Resort Spotlight: Wild Dunes Resort

By Pat VandenHeuvel

At the north end of the aptly named Isle of Palms, a low-slung barrier island in the middle of South Carolina's Atlantic coast, Wild Dunes Resort has been welcoming family vacationers for more than 30 years. Its tranquil Lowcountry setting, long list of recreational activities and proximity to America’s friendliest city (Charleston) make it an ideal family getaway.

The two-mile drive across the Intracoastal Waterway on the Isle of Palms (“IOP” in local vernacular) connector should help any family settle into vacation mode. Pulses slow as the placid waterways of the Lowcountry and the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean reveal themselves. The Lowcountry’s unassuming beauty continues down Palm Boulevard, despite some rather ostentatious beach homes (thanks to insurance money from 1989 Hurricane Hugo), to the resort gatehouse of this idyllic little “town.”

What’s Special

  • Location, Location, Location – Wide expanses of oceanfront dunes/beach plus an adjacent marina on the Intracoastal and historic Charleston close by -- what’s not to like?
  • Lots of Lodging – From intimate hotel rooms to rambling oceanfront mansions and anything in between, the accommodations fit any family size and most budgets.
  • An Abundance of Activities – Beyond the beach are kayak tours, biking, dolphin cruises, crabbing, fishing, swimming pools, treasure hunts, beach volleyball/tennis and lots more ...
  • Top-Rated Tennis and Golf -- Both the nationally ranked tennis program and the 36 holes of Tom Fazio-designed golf will take your breath away.

Beachfront to Storefront

Wild Dunes encompasses two and a half miles of pristine, family-friendly beach lined with its namesake dunes scattered with wild sea oats. Early birds often find near-deserted beaches and sand dollars as the sun rises. Then the kiddies come out for body-surfing, sandcastles and corn hole games while spotting dolphins playing off the coast and shrimp trawlers hauling in the fresh catch. Forget about crowds -- even in high season there’s plenty of beach for semi-private family time.

As an alternative, an easy 25 minute drive from the resort lies charming downtown Charleston with its historical sites, top notch restaurants, cute shops and cultural offerings, including art galleries, museums and renowned events such as Spoleto and a world class food and wine festival. Wild Dunes concierges can set up all kinds of ways to explore the city: horse drawn carriage, a ghost and graveyard walking tour, a culinary tour of some of the city’s best dining establishments and more.

Suite Dreams

The focal point of the Wild Dunes Resort, the plantation style Boardwalk Inn has earned AAA 4-diamond recognition every year since opening in 1998. Next door to the Boardwalk Inn sits the newer Village at Wild Dunes where families can choose from studio, one-, two- or three-bedroom suites, all of which boast small well-appointed kitchens (granite, stainless) that alleviate the need to eat out every meal.

We enjoyed our stay at one of the resort’s 300+ homes on the rental program: a comfortable, spacious three-bedroom, three-bath beach house that epitomized casual elegance with tasteful (Pottery Barn meets beach) seaside colors and hardwood floors throughout. Access behind our house led directly to the soft white sand, resulting in short walks to the beach on the slightest whim, including a lovely late night walk under a starlit sky. Magical!

Whatcha’ Wanna Do?

It’s easy for every family member to keep busy (or not) at and around Wild Dunes. In warmer weather, families focus on the beach and splash in the surf or one of the four resort pools. Renting bikes is popular year-round, even during the toasty summers since many paths are mercifully shaded by live oaks dripping with Spanish moss (infant seats and helmets available). We enjoyed pedaling our way through much of Wild Dunes, gawking at the impressive real estate and lovely vistas (the friendly bike rental guy pointed out the most scenic spots on the map). We rewarded ourselves afterward with a short stroll down the villa-lined boardwalk for a Duney’s Ice Cream cone.

Over at the resort’s central Village Plaza, gym rats can work out at the Wild Dunes Fitness Center (personal trainers are available). Sybarites can chill with a massage, facial or salt scrub at the lovely Sand & Sea Day Spa, where some services are offered for fortunate children ages 9 and under, which is uncommon at resort spas. The Plaza is often abuzz in season with concerts, evening movies on the lawn, family bingo or karaoke, even shag lessons (a South Carolina dance tradition).

Wild Dunes also offers an extensive year-round recreational program through the on-site Island Adventures Outfitters, including eco-tours (a paddle through the Charleston Harbor, sailing excursion to nearby scenic barrier islands, dolphin sunset cruises) parasailing, wake-boarding, banana boat rides and more.

Island Adventures Outfitters arranged a Tidal Wave Watersport’s Safari Jet Ski Tour for our family -- it was an absolute blast. The resort shuttle (daily 7am to 11pm) dropped us at the nearby IOP marina where the friendly (heck, everybody’s friendly in Charleston) guide provided safety and operating instructions. Then off we went for a 90 minute, 30 mile tour through quintessential Lowcountry backwaters and then wide expanses of the Intracoastal. The open water free-styling thrilled our 16 year-old son and petrified me before we stopped for some terrific shelling on the expansive, uninhabited Capers Island.

The Wild Adventure Club kids’ program is in full swing during high season and holidays with a different daily theme, such as Spy Day, Olympics Day or perhaps Wacky Water Adventure Day (ages 5-12, fee; register 24 hours prior). In addition, the resort runs an all-day sports camp and marine biology camp once a week. Tweens and teens also can choose from a la carte activities such as black-light dodgeball and volleyball, a Guitar Hero challenge, laser tag and tie-dying -- or they can join their parents on one of the many Lowcountry eco-tours.

For the Country Club Set

Two tight, world-class Tom Fazio-designed golf courses highlight the tranquil beauty of the Low country, winding through waaaaay too much water for the amateur, ending on wind swept holes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. There's golf instruction for adults and juniors (6 and up), daily clinics for all ages and family evening golf after 4pm (reduced rates). We had a blast playing the oceanfront Links Course late one afternoon -- despite our son’s unorthodox Happy Gilmore approach.

The US Tennis Association named Charleston “Best Tennis Town in America” in 2010 for many good reasons, including Wild Dunes Tennis Center. Tennis magazine has ranked Wild Dunes as one of the top tennis resorts in the country for nine years running. Tennis lovers highly praise the 17 Har-Tru courts (one stadium style and five lit for night play) and resident 6.0 pro Charly Rasheed who guarantees to kick up anyone’s game a notch or two. The Center offers daily clinics, drills, exhibitions and instruction for adults and kids as young as four years old.

If You Go:
  • For more information on Wild Dunes Resort, visit the property’s website at www.wilddunesresort.com.
  • Consider the less expensive, less crowded shoulder season: April/May and September/October are some of the Low country’s loveliest months. The ocean water warms by May and stays comfy through October. A few restaurants and shops may be closed, but there still is plenty to do.
  • Check whether beach chairs, umbrellas and other amenities are provided at homes or villas, since daily rental of these items can add up quickly. If not, consider a stop at beach superstore Wings on the IOP Connector.
  • The resort’s Sea Island Grill in the Boardwalk Inn offers a hearty breakfast buffet daily and a decent dinner. One evening we grabbed a smattering of prepared food from Hudson’s gourmet market in the Village Plaza and enjoyed a nice spread on our screened porch as the sun set.
  • In “downtown” (hah!) Isle of Palms, a mile or two from the resort, Huck’s serves a fantastic casual lunch or dinner with some ocean views. (www.huckslowcountrytable.com). Or drive a couple miles further to Poe’s Tavern (www.poestavern.com), a Sullivan’s Island bar renowned for great burgers, beers and people-watching. Families are totally welcome.

Husband and wife team Chris & Pat VandenHeuvel have been writing about cities, resorts, destinations and the occasional restaurant for more than sixteen years. They call Charleston, South Carolina home and their favorite travel companions are their two globetrotting teens, both of whom profess to love the smell of a nice hotel.

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