Play's the thing

Making par or dinner, paddling or pedaling, biking or baby-sitting . . .

The author's nephew shows no fear of being gulled by these sharp-eyed natives on the beach at Kiawah Beachwalker Park. (Shira Springer/Globe Staff) The author's nephew shows no fear of being gulled by these sharp-eyed natives on the beach at Kiawah Beachwalker Park.
By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / August 1, 2010

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Persuading my father to give his golf swing a rest was the easy part. Mastering the basics of the “butt wiggle’’ was another matter.

The butt wiggle is a move designed to free kayakers stuck in briny, suction-cup-strength mud. As demonstrated by our guide, it looked like an awkward, butt-propelled bouncing from side to side. But for all its comic qualities, the wiggle worked with surprising efficiency, gently rocking stranded kayaks loose and saving our trip from a permanent stall at low tide.

Wiggling and paddling past a landscape covered in green and gold spartina grass, we spotted egrets and watched crabs scurry away. At high tide when water levels rise four to six feet, our guide said dolphins swim past.

By the end of our two-hour tour, my father was an exhausted expert in the butt wiggle. He had tried kayaking for the first time in the spirit of father-daughter bonding. I appreciated his enthusiasm and good humor as he zig-zagged between muddy creek banks. He butt wiggled. I laughed. It was one of many activities where members of my family — my parents in their 60s; my sister, brother-in-law, and I in our 30s; and my 15-month-old nephew — entertained one another.

Kiawah Island, rightly promoted as a golfer’s paradise, was a risky vacation choice for a family with one avid regular golfer (my father) and one enthusiastic yet infrequent golfer (my brother-in-law). The non-golfers (the women) worried that the powerful draw of world-class courses would set the daily schedule. We all wondered whether easy access to golf, beaches, bike trails, kayak tours, and Charleston’s shops and history would pull us in different directions.

Upon arriving at Charleston International Airport, it became clear our vacation would be an unpredictable adventure with multigenerational considerations and complications. For starters, a car rental mix-up left my sister and brother-in-law with an ill-fitting car seat, stranding them in the airport parking lot for over an hour in 90-degree heat. Next, we had to adjust to close living quarters that were not childproofed. My nephew had introduced a new dynamic, which we carefully negotiated with two rental cars, a condo equipped with crib and high chair, and plenty of patience.

We quickly learned that tee times and toddler whims are impossible to coordinate. Any semblance of a daily schedule revolved around my nephew. Thankfully, Kiawah’s many offerings helped us stay flexible without feeling shortchanged, though we passed on lengthy scheduled excursions such as fishing trips, sunset cruises, and plantation tours.

When my mother had suggested Kiawah, the island seemed like it offered something for everyone. We wanted to venture beyond New England — somewhere culturally different, yet not a long flight.

We liked Kiawah’s proximity to the airport (35-minute drive) and historic downtown Charleston (45 minutes). We liked the convenience of a wired, three-bedroom rental condo with a well-equipped kitchen for cooking family dinners. We liked living within walking distance of the beach and a pool and the short drives to a playground, supermarket, and multiple golf courses. We liked the easy access to outdoor activities.

Approaching Kiawah Island, trees draped with Spanish moss line the road, creating an otherworldly natural backdrop free of tourist trappings. Kiawah is a carefully-developed barrier island with nature trails winding between pristine beaches, salt marshes, ponds, luxury homes, and award-winning golf courses.

The island seems far removed from any urban center. It is a picturesque, 13.5-square-mile preserve for outdoor enthusiasts of all types, though it caters to the golf crowd. Kiawah boasts five top courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Fazio, and Pete Dye. Among their exploits, my father and brother-in-law, enjoyed an exquisitely torturous round on the Dye-designed Ocean Course on the eastern edge of the island.

From the clubhouse’s back porch, the 18th green and the Atlantic Ocean crashing along the right side of the fairway look movie-backdrop perfect. More than a decade ago, the ocean views from almost every hole attracted Robert Redford when he was directing the film “The Legend of Bagger Vance.’’ The overall course layout looks like it was naturally carved by the strong ocean winds that challenge amateurs and pros alike.

Famous for hosting the 1991 Ryder Cup, the 7,937-yard Ocean Course will see the game’s best players return for the 2012 PGA Championship. Public access to such a high-caliber course — ranked 25th among the top 100 US courses and 4th on the list of top public courses by Golf Digest — is rare. For my father, making par on each of the final three holes was a vacation highlight.

While the men spent mornings golfing, the rest of us went to the public Beachwalker Park, regularly cited as one of the top US beaches, on the southwestern tip of the island. Several miles of wide, firm sand beaches run the length of Kiawah’s southern edge from Beachwalker Park to the Ocean Course, passing condos, mansions, and the Sanctuary, a luxury hotel and resort. (Near the end of our vacation, my mother and I treated ourselves to massages at the Sanctuary spa, a worthwhile indulgence.) Discreet entrance points with narrow boardwalks are spread along the beachfront, many with informational postings about local denizens like the loggerhead turtles that nest on the beach.

From early morning joggers to late afternoon kite-fliers, the seemingly endless beach was a hub of activity. For my nephew, it proved the perfect playground, populated enough to make splashing around a social affair, but not too crowded. There was ample room to wade in shallow waters, chase seagulls, and build and destroy sandcastles.

Travel inland from oceanside attractions and the scenery changes from windswept expanses to dense forest. Wildlife roam free enough through lush, semitropical vegetation that signs posted at the edge of watering holes warn, “DANGER ALLIGATORS Do Not Approach, Feed or Harass.’’ We never spotted alligators during our many bike rides and runs. Bicyclists, however, were most common on the network of trails.

Undeterred by overcast skies and humidity destined to break, my sister, brother-in-law, and I ventured a ride around the island. Well-marked, paved paths run beside every major road and many minor streets on Kiawah, twisting around golf fairways, ponds, and residential developments. Signs alongside the paths point cyclists toward the beach or golf courses or highlight tree types and wildlife.

Biking is the best, most hassle-free way to see all that the island offers. At each beach entrance point are shaded bike racks.

We pedaled past the guard posts that control access to different sections of the island, wound our way through pockets of dense forest, and watched out for errant tee shots. Halfway through the 90-minute trip, we felt a few drops of rain. “I don’t want to get really wet,’’ my sister said as we turned to speed home. Minutes later, a downpour left us drenched. Then we overruled my brother-in-law and got lost. By the time we found the right path back on a rain-soaked map, we were laughing hysterically.

For wanderings around historic downtown Charleston, we opted for a self-guided tour (we thought it would be unfair to subject other tourists to a potentially cranky toddler). We hit the highlights — one-time meat-selling center Market Hall, the colorful merchant houses called “Rainbow Row,’’ Charleston Harbor, the Old Slave Mart — in roughly an hour, then stopped for ice cream.

The next day, my sister and brother-in-law returned to Charleston for a romantic dinner at Blossom restaurant on East Bay Street while my parents and I babysat. Two nights later, my parents and I returned for a relaxing meal.

Other than those two dinners out, we ate all our meals together in the condo, sharing cooking and cleaning responsibilities. Kitchen duty may not be every family’s idea of a relaxing vacation, but having the option worked well for us. It took away the stress of finding dining options that satisfied all ages and tastes among the island’s limited selection. Dining in also helped free time for other activities.

And there was plenty to do around the island — for all ages and tastes.

Shira Springer can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay
ResortQuest Kiawah
115 Freshfields Village
Johns Island
Plenty of vacation rental options; will provide rental bikes, beach chairs, cribs, and other equipment for additional fees. Price of one-week rentals depends on season, starting at roughly $900.
Where to eat
Mellow Mushroom
309 King St., Charleston
A child-friendly pizza chain conveniently located in the center of the downtown shopping district.
171 East Bay St.
In the heart of historic downtown, features dishes with local food and flavors.
Newton Farms at Freshfields Village
515 Freshfields Drive
Johns Island
Supermarket with everyday and gourmet items to stock refrigerators.
What to do
Ocean Course
1000 Ocean Course Drive
Kiawah Island
Cost per round ranges from $222 to $338 and depends on high or low season and whether you stay at resort-affiliated accommodations.
PaddleFish Kayaking
Two-hour tours with focus on wildlife suitable for novices and more experienced kayakers. $50.
Kiawah Beachwalker Park
1 Beachwalker Drive
Johns Island
The large parking lot at public Beachwalker Park charges $7 per day for standard vehicles. Multiple boardwalk entrance points allow free, easy access to Kiawah Beaches by bike or foot for those staying on the island.