I’m going to let you in on a little secret that apparently New Yorkers don’t want you to know: Kiawah Island in South Carolina is an amazing little vacation spot.
I first went to Kiawah back in 1982 when I was 6. Since I only remember bits and pieces of that trip, this was basically our first time. On this trip we met a lot of New Yorkers – a lot. And quite amusingly to us, they all assumed they were the only people from the big apple and seemed downright annoyed that others were there. Every couple we met thought they discovered something great and were making everyone promise not to let anyone else back home in on the not-so-secret vacation destination. As one couple explained it to us, apparently the Hamptons are becoming too expensive and too crowded by tourists – Kiawah is the new Hamptons. It was quite entertaining.
But they are right – it is an amazing island that makes for a picture-perfect vacation. We stayed at The Sanctuary, the only hotel on the island. This place was simply amazing. And the service – hands-down the best we’ve ever experienced. Incredibly accomodating for families and really went above and beyond to make it a memorable stay, which it was.
While the island boasts an abundance of natural beauty and for the most part has purposefully remained undeveloped (read: no touristy / chotchkie things of any kind), it is lacking one major attraction – food, really good food. Thankfully, Charleston’s a quick 25 minute drive which offers wonderful options on every corner and was a treat to discover.
It’s not that there aren’t choices on the island – there are, plenty. But for the price, everything was just OK. It made us realize just how lucky us Clevelanders are. We are spoiled by wonderful restaurants and chefs that put care and quality ingredients into every dish. And while at these island eateries, we overheard people gush over their meals. It just made us realize that a lot of people equate a high price tag and gorgeous atmosphere to mean good food.
Island Eats: Shrimpers, a casual seafood place. I had the fish tacos – not bad, but way overpriced for what you get. Decent flavor, though. / Jasmine Porch, a low country eatery in our hotel. The restaurant itself was beautiful and the service was amazing. We did enjoy a rather decent lunch here, but our dinner was just so so. Our bill was $125, which we don’t mind paying and expected given the location. But for that price, I want to leave happy, not aggravated that we just wasted our money. My fish was tough, Jamie’s chicken, the house specialty, was super dry (although his goat cheese gnocchi were delicious). The best part of the meal was my watermelon salad and his she crab bisque. / Oyster Bake at Mingo Point. This was definitely our favorite meal on the island. The food was simply outstanding and such a fun night overall. As part of the bake, we were treated to as many oysters as you could shuck and an array of southern treats, including the best pulled pork I’ve ever had, mac-n-cheese, ribs, corn bread, slaw, greens and southern rice with sweet sausage. It was definitely too hot for this kind of grub, but after a few bites, you didn’t really seem to care.
Charleston Eats. Before our trip, we asked for recommendations since neither of us (as adults anyway) have ever been to this magnificent city.
Hominy Grill. Before I left, I didn’t think I was a fan of southern food. After brunch at this place, I quickly changed by tune. I had the shrimp and grits. In a word, outstanding. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed this dish and was sad when it was all gone. The banana bread was heavenly, too. Great little spot, very reasonably priced and one we plan to go back to on future visits.
39 Rue de Jean. We ate here at an off time, so we could only order from the pre-dinner menu. Jamie had the onion soup while I started with the mussels pistou; we both had the braised short rib sandwich. I can’t think of a better way to describe our meal then how it was described to me by Jackie Bebenroth: French fabulousness. Such great food and atmosphere. I soaked up ever bit of the sauce from the mussels with the piping hot and crusty bread while Jamie claimed the soup made his top 5 list (L’Albatros apparently is ranked #1, followed by Bistro on Lincoln and a small place in Quebec – he loves his onion soup). We were so happy with this meal that we almost went back on our drive home. After our meal, we stopped at Paulo’s next door for some ridiculously amazing gelato. Our fav was the mascarpone with balsamic. Oh la la.
Melvin’s. Apparently Emeril has dubbed this ultra, ultra casual restaurant as having the best burger in the US, so of course we had to see for ourselves. If this place wasn’t recommended to us, I never would have given it a second thought and would have told Jamie to keep driving. What do I know? While I don’t think that I’d give the burger a ranking of number one, it’s up there. Super juicy, messy and really flavorful, I can see why it is coveted by so many celebrities. As instructed, we also picked up a bunch of the world famous BBQ sauce for home, which we’ll hopefully try this week.
Firefly Vodka. Unlike so many that flock to Kiawah, I don’t care for golf (though I will concede that the 5 courses are simply stunning). But by the end of this trip, I became a huge fan of John Daly, a name I didn’t know just a week ago. The John Daly I like is the alcoholic version of the Arnold Palmer, complete with Firefly sweet tea vodka, a huge phenomenon since its inception two years ago (the NY Times even did a nice piece on it). I was first introduced to this vodka earlier this summer at the Plated Landscape dinner (the Bebenroths used to live in Charleston). Warning: this stuff is dangerous. One can easily put away several drinks without a second thought. We liked this vodka so much we decided to go to the distillery for a tasting since it was 20 minutes from Kiawah on Watmala Island. I didn’t participate in the tasting, but Jamie seemed to really enjoy the mint and peach vodkas as well. We came home with several bottles and have been continuing to enjoy John Daly. (If you do find yourself near this distillery, I don’t know that I’d necessarily recommend it, unless the weather is crummy. It was nice to experience, but I don’t think worth a special trip).
One last note on our vacation eats – I ate at my first Cracker Barrel on the way down. I had their version of the Egg McMuffin. Maybe other locations are better, but I found this place to be rather dirty and for a relatively easy breakfast to execute, just thought it was ok.
All in all, our first vacation as a family was nothing short of wonderful. Waking up each morning and walking on the beach with our cappuccinos in hand, to wading in the pool with Natalie to enjoying the beautiful sights, smells and sounds of the island, it was perfect. And we can’t wait to go back (though next time we’ll likely head into Charleston for dinner each night).
Thankfully, we still have another week off and are going to spend it as tourists in Cleveland.