In response to early environmental criticism, Kiawah Island did extensive research; they sought to protect the native deer, birds, alligators and - especially - the loggerhead turtle.
Three years after the inaugural of seaside resort life at this heretofore isolated stretch of white, sandy beach 25 miles south of Charleston, a success story is apparently being written.
Although appearing as something carved right out of the Old South -- which it is -- this 11-mile-long, formerly overlooked island development represents a major investment of Arab petro dollars in American tourism. Tens of millions of dollars already have been spent here by the oil-rich Kuwaitis, and the figure could run into the hundreds of millions by the time current plans are completed.
Those plans call for development of 6,000 of the island's total 10,000 acres, leaving 4,000 acres in their natural state as wetlands and wildlife preserves.
Kiawah Island Inn, an attractive, rambling structure built almost entirely of wood and blending in with the natural environment, is well established as the center of island activities. Though the Kiawah Island Company spokesman would not reveal the occupancy rate at the Inn, he advised that all oceanfront reservations should be booked well in advance from March through August. Bookings have been strong through October, with business groups scheduled mostly during the winter months. Those meetings account for 40 percent of the year-round bookings, the official said.
In addition, real estate development on the island is proceeding at a pace far in advance of schedule. At a sale announced earlier this year, all lots made available were sold the first day.
The impact of the current gasoline shortage should prove no great handicap here. As the developers point out, when you arrive at Kiawah, you don't need a car-- everything you will want is within easy walking distance. As for getting here, there is good plane and train service to nearby Charleston, with limousine service to Kiawah.
In 1974, the Kiawah Investment Co. -- half owned by the Kuwaiti government and half by private Kuwaiti investors -- bought the bulk of the island from the heirs of a lumber company operator. The C. C. Royal Lumber Co. had purchased Kiawah in 1952 for $125,000, which had been owed in back taxes.Some lots were sold to friends as sites for summer homes. But in 1974, after founder Royal had died, the remainder was sold to the Kuwaitis for some $17.4 million.
The Kuwaiti investment seems to be paying off -- particularly as land north of the Kiawah Inn is made available for development and building lots are sold off. The Kiawah Investment Company's subsidiary, Kiawah Island Co., which took over developing the island, sells lots, cottages and villas, but no detached single-family homes. Presently, there are six to eight active custom builders working on the island to construct homes on individually purchased lots.
Real estate transactions as of June accounted for more than $70 million in sales. The island now has 1,300 property owners -- lots, villas and homes. Original buyers were mostly Charleston area people, but now include many hailing from the Midwest and South Atlantic areas. Last year only 21 percent of the buyers were from the Charleston area.
Prices are up substantially. A three-bedroom, oceanfront townhouse that sold for $150,000 in 1976 is now selling for $222,000. Two-bedroom cottages, which sold in the $65,000 range in 1976, now are reselling for $100,000. Building lots now range, depending on location, from $20,000 to $150,000.
Although Kuwaiti capital got the island project going, American know-how has provided the planning and engineering. About the only apparent Kuwaiti trace on the premises is a small, pictorial display of business facts and figures about Kuwait that is placed in an area adjacent to Kiawah Inn's conference center. The Inn itself is built in the style of an old South Carolina low-country seacoast plantation. Old times here are not forgotten.
Much of the preliminary planning for Kiawah Island was done back in 1975 by Charles E. Fraser, board chairman of Sea Pines Co., on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Other personnel still at Kiawah also brought with them experience at Hilton Head.
Plans were laid to develop the island in three phases over a 15-year period. The programming has been so successful so far that Phase I of the development plan was completed in three years, rather than the projected five. The first phase included the building of resort facilities, featuring the Inn; the West Beach Village (housing near the Inn) and the Straw Market (a collection of small shops adjacent to the Inn.)
Phase II includes construction of a sports village, now underway; a second 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus (Phase I included a golf course designed by Gary Player); additional tennis courts, and numerous home sites, including condominium units. The Nicklaus championship golf course is to have three spectacular oceanfront holes, two of them among the dunes, just as the original golf "links" were designed when the game was new in Scotland.
Preliminary planning for Phase III, which will complete the development, includes what is to be called River Village, with a system of locks to accomodate boats in transit from salt water to a fresh-water marina.
It is estimated that the cost of the entire development, with completion of all three phases, will run as high as $200 million or more.
Although Kiawah now seems to be progressing quietly, it wasn't always that way. Controversy swirled around the project in its earliest days. Environmentalists were wary of development of the isolated island beach and woodlands while others were suspicious of Arab investment in American lands.
To counter possible objections by environmentalists, the Environmental Research Center Inc., of Columbia, S.C., was engaged to conduct an environmental inventory. The center's $1.3-million study took 16 months, applying many scientific disciplines to approach the complex relationships of existing ecosystems and to provide maximum information on how to proceed with development while preserving as much as possible of the natural order of things.
This natural order included lush vegetation -- trees and plants, and extensive wetlands serving as breeding places for marine life. It had deer, wild ducks, sea birds and alligators. And it was home to loggerhead turtles.
The unspoiled beach of Kiawah, it was learned, is one of the last nesting places left to the loggerheads -- giant sea creatures with flippers.
The turtles, it seems, turn up at night to deposit their eggs in the sand. They are frightened by nocturnal lights, and if scared away there are no eggs -- and thus no baby turtles -- and eventually no loggerheads. Kiawah had been favored by the loggerheads because its great, deserted beach was unlighted at night. A problem was apparent as construction was planned -- obviously you can't shut off all the lights at a developing seashore resort right after cocktail hour.
A solution was reached, as A. Conan Doyle would put it, by a process of scientific deduction and logical synthesis. A special lighting system was devised for the beach around the new Kiawah Island Inn, focal point of activity at the resort. Lights were directed downward -- not over the beach and ocean. And special, subdued yellow light bulbs were used.
Further, sailboats were moved from mooring places in front of the Inn. And qualified, scientifically trained people were assigned to keep an eye on the egg-laying female turtles and incubate their eggs. You can see the incubators at intervals along the beach. Some 17,000 hatchlings have been released on the island over a six-year period.
It was found that raccoons and shore birds probably were the turtles' worst enemy, feeding off their eggs or the hatchlings making their way to the water's edge. But every attempt has been made to lessen the impact of humans on the loggerheads emerging from the sea at Kiawah's beach.
"We probably have more turtles on the beach now than before we built here," said John Ford, of the administrative office of Kiawah Island Co. "They're really making their way back."
What has been done for the loggerhead turtle can be done for other forms of wildlife -- flora and fauna -- on the island, the developers believe. To illustrate their progress and to demonstrate the wild beauty of the island still remaining, they recommend taking a ride around the beaches and wetlands offered by a local beach buggy guided tour outfit, It's a great ride, I found.
The jeep safari, as it is called, takes you through the woodlands and wetlands, ending up with a drive along a stretch of largely deserted ocean beach. There five of these two-hour tours a day. The fare is $7.50 a person. Before going, make sure you have insect repellent with you, or that your guide does -- the mosquitos, which seem to have been fully preserved, can be out in full force, particularly in the evening in the woodland section of the tour. I found the beach pleasantly free of the pests.
A "water safari" now has been inaugurated also. This is by small boat along the shores of the three-mile-long Canvasback Lake on the island.I counted close to 20 alligators, large and small, on the water tour. The alligators can be photographed either in the water or slithering in from the banks of the lake. The fare is similarly $7.50 per person along the cruise.
In addition to early challenges from environmentalists, the developers have endured some legal complications, with court actions filed. Shortly before the resort opened in 1976, the Kuwaitis filed a $1.3-million suit in U.S. District Court in Charleston charging Sea Pines failed to provide services agreed to in a two-year contract. Sea Pines countered with a $13.6-million breach-of-contract suit. The suits were settled out of court in 1977.
Unless you're thinking about buying property on the island, all interest centers around Kiawah Inn and its resort facilities. From the vast veranda of this old plantation-style building, you look out across a garden-lawn area of live oaks, palmettos, pines and large shrubbery toward living units of the Inn. There are 150 rooms in the two-story garden-type buildings, with additional rental condominiums and homes.
On the ocean side of the Inn is the swimming pool, framed by sand dunes and the open beach beyond. Access to the beach is by boardwalks and wooden stairways, leaving the dunes undisturbed. Still another pool is to be built -- for adults who want to swim laps, away from the splashing of children. The tennis courts are close to the Inn and stretching inland and northward is the Gary Player golf course.
Kiawah is basically a social resort, but the Inn does accommodate small meetings -- from 10 to as high as 300 persons. Approximately 350 small meetings are held a year at the Inn and account for about 40 percent of the business.
Kiawah is not a place for those craving "night life," although a cocktail lounge at the Inn features music and dancing. For those who may ask what there is to do, the answer is that, as at other quiet resorts of its type, you can eat well, have cocktails and conversation, sun, read and maybe go to bed early. Next day there is the beach, the pool, golf, tennis and other such activities.
It is a restful resort for couples and for families who can afford it. (A room for two at the Inn in the summer season runs from $59 to $79, oceanfront). However, there are numerous special family and vacation plans in summer and winter, including golf vacations, tennis vacations and honeymoon rates.
I found service good in the Jasmine Room, the Inn's principal dining room. As a seafood fan, I dined on the "catch of the day" -- trigger fish, a flounder-like denizen of the deep -- for $9.25. Charleston's famous delicacy, she-crab soup, is available at both dinner and lunch.
A special dining experience can be had in the Inn's Charleston Gallery, which serves a seven-course gourmet seafood dinner nightly, except Sunday. The menu changes daily, with one seating at 7:30 p.m. The rate is $20 per person, with wine and drinks extra. This dining event takes three hours -- too long for me, so I didn't try it. But reports sounded good, and it's a nice atmosphere.
One of Kiawah's advantages is that if you want to depart for a time from its seclusion, you have the grand old city of Charleston only 25 miles away. For those who love what is perhaps the most beautiful of all American cities, with its historic buildings and good restaurants, that's enough said.
Although the present developers of Kiawah Island had to start practically from scratch, the place was first settled by colonists nearly three centuries ago. A copy of an old map, dated 1780, of the South Carolina and Georgia seacoast, which can be seen at the Inn, shows a "Key Waw" Island, as it was known to the Indians, some distance south of Charleston.
One John Stanyarne built a substantial house there in the mid-18th century which, known now as the old Venderhorst House (after Stanyarne's descendants numbering an early South Carolina governor and other prominent figures), is still standing. In the early days, indigo was the main crop, then sea island cotton took over as on other islands ranging from Hilton Head, S.C., to St. Simons Island, Ga.
The Vanderhorst House stands a few miles up the beach from the Kiawah Inn. It can be visited on the jeep safari. A part of the developers' plans is to restore the old house, which still bears on an inside wall the painted slogan "Give our regards to General Beauregard" left by Union troops occupying Kiawah during the Civil War. Federal restoration funds have been requested but to date have not been approved.
So much for Kiawah's history. The visitor to the island these days has the opportunity -- so the developers point out -- to see more history in the making; the building of a spanking, new seashore resort where particular care is being taken to preserve the natural environment.
A South Carolina businessman visiting the island for the first time recently commented: "Well, I'm here because I'm curious. I suppose curiosity is bringing a lot of people here."
The reply to that is yes and no. The curious do turn up, but they don't get far. Security guards in a booth at the entrance to the island check all arrivals to learn whether they are residents, visitors of residents or hotel guests. At the Inn, you get a guest identification card. So Kiawah preserves its privacy. Those who come here for rest and quiet hope to keep it that way.