First Impression: Hilton Head was the first ecologically planned destination in the United States, and many of the hotels and structures have been carefully integrated into the natural surroundings, adding to its ethereal beauty and brilliant landscapes. It’s more sedate and laid back with a casual elegance, and a thriving, anything goes atmopshere. Golf and tennis are hugely popular in the area and add to the list of many exciting activities. Several families have made trips to Hilton Head an annual tradition, some for decades and generations. It is one of those home-away-from-home type of places but a whole lot more beautiful and with that far-far away appeal. First-time visitors, however should be cautioned against visiting around July 4, the busiest and most crowded time of year, but there are plenty of weeks year round to enjoy this coveted natural beach beauty.
Weather: Warmed year-round by the Gulf Stream, the Island’s average daytime temperature is a mild 70° Fahrenheit (21°Celsius). The average annual ocean temperature is 69°F (20°C), making it an annual favorite with many return visitors. The busiest times of the year are Easter, Fourth of July, the first week of August and Labor Day. Also, the Verizon Heritage golf tournament, which is part of the PGA Tour, is held in early or mid-April every year, drawing many avid fans. During these weeks, expect heavier crowds, full hotels and longer waits at restaurants.
Getting There: Two airports service the Hilton Head Island area: Hilton Head Airport, located approximately 5 miles (8 km) from all Island resorts, and Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, located approximately 45 miles (72 km) south of the Island. US Airways Express from Charlotte offers daily flights to the Hilton Head Airport. Many other carriers also offer daily flights into Savannah (the airport of choice by most visitors), including direct non-stop service from over 17 U.S. cities. All flights are met by ground transportation companies.
Transportation: Public transportation is virtually nonexistent on Hilton Head Island, since it is a small town that caters mainly to seasonal tourists. Most visitors find that it is easiest to drive, though bicycling is popular during the summer months. It’s high advisable to rent a car or choose another means of getting around, though you must book your rental car in advance because vehicles are limited. Avis, Enterprise and Hilton Head Rent-a-Car all have lots on Hilton Head proper, with others such as Budget, Hertz and National/Alamo in Savannah, which is the nearest city with a large airport. The Lowcountry Regional Transportation Authority does offer limited bus services from the island to the nearby counties of Beaufort, Jasper, Allendale, Hampton and Colleton.
Local Flavor: There are over 250 restaurants on Hilton Head Island, ranging from fast-food to gourmet. Enjoy freshly caught cobia (available only in May and June) to wild shrimp in local waters. Dining venues include all types of major ethnic cuisine, including French, German, Italian, Caribbean, Japanese, Greek, Chinese, Thai and Mexican. For those with a milder palate, the island also offers great All-American and southern-style fare, as well as famous local, fresh-caught seafood. Some recommended establishments include the open-air Salty Dog Café at South Beach Marina, with locals and tourists mingling in the late afternoon over spirited cocktails, frosty brews and hot-boiled shrimp. Arrive early to snag a table; they tend to fill up quickly. With a working boatyard and friendly face dockside bar, Captain Woody’s at Palmetto Bay gives off a relaxed vibe that transcends labels such as “local” and “tourist.” The Black Marlin Bayside Grill is great for brunch and a perfect place to spend a leisurely morning. Highly recommended is the shrimp hash: A hearty combo of poached eggs, delicate shrimp and spicy sausage, the sushi nachos with seared tuna and avocado, and the dessert-like bananas Foster French toast. The Benny Hudson Seafood Market is the go-to place for fresh oysters from the nearby May River and wild American shrimp just off the boat. Skull Creek Marina has three outdoor eateries and is where all the fish and shrimping boats unload their nets to offer some seriously fresh, seasonal seafood. Its vibrant Boathouse II has great food, an extensive wine list and an anything-goes attitude. One of the places that will leave you with most satisfied might just be Lagniappe, which serves fresh crêpes stuffed with pulled chicken, grilled plantains, and spinach or with roast pork tenderloin and fried eggplant on the lunch menu; the basket of biscuits may bring you back alone. Full of pleasant touches, from the colorful room decorated with folk art to the coffee that comes in a French press, you may be coming back even more often than you thought. Starfire Contemporary Bistro is another offbeat yet urban spot. The lamb quesadilla with Granny Smith salsa and cilantro-cream, sesame-crusted salmon, then Chef Keith Josefiak’s ginger-peach crème brûlée are highly recommended course for dinner. If you’re in Harbour Town in Sea Pines Plantation one morning, head to Café Europa for a thick omelet—shrimp and asparagus or smoked salmon and cream cheese—that also comes with a brilliant sweeping view of Calibogue Sound. For dinner in Harbour Town, try CQ’s, with a rustic setting and patterned after a 19th-century low-country rice barn that was originally an artist’s studio. Susie Q’s Teas & Gifts is a friendly gift shop/luncheonette where you can sit in a small garden with a black bean salad or the quiche of the day, and take some Key lime pie to go. Truffles Café & Market and San Miguel’s Mexican Café are two of the island’s most popular dinner spots. Twenty-minute waits are common at both, though at San Miguel’s you can enjoy a cocktail overlooking the harbor at the yachts. At Market Street Café, you can fill up on spanakopita or souvlaki. At Léon de Paris, which is run by a French couple, you can almost smell from here the fresh baked baguettes, country breads and raisin brioches. In Bluffton, you can grab a burger and sweet tea at the Squat & Gobble, which has has great salads and sandwiches. Five minutes from Bluffton, in Port Royal, you’ll wind up at 11th Street Dockside where you can indulge in more Frogmore stew, a sort of low-country bouillabaisse—though it’s made by request and not on the menu.
Retail Therapy: More than 200 shops are located on Hilton Head Island, from elegant boutiques and art galleries to an indoor mall with major department stores and specialty shops. Bluffton boasts unique boutiques, two outlet malls featuring designer brands, a wide array of major retail stores and independent shops. Shopping on Hilton Head Island is largely limited to expensive resort wear or artsy-craftsy collectibles. But if you feel like browsing, cross the bridge to the mainland and head into downtown Bluffton. Nearby Calhoun Street is the town’s main commercial strip and an artist’s colony with many galleries and exhibits. Bay Street, Beaufort’s vibrant main drag, makes for prime shopping, as does the parallel promenade along the Beaufort River. There’s also antiquing a plenty in Hilton Head.
Nightlife: Hilton Head has something for everyone! A good place to start is the dockside happy hours at South Beach Marina, in Sea Pines. There’s always something brewing or fruity and frozen at the Salty Dog Café, and cheap pitchers of beer at South Beach Deli. There’s also a mini pub crawl called the Bermuda Triangle in the Hilton Head Plaza shopping center. For cigars and martini’s, the Lodge is a can’t miss, with antler chandeliers, four pool tables, a walk-in humidor, a full menu of single malts, and two stone fireplaces with glistening fires, even when air conditioning is needed. The island’s biggest party gets roaring around 11 p.m. on Wednesday at Disco Night at Hilton Head Brewing Co., universally known as “the brewpub” and wall-to-wall with the younger crowd dancing to the 70’s crowd by midnight and lasting till 3 or 4 a.m. For a quiet barstool and a good pint of Guinness, head across the courtyard to Reilley’s, which is a combo Irish pub/sports bar. Hilton Head’s top spot for a famous New York City jazz club is Blue Note. For a cozy, dark coffee house with acoustic music, visit Moneypenny’s. Monkey Business and Wild Wing Café are other clubs that draw in the younger (or young at heart) crowds looking for a dance floor. Another place that stays open late till 2 a.m. is a new wine bar in the Village at Wexford called Wine Times 4.