Kiawah Island in South Carolina is a serene destination overlooked by nearby Charleston. It offers a relaxed Lowcountry atmosphere with minimal commercial development. It’s an ideal spot for a quick island retreat with plenty of natural beauty to admire. The lush maritime forests and charming marshlands are a draw. And the laid-back vibe is still quintessentially Lowcountry.
Only Freshfields Village offers a small selection of shops and restaurants. And yet, the island offers five public award-winning golf courses, making it a popular golfing destination. And Kiawah Island as a community spent the better part of a decade preparing for the 2021 PGA tournament, which it hosted to much acclaim.
This writer has only been to Kiawah Island on day trips and at the invitation of locals. It’s amazing who you’ll meet at church around here.
But it’s an easy getaway to enjoy the island’s natural beauty, making it a great pick from day trips from Charleston, SC.
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Kiawah Island’s Unique History
Like a few places in the world, Kiawah Island is one of those places only known to the lucky few.
But it was once a quiet backwater, like much of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Kiawah Island in the 1600’s:
The Kiawah Indians were the first to live on the kiawah island. They built their villages on the mainland and barrier islands surrounding Charleston. They were hunters and gatherers who traveled the creeks, rivers, and marshes in dugout canoes. In 1670, they welcomed the English colonists and encouraged them to settle in the Charles Town Harbor, instead of Port Royal. The settlers befriended the Kiawah Indians. They eventually purchased the land of Kiawah Island in exchange for items like cloth, hatchets, and beads.
Captain George Raynor, a pirate who resided in Old Dock Creek on the backside of Kiawah Island, owned two ships. He became wealthy in September 1682 after he departed south to seek out a Spanish convoy and returned to Charles Town. To become a part of civil society, he made substantial donations to charities and other causes. In 1699, he obtained Kiawah Island from the Lord’s Proprietors. Rumors that pirate treasure is buried on the island are still circulating today.
Raynor divided his land into two parts and sold one of them to Captain William Davis. After Raynor’s death, one-half of the land was inherited by his daughter, Mary Raynor Moore.
Kiawah Island in the 1700’s:
In 1737, John Stanyarne bought the entire island and used it for cattle ranching and indigo plantation plantations. After he passed away in 1772, his will split the island between his two granddaughters, Mary Gibbs and Elizabeth Vanderhorst. During the American Revolution in 1780, the British destroyed the Vanderhorst Plantation. The family reconstructed it in 1801.
Kiawah Island in the 1900s:
The western half of the island was purchased in 1900 by a remaining member of the Vanderhorst family. So for a few a single person owned the entire island once more. Starting in 1911, a boat service operated daily to transport supplies to and from Charleston.
In 1950, C.C. Royal bought Kiawah Island for $125,000 with intentions to use it for logging. But by 1954 he had constructed some vacation homes on the island. Recognizing its potential as a vacation hotspot, he sold the island for $18 million in 1974. This sale initiated the development of Kiawah Island as a luxury destination of high-end vacation rentals and resorts.
In 1988, Kiawah Island became a town and real estate development thrived during the ’80s and ’90s. The Sanctuary, the second hotel on the barrier island, opened in 2004 to accommodate more vacationers and golfers. Kiawah Island is now a top destination for golfers and beach lovers worldwide. The PGA Championships were held at the Ocean Course on the barrier island that’s Eastern end in 2012 and 2021.
The Perfect Day Trip from Kiawah to Charleston
Kiawah Island is about 40 minutes southwest of the downtown of the city of Charleston. Visitors looking to visit and explore Kiawah Island can get there by driving or by flying into either:
- Charleston International Airport
- Or Charleston Executive Airport (JZI)
The Charleston Executive Airport is about 20 minutes away on Johns Island and caters to private jet companies.
Are you interested in visiting Kiawah Island more often? Consider NetJets, a private jet company that has a partnership with Kiawah Island Club. You can attend private events on the island and enjoy complimentary discovery visits to experience all that Kiawah Island has to offer.
How long is the drive from Kiawah Island to Charleston?
The distance for driving from Kiawah Island to Charleston is 26 km (43 miles) and is estimated to take an hour.
Kiawah Island Restaurants
Even with the low density of development, there are still more than a few places to eat on Kiawah Island. They just revolve around the resorts.
The Atlantic Room
Kiawah’s top seafood restaurant is in the Ocean Course Clubhouse at The Atlantic Room. Here, you’ll find practical dishes from fresh, seasonal ingredients with awe-inspiring ocean views. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, outdoor dining options are available during the season.
The Ocean Room
The Ocean Room is a high-end restaurant located in The Sanctuary that serves award-winning steak and sushi dishes. The Sushi Lounge offers traditional sushi, small plates, classic cocktails, and a selection of craft beer. The Ocean Room has received both Forbes 4-Star and AAA 4-Diamond ratings, and the dress code is formal. Chef Kyle Bowling focuses on using seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients for the menu. Some top hits include five steak cuts from cows raised on a nearby family farm, local seafood, and a sushi lounge for seafood lovers. The restaurant offers a 1,000-bottle wine selection.
The Ryder Cup Bar
The Ocean Course Clubhouse has a casual beach-side atmosphere. Its open porch bar serves an upscale bar menu and specialty cocktails. The Ryder Cup Bar offers pub-style food with a Southern twist. A popular menu item is the Crispy Shrimp, made from American white shrimp caught by the trawlers visible on the horizon. To enjoy the cool ocean breeze, request a seat on the veranda.
Enjoy daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the elegant dining room of the Sanctuary. The classic, Lowcountry interior is a perfect backdrop to the panoramic ocean views through the large windows. Don’t miss the spectacular Sunday Brunch buffet, complete with live music and delicious Bloody Marys.
Tomasso at Turtle Point
You’ll find homemade pasta, pizza, and seasonal specialties at this family-style Italian restaurant. Tomasso is just beyond the 18th green at the Turtle Point Clubhouse. The warm and inviting restaurant offers bar and table service, and outside seating is available during the season.
Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House
The Osprey Point Clubhouse is open for both lunch and dinner. Its casual ale house serves up Southern BBQ platters, salads, and signature sides and sauces in front of views of the fairway and lagoon. The Veranda Bar also features outdoor dining and an extensive beer selection. They have also received awards for having the best mac n’ cheese.
The Market at Town Center
The Market is a restaurant in East Beach Village that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They offer gourmet sandwiches, salads, pizza, and daily specials. Families and golf groups can enjoy self-service dining, as well as picnic lunch/dinner and takeout options. You can also find grocery items, beer, and wine at The Market.
The Players Pub @ Cougar Point
The Kiawah Players’ Pub has many great features. A major one is the outdoor dining area on the 4,354-square-foot covered deck that has beautiful views of the lagoon and 18th Green. This is an ideal spot to relax and enjoy the ocean breeze. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the menu created by Chef de Cuisine Cory O’Connor is outstanding.
Every summer Monday night, there is a community feast at Mingo Point on the western end of Kiawah Island. The feast includes:
- Oysters roasted over an open fire
- Barbecued ribs
- Pulled pork
- And steak
You’ll also find various classic Southern side dishes like mac ‘n cheese, collard greens, and Lowcountry red rice and sausage. The event features live music and a beautiful view of the sun setting over the Kiawah River, making it the perfect way to end the evening.
Freshfields Village Restaurants
Kiawah Island’s only development hosts yet more restaurants.
This is a lovely restaurant and bar serving French-inspired cuisine with fresh, local ingredients. Hege’s offers a variety of options including:
- Small plates
- Traditional specialties
- And prix-fixe menus
During the appropriate season, outdoor seating is available. Please note that they only serve dinner.
King Street Grille
Join your friends at the King Street Grille to watch the big game! You’ll have a fantastic experience, with large flat-screen TVs throughout both the bar and dining area. If you’re a fan of salads, you don’t want to miss the “create your own” option. The menu has a variety of options available such as delicious appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, and even a kids’ menu.
La Tela Pizzeria
They offer traditional Neapolitan woodfire pizzas and Italian dishes that are made in-house. La Tela Pizzeria also has a full bar, with an extensive wine menu and daily specials. You can even see their open kitchen!
Our menu is inspired by Mediterranean cuisine and features fresh, seasonal ingredients. The menu has a rotating selection of delicious salads, dips, and takeaway dishes. And a bakery offers bread, sweets, and other delights. Cafe Eugenia serves breakfast every day and has gluten-free options available.
Forty Eight – A Wine Bar
Forty Eight hosts a traditional wine bar with a selection of 48 wines by the bottle. Light Italian dishes like cheese, charcuterie, bruschetta, salads, and paninis can go with your glass. They also offer local craft beer and sparkling wines.
You can bring your laptop and use the free Wi-Fi, or use one of the two desktop computers provided for customers. You can also enjoy specialty coffee drinks, pastries, soups, and sandwiches here. Java Java offers comfortable seating both indoors and outdoors.
Vincent’s Drug Store
Visit Vincent’s Drug Store for a full range of services and an old-fashioned soda fountain. You can savor hand-dipped ice cream, milkshakes, and classic sodas. Popular menu items include hamburgers, hot dogs, wraps, and chicken salad.
The Station Deli
Serving breakfast and lunch every day of the week, from 6:30 am to 11 am for breakfast and 11 am to 3 pm for lunch. The Station Deli’s breakfast menu offers traditional items such as the delicious bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast burrito. For lunch, we have classic sandwiches, burgers, daily specials, and other freshly made grab-and-go items.
Fuji Sushi Bar & Grill
This is the perfect place on Kiawah Island for authentic Japanese cuisine and attractions, including:
- Sushi rolls
- Traditional hibachi entrees
- And Asian fusion dishes
Fuji Sushi Bar & Grill also has a full bar and provides patio seating. Weekly specials and daily happy hours are available.
This restaurant serves Mexican cuisine and operates every day for lunch and dinner. Cantina 76 specializes in signature margaritas and fresh seasonal SC vegetable salsa.
Fischer’s Sports Pub & Grill
Overlooking Bohicket Marina, this local spot serves delicious bar food at reasonable prices. They offer mouth-watering options like shrimp po boy, chicken tenders, and large burgers. You can play pool or darts and watch breathtaking sunsets. Don’t miss out on the fun at Fischer’s!
Beaches on Kiawah Island in South Carolina
The orientation of Kiawah Island is different from most other islands. It’s aligned in an east-west direction rather than north-south. As a result, its 10 miles of beaches are increasing in width every year. And regulations on the barrier island also prohibit building houses too close to the beach, so the beaches remain tranquil and unpolluted.
Beachwalker Park is an excellent family-friendly beach. Amenities here include lifeguards, restrooms, changing rooms, a snack stand, and surf lessons. The beach is open to the public and has a vast area for swimming. It also offers amenities such as dressing rooms, outdoor showers, restrooms, and grills. You can also rent beach chairs and umbrellas and enjoy seasonal snacks at the nearby snack bar.
It’s one of the most beautiful beaches to visit on this side of Hawaii.
World-Class Public Golf Courses on Kiawah Island
Kiawah Island has some championship golf courses that will test both experienced and novice golfers. The barrier island’s coastal winds ensure that each player has a unique golfing experience.
Each hole on the Kiawah Ocean Course offers a view of the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, the barrier island’s dense maritime forest surrounds Oak Point.
Golfers from all over the world continue to praise and support Kiawah Island golf.
1. The Ocean Course
According to Golf Digest, The Ocean Course is the toughest golf course in America. Kiawah Island’s most prized possession has more seaside holes than any other course in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Ocean Course was designed by the legendary course designer Pete Dye and follows almost three miles of coastline.
The golf resort is popular among visitors, both:
- PGA professionals
- And amateur golfers
For of its challenging terrain and picturesque views of the Atlantic Ocean. It hosted the 2021 PGA Championship and is widely regarded as the most beautiful golf course in the world. There are five courses available at the resort, among which is the Ocean Course, designed by Pete Dye. Playing at this course promises players breathtaking views of the Atlantic surf. To sum it up, golf enthusiasts can enjoy a remarkable golfing experience at this resort.
2. Cougar Point Golf Course
The Cougar Point course underwent a full renovation in 2017 and provides breathtaking views of the island.
Cougar Point is a beautiful 18-hole links course that offers breathtaking views of the tidal creek and marsh. The course has fresh greens, tees, and fairways, laser-level tee boxes, rebuilt bunkers, and an updated irrigation system. With its stunning surroundings and diverse terrain, you will love playing at Cougar Point. It may very well become your new favorite place to play.
3. Osprey Point Golf Course
Like other courses on this list, Osprey Point is renowned for its breathtaking vistas. While playing, you’ll be able to appreciate the scenic sights of verdant coastal woodlands, lagoons, and saline wetlands.
Osprey Point is distinguished from its competitors by being recognized as one of America’s “Top 50 Courses for Women.” This makes it an ideal feature to include in a Kiawah girlfriend trip. Furthermore, the place has a fantastic clubhouse and an eatery that provides award-winning mac and cheese.
4. Turtle Point Golf Course
If you’re seeking a professional-approved course, then Turtle Point Golf Course is the one for you. It was designed by Jack Nicklaus, one of the best golfers in history, making it a great test of skill for experienced players. The course has three magnificent oceanfront holes, vivid fairways, rich forests, and serene lagoons.
Turtle Point is one of Nicklaus’ initial designs and represents the epitome of classical architecture. And yet, it’s not suitable for inexperienced players. Skilled golfers are encouraged to tackle Turtle Point’s:
- Tiny greens
- Tight fairways
- And strategically located water obstacles
5. Oak Point Golf Course
The appearance of Oak Point has drastically changed since 2015.
Oak Point now offers championship-level golfing. Its scenic beauty and rolling layout make it a unique place and different from any other course on the island. Not only will this course test your skills, but it will also challenge your mental game.
Phenomenal Lowcountry Trails on Kiawah Island
Kiawah Island offers 30 miles of paved trails and 10 miles of hard-pack beach, making it a delightful destination for runners and bikers. The island boasts breathtaking scenery. Beautiful seascapes in green and gold meet ancient oaks and trees adorned with exquisite Spanish moss.
Kiawah Island wildlife
Exploring the island’s beaches and trails may offer sightings of:
- Great blue heron
- Fiddler crabs
- Loggerhead sea turtles
- And bottlenose dolphins
All of which are common there. The island’s untouched natural beauty provides the perfect place for an unforgettable experience for those who take a walk or bike ride on it.
If you want to join the Turtle Patrol volunteer program to track turtle nesting and hatching, plan your trip between July and October.
Ride a bike around Kiawah Island
To experience a different part of Kiawah filled with:
- Live oak trees adorned with Spanish moss
- Tall palmettos
- Sturdy yucca plants
- And vast marshlands with sea grasses and river tributaries
Then explore the 30-mile bike paths. This is a great way to enjoy the interior of the island after admiring its picturesque Atlantic coast.
Kiawah Island provides bikes that can be ridden on the beach’s hard-packed sand, and the 30-mile bike paths offer an exciting ride. If parts of the bike path are inaccessible, you may need to ride on paved roads.
Renting a bicycle on your visit to Kiawah Island is easy.
If you’re staying at the Sanctuary, you can rent a bike for a half or full day at the walkable rental program in the bike park.
If you’re staying at a villa or home, you can reserve a bike for two days or more through the resort’s booking service. They will even deliver the bike to your hotel and pick it up from your home.
To rent bikes, you can check out Kiawah Island Golf Resort or SeaCoast Sports and Outfitters in Freshfields Village.
You can play tennis at the Roy Barth Tennis Center all year round. Recently, the center had some upgrades and now has 10 new Har-Tru clay courts available for use. The facilities are open to the public, but you will need to pay $49 in court fees. To secure a spot, make sure to reserve court time, clinics, drill sessions, and round-robin play beforehand.
Explore the Waterways
Kiawah Island’s tidal creeks, saltwater marshes, and open waters are a paradise for fans of the aquatic.
On Kiawah Island, you can take part in fun and popular activities like:
- Sunset sailing
- And inshore fishing by either paddling a kayak
- Going on a sunset sailing cruise
- Or chartering a boat for a day
With both community and private docks available, you can easily access miles of unexplored waters.
The Best Time to Visit Kiawah Island
Kiawah is situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean coast and has enjoyable weather. That goes especially when compared to times when New England islands are too cold and the Florida islands are too hot. Late spring and early fall offer the best weather conditions. While summer temperatures, ranging from the high 70s to low 90s, are pleasant thanks to cool ocean breezes, it is also the busiest season on the island.
From Kiawah Island to Charleston – The Routes
The typical driving route from Kiawah Island to Charleston takes around 45 minutes. There are two possible routes to take, both approximately 30 miles in length. Take the route along State Road S-10-20 (Bohicket Road to Maybank Hwy) for a more scenic drive.
From downtown, your route will pass through the charming towns of:
- James Island
- And Johns Island
Before arriving at your final destination.
The route features beautiful country roads bordered by big oak trees that are shaded and draped with Spanish moss. This area is commonly known as the Alley of Oaks.
You may also consider taking the Bohicket Road to Main Road route, which is longer at 33 miles and takes about 55 minutes. That said, both routes offer some great stops along the way, so choose the one that best suits you and your time.
Restaurants, Cafes, & Places to Eat Along the Way
As you travel from Kiawah Island to Charleston, don’t miss the chance to try one of Charleston’s hidden gem restaurants. You can find a delicious cup of coffee in the morning or some savory barbecue for lunch.
- Tattooed Moose on Johns Island
- Wild Olive on Johns Island
- Low Tide Brewery on Johns Island
Local Attractions & Stops to Make
There are amazing historic sites you shouldn’t miss while traveling from Kiawah to downtown Charleston. They showcase the rich history of Charleston beyond its downtown.
- McLeod Plantation Historic Site on James Island
- The Angel Oak Tree on Johns Island
- Charles Towne Landing in West Ashley
Places to Stay on Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Fitting for an island renowned for its natural beauty and limited development, there aren’t a lot of places to stay on Kiawah Island.
So, rates are high and availability is limited. Hence why this guide is more focused on planning a day trip.
Your two options on Kiawah Island are:
The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort
The oceanside resort with a five-star rating feels like a luxurious estate located in the Southern part rather than a hotel. The lobby of the Sanctuary is designed like a finely furnished living room. Comfortable seating array around limestone fireplaces. The foyer has double curved staircases reminiscent of a grand plantation home. Every guest room has a soaking tub and a walk-in marble shower along with a private balcony providing either ocean or dune views.
There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied during your stay including:
- Three pools
- 22 tennis courts
- A luxury spa
- Nature programs such as marsh canoeing and ocean kayaking
- And access to five golf courses
The Andell Inn on Kiawah Island is a boutique hotel that offers luxurious accommodations for families and couples. Each room was thoughtfully designed, and the majority have beautiful views as well as a fully functional kitchen. The inn also offers two-bedroom accommodations for families or groups traveling together.
The inn’s pool cabana offers:
- Gorgeous views of the surrounding marshes
- A fully functional kitchen
- And lounge areas by the saltwater pool surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation
During the summer, visitors can cool off in the pool or order drinks from poolside servers.
In the morning, guests can enjoy breakfast on the spacious wraparound patio overlooking a tranquil lake.
The Andell Inn’s front desk is open 24 hours a day, with a daily shuttle to Beachwalker Park. The Porch Bar here serves craft cocktails.
More Islands near Charleston to explore, plus Charleston itself
Planning a stay on Kiawah Island?
For the complete Kiawah experience, spend a fun night on the town enjoying the nightlife.
And by that, I mean head into the downtown of the Holy City: Charleston, South Carolina.
Take a stroll through the charming cobbled streets and capture a photo at the iconic pineapple fountain in Joe Riley Waterfront Park. And don’t miss the opportunity to visit and learn about historic Charleston, dating back to the 1600s. The town offers a wide range of other attractions and things to do, such attractions as visiting stunning Charleston attractions like:
- Boat tours, walking tours, and carriage tours
- And shopping
Does the remote tranquility of Kiawah Island sound claustrophobic?
Or are you not a fan of golf?
Then some other nearby beach communities to explore include:
- Folly Beach, the antithesis of Kiawah Island
- Sullivan’s Island, more developed than Kiawah, but less so than the other islands
- Isle of Palms, for high-end resorts much closer to Charleston than Kiawah