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Charleston, South Carolina

Oceanside resorts and a downtown loaded with history and charm make Charleston a uniquely flavorful travel destination

By: Stephen Goodwin

Appeared in November/December 2005 LINKS

When I think of Charleston, the first image that comes to mind is Bohicket Road. Though locals probably view it as just another rural thoroughfare, the two-lane blacktop that leads from the outskirts of town to Seabrook and Kiawah Islands is, to me, the true essence of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Winding through a tunnel of massive live oaks, with Spanish moss dripping from the interlaced branches overhead, the road feels like some sort of mysterious, secret passageway. When you come out at the other end, well, you are in another world, one where tidal creeks divide the marshes and the salt air hints at Atlantic Ocean beaches just beyond the palms.

I have many fond memories of Bohicket, both coming and going. Two of my sisters live in Charleston, and for three decades my family has staged its reunions in the area. We’ve rented beachside cottages, cast for shrimp in the Kiawah River, taken in Civil War history at Fort Sumter, gone bar-crawling on East Bay Street, and celebrated weddings in some of the oldest churches and gathering halls in town. Over that span, I’ve seen Charleston transform from a sleepy little city into a tourist mecca that draws 4 million visitors a year. Among its numerous charms is some of the finest resort golf on the East Coast; combine that with a bustling and colorful downtown scene and you’ve got the makings of a vacation to remember.

On my most recent visit, I decided to make that lovely drive to Kiawah—located about 21 miles south of downtown—and check out the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, a lavish oceanfront hotel that opened to much acclaim in 2004. Designed to evoke a 19th-century Southern mansion, this grand hotel aims to overwhelm, and it succeeds.

The Sanctuary’s rooms—both private and public spaces—have a theatrical quality, a way of urging you to imagine yourself a movie star. At either end of the lobby, for instance, stands an epically proportioned, curvilinear staircase. My wife envisioned herself as Cinderella as she swept down those 34 elegant stairs. She was over the moon here, and I didn’t sensed even a whiff of reproach in her voice as she asked when I was going off to play golf. Truth be told, she seemed glad to have time to herself—to enjoy a stroll along the wide beach, or a “Head-to-Toe Sanctuary” treatment in the luxurious spa.

The golf at Kiawah has always been top-of-the-line, and it’s gotten even better lately. The resort now owns five courses, and two of them—Gary Player’s Cougar Point and the Jack Nicklaus-designed Turtle Point, which includes a three-hole back-nine stretch along the Atlantic—have received significant makeovers and handsome new clubhouses. Tom Fazio’s Osprey Point presents the ideal degree of difficulty for a resort course, and Oak Point, a Clyde Johnston design just off-island, completes the menu of appetizers leading up to the Ocean Course.

I saved the 7,296-yard Ocean for the last day of my visit, but I still wasn’t up to the challenge of this beast. I’ve loved the Ocean Course ever since hearing my nephew rave about it—he was on the construction crew, and he used to marvel at the way Pete Dye pushed acres of sand around this windswept parcel at the island’s east end. I still marvel at the variety and beauty and brilliance of the design. A day on the Ocean Course, with the wind whistling off the Atlantic and the seabirds squawking overhead, is a glorious day—no matter how many balls you pump into the lagoons, the dunes and the surrounding scrub.

It also helps that Ocean Course golfers now have a pair of outstanding restaurants to come back to at The Sanctuary—the formal Ocean Room and the more casual Jasmine Porch. I’d simply suggest you order whatever specialties have been prepared by the talented young chef, Chris Brandt. One of his most popular dishes is Pork Two Ways, a briny, tangy, earthy dish suggests long simmering and captures the essence of Lowcountry cooking—not fancy, but savory and soulful.

Back on the mainland, if your idea of a golf vacation includes a taste of city life, you might want to consider a stay downtown, perhaps at Charleston Place, a chic, comfortable and centrally located Orient-Express property. The hotel’s marble lobby is a scene in itself: splashing fountains, rustling palms, live piano sounds emanating from the Terrace Bar, and guests lolling about, shopping bags in hand.Charleston Place also boasts one of the most highly regarded restaurants in town, the Charleston Grill, where a silky-smooth jazz quartet plays nightly and the walls are decorated with local images from days gone by. The menu features traditional Lowcountry dishes that have been updated with flair and gusto.

Step outside Charleston Place and the city lies before you. The Old Market is literally steps away, its open-air brick buildings thronged with tourists in search of Lowcountry keepsakes, such as handwoven sweetgrass baskets made on-site by local Gullah women. On the cobblestone streets, horses clip-clop along as they pull carriages past lovely residences hemmed in by wrought-iron fences and nearly hidden among palm trees, live oaks and magnolias. The skyline is dotted with church spires and steeples. At the tip of the Battery, lined by fabulous homes that once belonged to wealthy rice planters, gun emplacements overlook Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter.

In this city that drips with beauty and history, you can’t stroll far without coming face-to-face with reminders that Charleston’s past contains equal parts glory and tragedy. That includes the recent past—1989, to be exact—when the area took a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo. The Isle of Palms, located only 20 minutes from downtown, was hit particularly hard, but it’s still a popular getaway for Charlestonians. Wild Dunes Resort, located on the northern end of the Isle of Palms, is a fine choice—it has a complete array of activities, including terrific beaches, outstanding tennis and 36 holes of superb Tom Fazio-designed golf.

Hugo sheared off scores of trees, rendering Wild Dunes, well, not quite as wild. Still, the Harbor course, situated along the Intracoastal Waterway, is a sporty way to spend four hours, and the Links is even better—in fact, it’s my choice for the perfect resort layout, thanks to its variety, challenge and scenery. The Links was the course that vaulted Fazio to the upper echelon of golf architects after he blended elements of marshland, maritime forest, ocean frontage and dunes into a series of memorable holes. The finishing stretch along the ocean is unforgettable, but there is some fine inland golf here as well, including the par-3 12th, a wee devil of a hole with a green that is all but hidden in a sea of beach grass.

The resort has settled comfortably into its role as a destination for family vacations. It has a friendly, community-oriented feeling—everywhere you look, someone is jogging, riding a bike, playing tennis or splashing in the surf. Visitors can rent villas or houses, or stay at a comfy hotel, the Boardwalk Inn, with a spa and restaurants close at hand. The resort is so compact and thoughtfully laid out that it’s possible to spend days without ever getting into a car.

Don’t get too comfortable, however—you’ll definitely want to get behind the wheel for a foray into town or a leisurely drive down Bohicket Road.  

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