Although The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island was built a mere 13 years ago, it holds the gravitas of the 19th-century Southern mansions from which it draws its soul. Part of Kiawah Island Golf Resort, tucked along the South Carolina coast about 20 miles from Charleston, this luxurious beachfront enclave lives up to its name — the sense of seclusion and serenity envelops you as soon as you pass through the gates. The word has long since spread and families flock here from points far and wide, yet the staff is so warm and thoughtful in catering to each guest that you’ll feel as though you’re in on a delightful secret.
Stepping from the lush, manicured grounds into The Sanctuary’s lobby feels like entering an immaculately preserved plantation home, all soaring ceilings, polished hardwoods and cozy sitting areas dressed in antique finery. A vast wall of windows across the rear facade allows light to pour in and looks out to the Atlantic surf just beyond. Graceful, curving staircases at either end of the entry hall are flanked by handpainted murals that depict the island at different times of day. The sense of place is thorough and unmistakable.
The hotel’s friendly, welcoming service starts at check-in and extends throughout every aspect of the stay. Without exception, each staff member we interacted with was courteous, attentive and helpful to kids and adults alike — hospitality at its finest.
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The public areas in the heart of the hotel are meant to evoke private 19th-century salons, furnished in traditional style with intricate millwork and opulent top notes. The Morning Room, fashioned after a traditional ladies’ retreat, sits across the lobby from the more masculine Lobby Bar. Either is a wonderful spot to lounge with coffee and your reading material of choice in the mornings, or unwind with an afternoon cocktail while the kids read or play games.
The 255 rooms and suites at The Sanctuary fit in with the hotel’s mannerly sensibility, including custom wooden beds with pillowy mattresses, thick tieback draperies and well-chosen case goods. The color scheme of butter yellows and pale greens lends a soft and soothing effect. Our two-queen Sanctuary Guestroom was generously sized, with a comfortable sitting area and a spacious bathroom anchored by a deep soaking tub. Plantation shutters above the tub open to the bedroom; while this is intended to yield a clear view of the outdoor surroundings, the bonus for parents is that it’s easy to keep an eye on little ones at bath time without having to sit on the bathroom floor.
All accommodations have a private balcony with seating, and 90 percent offer ocean views, while the remainder look toward woodland areas. Our west-facing balcony had an unobstructed vista over the pools and beach, with Kiawah’s spectacular sunsets in clear sight.
Families of four or less can fit comfortably in a two-queen room or a one-bedroom suite with sleeper sofa. Various connecting room and suite configurations sleep as many as eight, making The Sanctuary an excellent choice for multigenerational getaways.
While guests at The Sanctuary have access to the 12 restaurants spread across the resort — and virtually all have children’s menus — some of the most family-friendly are right onsite. Jasmine Porch, an upscale venue serving a fresh take on Lowcountry cuisine, feels special enough for a parents-only date yet comfortable and welcoming enough for the younger set. We had the good fortune to visit during soft-shell crab season, always a treat in this region and nowhere more so than here. The delicately battered beauties nestled on a mound of creamy grits were the most delicious I’ve ever eaten.
Loggerhead Grill, an alfresco cafe next to the family pool, is an easy spot to pop in for lunch without having to change everyone out of wet swimsuits. Part bodega, part sweet shop, Beaches and Cream (located off The Sanctuary’s lobby) serves grab-and-go pastries and breakfast sandwiches in the mornings, panini and salads at lunchtime, and ice cream treats all day long.
We ventured one evening to the Osprey Point golf-course clubhouse to try Kiawah’s newest restaurant, Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House. Casual, bright and bustling, it’s a perfect fit for kids, with a menu heavy on smoked meats in stupendous portions. No matter what you choose, be sure to order the mac and cheese as a side. It won an award last year as the best in the Charleston area, and once you taste it you’ll know why.
Beachcombing families will find lots to love here. The Sanctuary sits on a broad, uncrowded 10-mile stretch of packed sand, with plenty of room for strolling, sandcastle building and even biking. Tidepools dot the shore late in the afternoon, and kids love to wade through as they hunt for shells and tiny sea creatures. Onsite beach attendants will set up chairs and umbrellas at your request, or you can have backpack chairs as well as outdoor games and sand toys delivered to your accommodations. Boogie boards, surfboards and stand-up paddleboards are available to rent as well.
TIP: The beach isn’t lifeguarded and currents can be strong at times. Check the local surf reports or ask the attendants if conditions seem dubious.
You can’t mention Kiawah without bringing up golf — the resort is famous the world over for its links, particularly the Ocean Course, and the sport is the reason many people come here. Five championship courses are wrapped into the grounds; a golfing enthusiast could fill a holiday just playing them in turn. Junior golf clinics are available in summer for ages 8 to 17, and kids of any age can play three of the courses free with a paying adult, thanks to the Family Tee program.
Kiawah is also renowned for its two tennis centers, having earned acclaim as the No. 1 tennis resort in the world. My son, an avid tennis player at home, had a wonderful lesson with one of the resident pros at the Roy Barth Tennis Center, a quick walk or drive from The Sanctuary. Both the instruction and the facilities are top-notch.
The pool setup at The Sanctuary is thoughtfully designed. A tranquil adults-only pool overlooking the beach lies directly across from the larger family pool, i.e. parents can relax in peace yet keep tabs on swimming kids. Even during peak hours, the pools never felt overly crowded during our visit; ample rows of chaises allow for plenty of room to spread out. Families with young kids or those who crave a little more action might head for the zero-entry children’s pool at Night Heron Park, or the waterslides and splash pads at the West Beach Tennis and Pool Complex.
Families could spend a fortnight at Kiawah and barely scratch the surface of things to do. Every day brings a full slate of outdoor pursuits, family arts and crafts, local excursions and on-property exploration. Take a glass-fusing class, learn to surf or kayak, join a butterfly walk with a staff naturalist, shop at The Sanctuary’s upscale boutiques, mingle with other guests at a waterside oyster roast … the possibilities are enormous in both number and scope. Peruse the resort’s comprehensive activity guide, updated each season, to see what’s on during your stay.
The kids’ club, Kamp Kiawah, is open to ages 3 through 7 at Easter and in summer, and ages 3 through 11 in spring and fall. Choose from half-day or full-day programs; there’s also a Kids’ Night Out add-on that includes dinner. The schedule of activities strikes a good balance of indoor and outdoor time: Harry Potter-inspired potion making, pirate cruises, a woodland scavenger hunt and an indoor pool party, for instance.
Although the thought of a kids’ club doesn’t always excite older children, Kiawah’s Camp Xtreme is a different story. Designed for 8- to 15-year-olds, it ratchets up the intensity with sports and games like Ultimate Frisbee, lacrosse, a ninja obstacle course and a Kiawah-themed take on The Amazing Race. We didn’t give Camp Xtreme a test run, but I’m pretty sure my tween would have had the time of his life.
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Don’t end your stay without carving out a little solo time at The Sanctuary Spa, tucked on the top floor of the hotel. Both the design and the treatments are infused with a bit of local flavor — such as the full-body Spirit of the Sea massage and facial pairing, or the Kiawah Golf Ball Massage (it’s just what it sounds like). I enjoyed a custom 60-minute facial that left my skin looking fabulous and the rest of me feeling like a wet noodle. Bliss! The spa includes a water area with steam room, whirlpool and sauna, plus solariums for relaxing in pure peace before or after a session.
Kiawah Island Golf Resort is spread out, so a car can be helpful for getting around, especially if you plan to make the 45-minute trip into Charleston. For guests who would rather not drive, complimentary shuttle service runs on a loop around the resort, and the concierge also can arrange off-island transportation. The closest major airport is in Charleston, but flying into Savannah, Georgia — about 2 hours’ drive from the property — works too.
Editor’s Note: The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island provided a media package in order for us to review the property for families. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Lisa Frederick except where noted.
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