There’s no such thing as a bad view on Kiawah Island. The arrival? Breathtaking, with ancient oak trees spreading high and wide across the entry—a sort of untouched Southern boulevard—to form a canopy interrupted only by the spackled sunlight peeking through the broad leaves. The estates? Faintly antebellum yet grand and contemporary, with whitewashed wood siding and dramatic double-height ceilings. And then there’s the beach: Perfectly pristine slice of white sand lined with tall ferns that dance in the breeze like synchronized swimmers. Just beyond, the rolling hills of the world-famous Ocean Course are the purest hues of green imaginable. No bad angles, indeed.  

Taking it all in for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everything on Kiawah is just about perfect. And if you’re sitting on the bow of Captain Nick Penna’s speedboat, meandering through Kiawah River, you might be right. From the waterborne vantage point, the 10,000-acre barrier island, which sits just 25 miles south of Charleston, is a Low Country fantasy come to life. The water is smooth like glass, and each little island has its own story and potential: One, reached only by boat, is for the best summer picnics; just across the water, another is a sanctuary for sea turtle hatchlings come spring. Up above that way, a magnificent bald eagle stands atop a tall maple tree, surveying the water for prey. And down below, more dolphins than I’ve ever seen.  

As Captain Nick slows the boat and the cool wind on our faces abruptly stops, we carefully stand in silence. For a second it looks like a scene from Jaws, as we approach the edges of the boat with trepidation, but we’re waiting for something far more cheerful than a shark—a family of bottlenose dolphins has been stalking us all afternoon, and it’s time to play. They crisscross beneath us, popping out on port then twirling back to starboard, then in unison cresting the water to show off their gracefully arched fins. “There’s the baby,” Nick says, pointing to an emerging fin smaller than the others. Having made leisure cruising his enviable vocation, he spends enough time out here to know them well—and there’s a few hundred of the mammals in this area. At low tide, he often sees them sunning themselves and feeding on fish right on shore. They might be enjoying themselves more than any other creature on the planet. 

Barefoot Luxury

That’s saying a lot on Kiawah Island, which seems to have been made for one thing only: pure enjoyment. Originally developed in the 1970s, the community is an idealized version of Low Country life (after all, it’s not everywhere in these parts where you can play with dolphins practically on command). With five award-winning golf courses, a world-class spa, several restaurants and bars, and nine spectacular estates in the Exclusive Resorts Residence Collection, it’s a mini-paradise, where there’s something for everyone, and every age. 

It’s easy to want to stay put—and plenty of visitors certainly do, says Leslie Cowell, Exclusive Resorts’ South Carolina-based Regional Director of Operations. “Most people spend some time in Charleston on the way out from the airport, or on the way back, but once they are on Kiawah, they stay on Kiawah.” 

You can’t blame them, and yet, part of the beauty of this retreat is its close proximity to what has recently become one of the South’s most innovative culinary hubs. If you’re a foodie (and even if you’re not, we promise you will be soon enough) there’s too much waiting just beyond that oak-lined Kiawah entrance to pass up a trip to “the outside.” 

There’s a real identity in culinary here. Everybody has their own take on the classics, whether it’s shrimp and grits or pulled pork.

Leslie Cowell, Exclusive Resorts Regional Director of Operations

The Gourmand's Hit List

During a day trip to Charleston from Kiawah, we hit the road, thirsty and hungry, with a delicious to-do list. We first land in downtown, which could easily be renamed “Quintessential Charleston” for its collection of antebellum mansions, rows of manicured palmettos, and iconic landmarks like the famous Rainbow Row. Amid all that history though, and hidden behind newly painted facades of historic structures, are trendy new restaurants and hotels, bars and boutiques, all blending a bit of classic Low Country with a touch of modern edge. 

At the Bar at Husk, that combination translates to a speakeasy set in a Victoria-era estate, where everything is a throwback with a contemporary tinge. On the menu, the Charleston Light Dragoons Punch is a strong (literally) example of past and present: Using an 18th-century recipe unearthed at the Preservation Society of Charleston, the libation—a favorite of the local light dragoons, a fancy term for a group of privileged young cavalrymen who ruled the city way back when—is a re-creation of black tea, brandy, rum, and new for the 21st century, peach rum. It’s a taste of history in a place that manages to feel equally antiquated and of-the-moment. 

Though tempted, we skip Husk’s legendary burger and instead embark on a barbecue crawl. Low Country ’cue is its own special breed—the meat is slow-cooked, the sauce is vinegary, and the restaurant claiming the best depends on who you talk to. We head north to follow a trail of nearly every type, and emerge some three hours later quite full and with our own list of bests: Rodney Scott’s BBQ—a James Beard Award winner—is our top pick for pulled pork; Lewis impresses for brisket and a spicy green-chili cornbread; and for something completely modern, we crown Butcher & Bee the unofficial best vegan “pulled pork.” The sandwich combines shredded squash with smoked cabbage, barbecue sauce, and pickles for one of the most successful impostor dishes we’ve ever tried. 

The variety is a testament to Charleston’s newfangled culinary acumen, says Cowell. “There’s a real identity in culinary here,” she explains. “Everybody has their own take on the classics, whether it’s shrimp and grits or pulled pork. We always knew we had a good scene here, but now all of a sudden the world knows.” 

Charleston: Past Meets Present in the Design District

The challenge during any trip to Charleston, however, is staying hungry enough to experience it all. To continue any further in our culinary exploration requires a bit of exercise, and so we head north by foot on King Street, peeking our heads into the trendy shops selling peacock-feather bowties and raw denim in the burgeoning Upper King Design District. Along this lively road, if a historic structure hasn’t been transformed into the next cool purveyor, it has been landmarked and perfectly preserved. We cross Marion Park to the new Dewberry Hotel (located, of course, in a historic government building), to take it all in from the rooftop terrace with 360-degree views that stretch from the Port of Charleston to the Ashley River. 

By late afternoon, we’re contemplating the most delicious route out of town and back to Kiawah. A few blocks up King Street, we make our final stop at the Ordinary, a restaurant that proves anything but, serving oysters hailing from all over the Atlantic out of a bar that, upon closer inspection, is the old vault from a historic bank. Such dramatic surprises have become commonplace in our little culinary experiment, so we sit down and order a half-dozen each of the Savage Blondes and Seaborn Selects while the cocktail bar—another speakeasy that looks of then and now—bustles with the sounds of ice rattling in shakers.  

By the time the shadows are growing long, we’re ready to return to paradise, so we hop back in the car and make the short 45-minute drive back to Kiawah. Having arrived just in time for sunset, we join families, golfers, and happy couples at the Ryder Cup Bar at the Ocean Course. Somehow still hungry and a little bit thirsty, we watch a golden sun light up the sky like a cotton-candy-colored painting. The waves crash while the ferns dance, and every iPhone is out for the perfect sunset shot. After all, there are no bad angles here.