There is certainly no shortage of luxury resort destinations throughout the United States that provide more than merely golf, but also include a host of activities to entertain all of your travel companions. However, while I have experienced very few situations involving unprofessional personalities while a guest at a number of resorts both in the United States and abroad, there is always something simply refreshing when not only the red carpet is rolled out for guests, but so is the unmistakable “southern charm” in every sense of the term.
Wanting to re-visit several of my favorite southern getaways, while also exploring a few resorts totally new to me for this adventure, the list of potential resorts quickly grew to include the Greenbriar, the Homestead, Kiawah Island, Pinehurst, Sea Island, Sea Pines, and a few other unique possibilities. At the end of the day, with nothing personal against any resort among this amazing collection of getaways, it was decided that this particular expedition would focus on a progressive journey south through the Sandhills region of North Carolina at Pinehurst, followed by the seaside escape of Kiawah Island just outside of Charleston, and ending further south in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region at Hilton Head’s Sea Pines Resort.
Pinehurst Resort – North Carolina
Arriving to the area just a few weeks prior to the US Open being played on the famed Pinehurst No. 2, the entire area seemed to be gearing up for this international event. Meandering through the countryside and around the numerous traffic circles, as I neared the stately Carolina Hotel, it becomes very obvious that the residents, staff and many guests shuffling around the property were there with one thing on their minds – golf.
The Pinehurst Resort has The Carolina Hotel, as well as the Holly Inn, Manor Inn and villa rentals to provide guests with a number of options. Larger groups should inquire about the eleven different four-bedroom villas available immediately adjacent to the Carolina Hotel. Arriving to the Carolina, the bellmen certainly go above and beyond to showcase their southern charm while taking care of every detail from having your bags ready to go to the room, your golf bags unpacked and tagged to be sent over to the clubhouse and even the local suggestion on where to have dinner.
While the check-in process was a bit grueling with an extended wait and a fairly uninformed lone employee at the front desk, the hotel itself was a truly elegant piece of history. The oversized verandas seemed to wrap around most of the hotel, which were lined with large rocking chairs quietly calling for guests to sit, relax and unwind with a refreshing mint julep being served by the staff of the Ryder Cup Lounge. Inside, the main halls were decorated with photos and memorabilia that explained the story of why this unassuming destination is often referred to as the “home of golf in America.”
Overall, the staff overseeing the Ryder Cup Lounge and the complimentary afternoon tea in the lobby, as well as the bellmen and the concierge staff were all exceptionally helpful and made sure to provide that warm hospitality and sense of southern charm one would expect. While the room was not large, and not luxurious, this just provided more inspiration to spend the mornings and evenings enjoying the fresh air from the rocking chairs on the verandas. To further enhance the unique combination of Scottish heritage and southern charm, the bagpipes could be heard in the distance just before six o’clock in the evening, and then proceeded to become more vibrant as the lone bagpiper made his way through the gates and onto the grassy area immediately in front of the Carolina Hotel where he played for several minutes to lull the guests into a state of ultimate relaxation at the end the day.
With the newest addition to the resort, Pinehurst now offers guests nine dynamic golf courses as part of the entire Pinehurst Resort experience, but I unfortunately only had time to play one course during this visit. So without reservation, I chose to tackle No. 2 just a few weeks before the big-hitters like Mickelson, Mcllroy and Rose were due to arrive for the 2014 US Open. Walking this magnificent course with a caddie is the only way to accurately get a feeling of this golf masterpiece. I was honored to have a living legend as my caddie; a man who has been working at Pinehurst for 71 years, and not only knows every inch of the golf course, but has a story that goes along with every single one of these inches. With Willie McRae by my side, his course knowledge and ability to read the putts with mind-blowing precision kept me in awe throughout the entire round. Not an overly complicated course, but a design and condition that forces you to think about every shot, and savor each birdie written on the scorecard. And with McRae in the background telling your ball to “run like you stole something ball,” or describing his round with Ben Hogan during the 1951 Ryder Cub, the Pinehurst experience of No. 2 seemed complete.
Kiawah Island Resort – South Carolina
Traveling underneath the massive overhanging oak trees with the draping Spanish moss clinging to the branches, the drive through Johns Island slowly takes you away from any stress left behind, and the lush landscaping and salty ocean air welcomes you with open arms. Entering yet again another traffic circle, I know that Kiawah Island is only a few minutes away, and the ever-growing Freshfields Village is always a welcoming sight of not only civilization, but also exciting resort-style civilization. A large grocery store, the local coffee shop and a host of restaurants and shops are part of this expertly designed retail center. For me, it’s a great place to quickly gather a few grocery items and a much needed soy latte at Java-Java, where there is always a table available outside where I can sip my coffee and watch the families in full vacation mode as the parents enjoy the shops with the employees who all exude southern charm, while the kids run around the grassy area immediately across from Java-Java.
I have a lot of history with this resort, and have spent many days on the island during my lifetime. However, I had not visited in a few years, so this was an opportunity to become reacquainted with this destination that I truly adore. While the resort continues to grow and improve, the quintessential feeling of luxury and adventure is still more alive than ever before. Here, you have several very distinctive options when it comes to the accommodations by the Resort, which range from large villas, private homes, or the newer addition to the island, The Sanctuary Hotel.
While I understand many larger families prefer the conveniences of staying in one of the villas, The Sanctuary provides a level of luxury and service that is simply unmatched on the island. Beyond the convenience of having the award-winning spa, restaurants and other amenities on property while a guest of the hotel, the pool and beach services that are only available to hotel guests far outweigh the others on the island. The pool staff is quick to have your chairs or cabana area personally prepared so that relaxation can commence without delay. The adult pool immediately overlooking the beach is always a popular destination for the day, but both the oversized family pool and adult pool have a number of great frozen drinks guaranteed to keep you refreshed. There are other pools, and even water slides, on the island, which can be fun for the kids, but as I quickly learned, the pools, staff and undersized self-service towels at these other areas are a very distant runner-up to the exquisite service and overall resort atmosphere found at The Sanctuary. The rooms and suites are all modern, but also maintain enough grandeur and charm to remind you that you are in a beach resort just minutes away from the ultimate capitol of the south – Charleston.
Once you are able to pull yourself away from pool scene, activities are available on the island for all ages, and all personalities. Bike trails are everywhere, and the bikes are very easy to arrange through the resort. Nature activities, kids camp, paddle boarding, kayaking and more are only minutes away, and spread throughout the island. Tennis players will be delighted with the opportunities on the island, and sure to sharpen their games during the visit. Even with the many activities and dining options available on the island and at Freshfields Village, it’s still the exceptional championship golf courses that lure guests to Kiawah from all over the world.
PGA Tour Player Justin Leonard said it best when he commented, “Each Kiawah course tells its own story, in its purest form, and makes contact with the soul of the game.” Just off of the main island is Oak Point by Clyde Johnston, which is a fairly open links style course. Immediately on the right when you enter the Kiawah Island gate is Cougar Point by Gary Player, which is a charming course that provides amazing views out across the marshes along with some extremely challenging pin placements sure to keep you thinking about every shot. Just past The Sanctuary Hotel, Turtle Point by Jack Nicklaus is in my opinion, one of the best courses in the area. A beautiful clubhouse and practice facility make you want to simply savor every minute you have before teeing off. This inviting atmosphere, together with a golf course that is as dynamic as they come, including the challenging holes among the dunes overlooking the beach, make this a true golfer’s paradise. Further down the Kiawah Island Parkway and beyond the second security gate, Osprey Point by Tom Fazio is one of the few courses where water can come into play on almost every hole, but remains a very enjoyable course that is sure to provide a few great alligator sightings. Osprey has just re-opened after being closed for renovations during the summer and fall, and is sure to be better than ever with these enhancements.
Of course, the Kiawah golf adventure is never complete without at least one round at the crème de la crème of golf courses in the world – the famed Ocean Course. Clearly one of the greatest accomplishments by Pete Dye, the Ocean Course has already hosted the 1991 Ryder Cup, the 1997 and 2003 World Cups, the 2007 Senior PGA Championship and the 2012 PGA Championship. The Ocean Course is known around the world to provide every tour player, or simply the weekend golfer, one of the most extraordinary courses in the world, a truly humbling round of golf, and a level of service and southern charm unmatched today. The best way to have the quintessential Ocean Course experience is with a caddie. Here both caddie and forecaddie options are available depending on the time of day, but I opted to walk every inch of a course that has been graced with many of the greatest golfers in the world. It’s simply impossible to put into words the pure magnificence felt while playing this course… a course that can be relentlessly ruthless, while maintaining the unexplainable beauty and charm that keeps you wanting more.
For so many years, Kiawah Island Resort has always offered some of the best golf and tennis in the world to their guests, along with endless amounts of activities for the entire family. However, it was always missing that luxury hotel experience, or at least it was before the crown jewel of Kiawah was established with the opening of The Sanctuary Hotel. When it comes to luxurious amenities and services, world-class golf and tennis, and a healthy dose of southern charm, Kiawah Island Resort is in a class by itself.
Sea Pines Resort – South Carolina
The drive down to Hilton Head from Kiawah was not only overwhelmingly beautiful, but made the harsh reality of having to leave the good life of Kiawah a bit easier. I knew that within a few hours, I would be arriving to the pristine Sea Pines Resort. Yet another destination where the staff bends over backwards to cater to each guest while providing outstanding service with their very own touch of southern charm. The iconic red and white lighthouse towers above the resort in the not-so distance, reminding guests of the rich history found on this resort, as well as serving as the landmark of one of the most recognizable marinas in the boating world. This is Sea Pines Resort, and sure to provide a few days of fun and sun.
Very much a family getaway with not only more great golf for South Carolina, but also miles of beaches, an exceptional marina with a number of boating offerings, a massive 605-acre Forest Preserve, tennis, as well as a personal favorite, Lawton Stables with multiple programs for riders of all skill levels. Like most of these supersized resorts, accommodations are designed to meet every desire and budget. A personal favorite for large family gatherings is the beachfront rental home, Endless Summer at 13 Seaside Sparrow. This amazing eight-bedroom home has everything desired, including private pool, media room, gourmet kitchen, multiple living areas and an endless list of amenities.
Having stayed in villas and homes in the past, I was excited to stay at The Inn at Harbor Town this visit, and take advantage of the brand new pool that was only a few weeks old at that point. Having just left Kiawah Island, The Inn at Harbour Town seemed like the little sister of The Sanctuary Hotel; while nearly a quarter of the size, it still maintains that unmistakable feeling of the opulent luxury of yesteryear. The 60-room boutique hotel is not filled with over-the-top lavishness, but a combination of the elegant paneling and moldings, towering columns, stately piano and the natural light streaming in through the walls of windows make this property as charming as they come. The rooms are equally as welcoming with fine linens, spa-like bathrooms and state-of-the-art media to provide guests with classic design side-by-side with the modern conveniences we all want today. If you’re traveling with family and looking for the ultimate Sea Pines experience, inquire about the marvelous two-bedroom Highlander Suite.
The island of Hilton Head is always a favorite for golfers with more than fifty courses in the area, but it’s no surprise that Sea Pines is always at the top of everyone’s must-play list. Home of the RBC Heritage each year, Harbour Town Golf Links is another course where the overall awe-inspiring beauty overpowers the abuse that can be frequent when not hitting the ball pure; making any day of golf, regardless of the final score, an experience of a lifetime. The entire round is filled with plenty of moments to last forever, but none can match that feeling of walking up to the tee box of number eighteen and talking with your caddie not only about your own strategy, but also about the other players who have made history on the final day of the RBC Heritage from that very spot. “Caddies spend more time with our valued guests than any one other member of our team! Our caddies personalize their service relative to the group’s preferences. All groups have high expectations, and we aim to exceed them,” said John Farrell, PGA Director of Golf at The Sea Pines Resort.
Though I was disappointed when I discovered that Heron Point was closed, it promises to be better than ever when reopening. A Pete Dye design that provides all the thrills and frills associated with Dye layouts, I always find that it’s a great place to sharpen the game before teeing up at Harbour Town. The third course on the island is the Ocean Course, which is another piece of history for this seaside escape. Actually the first course built on Hilton Head; today the Ocean Course is beloved by the locals and guests alike, while also being a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary course. With a plethora of water activities, hidden places to unwind and unparalleled golf memories to be discovered, Sea Pines Resort will always hold a special place in my heart.
Pinehurst might not have as many resort activities to offer non-golfers, but with the incredibly rich history found throughout this resort, it’s a very special place for any golfer to experience at least once in a lifetime.
The Osprey Point golf course at Kiawah is actually using the same grass on the new greens as the Ocean Course, which has proved to be a perfect solution for the area. The caliber of golf at Kiawah only gets better with time, and after not visiting for several years, I now remember all the reasons that this is such a perfect resort getaway.
The same company that owns Kiawah Island recently acquired Sea Pines, and there is a major “facelift” happening to the resort currently. While the construction is a bit disruptive at the moment, these new enhancements at Sea Pines are looking phenomenal, and sure to impress the most discerning guests. The Plantation Golf Club is now open and has one of the most state-of-the-art golf learning centers I’ve seen in a long time; the Sea Pines Beach Club was in the final stages and sure to be breath-taking; and though the brand new clubhouse at Harbour Town Golf Links won’t be seen until later in 2015, it’s certain to be as impressive as the course itself.
In the case of these three resorts, each has a unique way of showcasing their southern charm and making guests feel right at home.