Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort: Where Visitors Become “Locals”
Author: Paul deVere
Perhaps you’ve never been here before. Maybe it’s your first glimpse into this lush paradise—a world filled with palm trees and beach chairs, spacious expanses of immaculately manicured golf courses and tennis courts, a marina which plays host to boutiques, waterfront restaurants and the occasional pelican or dolphin. Throw in a dash of southern charm from the locals and a year-round balmy climate and you’ll know why “paradise” is the perfect descriptive.
“We provide all of the elements for a memorable guest experience and you decide which ones to take advantage of,” said Bret Martin, vice president of resort operations for Greenwood Communities and Resorts, owner of Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. With so many activities to choose from, it is no surprise that visitors return year after year to experience all that this resort community has to offer. And sometimes the visitor decides to stay forever.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How this award-winning resort came to be is a story in itself.
In the Beginning: A History Lesson
Greenwood Communities and Resorts is the developer, owner and manager of Palmetto Dunes. As one of Hilton Head Island’s best corporate neighbors, Greenwood donated the land for the Chamber of Commerce building in Shelter Cove, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, the Hilton Head Regional Hospital, as well as Shelter Cove Community Park. How this prestigious family company, involved in the textile industry since 1889, got interested in resort development, Palmetto Dunes and Hilton Head Island, is a matter of serendipity, a love of golf, and economic opportunity.
The South Carolina town of Greenwood is located halfway, as the crow flies, between Greenville, South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia. In 1959, a young Augusta attorney turned developer, Charles Fraser, asked Greenwood Mills president Jim Self, Jr., to help build a golf course on Hilton Head Island. Fraser’s development: Sea Pines. The golf course: The Ocean Course, the island’s—and Greenwood’s—first.
In 1967, a group of investors, made up mostly of residents of Greenwood, formed the Palmetto Dunes Development Corporation, and the creation of Palmetto Dunes began. The Robert Trent Jones course was completed the following year along with Palmetto Dunes’ unique 11-mile lagoon system. The massive amount of sand dredged from the lagoons was used to renourish Palmetto Dunes’ three miles of beach.
In 1971, the original developers took on a partner, the Phipps Land Company. A year later, Phipps acquired the remainder of the company, and development on the ocean side began in earnest. The new owners changed the name to Palmetto Dunes Resort and appointed Robert C. Onorato as president of the new company. “We created a vision then. We would have a hotel on one side (of U.S. 278) and a marina on the other side,” Onorato said.
Events progressed rapidly. In 1972, young PGA touring pro, Johnny Miller, was hired to represent Palmetto Dunes Resort. He won his first Heritage Classic (now the Verizon Heritage) at Harbour Town Golf Links that year.
By 1976, Miller had won his second Heritage, the Fazio golf course was in, the Rod Laver/Roy Emerson tennis facilities were in play, villa communities and single family homes were going up, and the Hyatt of Hilton Head (now the Marriott Resort and Spa) opened its doors.
“Having a major hotel on the ocean, that’s when we started to create our own identity; that’s what started the Palmetto Dunes community,” Onorato said.
Jump ahead to 1979 when Onorato was asked by Phipps Land to find a buyer for Palmetto Dunes. The resort was clipping along nicely, but Phipps wanted to move on. Onorato went to his friend, Charles Fraser. Fraser suggested his friends at Greenwood Development Corporation. The company acquired the resort and the land on the marsh side began a dramatic change.
Shelter Cove: A Harbour is born
Digging started in 1980 and it was a unique undertaking. The 980,000 cubic yards of sand dredged for the harbour was moved to the beach for more renourishment.
In 1983, Dave Harris was hired as Shelter Cove’s harbourmaster, a position Harris has held ever since. “In June, 1983, we opened the first docks. Harbourside I and II, the mixed-use structures that housed marina living along with shops and restaurants, were still under construction. There wasn’t much over here,” Harris said. He remembered the island across the marina, which is now Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort, featured a number of community events—everything from a venue for the SC Governor’s Conference to an appearance by the rock band, Alabama.
“Today we have charters for deep sea fishing and inshore fishing, power and sailboat rentals, nature cruises, kayaks. Just about anything you can do on the water, you can find it here,” Harris said. In his three decades at the marina, Harris said every day contains a new story. “You put people out on the water, there’s always something interesting to tell when they return,” he laughed.
“People used to come for just the marina,” Harris said. “But what we want them to understand, once they’re here, they have the whole resort—all that Palmetto Dunes offers.”
When the marina was completed, Shelter Cove began to blossom. Well over a dozen projects were started and completed in the next three years, including the dedication of the giant King Neptune sundial that greets visitors to the marina and has become the harbour community’s symbol. Retail stores and restaurants line the harbour’s promenade. The area has become a destination for nightly summer concerts and year-round festivals.
Palmetto Dunes’ two “front yards”
In a way, Palmetto Dunes has two “front yards.” There is Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort with its three miles of beach and the drama of the Atlantic Ocean. The other “front yard” is the wide expanse of Broad Creek and the waters that wash through the harbour. In the summer, five nights a week, hundreds of families gather to enjoy entertainer Shannon Tanner’s family-friendly show.
On Tuesday evenings, however, at sundown, thousands of people gather at Shelter Cove Harbour, at the community park, and in boats on the water to enjoy a fireworks display that is truly a celebration of not just Palmetto Dunes, but of the island itself. Whether an island visitor or resident, it seems like a spontaneous festival of life.
“On Tuesdays, there are about 800 to 1,000 people tuned into the show,” Tanner said. After 21 years on the small stage opposite the giant Neptune sundial, Tanner is a Palmetto Dunes star, though he would never see himself as such.
Describing the joys of his job, Tanner said, “It’s not until they’re standing there and I’m signing their hat and they tell me how much a part of their lives this has become. It’s not just a show anymore. You’re really having an impact on some of these kids; you’re making memories.”
An important aspect of the show is when Tanner invites children from the audience to come up and help him perform. Some of those performers from a few decades ago are now sending their kids up on the stage.
Sometimes what happens to those fans, young and old, has had a profound effect on the entertainer. He related one such story.
“A kid came up and asked me at the end of the show if I could play, ‘I’m Proud to be an American.’ He told me his family had been coming to see me for a long time. But I had to tell him, ‘They like me to quit at a certain time.’ He said, ‘No problem, thank you very much, Mr. Tanner.’
“The kid started to walk off and I noticed he had a tear in his eye. He was about 10 years old. Something was up, so I said, ‘Come here, what’s the story.’ He said, ‘Well, my mom is out here tonight and she has called my dad. He’s usually with us, but he’s in Iraq. She called him and said she was going to hold the phone up when you sang the song.’ I hadn’t played the song in a while. I thought it was being overplayed and I’d distanced myself from it.
“I said, ‘Son, tell your mom when she’s ready to hold that phone up.’
“It was dark. I told the audience I was going to play one more song, and I told them why. Everybody grabbed their seats. I saw the lady’s hand go up and this lighted cell phone go up in the air and the light was in my eyes. I played that song and, you know what, it had a different meaning,” Tanner said.
From one front yard to the other, Palmetto Dunes is a community of visitors and residents who make memories for a day or a lifetime.
More than golf
It was Robin and Stewart Edwin’s first visit to Palmetto Dunes. Stewart is a golfer. Robin is an avowed beach bum. They had driven in from Atlanta, Georgia for a week of relaxing on Palmetto Dunes’ three-mile strand and hitting the links. Then they discovered the 11 miles of lagoons. “We love kayaks,” Robin said. “This was our second time out this week. I really can’t compare it to anything. It’s so peaceful.”
“Frank told us where to go to see the egrets—whole trees full of egrets.” Stewart said. Frank is Frank Gaston, who has worked with Palmetto Dunes for 20 years, running the General Store and adding to the star quality of the resort. Four years ago, he and his wife took over Palmetto Dunes Outfitters.
“He was so darn nice, like we’d been coming here forever,” said Stewart. “Is everybody like that?”
According to Gaston, Palmetto Dunes Outfitters has everything you need for a day at the beach, including beach umbrellas, chairs and surfboards. “Then we have canoes and kayaks for the lagoon system,” he said. “We’ve got a membership program, too, for residents. They pay a fee and can come and use the boats any time. We also have a fishing charter out of here and one at Shelter Cove. There’s real good fishing in the lagoons,” he stated. “We also offer a surf class that’s very popular with the kids.” The most popular activity? “Riding bikes on the beach. No question,” he said. He has 3,000 bikes for rent.
But let’s talk golf anyway…
For Jay Cipoletti, of Charleston, WV, life wouldn’t be complete without his annual golf reunion at Palmetto Dunes Resort. The purpose of the trip is two-fold: 1) to connect with a group of lifelong friends and 2) to play golf. What started as a group of eight has grown to a gathering of anywhere from 24-40 guys—friends from high school, college and beyond, now scattered across the map—who converge on the Palmetto Dunes golf courses the last week in March each year. “For the type of golf trip we wanted, Palmetto Dunes has the perfect combination of accommodations, convenience and the quality of the golf courses,” said Jay. “We’ve played each course at Palmetto Dunes at least a half dozen times.”
In May, Jay returns with his wife and two daughters and a few other families for their family vacation. “We always stay at Palmetto Dunes,” said Jay. “During a week’s vacation, I play golf about three times. That’s a nice balance with all the other family activities. The golf courses are close. It’s easy—we can walk to the course. It makes perfect sense.”
Jay is just one of thousands of golf enthusiasts who return year after year for the same reasons. Palmetto Dunes Resort includes three, exquisitely designed, world-class courses which showcase the natural beauty of the Lowcountry. The Robert Trent Jones Oceanfront Course has been rated among the best courses in the entire Southeast. It has the distinction of being one of only two courses on Hilton Head Island with an oceanfront hole—the signature par-five 10th with its spectacular panoramic view of the Atlantic. The George Fazio Course is regarded as one of Hilton Head’s most challenging, and it stands alone as the only par-70 course on the island. The Arthur Hills Golf Course provides a blend of natural beauty and challenge, with its carefully planned layout over rolling dunes brushed by maritime breezes. Recently named the “2009 Golf Course of the Year” by the South Carolina Golf Course Owners Association, the honor is not only based on the quality of the course and its operation, but what the course has done for the community. It supports a variety of national charities, including Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross, Boys & Girls Club and United Way. The course recently hosted two dozen Marines from the Parris Island Recruit Depot in appreciation of their service. Staff members and volunteers treated these special guests to complimentary golf clinics and an on-course golf experience.
The course has also hosted a Patriot Day golf event, which benefits Wounded Warriors, Inc., an organization which supports the Fallen Heroes Foundation to help families of those who have become disabled or have lost their lives in the line of military duty.
The golf instruction program at Palmetto Dunes, headed up by former PGA Tour player, Doug Weaver, includes a variety of clinics and lessons for everyone in the family, including a ladies only program and plenty of opportunities for juniors.
In “Love” with Tennis
Fay and Bob Simmons met at Palmetto Dunes in 1976. Bob was 20, Fay 19. “We are both tennis players and here was this new tennis complex. The pros set us up for a mixed doubles game. It was like they knew,” Bob laughed.
“That’s when we discovered we were both going to Ohio State,” Fay recalled. “We were even going to have a class together.”
The Simmons celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary at Palmetto Dunes this past summer, as they have done for three decades. Their two sons, their wives and four grandchildren were there along with Bob’s mother.
“Four generations of Simmons,” Bob said. “Palmetto Dunes is definitely a family tradition. The people here, the staff, they have always made us feel so welcome. And, you know, we’ve gotten to know John Kerr [the director of tennis] over the years. He remembers us. We talk family. Our daughter took lessons here. Now our granddaughter is,” Bob added, smiling.
“A big part of our business is teaching,” said Kerr. “We have 11 different daily clinics. Five are junior, the other six adult. We have daily round robin for adults and weekly round robins for juniors.”
On busy weeks and holidays, Kerr says the pros are in full swing. “We’ve used as many as 22 pros at a time. We have four full-time, but average 10 pretty much all the time.” he said.
Kerr, who has been at Palmetto Dunes for 18 years, has noticed the changing habits of both vacationers and residents when it comes to outdoor activities. “There’s been tremendous change in how people spend their time outdoors. Just coming in and out of Palmetto Dunes, you can see the numbers of bikers, walkers, skaters, stroller pushers. They’ve really seemed to increase this year.”
According to Kerr, the tennis industry is touting double-digit growth over the past five years and is the only “traditional sport” that has shown any growth. Since the Palmetto Dunes center is open to the public, he has seen a noticeable increase in activity. In response, he has started a “locals only” program that provides lesson, tournament and pro shop discounts.
A Permanent Vacation: The Palmetto Dunes Lifestyle
Some of those visitors who came back year after year, decided to stay. Palmetto Dunes is not only a resort, it is also a residential community, which surprises some.
Visiting golfer, Edwin, said he learned about the residential portion of Palmetto Dunes when he played the Arthur Hills course. “I was just amazed. We thought we were coming to this fabulous resort. Then I learn you can live here, too,” he said.
“It’s really funny how vacationers look at the island,” said Joe Maggi, president of the Palmetto Dunes Property Owners Association. “My wife is a teacher on the island. When visitors find out, they say, ‘Do you teach the kids on vacation who come here?’ We just laugh. People’s perception of Hilton Head is amazing.”
Maggi is a typical transplant. He vacationed here and, when he was with IBM, came to meetings at Palmetto Dunes. Twelve years ago, he and his wife moved to Palmetto Dunes full time. “Visitors often don’t appreciate the fact we are a real community—real people,” Maggi said.
While he admits that the Palmetto Dunes community “fills up” with visitors in season, he doesn’t really mind. “It’s also kind of nice to know all these people came to where we live. It’s like an endorsement of my decision to live here. I like to see people having fun and enjoying what we have. People save all year for a week here. We get to live here all year long. What a neat thing. It’s been called a little paradise. We really think it is,” said Maggi.
He is also impressed with the citizen volunteers who serve the various committees and report to the association’s board. “Take the lagoon committee. I don’t think anybody on the committee was a marine biologist, but they picked up some pretty great skills. Some areas of the lagoons were silting up and needed dredging. Members of the committee were assigned to take soundings in the lagoons. They became experts,” Maggi said.
The land plan for Palmetto Dunes on the east side of U.S. 278 included a center core that incorporated hotels and other accommodations for visitors. To the north and south of that core are private, residential, single-family home sections. The north is known as the “Mariners” side. On the south is the Leamington community.
Leamington provides another choice of community within Palmetto Dunes. Residents can have their own golf cart. They have their own beach pavilion, and there are no short-term rental homes. Leamington is truly private, yet it is an essential part of the larger Palmetto Dunes community.
Long time island resident, Phil Porter, has a home on the north side. “We’ve lived in the same house for 30 years. Nobody lives in the same house for 30 years, but we had no reason to leave,” Porter laughed. He mentioned his family’s love for birds and other wildlife, especially fishing the lagoons in Palmetto Dunes. “It’s just very neat,” Porter said. His son lives just down the street in the home his parents once lived in. “We’re third generation in Palmetto Dunes,” Porter said.
Long time islander and Realtor, Ken Oliver, was on the boat when the idea of Leamington took shape back in the mid-1980s. Oliver has worked with Dunes Marketing Group, the real estate company that has focused on Palmetto Dunes, for 30 years. More often than not, Oliver has been the company’s leading agent.
“We all went out on the Compass Rose,” Oliver remembered. The “we” included Oliver and Bill Baldwin, Dunes Marketing’s director of sales, Chuck Pigg of Greenwood Development, John Davis, the president of Greenwood Development and the fellow who owned the beautiful sailboat, founder of Sea Pines, Charles Fraser. “We brainstormed about what to do with this big piece of property. It got down to a high-end, very low density, residential golf and oceanfront community. Every home site has a double fairway view, which is very unusual,” Oliver said. The plans included private entrances and the Arthur Hills golf course. “Hills was home of the Men’s Collegiate Golf Championship for years,” Oliver said. “Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and all those guys were there playing, which is kind of neat.”
The reasons that bring a guest to Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort are as varied as the activities that await them: a getaway for the whole family, a golf weekend with the guys, a pampered stay for a bachelorette and her closest friends or a romantic week for two.
The endings may vary, but the stories are similar. Once you enter the world that is Palmetto Dunes, you will have experienced a piece of paradise. Whether you decide to return permanently or just immerse yourself in it once a year, there is one thing that is certain.
You will be back.