"We're corporate America's hideaway," Vegis says over a lunch of beef brisket at Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House. Island lore is that General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt got word of his promotion while golfing on Kiawah.
Politicians cast their votes for Kiawah, too. Both Bush presidents, Bill Clinton and Vice President Biden have visited. Robert Redford stayed in a pillared island home while directing the 2000 golfing movie The Legend of Bagger Vance.
In addition to privacy, golf is a VIP lure. The island, named for a Native American tribe, boasts five courses, including The Ocean Course. Designed by Pete Dye, every hole has water views, and changing winds make play challenging. In August, the course will host the prestigious PGA Championship for the first time.
All this and gators, too
Kiawah also is a center for tennis, biking (rentals can await at your lodging on arrival), kayaking, dolphin-watching, birding and relaxing on the white-sand beach protected by dunes dotted with sea oats. Gators are no problem if you give them space, Vegis says. He knows of no deaths but says a tourist once was bitten after catching a young gator.
In Night Heron Park, home of a day camp for kids and a new water park, Bella, 10, and D.J. Basic, 6, are gingerly petting a small gator held by Kiawah outdoor programming director Elisabeth King. "It feels hard on top and softer below," D.J. observes. The Milford, Conn., family — like many vacationers here — has been visiting for years, says dad Richard Basic. He and wife Cristina were married on Kiawah "because she had such fond memories as a child here," he says.
Memories in the making are all around Kiawah, where in two days, this visitor saw swarms of happy groups on paved bike trails and the beach, heard not one discouraging (or swear) word and learned that staffers are carefully chosen and trained in Kiawah civility, such as using guests' names in conversation.
Kiawah Golf Resort workers who interact with the public cannot have visible tattoos; men can't sport beards or mustaches. No "unnatural" hair colors or dreadlocks are allowed. Though staffers are diverse, the clientele this weekend is overwhelmingly Caucasian. There's an island pecking order: The richest property owners live behind a second security gate, can enjoy a private beach club and play on The River Course (membership in The Kiawah Island Club costs $300,000 for all such activities, not including dues).
But everyone participates in old-fashioned good times.
Summer Mondays, there's the oyster roast at Mingo Point. Thursday nights, families swarm through The Sanctuary's Antebellum mansion-style lobby to the pool to watch a free movie on a big screen. Fridays, all ages gather on the resort porch and "Grand Lawn" for a concert. Elders sip cocktails and sit in rockers or lawn chairs; kids kick a soccer ball or caper to oldies played by a band.
To the infectious beat of Mustang Sally on this Friday, moms dance with daughters or sons, dads dance with daughters and couples gyrate in G-rated fashion — grinning and carefree, fanned by a soothing ocean breeze.