Hilton Head Island

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Here's your heads up on Hilton Head

Dec 4, 2003 (Updated Dec 5, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Proximity to major East Coast cities. Climate. Something for everyone.

Cons:No boardwalk. Can get a bit pricey and crowded during the summer.

The Bottom Line: Hilton Head has something for everyone. From golf and tennis for the parents to fireworks and sing alongs for the children. And of course there's a beautiful beach too.

Why trust this review? I know Hilton Head like my backyard because, well, it was my backyard for several years. I grew up there, attended school and worked on the island. Eventually I moved away for college and a professional career, but I still visit my parents several times a year. I mean come on, if your parents lived on Hilton Head you’d probably be visiting "them" more often then you’d think.

This review, although written for first time visitors may also offer those that are perennial tourists a local’s insights.


The promontory that now makes up the island’s "heel" in Port Royal was first noticed by Captain William Hilton, who the island is named after (no, it’s not owned by the Hilton Hotel chain). It was primarily a tobacco and cotton plantation in the pre civil-war era until the slaves rebelled and thew the plantation owners out. The unique Gullah culture claims the island as their home (Nickelodean’s Gullah Gullah Island is loosely Hilton Head) and interjects the island with an interesting African influenced culture.

Insider Tip – A Gullah heritage tour is offered and if you’re interested is absolutely fascinating.

During the civil war Hilton Head became an escaped slave enclave, and it actually left the state of South Carolina and never officially rejoined. Hilton Head’s progress was rather sleepy until about the 1960’s when a developer by the name of Fraser had the grand idea for Sea Pines. From that growth the island has sprouted and is just about now at its limits (about 30,000 permanent residents with over 2 million visitors).

Insider Tip – Visit the Hilton Head museum (north end of the island, near the bridge) for more information on the history.

There is a bridge connecting Hilton Head to the mainland and as the community continues to grow it’s spurred the off island town of Bluffton to join it.

The island itself is an interesting mix, you have multi-million dollar homes and also have trailers with no running water or electricity. It’s a unique mix between traditional culture and a northern influenced, and stimulated, economy.

The largest industry, by far is tourism, although you’ll still see shrimp boats trawling the waters off of the beach in the early morning with dolphins playing behind them. Hilton Head has done it’s best to preserve it’s past while progressing towards the future.

*Flora and Fauna

There has been an explosion of deer on Hilton Head. So much so that they’ve actually started "removing" some because there are overpopulated. You’ll also find alligators (the fresh water brethren of crocs) in the lagoons – especially in Sea Pines. If you encounter a gator, stay back. Although they are rather docile they can move fast. If tormented they will strike back. Keep dogs away from them too.

There are several species of birds on the island, from peacocks (you probably won’t run into any of those), to pelicans. Storks and egrets are seen all along the lagoons.

Shrimp and oysters populate the waterways. Mosquitoes (the unofficial SC state bird) are numerous, Hilton Head is after all, mostly swamp, which explains the "smell" near Port Royal.

Because Hilton Head is subtropical it’s green almost all year long. The little palm trees are called "Palmetto Trees", and are the same tree you’ll see on the SC state flag. Dune grass is natural and is there for a reason. The grass keeps dunes (which protects the island from the sea) from eroding. Please don’t walk on the dunes or pick the grass.

The giant trees are oaks, and a lot of them have a native moss growing off of them. The "tree line" is now the limit for building. There are only a few buildings that exceed the tree line, and they do so only because they are grandfathered in. This is especially noticeable when flying into Hilton Head, the entire island looks completely green, as if no one lives there. It’s a community in touch with nature.

At night, if you’re on the beach (I wont’ ask why) you’ll see ATV’s going up and down. They’re looking for Loggerhead turtles, which lay there eggs on the shores of Hilton Head. If you observe a turtle on the beach, stay back, don’t interrupt this process and certainly do not go near the eggs.


Hilton Head is 12 miles at it’s longest point and 8 miles at it’s widest (although there’s a big inlet so of that only 4 is inhabitable). It’s shaped like a big foot with the heel being Port Royal Plantation and the toe South Beach. If you’re driving over the 278 bridge you enter into the ankle (I’ll get to driving in a minute). The island for the most part is flat. The only hills you’ll find are bunkers on the 30+ golf courses scattered around the island. This is a good and bad thing. Great if you’re a runner and are allergic to hills, bad if you’re looking into the eye of a hurricane.

Hurricanes are something that Hilton Headers know a lot about, but thankfully don’t have to deal with too often. Being that it lies in one of the Western most parts of the East coast (take a look at a map and it will make sense) that little indentation is a life saver. The National Hurricane Institute puts Hilton Head on a 100 year cycle meaning it averages a direct hit once every 100 years. There was a close scare with Hurricane’s Bertha and Fran several years ago, and Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston but other than that a passing Hurricane is only noticeable because of larger ocean swells.

What would a Hurricane do to the island? Well it depends where it hits. If the eye were to pass over Savannah (about 20 miles to the south as the crow…err… seagull flies – but more like 50 by car) the eye wall and all the heavy surf associated with it would pretty much wash Hilton Head off the map. A category 3 Hurricane or greater would submerge all of the residences and cause all of the golf courses to become giant water hazards (caused by storm surge not rain). The Savannah Morning News has a cool interactive feature on their website www.savannahnow.com in their hurricane section that shows what area landmarks would look like if a Hurricane were to hit (hint, they look like they’re underwater).

Insider’s Tip – you can tell how old residences are on the island by how high they are off the ground (to prevent flooding). The newer houses sit upwards of 10 feet above ground (usually the garage is underneath) while the older ones are only a foot or two up.

The climate on "the head" is sub tropical. Beginning around late March and ending the beginning of October you’ll see 80 degrees consistently. In the summer months of June, July, and August pack lots of water because you’ll be facing the 90’s with near 100% humidity. The saving grace of all of this is the sea breezes. The Atlantic Ocean keeps the island a few degrees cooler in the summer than inland areas, and in the winter the ocean warms things up by a couple of degrees. However it also creates afternoon thunderstorms in the summer months. Thy’re great because they cool everything off right about the time you’d be wanting to leave the beach. If you have a tee time after 2pm, bring an umbrella.

Ideal months to visit are April and September. September is a bit better because the ocean is superbly warm from summer heating and the beaches are empty.

What’s the winter like? Well I’ve been in the ocean on Christmas Day. I did it just to say I did, and I nearly froze my Kahuna’s off, but the air temperature was a pleasant 60. On average the island experiences only 2 nights of below freezing temperatures. Packing for a December trip to the island? Pants and golf shirts are in order for the day, but bring a sweater for the night.

*Getting there

Believe it or not Hilton Head has an airport (HHH). It’s small though, and if you’re adverse to "puddle jumpers" I wouldn’t suggest flying into it. It’s served only by USAirways Express (operated by Piedmont) and flights are only to Charlotte (flight lasts just over an hour). They are operated using DASH-8’s (turboprop) which has several downsides to it.

There’s always a crunch for space and luggage on the full summer flights and if there’s rough weather you won’t be flying in. The HHH airport doesn’t have a control tower (although they are building one) so the pilots do a visual sweep of the runway then use the General Aviation channel to announce to Mr. Weekend Flier in his Cesna to stay off the runway.

Noise abatement restrictions and runway length prohibit RJ’s from using the Hilton Head airport however you will see corporate jets flying in and out.

If you do fly into HHH there are a few car rental companies (Hertz, Avis, and one or two more) that have locations at the airport. The luggage is brought to the terminal by a guy with an oversized wagon so it takes a few minutes. Be patient, you’re on modified "island time". If you’re flying out of the island don’t bother showing up more than an hour before your flight because the airport is so small. They don’t even let you into the security area until the flight that makes up the outbound leg lands at the airport.

If you don’t mind the turboprop and the extra cost associated with flying onto the island you can’t beat the convenience.

Alternatives – The Savannah/Hilton Head airport is not a Hilton Head Airport. It was some marketing guys brilliant idea so airlines like AirTran could claim they fly to Hilton Head when in actuality the Savannah airport is about a 50 minute drive to the island. The Savannah Airport is larger then Hilton Head (but still small) and is served, with jet aircraft, by most major carriers. The airport is easy to navigate and is a low cost alternative to flying directly onto the island.

To get from the Savannah airport to the island you can rent a car (take 95 North to Exit 8 in SC – 278 which will bring you to the island) or take Low Country Adventures/Gray Line. I’ve always been puzzled by the name Low Country Adventures. Yes, it serves the Low Country (coastal area of SC) but there’s nothing adventurous about the service. If anything it’s overpriced ($45+) and inefficient.

You could, in theory, take a taxi from Savannah but unless there’s a whole gaggle of you, you’re fixin’ to pay a whole lot. Low Country, as much as I hate it, is a better alternative.

If you’re really pinching the penny’s you can fly into Jacksonville although that requires a 2.5/3 hour drive up 95. The Charleston, SC airport is about an hour and a half from the island. Take 17S – 95. There are no regular van shuttles from JAX or CHS to Hilton Head so you’ll need to rent a car.


Does anyone take Amtrak anymore? Well, if you do, and you make it, your stop is Yemassee, SC which proudly boasts itself as a "shrimp capital" (which is rather funny considering it’s not on the water).

Getting from the train station to Hilton Head will require several feets of strength, a small miracle or two, and a lot of frustration. By car it takes a little less than an hour (on some pretty rural roads) and local cabbies can be unscrupulous. I’m not sure of the car rental situation in Yemassee, I doubt one even exists…


Judging by all the mini-vans with Ohio license plates you’ll see driving (and then stopping in the middle of the road to stare at a map) this is by far the most popular option. From your city of domicile get over to 95, buy a souvenir at South of the Border (Keep Whining Kids, They’ll Stop) and take Exit 8 in SC (allllllll the way at the bottom) to 278 East.

Insider Tip – Along 95 you’ll see a few signs that say "Hilton Head Island exits" and there will be several listed. Trust me when I say Take Exit 8. These signs predate the completion of 278 to 95 and will take you through some pretty desolate, unmarked areas. All of these routes dump you out onto 170, which has the notorious reputation of being one of the deadliest roadways in the entire country. And currently 170 is undergoing construction! (Should be completed, they say by early 2004, but don’t hold your breathe for that one)

Once you get off Exit 8 the island is about 20 or so miles. The speed limit is 55, which can be aggravating if you’ve been sitting for 10 hours and the kids are fighting in the back seat. Do yourself a favor and don’t go over 60. This road is NOTORIOUS for having SCHP and they poach out of state license plates (because they know out of towners won’t fight the tickets).

When you arrive on the island (there’s a bridge, well, actually two that connects you with the mainland) stay to your right to avoid going over the Cross Island Expressway (the only toll road in SC – 6 miles long and $1.50). The signage is purposely confusing and there are often logjams here because of the confusing signs. What you most likely want to take (unless you are heading to Sea Pines) is BUSINESS 278.

Insider Tip – If you’re tempted to get gas right off 95 at one of the service areas, don’t. Wait until you get closer to the island or even on the island where the cost of gas is about 10 cents a gallon cheaper!

Approx. driving times.

Atlanta 5 hrs.
Baltimore 10 hrs
Charleston (SC)1.25 hrs.
Charlotte 4 hrs.
Cleveland 13 hrs.
Columbia (SC) 3 hrs.
Jacksonville 3 hrs.
Richmond 7 hrs.
Philadelphia 11 hrs.
New York City 13 hrs.
Orlando 5 hrs.
Savannah 1 hr.
Syracuse NY 16 hrs
Washington DC 9 hrs

(Consult MapQuest for more exact times. This list is compiled from my own driving including stops and a little overage on the speed limits (shhh, don’t tell)

*Transportation on the island

If you arrive without a car, (rental or your own) you’ll be relying on taxis. There are several companies operating on the island but your best bet is Yellow Cab. The phone number is (don’t bother getting a pen and paper) 686-6666. If you forget that, you’ll probably also forget you’re on Hilton Head. Yellow Cabs are consistently clean, the drivers are knowledgeable about the island, and friendly.

If you’re driving, there’s one main road. 278/Wm. Hilton Parkway. From the bridge all the way to the Sea Pines circle this is your one stop shop. If you’re looking for a business on Hilton Head keep your eyes peeled, the town council mandates that all signage is limited to a very select number of colors. Things like neon signs are completely prohibited.

Most of the island is grouped into Plantations. No, not cotton pickin’ ones, but "gated communities". Of these, some are entirely residential and others are half residential and half tourist. To access a residential plantation you’ll need a guest pass. Don’t bother trying to get into one unless you have a pass.

Sea Pines plantation (where South Beach and Harbor Town are located) charges a daily $5 in season fee ($3 off) which can be purchased AT the gate. This is the ONLY plantation that you can access with money. Don’t expect to get "validated" by restaurants and stores in Sea Pines. If you are staying in Sea Pines they will give you a guest pass for the length of your stay.

Driving on Hilton Head is complicated by 2 things. The South Forest Beach traffic circle (rotary to our British friends) and the Sea Pines Circle. Mind the signage (they’ve installed curbs to keep people from cheating) and you’ll be fine. You can only go right around the circles. It’s your turn to enter the circle when a car exits on your road. Believe it or not these are actually more efficient than stoplights when people know how to use them. Just go, literally, with the flow.

If you did bring your car I’d still suggest taking a taxi. There are back roads that the locals know that let you skip the trouble of 278. The island is small enough so your fare will never be too expensive.


You’re spending money on vacation, so why not spend more! There is a mall on Hilton Head in Shelter Cove (across form Palmetto Dunes – Marriott Beach and Tennis, Hilton, near Disney) with a few stores but nothing exotic or unique. Anchor stores are Belk and Saks, there’s also a Brookstone, FootLocker, Music Store, Hallmark, Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic and a few other ones. The food court consists of a Chick-Fil-A, Sbarro, and a Chinese place. It’s really not much of a mall.

Other shopping areas are Coligney Plaza (south end) and Shops on the Parkway where you’ll find stores for all different tastes. Off island are factory outlets (1 & 2, 2 is the one CLOSER to the island) which have Banana, Gap, J.Crew, Disney, Nike, and about 100 other stores.

There is a Wal-Mart on the island (near Indigo Run) in case you forgot something at home, as well as over a dozen grocery stores (best bets are Harris Teeter and Publix, although Piggly Wiggly wins the fun to say game).

*Eating out

Dining options is where Hilton Head really excels. At grocery stores and most malls you can pick up a seasonal Restaurant Guide that prints menus of most area restaurants. Because there are so many restaurants (well over 100) there’s a lot of turnover and what’s there one season is gone the next.

One thing is for sure, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. Skip eating at your hotel, there’s better food (in taste and price) everywhere on the island.

Local favorites: Pizza – Guiseppe’s. Burgers – Harold’s Diner. Breakfast – Skillets (although a neighboring restaurant recently had a fire so they are redoing it). Steaks – Iron Wolf Chop House. Japanese – Kyoto. Cuban – RedFields. Seafood – too many to choose. Bistro– 211 Park. Deli – Grubey’s. Best hidden spot – Sunset Grille (north end, near the RV park, seriously, trust me on this).

Places to avoid – Crabby Nick’s. Hilton Head Diner. Nick’s Seafood and Steaks, Alligator Grill.


During the off season there’s not much going on. During the season – you’re in for a treat. The main concentration of bars is on the South end. For live music and a party atmosphere try Wild Wing’s. Looking for a dance club? Check out Club South Beach. Jazz can be found at the Blue Note. Mellow music, Big Bamboo in Coligney Plaza (great WW2 S. Pacific era bar – have a "War Dog", they’re amazing – and fattening).

Looking for more of a family night out? Head down to Sea Pines to either Harbor Town or South Beach. Both feature live acoustic music that will have you singing along. Parking is difficult in Sea Pines, I recommend taking the FREE trolley which will pick you up in the parking lot near the gate, once your inside the plantation (follow the signs)

South Beach is home to the Salty Dog Café (www.saltydogcafe.com) and is incredibly popular. Want to get a table for dinner? Show up right at 5 or be prepared to wait. After 9 o’clock they usually can’t guarantee tables for that evening. Reservations are not accepted.


There’s a hotel for every budget on Hilton Head. You will find most corporate chains here (with the exception of Hyatt, there was one up until 2000 until it turned into a Marriott). The Westin is probably the nicest resort although the Marriott Beach and Tennis (the old Hyatt) just underwent a major renovation and is nice. The Hilton is smaller but features large rooms, some with kitchenettes. The Hilton has a beautiful lagoon area in the center of the property and many rooms face the ocean.

The Crowne Plaza is older but not bad. The Holiday Inn (oceanfront) is older as well and not that great. The Tiki bar attracts a large party atmosphere so it’s not very family conducive either.

The Main St. Inn is a smaller boutique hotel, not on the ocean, but it’s very nice.

There is a Disney vacation property here but be warned it’s not on the beach. They offer a complimentary shuttle to their "beach house" which is about 5 minutes away. Disney is located near Shelter Cove.

For the more budget conscious traveler, there is a Red Roof Inn, Mote 6, Quality Suites, Residence Inn and a myriad of other selections. In season you probably won’t find a room for under $100. If you’re looking for oceanfront be prepared for $200 plus.

If you’re traveling with a large family or planning on spending more than a few days I’d suggest getting a villa (condo) or a rental home. Although a large up front cost you can save money by not having multiple hotel rooms and they usually come with a kitchen so you can eat at least a few meals in. There are several condo and home rental outfits on the island. I don’t favor one over any other, but shop around because certain companies have access to certain properties.

Insider Tip – If you’re staying in a condo/villa try and get in a plantation. It will be quieter, usually there’s private beach accesses, and it’s safer.


Golf. Golf. Golf. This is a golfer’s paradise with over 30 courses in the immediate area. The MCI Heritage golf tournament is played on the island every year (spring) and there are several public courses with varying greens fees. The tournament is played on the Harbor Town course in Sea Pines, if you’re planning to play call several months ahead to arrange a tee time. There are also private courses that rank as some of the best in the world. If you can, and it’s no easy feet, play Long Cove Club or Wexford.

Insider Tip – if you’re golfing stay clear of the water sprinklers no matter how hot you are. This is all reclaimed water (filtered sewage) that is not potable and not very clean.

Is Tennis your racquet? Sea Pines and Palmetto Dunes offer great facilities with instruction if you need it. If you really want to have a ball and go all out on a "tennis vacation" consider Van Der Meer. They’ll lob balls at you for 8 hours a day, and put you up in a condo. Plus there’s world class professionals there to improve your game. Children’s camps are offered at Van Der Meer. Because of the temperate climate and the excellent court conditions Van Der Meer is popular with professional players. It’s literally Hilton Head one weekend, Wimbeldon the next.

Free courts can be found at the High School and Jr. High (north end of the island just past Wal-Mart on the right side of 278, off Willow Rd).

If you pay for courts at PD or Sea Pines opt for clay courts, which are very popular on Hilton Head. Hard courts are an option, but the clay is nicer and is different from what most people are used to.

If you’re thinking you want to be less active on your vacation the beach is pristine, wide, and the water is warm. Jellyfish show up around April and usually vacate by May. The waves are small (usually no more than a foot or two) unless it’s high tide when they can get up to a laughable 3 feet. Despite this you’ll still see people trying to surf.

Lifeguards are provided on the beach. They’ll also rent you chairs and umbrellas.

For families there are some GREAT mini-golf courses. If you go at night though use bug spray as the no-see-ums and the mosquitoes will turn you into an insect pin cushion. If it’s raining check out one of the two movie theatres on the island. There is live theatre at the Self Family Arts Center, call ahead for the current show and tickets.

Tuesday nights at Shelter Cove harbor there is a great fireworks display, face painting, and live music with Shannon Tanner. Very family friendly. (Parking can be a hassle though, take a bike if you brought/rented one)

Want to get in touch with nature? There is a forest preserve in Sea Pines as well as Lawton stables, which will give you rides – for a price.

There are several bike rental outfits (most will deliver to your hotel) and canoe/kayak tours. These are great way to see the ecological beauty of the island while getting some exercise. You can rent jet skis from the marinas and sail boats from the beach.

Historic and heritage tours (mentioned in the intro) are also offered.

*Day Trips

Bored of the island? While you’re in the neighborhood be sure to check out Charleston and Savannah (both worthy of their own trips. There are several reviews on both of these cities on epinions so be sure to look those up. Both have a southern charm and a great atmosphere. They brim with history and are pedestrian friendly.

Closer to the island is Beaufort (the name sake for the county) a mere 30 minute drive (278 W to 170 N). Along with a naval air station and Parris Island Marine Corps basic training encampment there is a charming southern town. Along the waterfront promenade are some great shops and cafes. It won’t take long to explore this dot on the map so don’t plan on spending the whole day.

Across the Calibogue sound from Harbor Town lies Daufuskie island a sleepy little island with no cars. You can access it, and it’s resort via ferry. There isn’t a lot over there (a few nice golf courses) but it’s ecologically pristine. Truly an escape from Hilton Head. Tours are offered of the island on an old school bus and are comical if not informative.

If you’ve ever read Pat Conroy’s book (or seen the movie) The Water is Wide, that’s Daufuskie.


Costs associated with vacationing on Hilton Head vary greatly depending on the size of your group and your tastes. You can do it for under $100/day for 2 people, but to "get into things" a family of four can easily spend $500 with room, food, and entertainment.

So that’s about it. Hilton Head offers a lot for such a small island. It’s very tourist oriented and the locals are friendly, just don’t adopt an "entitlement" attitude because you’re staying there. Locals do their best to separate themselves from the hectic tourist lifestyle (hence gated communities) but are usually happy to offer advice and directions.

There is plenty to do whether you are spending a long weekend or a week. And once you go, you’ll want to go back.

Because it’s rather impossible to outline everything about Hilton Head in this review (although I tried) there might be something missing that you are interested in. If there’s something in particular you’d like to see, or have more information on please contact me through the "comments section" and I’ll do my best to get back to you, or provide you with an email for further discussion.

www.islandpacket.com Hilton Head’s newspaper
www.marriott.com Marriott has several properties on the island
www.westin.com Upscale accommodation
www.lowcountryadventures.com has door to door van service from Savannah to the island
www.saltydogcafe.com Tourist hot spot
www.pga.com for information on the golf tournament
www.hiltonheadisland.com Lots and lots of advertisement for tourist services
www.savannahnow.com Savannah, GA’s news website.
www.lowcountrynow.com An alternative to the island packet site.
www.seapines.com Sea Pines plantation

Travel safe.

*This review is part of a "your hometown" series on epinions, sponsored by SURGRN911. Interested in finding out about this and how to get involved? check out http://www.epinions.com/content_3548618884

Recommend this product? Yes

Best Suited For: Families
Best Time to Travel Here: Jun - Aug

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