By Hope S. Philbrick
Located off the South Carolina coast, Hilton Head Island offers natural beauty, intriguing history, gracious community and lip-smacking tasty cuisine. No wonder it’s one of the nation’s most popular destinations.
Just 12 miles long and five miles wide, Hilton Head Island packs a lot into a little—including 250 restaurants, 24 golf courses, 200 stores, 100 miles of bike and nature trails, 21 parks and 10 beaches.
During the summer months, Hilton Head is one of the South’s most popular family vacation destinations—rumor has it that on some summer weekends traffic on and off the island can be bumper-to-bumper. But visit during the week for less crowds or especially during the fall or whenever school is in session and you can easily enjoy a more remote, relaxed and blissfully gridlock-free grownup getaway.
Cross the bridge onto the island and you’ll be surrounded by water and fresh air; once you’re on Hilton Head the view is thick with trees. Lush and green, the trees hide storefronts and signs (you’ll appreciate a GPS when navigating around). The natural environment is one of the island’s greatest charms, and locals know it, so you won’t see many neon signs and brightly painted buildings. Approaching from the green inland, there’s a magical, instant bliss you’ll feel when breaking through the trees and seeing a stretch of beach lapped by the ocean and the horizon beyond.
The island is organized into 20 distinct communities, some of which have entrance fees and car security tag requirements. For help getting familiar with the lay of the land, contact the Hilton Head Island Visitor and Convention Bureau.
First stop: Check into your resort. Located in the prestigious Palmetto Dunes community and near sugar-white sands, Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort has long been one of the island’s most desirable oceanfront destinations—and now it’s even better, thanks to a recent $17 million transformation. (Phase I was completed in April; Phase II will begin later this year.)
The new resort pool complex includes an adult pool and Buoy Bar—21 Plus Salute! Also new: the Ocean Tides Spa, a health club facility, and a ‘fire pit’ deck for HH Prime Restaurant. The lobby and meeting facilities have also been updated. The resort boasts 323 guest rooms including 28 suites—the largest resort accommodations on the island. The beds are comfortable and the amenities pampering, but you won’t want to spend all of your time in the room: The resort boasts an 11-mile lagoon system for kayaking or canoeing, 25 tennis courts, 54 holes of championship golf, bike trails and a spectacular beach to enjoy.
You could easily spend all of your time at the resort—but then you’d miss getting to know Hilton Head Island.
Lawton Stables at Sea Pines Resort offers an opportunity to explore a part of the island you might otherwise miss: the 603-acre Sea Pines Nature Preserve. Navigating well-worn trails through live oak trees and Palmettos, this one-hour tour is spent seated on the back of a friendly, well-trained horse and riding single-file behind a guide who points out flora and fauna while sharing local history, which features Yemassee Indians, English planters, African slaves, Civil War soldiers and more. Along the route under the sun-dappled canopy, you may spot alligators basking in the sun, herons wading in shallow waters, flowers blooming at the trail’s edge and other photogenic sites.
ZipLine Hilton Head is one of my favorite zip-line experiences. Weaving through massive moss-covered oak trees and tall pines, this two-hour tour offers eight zip-lines and two suspended bridges up to 75-feet above the ground. The finale is a dual cable 900-foot racing zip—and if you want to get a taste of zip-lining before signing up for the whole shebang, you can just try the racing zip. One segment of the tour overlooks Broad Creek, with a picturesque view of blue waters glistening against green marsh. It’s an adrenaline-pumping way to explore the island. (Click and scroll down to read more about ZipLine Hilton Head.)
Of course, whatever itinerary you choose, you’ll need to eat. And that’s when you’ll be most glad you’re in the Lowcountry.
For honest local flavor, head to Roastfish and Cornbread where the menu showcases the Gullah culinary traditions that Chef David Young learned from his great grandmother. Dishes are authentic, flavors tantalizing, portions generous and prices low. Ingredients are sourced locally to the extent possible with an emphasis on organic. Try a fish or seafood platter with sides like collard greens, sweet potato fries, cornbread and hush puppies. Or go vegan with options like sweet potato hummus, roasted portabella and sautéed vegetable pilaf. Or try a signature dish like organic free-range stewed chicken, natural lamb stew, whole roasted flounder, shrimp burger or much more. The challenge with this menu is making a decision because everything sounds and is delicious.
For a setting as sumptuous as the food, don’t miss the Quarterdeck. Located near the Harbour Town Lighthouse—which overlooks Calibogue Sound—the restaurant has been an island tradition for decades. The menu features coastal American favorites like blackened jumbo shrimp, crab cakes, crab bisque, the famed salmon burgers, flounder, shrimp and grits, and peel-and-eat shrimp. If you’re in no mood for seafood, opt for an Angus burger, pulled pork, grilled portabella, chicken and more. Save room for dessert like key lime or apple pie.
For a festive vibe, join the crowd at Skull Creek Boathouse. Located on the waterfront of Skull Creek, locals and visitors arrive by car and boat to dine indoors and out. This place offers a variety of dining experiences, so choose what suits your mood (and the weather). The main menu features an array of fresh seafood and American classics—prepared steamed, fried, broiled and baked. The Dive Bar serves fresh sushi, oysters and more. The open-air Buoy Bar showcases original drinks. The menu is extensive, so once you’ve snagged a table order a cocktail and a starter then settle back to evaluate all your options before making an entrée decision. My advice: come early, bring friends, order a variety of different things so you can taste as much as possible, then enjoy.
Before leaving the island, stop at Benny Hudson Seafood and stock up on fresh-caught shrimp, fish, crab, clams, scallops and oysters so you can bring home fresh flavors from the pristine waters around Hilton Head. The Hudsons, who have been in the seafood business for four generations, offer top-quality seafood at competitive prices—trust me, you’ll be glad you stopped when eating the souvenirs from your vacation back at home, plus it’s a great way to practice what you learned at Robert Irvine’s EAT!
@21plusTravel Tip: As a food writer, I always keep a cooler in the car so I can transport fresh finds. Buy ice where you buy food or at a nearby gas station or grocer; if you need a cooler, buy one at a grocer or convenience store.
More To Do…
Time permitting, there’s much more to explore on Hilton Head Island, including:
Coastal Discovery Museum
Fish Hall Plantation Ruins
Leamington Lighthouse & Camp McDougal
Pickney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Port Royal Plantation Forts
-Photo Credits: Benny Hudson Seafood courtesy Hilton Head Island Visitor and Convention Bureau; remainder © HSP Media LLC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.