South Carolina: Middle America keeps coming back

South Carolina's Kiawah Island is an idealised version of the US. No wonder Middle America – and Justin Webb – keeps coming back

Forget Florida. For a family holiday on America's East Coast, there is nowhere better than Kiawah Island. It is, I admit, slightly tricky to get to, but that only adds to its charm. Kiawah is at the top end of South Carolina's low country, a land of salt marshes and gentle Southern architecture of the kind revealed to the wider world by the film, The Big Chill. It's flat, and hot, and slow, and serene. America's only working tea plantation is nearby, but that's just about it for industry.

As you near the island on the journey from nearby Charleston airport – or on a longer drive from Atlanta, Georgia – you leave the highways behind. There's the odd wooden church sheltering from the heat in a little canopy of roadside trees, but little else to be seen. Elderly palmettos and live oaks curve over narrow country roads, clumps of Spanish moss hang from them and sway gently in the breeze.

On Kiawah itself, sudden storms kick up in the evening with a frenzy of wind and thunder – and then subside, leaving soaked, steaming peace. One evening last year, I stood outside as one such storm passed over and torrents of warm rain cascaded down through the palms. To British eyes, this is exotic weather – the kind you associate with the rigours of travel to a really far-flung corner of the world, rather than to a tiny enclave only an hour's flight south of Washington.

I suppose I should mention that they do have hurricanes here, but on that stormy night, the dangers were minor: a slight chance of being struck by lightning or an errant palm nut. Nevertheless – this is America – strict precautions had been taken and one of the events planned for the evening, "Shagging on the Pier", had been cancelled because of the storm. Shagging, by the way, is a Southern dance step from the post-war years, nothing more. The Ice Cream Social, meanwhile, had been moved into a large shed with open sides but a sturdy roof. Everyone was wet, but no one was cold.

From February to November, no one is ever cold in Kiawah. It is a place of particularly American warmth, literally and metaphorically. Which is why I want to focus on the Ice Cream Social – though I should begin, I suppose, with some thoughts about the island in general.

Kiawah could be described as a 10-mile long barrier of sand with the Atlantic on the east side and alligator-infested swamp and salt marshes to the west. The island is attached to the mainland by one road. This description would be true up to a point – in fact, it was completely true until the Fifties; but it is now, well, a little misleading to leave it there. Kiawah is – let me be blunt about it – a gated community. It is a private island, which, I suspect for reasons of commercial acumen rather than ecological rectitude, has been kept free of all the tat you associate with the rest of the nation: the gas stations and McDonald's and four-lane highways and sprawl.

On Kiawah, the alligators are allowed to roam free; turtles and bobcats and butterflies the size of bats all take their chances among them. Construction is strictly monitored and controlled. It is a holiday island with pretensions – reasonable ones – to being called a nature reserve. The buildings are low, generously spaced out, and of muted colours, with little lighting at night so that nocturnal creatures are not disturbed.

If you venture out after dark, the humming and hissing and rustling all around you is a reminder that this is shared space. This being America, however, the humans have not stinted themselves. Kiawah is luxurious: the golf resort has a course designed by Gary Player and hosts international tournaments. The tennis courts are spectacular.

And the houses? Well, one on sale last summer had seven bedrooms, eight bathrooms and 6,000 sq ft of ocean-view decking. The dining room, according to the estate agent, "will remind you of the Palm Court in Manhattan's Plaza Hotel". Remember, they don't do irony here: it really will remind you of the Palm Court in Manhattan's Plaza Hotel, or you can sue.

As well as the grand beachfront homes, there are hundreds of smaller ones, and hundreds of families with young children spending their hard-earned annual two-week holidays here. The mix is very American. There are no poor people anywhere on Kiawah. They do not exist here. There are very few black guests. There are black people, for sure – this is, after all, South Carolina, which has a large African-American population – but they are serving, sweeping, tidying. So when I tell you that the Ice Cream Social is a joy to behold, I am not pretending that it represents a perfect social system. Kiawah is an escape from many of the nastier sides of American life, in particular from the sheer ugliness of much of the built environment here, but it is not itself Nirvana.

Back to the Ice Cream Social: the evening, slightly delayed by the storm, begins with the sale of huge amounts of ice-cream and associated sprinkles. The children – dozens of them – sit, excited yet obedient, at the feet of a dapper, energetic entertainer: Rick Hubbard.

"Where y'all from?" asks Rick, and the adults, not the children, scream out the names of their states. Forty-year-old lawyers and teachers and accountants crying, "Maryland – YEAH!" with true feeling. It is on one level risible. (Has a British Butlins ever echoed to the sound of "Northamptonshire – YEAH!"? I doubt it.) But in the years I have lived in the US and visited Kiawah, I have come to see this ritual differently.

The Kiawah Ice Cream Social is about giving vent to that cry of attachment – deep attachment – that millions and millions of Americans have towards their communities and their homes.

There is nothing shameful about that. It is a part of who Americans are. And the local affection radiates up to the nation at large. America, Rick tells the children, has never invented any musical instruments of any note, save two: the banjo and the kazoo. Whether this is strictly true, I have my doubts. But nobody in Kiawah cares. Rick plays both instruments for the delighted kids. "Do you think we invented the French horn?"

"No!" roars the audience. No, indeed. The French horn, whatever it is, has a distant, difficult, exclusive sound to it. The banjo and the kazoo are approachable and democratic. In fact, the kazoo is so accessible that anyone can play it at any time, with no practice and little skill. It is the ultimate democratic musical instrument; everyone can take part.

Rick's show ends with exactly that: everyone playing kazoos. Then we all drift off into the night. The Kiawah Ice Cream Social has bound the upper and middle segments of American society together yet again, in attachment to home, to family, and to simple, accessible pleasures.

Did I mention the beach? These evening activities are, of course, entirely optional – and the island is big. You could spend weeks in Kiawah biking or sunbathing or bird-watching and never really sample its culture. I think you would be missing out, but Kiawah certainly offers a sun-and-sand deal every bit as wonderful as Florida – and it is far less packed with holidaymakers. The beach is huge and never crowded. The sand is not as white as it is in the Caribbean, but the sea temperature is wonderfully warm; it feels like a tepid bath, and young children can play in it all day with no need for towels and fuss.

The first time we came here, with two-year-old twins, they toddled down to the water in their clothes after the long drive from Washington, put their feet in the sea, and then, to their enormous pleasure and their parents' European-style horror, simply walked in.

You can stay at a fancy hotel on the island, but I recommend self-catering, booked over the internet. The range is massive, from gin palaces next to the beach to modest apartments from where you have to drive or cycle to the action. But everything is organised and clean and functions well. For instance, bike hire is done on the phone, with the cycles brought to your door, and picked up from there as well. Kiawah works.

The Hamptons of Long Island are, of course, a far more sophisticated American beach holiday destination, and so is Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, or even the Florida Keys. But Kiawah represents the heart of this nation – homespun and open-faced, where shagging is innocent fun, and the Ice Cream Social is an event to be remembered your whole life long.

Justin Webb is the BBC's North America editor

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

Direct flights to Atlanta – around a six-hour drive from Kiawah – are offered by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick and Delta (0845 600 0950; www.delta.com) from Gatwick and Manchester.

Delta also offers connecting flights to Charleston, around half an hour's drive from Kiawah. Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com) also flies to Charleston from Gatwick via Newark or Houston.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reduce myfootprint.travel).

STAYING THERE

The Sanctuary Hotel, Kiawah Island Golf Resort, 1 Sanctuary Beach Drive, Kiawah Island, South Carolina (001 843 768 2121; www.kiawahresort.com). Double rooms start at $540 (£284), room only.

Rental villas on the island can be found on websites such as www.beachwalker.com, www.vacationhomes.com and www.kiawahislandhouse.com.

MORE INFORMATION

South Carolina Tourism:www.discoversouthcarolina.com;

001 803 734 1700

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