It revs up more a few hundred yards farther as we detour onto an unassuming dirt road to pay homage to the massive and ancient Angel Oak. Naturalists estimate this live oak tree is 400-500 years old. Some peg it to be as old as 1,500 years. Regardless, the Angel Oak is considered one of the oldest living things in the country, a feat in itself that commands our attention. Then there are its dimensions – 66.5 feet tall, 28 feet in circumference, and 187 feet from tip to tip of its longest branch.
Obligatory stop completed, we turn back onto Bohicket Rd., and the vegetation soon turns jungle-dense. Live oaks line both sides of the two-lane, black-topped road, forming a natural, shady corridor. Their branches arc, undulate, and stretch across from either side, meeting and intertwining overhead like giant gnarly fingers from misshapen hands. Pale, grey-green strands of Spanish moss, delicate and airy as tatted lace, languidly drip from the trees and sway in the sultry breeze.
We cross the wooden-railed bridge over the narrow Kiawah River, the northern watery boundary that drains into the Atlantic Ocean and confers island status upon Kiawah. Here at the island’s crown and on either side of the river lie vast saltwater marshlands. I scan the river on the chance I’ll glimpse dolphins breaking the surface, momentarily soaring airborne as they wend their way to the open sea.
This approach to Kiawah is almost as familiar as the drive into my neighborhood in Charlotte. In both instances, the same comforting sense of being home overcomes me.
Kiawah is a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina. The private resort community is renowned for golf (The Ocean Course of Ryder Cup and PGA Championship fame is here), tennis, and spacious homes, both oceanfront and discretely tucked inland. On the other hand, Kiawah boasts unspoiled beaches, maritime forests, tidal creeks, and freshwater ponds. Its early developers had the wisdom and sensitivity to design a planned community that balances residential and commercial needs with preserving the natural habitat.
Despite having been to Kiawah countless times during the past 30 years, each return feels as fresh and expectant as our first trip. Without intention, Kiawah has become our most frequently visited place. The island, serene with an unspoiled beauty, has provided a significant backdrop to our lives.
Long walks on Kiawah’s 10-mile stretch of unobstructed white sandy beach, and biking along its lush paved trails — always hopeful of spotting alligators — have become vital to my well-being. I’ve felt that same urgent pull on my emotions and stirrings of self-identity in many places, particularly while standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, hillwalking in Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, and hiking along the rocky seacoast of Sonoma County’s Bodega Bay.
Kiawah, though, stands apart.
Perhaps that’s because Kiawah also has served as the setting for so many get-togethers for Bill and me with family and friends – fun, heartwarming, and sometimes poignant occasions, and eminently memorable.
We’ve spent holidays and reunions here, and celebrated my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Bill, Mom, and I marked the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death in a rental cottage on Kiawah, not knowing that Mom, in turn, would pass away the following year. Because of distance and conflicting schedules, my twin sister, Linda, and I rarely celebrate our birthday together. Happily, Mom, Lin, and I cobbled together a brief Gilbert girls’ reunion for our birthday during that same stay. Just as my parents did when we were children, Mom presented each of us with our own birthday cake – blue decorations for me, and red for Lin.
Delightful diversions in Charleston
When we venture off island, we go to Charleston, about 20 miles away. The city perennially ranks as America’s top travel destination for its Southern heritage, cultural treasures, culinary prowess, grand homes, and gracious hospitality. Charleston shares a historical bond with the island. Kiawah takes its name from the Kiawah Indians, who were led by their head chieftain, or cassique. In 1670, the cassique of the Kiawah led English colonists to settle at Charlestowne Landing, where they established what would become the birthplace of the Carolina colony.
I think back on narrated, horse-drawn carriage rides through Charleston’s historic district, walks along the seawall at The Battery, and guided tours of magnificently restored and national landmark homes.
We’ve explored the carefully preserved 18th-century plantations along the Ashley River – Middleton Place, home to America’s oldest landscaped gardens, and Drayton Hall, where our guide politely referred to the Civil War as “the late unpleasantness” – and Boone Hall with its dramatic Avenue of Oaks. We’ve shopped, strolled cobblestone streets, and consumed the bountiful Lowcountry cuisine of Charleston’s celebrated restaurants. The Sunday gospel brunch at the elegant Hall’s Chophouse is a favorite, seasoned with the soul-stimulating performances of the Plantation Singers. So, too, do we relish the shrimp and grits and tomato pie from the more humble Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe.
Kicking off a new life phase on Kiawah
Several years ago, Bill and I spent a month in a rental cottage on Kiawah. He and I were both consultants then, and that visit was the single longest time we had traveled away from home and our home offices. It served as a test market of sorts to see if we could live and work remotely for the duration. The experiment was a success, and laid the groundwork for more extended-stay travels in the U.S. and overseas.
Now Bill’s and my visit to Kiawah comes in the wake of our decision to downsize from a single family home to a condo (still in Charlotte) with less than half the square footage. A driving force is travel – to ease our ability to simply lock the front door and go. We’re seeking calm before the “storm” of moving, adapting to unfamiliar surroundings, and establishing new daily routines.
A major life change, to be sure, and one we’re undertaking with relatively minimal anxiety. Travel has helped point the way.
We’re putting into play a key takeaway gleaned from renting other peoples’ apartments and houses through services like airbnb when we travel. We’ve learned we can quickly set up housekeeping and live in – indeed, thrive in – smaller and unknown spaces.
In addition, time on the road reinforces that experiences trump things. Taking just carry-on luggage (for the most part) has taught us the skill of editing. We’re resolutely applying that principle as we sift through all our possessions – furniture, art, clothes, housewares, décor – and keep only the essentials. No doubt those items making the cut will become that much more meaningful and precious to us.
Given Kiawah’s importance, it’s only fitting to be here.
During a walk on the beach at low tide, we come upon a group of children sketching “We Love (heart shape) Kiawah!” in the sand.
My sentiments exactly.