In 1991 Kiawah Island hosted golf’s Ryder Cup. I was 16-years-old.
Like thousands of others, the “War by the Shore” was my introduction to the place. I have been looking forward to visiting ever since.
Twenty-six years later I finally arrived. It was worth the wait.
It’s difficult to explain how exotic pictures of the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island appeared to me as a sophomore at Waukesha (WI) South High School.
Sitting in my school’s library, thumbing through the golf magazines (this was years before the internet), my eyes didn’t know what to make of the landscape, snugged up against the Atlantic Ocean, featuring palm trees and sea oats, sand dunes and white caps. I had been to the South numerous times, but my trips were always inland. I’d seen Lookout Mountain and Music Row, the Okefenokee Swamp and Disney World, but the barrier islands were foreign to me.
And unimaginably beautiful.
The 1991 Ryder Cup would go on to become one of the most memorable events in golf history, detailed here. It would also prove the turning point for Kiawah Island, transforming it from an unknown island not far from Charleston, to a world-class golf destination.
During my visit to Kiawah I would learn that the Ocean Course and clubhouse used during the Ryder Cup were completed almost literally on the eve of competition, and that the transformation put in motion by that event continues to this day.
My visit to Kiawah Island was atypical in the extreme. I try to avoid writing articles like this which don’t allow readers to recreate the experience. In this case, that’s not possible. Through Kristi’s work at Forbes.com, she was invited to the Island to experience their owner’s club lifestyle.
She and a guest. C’est moi.
For my first visit to Kiawah Island, I would be enjoying it as if I owned one of the hundreds of $10,000,000+ million dollar homes there while also being a member of the golf club – initiation fee $150,000.
We shot trap at Kiawah Island Club’s private gun club. We took a private boat tour along the Kiawah River, available only to Club members, which included champagne along with a cheese and fruit plate. This trip, our guide, and the associated bird and wildlife watching was a highlight of the visit for me.
We were treated to massages at the private Sasanqua spa which is open only to Club members. The setting of the spa, with its treatment rooms overlooking the marsh out onto the river, surely puts it among the most picturesque in the country. The peanut butter oatmeal balls catapults this experience over the top of over the top.
We toured the private, Tom Watson-designed, British Open-inspired Cassique golf course with the club’s PGA professional Dylan Thew. Dylan, like everyone else who we encountered working at Kiawah Island, bent over backwards to assure we had a great time.
We toured the private River Course and took a peek inside its whiskey barrel themed men’s locker room.
We visited the Ryder Cup Bar inside the clubhouse of Kiawah’s famed Ocean Course – this, you can do.
We enjoyed dinner at the Club members’-only Ocean Room. I sipped The Macallen 18-year-old scotch, ate shrimp and grits, stunningly tasty and salty radishes, lobster macaroni and cheese, crab-stuffed ravioli. I felt crab-stuffed after the meal. I hadn’t eaten so much, or so well, in a long time.
We treated ourselves to numerous hand-made smoothies at the members only Sport Club.
Everywhere I turned there was trail mix, cashews, pistachio nuts and snacks. In my version of heaven, there is trail mix on hand at all times and places.
We stayed at the Watson Cottage which Kiawah Island Club reserves for VIP guests. I love how rich people refer to getaway mansions as “cottages.” The Watson Cottage had four bedrooms, a pool table and full wet bar in the living room, hardwood floors, marble counter tops, fireplaces, stocked refrigerator and felt appropriate for an English duke.
The Watson Cottage is located in the Cassique neighborhood, a private Kiawah Island Club community just off Kiawah Island, a short drive from the main Club entry gate.
We were treated to dinner at Voysey’s in the Cassique clubhouse, again open only to members and guests, where the heirloom eggplant on the seasonal menu is not to be missed.
And it was all on the house so I could actually enjoy it. I’m far too big a cheapskate to ever splurge on luxuries like this. Not that these experiences are available a la carte for any price. Again, to experience what we did, you’d have to be a homeowner and Club member at Kiawah. This trip was pure fantasy.
Is Kiawah Island for you?
But what is Kiawah like for non-high rollers?
For me, that’s difficult to imagine. Kiawah values privacy. It is exclusive walking right up to being exclusionary. It’s purpose-designed for high-rollers.
There are short-term home and condo rentals available on the island for vacationers, although you can’t help wondering if Kiawah wishes there weren’t. Without being able to access what is available only to home owners and club members – the boat tour and the Sport Club and Sasanqua and the Ocean Room – would Kiawah be worth the visit?
Yes. And no.
It is not a “pile three kids into the car” and spend a week at the beach in July destination. There is no Dairy Queen. There is no adventure golf. There’s only one public beach.
Treat Kiawah like you might Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive. Drop in on the luxury, knowing full-well you can’t stay.
Make the short drive from Charleston out to the Ocean Course Clubhouse being sure to ogle the mansions along the way. Enjoy a cocktail and lunch at the Ryder Cup Bar looking out on the Atlantic Ocean.
Walk out on their magnificent beach. Let the wind whip through your hair. Due to how the South Carolina coastline juts out into the Atlantic, the sea breeze here on the beach is much more blustery than in Florida. Take time to appreciate where you are remembering how few people will ever see that Island, whether home owner, Club member, or not.
Kiawah Island was the last place in the South I’d really wanted to visit, but never had. After three wonderful days there, I begrudgingly drove back to reality. It has been a long time since I felt this morose leaving a vacation. My 26-year destiny to see Kiawah Island with my own eyes had finally been realized, setting a standard for luxury travel I will likely never top.