Located off the coast of South Carolina, the renowned resort destination of Hilton Head Island features golf, beaches, tennis, scenery and an endless selection of water recreation. Known for its carefully maintained natural beauty—tall pines, broad oaks and characteristic palmettos—Hilton Head Island has long stood as one of the major resort communities on the East Coast.
Nature has been pristinely preserved throughout the island's development as a tourist destination, beginning in the 1950s. Charles Fraser conceived what would become the model for the Hilton Head resort and residential plantations, as well as similar outlying communities. The development of Sea Pines Resort, with its environmentally sensitive construction standards and community covenants, set the standard for the island and shaped what Hilton Head Island is today.
Residents and vacationers from around the world enjoy Hilton Head Island's plethora of golf courses, 12 mi/19 km of beautiful beaches, web of waterways and saltwater marshes, more than 300 tennis courts, 30 mi/48 km of bike trails, nine marinas, two lighthouses, and its fine selection of shopping, dining, recreation and entertainment venues.
Beautiful sandy beaches, tennis courts, golf courses, dense foliage and the blue Atlantic come together at Hilton Head Island. The shape of the island resembles a foot. Visitors arrive on the "ankle" (the north end) after crossing the J. Wilton Graves Bridge. The drive onto the island sets the tone, with spectacular vistas of Skull Creek and the saltwater marshes of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Hilton Head Island is divided into plantations. The mostly residential areas of Indigo Run, Hilton Head Plantation and Palmetto Hall are located on the north end of the island. Port Royal Sound is located on the "heel" of the island; Wexford, Shipyard Plantation, Long Cove and Shelter Cove/Palmetto Dunes make up the "instep" or mid-island; and Sea Pines is at the "toe."
William Hilton Parkway (Highway 278) is the main thoroughfare, running the length of the entire island. Most of the private residential and resort plantations can be reached from the parkway. Two main traffic circles (Sea Pines Circle and Coligny Circle), located near the south end of the island, can be intimidating to some drivers, but they are attractive alternatives to the typical stoplight intersection.
The Cross Island Parkway extends over Broad Creek, connecting the north and south ends of the island (the "ankle" and the "toe"). The tastefully constructed toll bridge (US$1.25 toll for nonresidents) makes travel on and off the island quick and convenient.
Capt. William Hilton named the island for himself during an expedition of the Port Royal Sound in 1663. Hilton Head Island didn't see much development after its discovery, as Native Americans frequently attacked the settlers who lived in South Carolina's Lowcountry. In 1717, Col. John Barnwell received a grant for 1,000 acres/400 hectares on Hilton Head Island that spurred the island's first real growth.
The island suffered frequent invasions. The British occupied Hilton Head during the Revolutionary War and again during the War of 1812. The island was able to recover, and it became home to many of the South's richest plantation owners. During the Civil War, Union soldiers occupied Hilton Head and used it as a transfer point for prisoners of war and supplies. After Reconstruction, the island became a base for farmers and fisherfolk. Former slaves and their descendants, known as the Gullah people, resided (and continue to live) on the island.
Development picked up on Hilton Head after a bridge was built to the mainland in 1956. Charles Fraser and Fred Hack purchased much of the island's land for developing ecologically friendly residential areas. The communities were built along the boundary lines of the former plantations, and they attracted northerners who were looking for summer homes. Rapid growth continued in the plantations, and luxury hotels and condominiums were constructed along the beach, turning Hilton Head Island into a world-class resort destination.
In recent years, the island community has expanded outward into nearby Bluffton. New residential areas have flourished, attracting a variety of shops and restaurants.
Enjoying Hilton Head's natural beauty and wildlife should be at the top of every visitor's list. A simple drive over the J. William Graves Bridge and around the island will provide views of the water and trademark trees of Hilton Head—towering pines, palms and ancient oaks. A walk on the beach, a kayak trip through the saltwater marshes or a cruise along Skull Creek will get you up close and personal with the lush vegetation and fascinating wildlife of the area—egrets and herons abound, and playful dolphins are prone to surface near a passing boat.
A trip to Hilton Head is not complete without a visit to Harbour Town inside Sea Pines Plantation. The spot offers a wide selection of fine dining, shopping and, of course, a climb to the top of the red-and-white-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse.
Beachcombers, golfers and spring-breakers alike go to Hilton Head with the intention of a fun night on the town. And the island does not disappoint. Hilton Head has disco, late-night rock 'n' roll, bars and teen clubs. There is plenty of action to be found mid-island around Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort and Shelter Cove Harbour, but most of the nighttime partying takes place on the island's south end, either around The Quarterdeck at The Sea Pines Resort or just outside the Sea Pines' front gate at a cloister of nightclubs appropriately nicknamed the "Barmuda Triangle." There's also a cluster of bars around Coligny Plaza near the public beach.
Unlike in the rest of the state, which prohibits the sale of alcohol on Sunday, beer and wine can be purchased in select Hilton Head stores all week. Liquor stores, however, are closed on Sunday.
Hilton Head Island has a variety of dining opportunities to satisfy even the most discerning palates. In all, there are more than 200 restaurants on the island, including family-friendly venues and elegant, romantic spots.
As might be expected on a barrier-island destination, Hilton Head is known for its seafood, including popular local dishes with oysters or shrimp and grits. But that's not all you'll find. Other dining experiences include Italian, Mexican, Asian and American.
The dress is "resort casual" at almost all of Hilton Head's restaurants, and most recommend that you call ahead in season. Some locations have limited hours or are closed during winter. A number of restaurants offer early-hours specials for dinner with significant savings.
There are also several restaurants on Hilton Head Island where you can dine by boat.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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