Snug behind a security checkpoint that keeps interlopers off this resort island, families are riding bikes on the wide 10-mile beach and a threesome is teeing off on the verdant, palm-dotted Osprey Point course.
Suddenly, the golfers realize they have company. A large alligator is sunning within striking distance. But instead of panicking, they laugh, move closer to take cellphone pics and play on.
Such serenity is the rule on 10,000-acre Kiawah Island, where humans and wildlife coexist in an enclave recently named "America's Happiest Seaside Town" by Coastal Living magazine. Rankings were based on a formula involving sunny days, beach quality, low crime, education of residents and other factors.
Kiawah's anointment makes you wonder: What makes the fewer than 2,000 year-round residents and thousands of vacationers on this barrier island 21 miles south of Charleston so blissful? Are they really? Time to find out.
After a 45-minute drive from Charleston International Airport, the Newton Farms upscale grocery outside the island gates makes a good opening argument for the ranking. On aisles stocked with wines and cheeses from around the world as well as homegrown tomatoes, staffers ask if they can assist. Fellow shoppers — strangers all — say hello. At the exit of the store in the cutesy Freshfields Village shopping and dining complex, workers urge everyone to have a great day.
'Welcome to paradise'
After being vetted at the guardhouse, visitors pass well-tended shrubs, lush palms and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Anchored by the huge Kiawah Island Golf Resort complex with a hotel, homes, condos and restaurants, the island also is served by other rental firms. It has no fast-food franchises, dive bars, stoplights or streetlights (the latter attract sea turtles, which are protected here).
Checking in to one of the privately owned rental units that dot the island is a process accompanied by smiles, "yes, ma'ams" and more than one "Welcome to paradise." Concierges are on call, as is a complimentary Kiawah Golf Resort shuttle that ferries guests wherever they want to go on the island.
Staying in a Golf Resort condo (from about $105 a night depending on the season) is an affordable alternative to a rental house or The Sanctuary, a AAA five-diamond, Forbes Travel Guide five-star property, where summer rates start at about $500 for spacious rooms with four-poster beds. The idea is to dispense "the Southern genteel kind of hospitality," says hotel manager Bill Lacey. A new, less expensive 150-room lodging on the site of the torn-down Kiawah Inn is in the planning stages.
Meanwhile, the one-bedroom condo at 3544 Seascape, owned by a Kentucky woman, is simple but comfortable. Her guestbook welcoming renters is filled with glowing comments and not a single gripe. Renting for $285 a night this time of year, including tax, it's updated with a flat-screen TV and kitchen and bathroom with granite counters.
The condo is an easy walk to a pool with new water slide and the Southern Kitchen, which serves biscuits and gravy — plus bagels and smoked salmon for Northeast tastes. Visitors from the North are the top market for Kiawah, says Mike Vegis, Kiawah Island Golf Resort director of public relations.