The first signs of spring in the Southeast means beach season isn’t far behind. Whether planning a weekend getaway, aspring break with friends or the family summer vacation, there is only one beach destination named America’s Favorite Island by both Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler in 2019: Hilton Head Island.
Situated in the heart of the Lowcountry 20 miles from Savannah, Hilton Head Island and nearby Bluffton provide the ideal combination of daytime pursuits centered around beach and water activities with a full menu of nighttime dining options, making for a perfect one-tank coastal vacation.
Hilton Head’s temperate year-round weather, sandy beaches and Lowcountry marshes make the island a mecca for sun worshippers. With more than 12 miles of coastline along the shoe-shaped island, Hilton Head boasts eight public-access beaches. Whether bodysurfing, frolicking in the surf, building sandcastles with the kids, beach biking or taking a romantic sunset stroll with that special someone, the beaches are wide and welcoming.
Rich with shade trees and cooling breezes, each of the beaches have their own personality. Fish Haul Beach — at the heel of the island — features narrow trails and is a haven for migratory birds along the marshes. Just around the bend, Islanders Beach Park is perfect for families with its playground, picnic pavilion, walking paths and sandcastles just waiting to be built.
Surfers should head to Folly Field Beach. Its mid-island location is popular with long- and short-boarders. Just a few miles south lie Driessen Beach and Burkes Beach. With wide, firm shorelines, both beaches are ideal for biking, surfing and group activities. And both are near Chaplin Community Park, which has plenty of beach parking and other outdoor amenities, including nature trails, tennis courts, basketball and a dog park.
Heading toward the southern end, Coligny Beach is one of the most popular beaches due to nearby parking, restaurants, bars and shops. Attractions include beach volleyball, a kids’ splash pad, swings and even WiFi. Just a bit further south lies one of the island’s least crowded beaches, Alder Lane Beach, which is also wheelchair accessible.
In addition to the surf and sand of Hilton Head’s beaches, there are pleasures to be found exploring the island’s winding waterways and meandering marshlands. Outside Hilton Head, which started as a windsurfing school in the late-1970s, is the major outdoors outfitter on the island. Its knowledgeable interpretive nature guides, licensed captains and retail store staff offer tons of options for exploring the area’s watery world.
To get up close and personal with the tidal creeks and marine wildlife, renting kayaks for the day or the week is a great option. So is signing up for one of a dozen tours, including two-hour guided nature, full moon, fireworks or Maritime Center options. For a deeper dive, take a four-hour May River tour that takes in the history of the Lowcountry and explores historic Bluffton and the area’s shellfish industry. Paddle boarding is another popular option with individual, group or family lessons, as well as nature tours and yoga.
In addition, Outside Hilton Head offers a full menu of boat tours, inshore and offshore charter fishing trips, boat rentals, excursions to nearby Daufuskie Island and Savannah and the popular Dolphin Eco Tour. The two-hour trip sails past the Harbour Town lighthouse communing with the birds and Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin that call the marshlands of Hilton Head home.
For the wee ones, dress them up as pirates and take the family on a hunt for sunken treasure on a pirate ship with Pirates of Hilton Head.
When the sun goes down, another side of Hilton Head shines. The tasty dining scene has exploded in recent years, with sophisticated restaurants, creative cuisine, celebrity chefs, and wine and food festivals making the culinary scene hotter than a Carolina Reaper pepper.
For a traditional seafood feast, you can’t do better than sitting on the dock at venerable Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks. Located in a former 1920s seafood processing plant on Skull Creek in Port Royal Sound, which is one of only two remaining fishing fleets on Hilton Head, Hudson’s has been serving up fresh-from-the-docks shrimp, oysters, clams, crabs and fish since 1967.
For something a bit kitschier, head to Lucky Rooster mid-island. An American Bistro with a touch of Southern soul, the menu is based on seasonal ingredients, the tides and the whims of chef/owner Clayton Rollison, whether it’s perfectly fried chicken with pimento mac & cheese or Hamachi tartare with beets and Asian pear.
To channel your inner Francophile, enjoy traditional French pastries, croissants, tarts, breads and authentic lunch specialties like quiche, fougasse, and Croque Monsieur at Hilton Head Social Bakery in Shelter Cove.
In nearby Bluffton, former South Carolina Chef Ambassador Brandon Carter whips up Southern fare like wood-fired oysters and crispy crab rice in a rustic chic farmhouse at FARM Bluffton. For inspired coastal seafood, The Pearl Kitchen & Bar serves elegant renditions of she-crab and popcorn chowder, grouper casino, pan seared scallops and chargrilled redfish in the sleek dining room or out on the front porch.
Between its wide, sandy beaches and waterways by day, and the creative food scene by night, Hilton Head lives up to its name of America’s Favorite Island.
IF YOU GO:
Hilton Head Island is 280 miles southeast of Atlanta on I-16.
WHAT TO DO
Outside Hilton Head. Premier outdoor outfitter offering Lowcountry adventure tours and rentals. Sunrise to sunset. Varied tour and rental rates. 50 Shelter Cove Lane. 843-686-6996, www.outsidehiltonhead.com.
Pirates of Hilton Head. Family-friendly pirate sailing aboard the Black Dagger. Daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Wednesday-Saturday the rest of the year. $30-$35. 149 Lighthouse Road. 843-363-7000, www.piratesofhiltonhead.com.
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nature preserve. Daily sunrise to sunset. Free. Located on the north side of U.S. 278, between the two bridges that connect Hilton Head Island to the mainland. 843-784-2468, www.fws.gov/refuge/Pinckney_Island.
WHERE TO EAT
FARM Bluffton. Rustic chic Southern fare. Lunch Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m.- 9 p.m.; Brunch Sunday 9 a.m.-2 p.m. $14-$38 entrees. 1301 May River Road, Bluffton. 843-707-2041, www.farmbluffton.com.
The Pearl Kitchen & Bar. Coastal fare. Lunch Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m-2 p.m.; Dinner daily starting at 5 p.m. $28-$50 entrees. 55 Calhoun St., Bluffton. 843-757-5511, www.thepearlbluffton.com.
Hilton Head Social Bakery. Traditional French bakery serving savory and sweet treats and authentic lunch specialties. $3-$15. 17 Harbourside Lane in Shelter Cove. 843-715-3349. www.hiltonheadsocialbakery.com.
Hudson’s Seafood on the Docks. Hilton Head Island historic seafood landmark. Open daily for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch at 11 a.m. $15-30 entrees. 1 Hudson Road, Hilton Head. 843-681-2772, www.hudsonsonthedocks.com.
Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar. American bistro with Southern soul. Monday-Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. $17-$35 entrees. 841 William Hilton Pkwy., Hilton Head. 843-681-3474, www.luckyroosterhhi.com.
WHERE TO STAY
The Marriott Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa. Oceanfront resort. $123-479. One Hotel Circle., Hilton Head. 843-686-8400, www.marriott.com.
Old Town Bluffton Inn. Boutique inn in the heart of Old Town. $200-$350. 1321 May River Road, Bluffton. 843-707-4045, www.blufftoninnsc.com.
Montage at Palmetto Bluff. Luxury inn and resort. Starting at $305. 477 Mt. Pelia Road, Bluffton. 866-276-0779, www.montagehotels.com/palmettobluff.
Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival. Week-long culinary and cultural tourism festival. Feb. 24-March 1. $9-$195. www.hiltonheadseafoodfestival.com.
RBC Heritage. South Carolina’s only PGA golf tournament. Harbour Town Golf Links. April 13-19. $45-$375. www.rbcheritage.com.
Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival. Luxury automotive exhibition. October 23-November 1. $60-$110. www.hhiconcours.com.
Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and Visitor & Convention Bureau. 1 Chamber of Commerce Drive, Hilton Head. 843-785-3673, www.hiltonheadisland.org.
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