Vacationing with Alligators on Kiawah Island

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- Reggie and Melanie were simultaneously eating hot dogs at the kitchen table of our rented vacation house and watching the alligators swim by outside.

That's right. Alligators. Real ones. Seven hundred alligators, some babies a few inches long and others more than five feet, live in the 110 ponds that dot this spectacular, 10,000-acre barrier island resort along the Atlantic Coast.

The kids were thrilled to discover our house was just across the road from one particularly well-populated pond. Not many places on vacation, we agreed, offered us the chance to watch alligators out the front window and ride bikes along 10 miles of pristine ocean beach out back.

Not many resorts, I decided later that day, taking in the squealing child-and-smiling parent scene at the pool, offer such a happy mix of activities and spacious (10,000 acres) eco-oriented surroundings to satisfy every member of today's family, from the preschooler to grandparent.

Besides three pools and the beach-that-goes-on-forever, eight restaurants (with kids' menus), and the alligators, there are well-conceived, staffed children's programs, tennis, golf, kayaking and fishing, soccer and baseball clinics, riverside oyster roasts, ice cream socials and outdoor puppet shows, to name a few. All this at a price that won't bust the family budget. (A family of four could spend a week at Kiawah Island in a condo for roughly $1,000, including some activities. Spring and winter are even cheaper. Call 800-654-2924 or visit the resort's Web page at www.kiawah-island.com.

``It's more laid back than Florida and more reasonably priced, but there's so much to do I feel like I'm in camp,'' offered Patti Beares, who was vacationing with her family from Atlantic Beach, N.Y.

``I wish we could stay longer,'' agreed Sara Bysshe, a middle-school teacher and mom of two teens from suburban Boston. ``It's an easy place to be with kids.`

The only complaints some families had -- the need both for more casual eateries and a fitness center -- already are being addressed by Kiawah Island management in conjunction with construction of a new luxury hotel on the property.

Managing Director Pren Davis explains he is working hard to shape a new-style family resort for this generation's busy parents who want a different family vacation experience than they had as children.

The newly opened Nature Center, staffed by friendly naturalists happy to answer kids' questions, is a case in point. Many parents today want their vacations to offer some educational quotient.

The Nature Center is the place to meet a tiny baby alligator named Little Al, as Melanie and I did, or schedule a guided canoe trip through the marsh creeks to see birds, oysters and maybe a dolphin. There are night walks to count constellations and beach walks to search for turtle nests. Teens were next door playing pool and ping pong without a sullen face in the bunch.

Resorts looking to court the ever-growing family market could take a few lessons from Kiawah Island. Parents and kids won't go home disappointed, no matter what they want.

-- A break from parenting? Send the kids (age 3 and up) to Kamp Kiawah ($17 per half-day), where they might make tie-dyed shirts or go shelling along the shore under the watchful eye of enthusiastic young counselors. A list of baby sitters who have been screened by the resort is also available.

-- A bored teen? Send her kayaking with a group her age (and a 20-something leader), to a junior tennis or soccer clinic (Kiawah is a first-rate tennis and golf resort) or to the 21-acre Night Heron Park to play basketball or volleyball. The guys might want to join a baseball clinic or one of the pick-up baseball or basketball games that go on well into the evening.

-- A 10-year-old chafes under mom's constant eye? This is a place for him to roam safely on his roller blades or bike. There's little traffic because the resort is so large and security stations are posted at each entrance.

-- The kids want to try golf? Youngsters qualify for reduced afternoon greens fees on the Resort's four championship courses. They can sign up for junior lessons, clinics and parent-child tournaments. Two three-day parent-child Nike golf camps are scheduled for June.

-- More time together? You'll find it playing cards on your deck or on 16 miles of paved bike trails (bring your own helmets, but bikes can be rented, including ones with child-carriers or ones with training wheels.)

-- Grandma and Grandpa are along? Kiawah Island is an ideal choice for an intergenerational trip because there is such a wide variety of activities and accommodations, from hotel rooms to four-bedroom houses and larger.

Wherever you stay, there's no need to worry about those lumbering critters getting too near either, Mike Hammon, a Nature Center staffer and recent marine biology major, reassured me.

Melanie and I joined Hammon and a group of parents and kids on a Gator Walk around the island where we learned the alligators have plenty of fish and crab in the ponds to keep their bellies full and won't come near humans as long as they're not harassed. In more than 30 years since the resort has been in business, he said, there has been only one minor incident with an alligator and no one was hurt.

``The gators are a vital part of our ecosystem here and we need to have them around. We should respect them,'' he told the kids, noting that mother alligators are fiercely protective of their young. That's why he cautioned us against getting too close or feeding them. ``We don't want them to get dependent on humans,'' he explained.

That didn't stop my kids from wanting to take a tiny baby gator home where, they insisted, he could live happily in the bathtub.

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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