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A heron takes flight on Kiawah Island (Photograph courtesy Kiawah Island Golf Resort)

Into the Wild on Kiawah Island

“Look at the pool,” my fiancé Andy called out. “Is that a stray cat?” I looked down at our hotel’s empty early morning pools and there it was. “Wonder how it got there,” I mused.

At times on Kiawah Island, I wondered if I was in South Carolina or the marshlands of Botswana. A mere 20 miles south of Charleston, Kiawah is a beachy paradise with all the essential resort elements — like cool cocktails and a phenomenal spa.

But not every asset is manmade. The barrier island is brimming with vibrant, fascinating wildlife. When we visited the Heron Park Nature Center later that day, we learned what we really saw by the pool. “That was most likely a bobcat,” Elisabeth King, director of outdoor programs at Kiawah Resort, said with a smile.

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One of the resident bobcats on Kiawah Island (Photograph courtesy Kiawah Resort)

She assured us that we had nothing to worry about, as the roughly 35 bobcats on the island tend to travel alone and avoid humans. Six of them have been outfitted with GPS tracking devices so visitors can follow their tracks as they perambulate around the island.

In fact, this wildness is by design. Before any development began, in the 1970s, scientists surveyed the flora and fauna for more than a year in an effort to ensure they would be able to maintain the island’s natural ecosystem.

The one resort on the island, The Sanctuary, is as grand and genteel as the Charleston-style home it’s designed to evoke. A wrought-iron sign welcomes guests amidst live oaks and southern magnolias, and lobby windows frame a breathtaking ocean view. Then again, the beach is never far away on Kiawah.

Gliding through the saltwater marshes on a kayak at twilight, I was able to grasp the Lowcountry’s distinct beauty. We spotted a bald eagle’s nest, and tasted the salty tang of edible sea pickles growing in the grass. But as our group approached Captain Sam’s Inlet, we went on high alert; this is where bottlenose dolphins play.

While a sighting is never guaranteed, we held our paddles and waited in silence. Each second felt a minute long. “There!” everyone seemed to shout together. “Over there!” Two dorsal fins peeked out of the water ten feet from our kayaks. And as the glistening creatures drew breaths and flipped through the water I knew this urban girl was hooked.

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The inviting lobby of the Sanctuary (Photograph courtesy Kiawah Resort)

Dolphins in Kiawah engage in strand feeding, a technique only seen in the Lowcountry whereby a group of dolphins actually corral large fish. When one dolphin signals the charge, the group uses their tails to kick them on to the sand. A feast ensues.

I hit spin classes regularly, but biking on Kiawah helped me remember the joy of an easy, outdoor ride. With 35 miles of flat trails and 10 miles of hard-packed sand on the beach, it’s easy to find yourself riding for hours a day. You’ll see “Danger: Alligators” signs, as 450-500 alligators call Kiawah home, but have no fear! Like bobcats, alligators tend to shy away from people. Just don’t feed them or they’ll associate humans with a good thing: food!

We pedaled to Marsh Island Park, and climbed the viewing tower. We saw scads of fiddler crabs beneath us as we crossed the bridge, sign of a thriving saltwater marsh. Unbalanced marshes can smell of sulfur, but these crabs eat the bacteria in the mud that causes the stench. Another happy byproduct of healthy ecosystems!

The island’s five golf courses, which are often compared to iconic courses in Scotland and Ireland, aren’t my thing (I’ll take tennis any day), but Andy played the famous Ocean Course and came back raving about the “best round of golf ever.”

Dining on the island is mostly casual, but save a fancy dinner night for the views at the Atlantic Room at the Ocean Course Clubhouse. Come for lunch, too, but plan on devoting several hours to soaking up the view on the porch. Try the addicting shoestring fries (which you have to specifically request or you’ll get the potato wedge version) and tell them I sent you (wink).

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A crowd plays golf by the Ocean Clubhouse on Kiawah Island (Photograph courtesy Kiawah Resort)

On a Monday night in the summer, Kiawah’s longest-running tradition, the Mingo Point Oyster Roast and BBQ, is not to be missed.  We shucked our own oysters and indulged in barbecue chicken, pulled pork, cornbread muffins, and corn on the cob in an open-air pavilion that overlooked the marsh, while little kids ran around rocking hula hoops and smelling like smoked hams.

On our last early-morning bike ride, we spotted the Turtle Patrol out in full force. It was loggerhead turtle nesting season, and a banner one at that on Kiawah with about 170 nests and 120 eggs per nest. After finding, tracking, and supporting the nests (volunteers will move the eggs if they’re too close to high tide), the Turtle Patrol will wait for the hatching to begin.

Sadly, very few turtles (sometimes only one in 5,000) make it to adulthood (12-15 years old). But how ridiculously joyful is this? The first nests are usually spotted on Mother’s Day weekend, including this year. Perfect timing, mama turtles.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz.