South Carolina may not be the first place that springs to mind when it comes to great hotels, but perhaps it should. Only four states can claim more members of the Conde Nast Gold List, and in recent years they've been handing out awards in Low Country like they're going out of style. Nearly all of these hotels are found in the historic town of Charleston - coincidentally named "America's Best City" by the same publication. One notable exception, however, is The Sanctuary, the Five Diamond and Five Star award winning jewel of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
Where many hotels seek to cover up their age, The Sanctuary has gone to great lengths to appear older and more wise than her nearly ten years might show. The hotel is modeled after a traditional southern mansion, which rises at the end of a narrow two-lane road covered by mossy oaks.
Our arrival went about like you'd expect at a Five Diamond hotel: two valet worked as a team to unload our luggage, while the third inquired if we would like to leave the car with him or self-park. The question took me by surprise for a moment; complimentary self-parking at a top-tier resort? It's something that's rarely offered, let alone suggested by the valet, but it was an amenity I was more than happy to accept.
Stepping inside the lobby feels as though you've been welcomed into the home of your very traditional uncle, who's will you'd very much like to remain a participant. The hand-scraped hardwood floors creaked beneath our feet, as we walked into the center parlor to take in the view. To the left lies the lobby bar, which was fittingly the domain of the man of the house, complete with his portrait set high above the roaring fireplace. By contrast, the opposite wing of the lobby belongs to the lady of the manor, where she and her maidens would no doubt retire while the men enjoyed their cigars with a snifter of brandy.
The setting could easily give the impression that fields of cotton lay just outside this stately mansion, but it's another sea of white which is found beyond the parlor doors. The beaches of Kiawah Island stretch for miles in either direction and they're perfect for an afternoon bike ride. Or in our case, a five minute walk before turning back in favor of the warmth of the lobby bar - 55 degrees isn't considered beach weather for us Floridians.
The cool air may have kept the beach mostly empty, but the pool was a different story. While I was buttoned up in jeans and a winter coat, rows upon rows of sunbathers were soaking up the abundance of rays. There were even a few kids living it up in the main pool, although I've learned over the years that kids would go swimming even in the Arctic. Thanks to our attire we didn't exactly blend in, but the adults-only infinity pool was the perfect way to spend an afternoon with the Kindle and an adult beverage or three.
The combination of an incredible pool and a stellar Old Fashioned brought a glowing first impression of The Sanctuary, one that only got better when we made our way upstairs to the room. The Sanctuary is divided into two wings - East and West - with each side welcoming guests with a grand staircase and a floor to ceiling mural of the marshes of South Carolina.
If you subscribe to the mantra that bigger is better, you'll feel right at home at The Sanctuary thanks to some of the largest standard rooms I've ever experienced. A hallway with not one, but two closets and a wet-bar ushers you past the bathroom and into the beautifully appointed bedroom. There I was pleased to find the amenities that will always make this hotel junkie smile: free Wi-Fi - another rarity in Five Diamond hotels - and a balcony with an amazing view.
MJ, on the other hand, was more concerned with our miniature spa of a bathroom. Few things will make her happier than fluffy bathrobes and premium toiletries. Of course, all she used the latter for was to create bubbles in the jacuzzi tub, so I hardly see the point. Perhaps they make better bubbles?
Speaking of the view, most of the accommodations at The Sanctuary feature at least a partial view of the ocean. We were treated each morning to a spectacular show thanks to the sunrise and our room's location in the East Wing. Keep in mind when requesting a room location that Kiawah Island actually runs east to west, so the sun will appear to rise in the north and set in the south.
Finally, one of the things I loved most about our room were all of the little amenities that I didn't realize I needed until now. The umbrella in the closet, the wooden cradle to hide the unsightly ice bucket, proper wine glasses, slippers, and last but not least, the small reading light above the bed with a dimmer. All little things, but small touches that combine to make a big difference.
No great hotel would be complete without equally great choices for dining. The award winning Ocean Room anchors the options at The Sanctuary, and serves up a wide array of steaks and fresh seafood. If you're like us and happen to visit when the Ocean Room is dark - Sundays and Mondays - then the slightly more casual Jasmine Porch is a great alternative. As best I could tell, MJ was a big fan of the whole roasted flounder, not that she offered me any. Lastly, for you fellow coffee junkies, the Beaches & Cream sweet shop will not only supply your java fix, but just might talk you into a scoop of cinnamon toast ice cream as well. Or so I'm told...
As you might expect at most luxury hotels, the food at The Sanctuary doesn't come cheap - although they earn every penny. If you're a family looking to save a few dollars, consider taking the short walk to The Market, where fresh sandwiches, pizza, and even full entrees like Mahi Mahi are available from morning to night. They also have an extensive wine selection, in case you prefer picking up a $20 bottle over a $38 round of cocktails including tip.
While all of the amenities of The Sanctuary would no doubt put it among the world's best hotels, it's the people that have earned her that fifth diamond and star. It was a personal, yet refined approach, that was felt from the moment we arrived, and supplied countless examples of what I call "WOW" service.
During check-in we mentioned to the bellman that we might go kayaking. About five minutes after he left the phone rang. It was the concierge with kayaking information. The valet saw me carrying my clubs to the car early one morning. The next day he asked how I played. At turndown, our dirty clothes were neatly folded and placed on top of a laundry bag, perhaps as a subtle hint that tossing them in the corner doesn't fly here. Each and every employee, regardless of how busy or distracted they might be, made sure to greet you as they passed, and many times it was by name. To say this former hotel manager was impressed would be the ultimate understatement, and yet at the same time, it is a perfect example of why The Sanctuary is one of the best hotels on the planet.
Some might say there is a glaring oversight here, specifically the lack of a mention for Kiawah Island's world famous golf. The absence is unintentional, but telling. On an island known the world over as a haven for golfers, The Sanctuary stands on its own merits as the embodiment of a luxury retreat. To mention golf would just be empty words, because at The Sanctuary, the name says it all.
Enjoy Your Stay