctuary range from $275-$625/N depending on room type, weeknight and season. A $25 per day resort fee at The Sanctuary covers local telephone, high-speed Internet access, on-island transportation, and valet/bell staff gratuity. For more information and reservations, contact a travel agent or the resort directly at 877/683-1234 or go to or to plan and even reserve, when necessary, all activities for your teen, child or entire family for each day of your vacation.

Pat VandenHeuvel contributes, with her husband Chris, to FTF’s “POVs From Our SUV” column and is the mother of two, based in Leesburg, Virginia.

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