A weekend in... / On a Budget / Rental Review

We stayed on South Carolina’s richest island without breaking the bank. Here’s how we did it | Kiawah Island, SC

Make no mistake. Kiawah Island isn’t for the average vacationer. The island itself is gated, so only residents or those staying at the resort are permitted. But that’s not all. Then there is ANOTHER gate further in. Behind those gates are more extravagant properties and their most elite golf course, the Ocean Course. This fact alone scares away most of your normal, budget conscious vacationers.

Photo: Official Kiawah Promotional Imagery

A quick google search for prices at the island hotel confirms that this island is about luxury. With it being just a 40 minute drive to downtown Charleston and only one beach down from the more affordable Folly Beach, most people who are concerned about price start looking elsewhere.

But what if there was a way to experience one of the Southeast’s richest island without breaking the bank? My family and I wanted to find out. So we did the research with the hopes of experiencing as much as the island as possible, at the lowest cost possible. And guess, what? It ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of our lives!

Here’s how we did it…

Booking a place to stay

If you’re on any kind of budget, staying at the hotel is out.

The Sanctuary is an amazing 5-star oceanfront resort, with an infinity pool overlooking the ocean, hot tubs, more pools, a beachside bar, a bar in the lobby with an Ernest Hemingway vibe, a huge open lawn, a golf shop, a few boutique shops, and two great high-end restaurants (oh and a candy/ice cream shop too!). All of that will set you back at least $740 per night, and that’s if you want the standard room on a weekday.

Instead of going that route, we recommend checking out VRBO and zeroing in on the Kiawah Cottages. This is the one we stayed in.

Look, you’re going to be surrounded by some of the most extravagant island mansions you’ve ever seen and a lot of those are for rent. You also have a 5 star hotel right down the road. So by all means, if you have the money, that’s likely going to be your most unforgettable experience. But if you’re like us, then you have to consider the price.

These little cottages are great. They have 3 bedrooms, a nice enough kitchen, a dining space, nice vaulted ceilings in the living space and most even have a screened in porch. Ours was even pet friendly, so we we brought our pup.

This cottage, depending on the time of year, is renting at about $330 per night. That’s less than half of a single night at the hotel. Plus you can bring the whole family and even the dog. Units like these are just across the street from the pristine beaches, which you can walk to in less than 5 minutes.

The goal for us was just getting on the island. Once you’ve rented a place and you are granted access, there is so much to do!

Hitting the beach!

The main reason we wanted to come to Kiawah Island was their magnificent beaches. They are so long, have such a gradual entry, and rarely have many shells on them. They are constantly ranked amongst the world’s best beaches. It’s perfect for families who want to let their kids run free or those who want to run around with the pup.

The beach is a great option because it’s free. We spent most of our days down at the beach soaking in the sun and laying in the surf.

Biking the beach!

Another great option that is unique to Kiawah Island is the biking. You can bike on their endless trails through the wilderness, or take your bike out to the packed sand and ride with ease on the beach. Bringing you own bike would save you the most money, but you can rent them on the island for a about $70 per week.

Exploring The Sanctuary Hotel

There is so much to see on Kiawah. One day we took the family for a stroll over to The Sanctuary to see what $750 will get you, and let me tell you…that’s living in luxury, folks. I have to admit that it’s easily the nicest hotel I’ve ever WALKED through, let alone stayed at.

Golf and Lunch: Exploring the Ocean Course

Kiawah has some of the most beautiful golf courses you’ll ever see, but it comes at a price. Obviously, if you’re a big golfer then this is going to be bucket list material. The Ocean Course hosted the 2012 and 2021 PGA championship as well as the 1991 Ryder Cup. It’s breathtaking, but it will also cost you anywhere from $370 to $470 per round depending on the time of year.

The guys love to golf, but they’re not good enough to warrant putting down $400 to play 18 holes (don’t tell them I said that). What they did instead was to bring us up there for lunch at the Ryder Cup bar (overlooking the ocean and the course!) while they paid to hit on the driving range and putt around a bit.

Lunch at the Ryder Cup Bar isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than eating at any of the full-service restaurants on the island and actually has the best view of all of them. So, yeah this little adventure is going to cost you whatever the price is for time on the driving range and for lunch, but it’s certainly worth seeing.

Fun note: The Ocean Course Club is where they filmed some scenes from the recent Netflix hit “Outer Banks.”

Checking out the wildlife

Kiawah is really a perfect escape from reality. Just walk around a little bit and you’re sure to run into some wildlife. You’ll see a ton of deer, all types of beautiful birds, and occasionally, if you get close to the ponds, an alligator! We saw all of that on one of our long bike rides and even caught a glimpse of some dolphins on our Kayak adventure on the Kiawah River (which was $45 for a 2 hour rental through the resort.)

Perusing Freshfield Village

To enjoy Freshfield Village you don’t need to stay at Kiawah, but if you’re hoping to do some of your own cooking during your stay, or you want to grab a cup of coffee or go to a somewhat affordable restaurant, then you’ll want to exit the gates and check this place out.

Freshfield has a Harris Teeter, a sports bar, a boutique hotel, a great Mexican place, one of the better outdoor outfitter shops we’ve been to, an ice cream shop, a coffee shop and a pizza place. Of course it has a ton of super cute boutiques as well, but with the kids it’s hard to really correctly get your shop on. Unless of course, it’s at the little local toy store that the kids love (and sadly has since moved out.)

Now, again, none of these stores are cheap, but it’s certainly a big step down (price-wise) from eating every meal on the island.

Dinner, music and ice cream on the water at Bohicket Marina and Salty Dog Cafe

Again, this one is just outside the gates. It’s actually located between Kiawah and Seabrook at a cool little boating marina called Bohicket.

This place is great. They have a huge yard overlooking the waterway and marina. They host bands, have great beer, and offer a nice casual seafood fare. Once again, this isn’t cheap, but it’s the budget option for water views when you come down to this part of South Carolina.

Overall Experience

We absolutely loved our time in Kiawah and while it was “on a budget” it certainly wasn’t anywhere near one of the cheapest trips we’ve taken.

That said, it was one of the most memorable. From riding bikes on the beach, to seeing the wildlife, to getting a taste of the rich life, it was just something my family and I won’t forget.

If you’re longing for a trip to the low country with the family, then we’d definitely recommend Kiawah Island. While it might look unaffordable during your initial google search, believe me, you can do it without breaking the bank.