Is Kiawah Really the "Happiest Seaside Town in America?"

E. Louise

You can never quite find a WTF category on your local blog site when you need one, can you? So I'm just going to have to make do here and express myself a little more, well, eloquently. Because something shocked the hell out of me last week and I'd love your opinion. Here goes: 


Coastal Living, a magazine that I normally think does a pretty good job of connecting with its readers—particularly getting right to the heart of what feeds our love for seaside culture (the food, the views, the downright devil-may-care atmosphere of it all)—has just released their first-ever "Happiest Town in America" list. At the very tippity tip top of it (as in, #1 on the list of 15) is Kiawah Island. (Read the write-up here.)


The happiest seaside town. In the country


Just to clarify, not the most refined. Not the escape-the-crowds-est. Not the one with the most golf courses per capita. Not the one with the most alligators, turtles, and egrets all fighting it out for King of the Relatively Undisturbed Ecosystem. The happiest


Does this baffle anyone else? And before you argue that it IS a happy place, I'm not saying it's not. I've spent a good amount of time there (members of my family have rented a house out there, I've been a guest of the Sanctuary, and for the past seven or eight years, I've traveled out there once a month or two for work) and everybody seems pretty content. It's pleasant enough. You know, the same way your zillionaire, painstakingly private, beauty queen of a great aunt is quite content... even though you can't recall seeing her bursting into a fit of giggles. Ever. Kiawah is kind of like that. 


Back to my knowledge of the island. I'm not a resident and I'm no expert. On the other hand, at least I occasionally have reason to be let ON the island to try to sniff out a little of that acclaimed happiness without calling ahead and reserving... something. That's more than I can say for the majority of CL's readers. It's a private island. So how about if we start there, at the gate you can't get into.


I went to Sullivan's for lunch the other day. I was in Camden, Maine, a few years back for a week. Solana Beach, California not too long ago. The happiest part of each of those visits? I just cruised right into town and got ready to see what there is to see. Honest-to-God touring around. There was no arbiter, no one policing my access—just a scenic bridge or two, some salty views, gaggles of sundress-wearing pedestrians hinting that I'd arrived. To get on Kiawah, I think your cheapest bet for a look-see is an $8 pass to their one public access beach. 

Here's something else: In their summary of the criteria for their "Happiest" picks, CL first mentioned "small town charms." Again, I'm gonna stick with the essentials here and say that a Main Street (or main drag equivalent) is a bare-basics benchmark of small-town charm. A place for residents and vacationers to gather, to get centered, to say "Hi, how are you?" while they do a little shopping, a little dining. And yet for all its assets, you won't find this on Kiawah—no central row of storefronts, no string of breezy Mom & Pop restaurants. There's a shopping center with some pretty good options in Freshfields Village.... but it's on a different island, and I'm fairly sure that means it's in a different town. Hell, if you need to buy groceries, you better grab your gate pass. You're headed out of "town." 


Which makes another criterion listed—walkability—just as puzzling. It's true that there are trails everywhere. And if exercise is your thing, it's a winner. But if your interpretation of "walkability" is getting from Point A to Point B (your house to the store, the store to a neighborhood bistro), you're up a creek. The previously mentioned center of commerce at Freshfields (retail goods, restaurants, even the Starbucks) is two and half miles away. That's quite a hike for an espresso. Sure, there are a few restaurants on the island—a smattering of hotel/club affiliated spots—but I couldn't tell you where to find them. A small point, but when you're stacking this single 1,600-resident resort against AnySeasideTown USA, I'd like to know I could throw a rock to the nearest shrimp taco. 


What do you think? Am I way off base with my claim that they're way off base? Am I the only one who thinks "happy by the beach" and sees images of kids playing in the fire hydrants on the 4th of July, a string of screened-in restaurants lining Main Street that serve up of sea-anything, a diner or two for a good breakfast, a silly quirk or two that draws traffic to a crawl, salty characters, a late-night good-time spot, an early-morning trawler...

If you agree with the Kiawah ranking, let me know. If not, what's your #1 happiest seaside town? Slap-happy Sullivan's? Come-as-you-are IOP? Punch drunk Folly? Or is it someplace "off," a coastal gem you flock to every year, just to get good and happy... I want to know.