Story and photos by Lynn DeBruin
Night was falling and a full moon rising when we stumbled into a man in back of the hotel wielding a pair of scissors. Fortunately for us, he was only in search of fresh sprigs of rosemary from the hotel garden.
That’s when we fully realized why the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort is recognized annually as the best of the best. Only the finest, freshest ingredients go into its sumptuous dishes, and the attention to detail is top-notch at this five-star seaside resort off the coast of Charleston, S.C.
A few days earlier we had left Denver, feeling fortunate to get out when a rare October blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow on the city.
In Kiawah, we saw Mother Nature at its calmest. We stared out from our balcony at waves gently caressing miles of sandy beach, rode our bikes for hours along the smooth shoreline and marveled at the blue herons, alligators and turtles we saw while golfing and kayaking.
While we chatted with impassioned golfers intent on playing Kiawah Resort’s five courses in five days, our long weekend was set to a much slower pace – one designed to refresh and rejuvenate.
Asma Fischer fell in love with Kiawah while accompanying her husband to a medical conference here in 1991. Though they couldn’t afford to buy one of the immaculate homes fronting the ocean, they found a way to make frequent visits – going in with another couple on beachfront property before buying it outright.
“It’s such a beautiful place. It reminds you of everything created. Everything you see here is in sync with your body,” Fischer said. She also found the beaches safe and extremely clean. “I’ve never seen a beach this clean and I’ve been to beaches all over the world. And I draw encouragement from the tranquility,” she said.
Because Kiawah Island runs east-west with the ocean, it doesn’t get the traditional swells that create crashing waves and scary undertows. Rather, one can walk out fifty yards and still be in calm, knee-deep water most of the time. It’s what makes it a haven for families in the summer.
And what makes for glorious sunsets, as evidenced by the one we watched in front of the Sanctuary. Fischer appeared as if she were floating before a ball of fire that sank straight down the shoreline, as opposed to out over the water.
“It’s why people come to the beach forever. You feel that peace,” said Fischer, whose daughter Shireen was married there in March. Her experience in part explains why the Sanctuary recently was awarded Five Star (Forbes) and Five Diamond (AAA) ratings for the third consecutive year. Additionally, in the latest Conde’ Nast Traveler “Readers’ Choice Award,” it was named the No. 1 resort on the U.S. Mainland and Kiawah Island was named the No. 1 island in North America. Readers of Golf World magazine also currently rate Kiawah Island Golf Resort as America’s top resort.
For golfers, many see it as the Pebble Beach of the East Coast. It offers five world-class courses designed by Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Gary Player and Clyde Johnson. The links-style Ocean Course no doubt is the most famous, serving as the dramatic setting for the 1991 Ryder Cup and the 2007 Senior PGA Championship. In 2012 it will serve as host for the PGA Championship.
Although it originally was designed to sit behind the dunes, Dye’s wife, Alice, suggested raising the entire course to allow players unobstructed views of the coastline from every hole – something that couldn’t be replicated today.
With that, however, came a tradeoff as it would now be exposed to often brisk, unpredictable sea breezes – one reason Golf Digest labeled it the toughest resort course to play in the U.S., with its 155 slope rating from the back tees.
“(That award) is kind of a mixed blessing,” said Michael Vegis, the resort’s director of public relations. “People are scared of it, but everyone wants to take on the big dog at least once.”
He recalled one round with Bruce McGill, who played Walter Hagen in The Legend of Bagger Vance. On the par-5 No. 16, McGill hit driver, three-iron one day, and driver, 3-wood, 3-iron the next as the winds had done a 180 shift.
“It’s a Zen experience,” Vegis said of playing the Ocean Course, where players can experience up to an 8-club difference from one round to the next. “You don’t expect to score well, but you absolutely love your surroundings.”
Steven Caine, a Philadelphia CPA, was ecstatic that he finally made it to this golf mecca. “I played all five courses in five days,” he said. “It’s my first time here, but I will come back, definitely. If the Ocean Course is an A++, then the others are A-.”
While Caine battled the breezes and famous waste bunkers (one runs continuously for 2 1/2 miles on the Ocean Course), his wife did two days worth of treatments at the Kiawah Island Spa – a five-star, 12-room, garden-themed retreat complete with sauna, steam room and whirlpool.
They also planned to enjoy tennis at facilities that rank No. 4 in Tennis Magazine among the 50 greatest tennis resorts.
Of course, there also is the food to savor.
While strolling through the hotel grounds, we found the small Jasmine herb-and-vegetable garden that Chef Nathan Thurston started when he worked at the Jasmine Porch, the resort’s more casual low-country dining option. Mini signs pointed to lime basil, bibb lettuce, sugar snap peas and buttercup winter squash, not to mention blood beets and freckles romaine lettuce. Thurston, now chef at the resort’s acclaimed Ocean Room, said those veggies aren’t plentiful enough for everyday meals but work for special occasions. Everything else comes from a farm Thurston passes every day on his way to Kiawah. “What I think separates us is our commitment to local farmers,” Thurston said.
Every day he stops at Rosebank Farms to meet owner Sidi Limehouse and pick out the vegetables he’ll use for that evening’s courses. One he can always count on is the peppery arugula, which grows practically year-round because of the area’s unique fall climate – with temperatures sometimes getting into the 80s.
“What’s really special is just having that relationship with Sidi and stopping every day to see him. He always has something unique,” Thurston said. It might be five or six different types of pumpkins that go into the pumpkin bisque. Other times, it’s baby turnips, or heirloom cabbage.
The Sanctuary also started working with a local cheesemaker, Giddy Goat, whose cheese complements a lot of the produce served at the Ocean Room.
Just as important is where the Ocean Room gets its beef. Every week Thurston or one of his sous chefs make the two-hour journey to Mibek Farms, where the cattle are grass-fed then finished on peanut hay.
“Most beef in the U.S. is finished on corn because of its sugar content. But peanut hay gives it a nice flavor and a great marbling and it’s also a more natural diet for the animal,” Thurston said.
It helps that Mibek’s owner has a PhD in cattle nutrition, something that helps him understand how diet can complement the flavor of the beef.
The chefs will bring back one of the steers and fabricate it in their kitchen, which provides for custom steaks. That explains the signature item on the Ocean Room’s menu. It’s the Sanctuary Chop – a long bone ribeye that Thurston has yet to see on any other menu.
“It’s a lot of work to travel out there, get the (steer) unloaded and fabricated. A lot of places just order steaks already cut,” Thurston said. “So there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that allows us to deliver a product that not only is local but has amazing flavor to it.”
Additionally, while many steakhouses are so focused on meat and potatoes, the Ocean Room offers a tasting menu that allows diversity while taking advantage of the seasons.
“Cooking seasonally is very important to us. You’ll never catch us with a tomato salad out of season,” the chef said. “We sort of think it’s a crime to serve vegetables when they’re not in peak season.”
With that said, I couldn’t resist trying this wide assortment, which started with a pumpkin bisque, then a pear salad with duck confit, celery root and pomegranate. Next up was Palmetto Farms squab, obtained from a farmer just 40 miles away, served with butternut squash and broccoli rabe.
While not a big meat eater, I found the grilled cap of ribeye the perfect main dish. The succulent slices of beef were served with a chanterelle mushroom and lobster succotash, complete with brussel sprout petals. Finishing it off was a Study of Apples, with a bite-sized apple tart, warm apple beignet and mini-scoop of fleur de lis ice cream made with sea salt.
“Our biggest passion is using what’s around us and changing the menu frequently to reflect the season,” Thurston said.
While we would encounter one guest who wasn’t entirely sold on the resort – a New York man who had just come from the South of France – others we met couldn’t get enough of The Sanctuary.
In addition to the great golf and food, there is an expansive children’s program called Kamp Kiawah as well as an award-winning nature program.
And there’s always the charm and history of a major city like Charleston just 21 miles away – something many of the other top golf destinations lack.
“We have a lot of wonderful memories here,” Fischer said. As she talked, that full moon raised up behind her, and shed just a little more light on this island retreat.
Did you know?
Developers moved a quarter-million tons of dirt to raise the level of the hotel up so that one can see the tide breaking mid-tide from the lobby with its ceiling to floor windows. All of the live oaks lining the entry were moved during this construction, taken off-site, then replanted.
Did you know Part II?
At low tide there is more than 100 yards of sand from the dunes to the ocean.
Did you know Part III?
The first level of the Sanctuary features two winding staircases that were patterned after the ones seen in Gone with the Wind.
If You Go
Kiawah Island Golf Resort
Spa and Accommodations
Almost every room and suite offers sea views, with five-piece bathrooms and large marble showers. The spa has both men and women’s lounges complete with spacious mineral, whirlpool, steamroom and sauna, as well as a host of treatments and massages.
Kiawah Island Golf Resort boasts five championship courses: The Ocean Course, Turtle Point, Osprey Point, Oak Point and Cougar Point.
The Ocean is a walking-only course until noon. It has more seaside holes than any other course in North America. The front nine tiptoes through the low country’s beautiful and environmentally sensitive marsh and skirts rows of wind-pruned oaks. The back nine winds its way through sand dunes festooned with sweet grass (pink in late October), sea oats and wire grass.
Must see: the 24,000-square-foot club house, with weathered exterior and wraparound porches. The Ryder Cup Bar is the perfect 19th hole, with spectacular views of the Atlantic as well as an operating weathervane in the vaulted ceiling.
The west beach complex has 13 Har-Try clay courts, two lighted hard courts and backboard. The east beach center has nine Har-Tru Clay courts, three hard courts and a full practice area.
It is a fully supervised program for ages 3-11, with nature adventures and sand sculptures and tye-dye contests. There also is a teen program that features late-night movies, scavenger hunts, dance contests, etc. Family programs include ice cream socials and aqua aerobics.
There are organized single and two-person kayak tours of the Kiawah River, where one might spot blue herons, turtles, crabs and dolphins. There’s even an adult twilight paddle, the time when the marsh really comes alive.
There are 30 miles of paved paths and 30 miles of hard-packed sand along the gently sloping beaches. The latter offers plenty of beach-combing opportunities. The resort itself overlooks 10 miles of private beach.
Top photo: More than just a lake guards the scenic par-3 No. 17 on the Ocean Course.
Lynn DeBruin is a freelance writer/photographer based in Denver and former sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News. She is an 8 handicap.