TOP TEN: A Top Ten Tour of Hilton Head and the Lowcountry
Author: David Tobias | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Take a hike on a bike
The history of Hilton Head Island’s commitment to bicycle pathways goes all the way back to Charles Fraser and the very beginnings of Sea Pines, although the impact, perhaps, is just being realized today. Depending on whom you believe (no one has really done a count) there could be as many as 15,000 bicycles for rent on Hilton Head Island, possibly another 10,000 in various plantations just waiting for friends and family to visit, and still another couple thousand coming across the bridge each day during peak periods. That’s maybe as many as 30,000 bicycles that could be on the island and in motion (God forbid!) all at the same time.
As unlikely as that is to happen, thank goodness for the foresight and continued commitment to bicycling from the town, bike shops, clubs and interest groups, which have kept construction and maintenance of more than 60 miles of public pathways and at least 50 more in private plantations a priority. And that doesn’t even count Bluffton or the beach.
Just as Hilton Head Island has been known as “the golf island” and certainly as “the tennis island,” it has quickly become “the bicycle island” in recent years, with the growth in popularity of bicycling as a family recreation option and the discovery of Hilton Head Island as the perfect place for families.
You can get pretty much anywhere on the island (with sometimes a slight bit of effort) by bike, and new kiosks—possibly with QR codes linking to mobile apps and bicycle websites—are on the way to help riders figure out where they are or how to get where they want to go. Loop rides around the island can be mapped on MapMyRide.com and the Chamber of Commerce website provides listings of shops, rental outlet and bike clubs as well as maps and safety tips. Visit the site at hiltonheadisland.org/biking.
A bike on the beach is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s probably best to rent, since those who manage bike rental shops know how best to maintain bicycles subject to sand and salt. The only thing you have to know is to watch for low tide, which provides an even wider stretch of beach, and keep prevailing winds in mind; it’s a lot more fun cycling downwind on the return leg.
ZipLine Hilton Head: Get a bird’s eye view of Broad Creek Marina as you soar through the air.
Hilton Head Island has always been known as a great place to chill. If you’re looking for a place to relax on the beach, have a restful cold beverage with friends, relive the old days or just rest and rejuvenate the spirit, this is the place. The knock on Hilton Head Island, however, has been that it lacks excitement. Thanks to ZipLine Hilton Head, you can now put that criticism on the shelf. Suddenly, getting some air, zipping through the trees at high speed, is an option.
The island joined the zip-line craze this spring, with 75-foot towers, seven interconnected lines (including a dual racing line), three suspended sky bridges, and an aerial staircase. But most important are the 40 mile-per-hour flights through ancient live oaks and towering loblolly pines, and the spectacular views of Broad Creek.
The experience is open to anyone age 10 and older. The two-hour activity includes careful pre-flight preparation, including numerous safety checks, ground training, and help along the way, thanks to well-informed guides who describe not only what it’s going to be like to zip-line, but also things to look for around Broad Creek before you ascend the tower and once you’re in the treetops.
Walk-ons are welcome, but reservations are preferred. Zip-lining has grown to be enormously popular since it debuted this spring. Visit ziplinehiltonhead.com for more information.
On the Hook:Watch the excitement in your child’s eyes when they catch their first shark.
Photo courtesy of Outside Hilton Head.
Adventure on the high seas
A few years ago a good friend prepped perfectly for our big sea adventure. We were traveling east to the gulfstream, where the big fish live—a run of about 10-15 miles (the gulfstream is closer to South Carolina than almost anywhere else on the East Coast). So he had the boat checked and double-checked, and the twin engines were meticulously inspected.
We checked the tides, inspected the bait, secured the rods and reels, packed a hearty lunch, iced the beer and got an outrageously early start. All went well, thumping along on the chop in the early morning mist, until the check engine light went on about five miles out.
Now, my experience with check engine lights is that you can usually dismiss them. A little black tape in just the right spot and you never have to worry about a thing. There’s a loose wire somewhere or someone forgot to hit the re-set button during the oil change. But on the high seas, it’s different. No one wants to be floating aimlessly toward some distant shore.
So, we turned back, and our big sea adventure became a boat ride. The way to avoid all that is to book a sport fishing charter and put your fate in the hands of a true professional who does this stuff every day. On Hilton Head Island, there are literally dozens of charters and party boat fishing options at the Squire Pope, Broad Creek, Shelter Cove, Harbour Town and Palmetto Bay boathouses and marinas. Offshore fishing for king mackerel, grouper, snapper, amberjack, tarpon, drum, marlin, tuna, wahoo and dolphin (not the domestic kind) are available year-round and seasonally, depending on migratory species. Inshore fishing is for usually reliable catches such as redfish and trout—and anywhere you go you’re likely to hook into some variety of shark or skate. Whichever way you go, and whomever you go out with, the excitement of the fishing is almost as rewarding as the catch.
Stand Up Paddle boarding: Haven’t caught the wave yet? Not to worry, SUP classes are available at many locations around the Island.
Photo courtesy of Outside Hilton Head.
Sometimes you know trendiness by how quickly it gets picked up as a nifty acronym. For example, “dude, sup?” is not necessarily a buddy just asking how you are; it might actually be an invitation to stand up paddleboard.
This sport has been around for a while, drifting west to east, like most things recreational and done on a board, and it arrived on Hilton Head Island about five years ago. It’s a great way to see the inlet creeks and rivers around Hilton Head, do a little dolphin spotting and even get some exercise. Most agree that spending a couple of hours on a stand up paddleboard has significant core benefits and might even burn a few calories.
It’s also a more statuesque alternative to canoeing or kayaking, and it’s surprisingly easy. Most people are paddling comfortably in a very short time (the board is wider and more stable than it looks like from a distance). Outings are even being offered for those who want to engage in yoga on paddleboards—very popular and very cool.
Stand up paddleboards are available for rent or purchase and classes are taught at a number of recreational outlets on the island, including Outside Hilton Head, H2O Sports, Island Water Sports, Palmetto Bay Water Sports and others.
Shelter Cove Marina: Finish a day of boutique shopping with dinner for two with a view of the Harbour.
Photo courtesy Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.
Shop ’til you drop
Driving from I-95 through the Bluffton stretch of Highway 278, it’s hard to miss two major outlet malls, Tanger 1 and Tanger 2, which reach out and beckon those who have arrived for their long-awaited vacation. But if you’re driving from a long distance and the kids are asking “when are we gonna get there” you sometimes just have to sacrifice pressing shopping desires for expediency and a longer-term shop-’til-you-drop strategy. Get to the hotel, the villa or the house and make a plan.
What you’ll discover is that traditional beachy shopping is pleasant and walkable at Coligny on the south end of the island; a mall experience is available at Shelter Cove, which is in the midst of serious planning for a major makeover; the Village at Wexford and Shelter Cove Marina provide some exceptional unique privately owned shops, as do the shops at Harbour Town; and scattered throughout the island (and off), there are small shopping strips that require a bit of research, but pay huge dividends upon discovery. Oh, and don’t forget a visit to the Salty Dog T-shirt shop—either the original at South Beach or the expanded version on Arrow Road. No one escapes Hilton Head without a Salty Dog T-shirt.
And of course all roads (well, actually it’s just one) lead to the outlets, where hundreds of stores and amazing bargains are concentrated for ease and convenience. Gap, Nike, Eddie Bauer, Harry and David, Tommy Bahama…all the top names are there. And as one well-known NPR radio host always says, “If they don’t have it, you probably don’t need it.”
Jazzy: Martin Lesch and Bob Masteller entertain on stage at the Jazz Corner in the Village at Wexford.
Live it up live
R&R may trump excitement during the daytime, but any 20-something-year-old will tell you that there is a lively nightlife on this island. It’s just kind of a secret, and it’s known by a name that sounds like a missing persons report: The Barmuda Triangle, located just before the Sea Pines gate. This place, a collection of tightly concentrated bars and restaurants, including The Lodge, One Hot Mama’s, The Brew Pub, Reilleys and Jump & Phil’s, comes alive at night; the parking lot is typically packed, and live and piped music predominate.
Just around the corner in the Park Center Plaza is the Electric Piano, a traditional piano bar—not dueling, usually, just one—where the night invariably leads to a group sing and some dancing.
A little further up the road, about mid-island in The Village at Wexford, another secret spot is not so secret anymore. For several years, The Jazz Corner has ranked among the top 150 jazz clubs in the country, attracting name talent like Bob James and local favorites like Deas Guyz, and filling its 100 seats nearly nightly. Bob and Lois Masteller have become fixtures on the Hilton Head Island live music scene, and Bob can usually be coaxed onstage for a cornet cameo sometime during the evening, if he’s on hand, which is always a charming event.
Also, be sure to check out Big Bamboo in Coligny and the XO Lounge at the Omni for great live music, including a Beatles cover band, The Beagles, on Friday nights at Big Bamboo.
Dolphins are our friends
These are the ones you don’t eat. These dolphins are the friendly mammals to which many ascribe human behaviors, and they are everywhere around Hilton Head Island. Perhaps the best way to see them—other than patiently waiting for them to come in close to the beach on a tide or using a pair of high-powered binoculars to watch them following shrimp boats—is to book a trip on a one of the cruise boats like the Spirit of Harbour Town or the Vagabond, where they often go so far as to guarantee sightings.
It’s an easy guarantee. If you owned dolphin sighting insurance, you’d make a killing. Show-offs that they are, dolphins usually follow the cruise boat, and sometimes when they’re feeling especially full of themselves, they’ll lead it. You can usually find them feeding near the shoreline, and if you’re really lucky, you might witness “strand feeding,” a behavior first witnessed by Jacques Cousteau while he was here conducting research, where the dolphins actually chase fish up onto the bank and have their fill. It’s not unique to Hilton Head Island, but it happens here quite often.
Don’t Rain on My Parade: A little bad weather is just an invitation to discover what else Hilton Head Island has to offer, like Shout, at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina through July 29th or an afternoon spent bowling at Station 300.
It’s what? It’s raining?
This rarely happens, but sometimes it rains on Hilton Head Island. No kidding. If it does happen, it’s probably not for long, or you might want to check the weather map and see if it’s also raining in Bluffton; it’s possible and often likely that it’s not. But on the slim chance that there is that blanket of green on the map, and we’re covered up for a day or two, don’t dismay. There’s plenty to keep you busy and entertained.
Some of the finest live theater between here and NYC may be right here on Hilton Head’s Arts Center of Coastal Carolina stage. That’s because many of the actors, actresses and directors are Broadway and Hollywood veterans who find Hilton Head Island and the Arts Center one of their favorite venues. Check the Arts Center schedule for shows and times.
Local movie theaters, both on the island and off, show first-run movies, have state of the art 3D capabilities and some tasty popcorn. The Coligny Theater runs a rich calendar of independent films in an intimate atmosphere.
If you want some physical activity for friends and family, one of the finest new bowling centers in the Southeast opened less than a year ago in Bluffton: Station 300 (300 is a perfect game, by the way) has a lively atmosphere, games for all ages and, of course, bowling daytime and into the evening. They can even shut the gutters down to make it easier.
For those who prefer to be indoors but still get a bit of local culture, the Coastal Discovery Museum of Hilton Head Island at Honey Horn is not only a great spot to learn more about loggerhead turtles and Lowcountry history, it’s also the debarkation spot for a Gullah Heritage Trail Tour, via motor coach, that narrates travel through the mid-1800s when West African slaves became the nation’s first freedmen.
Photo courtesy Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.
Love-love: tennis and golf
Golf and Tennis—ahhh, the meat and potatoes of a Hilton Head Island vacation. Except on Hilton Head, it’s filet mignon and double-stuffed with cheese.
It’s been said that golf on Hilton Head Island ranges from good to better to best. There are no dog tracks, no weak sisters, no disappointments. You can choose from 17 courses open to the public on the island and another seven within a 15-minute drive off-island, and they’re all challenging, fair and fun. Price might determine your decision, or maybe reputation.
Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines (home of the RBC Heritage) and its siblings, Heron Point by Pete Dye and the Ocean Course are widely considered the crème de la crème, but it’s a close call. The Robert Trent Jones course at Palmetto Dunes is an extraordinary layout and test of skill and one of only two courses on the island with ocean views. The lesser-known George Fazio and Arthur Hills courses at Palmetto Dunes are also impeccable and slightly less in demand, but both provide a true test of skill in stunningly gorgeous settings.
Premier courses that may sound private but are not include the Country Club of Hilton Head, Golden Bear at Indigo Run and other courses behind gates. The three Shipyard nines are popular, especially as part of packages. All three Port Royal Plantation courses are also open for public play, as are Oyster Reef and the two Palmetto Hall courses on the north end of the island.
Oddly, perhaps, summer is typically a relatively slow time for golf on Hilton Head Island, owing perhaps to heat and humidity. But the benefit is that tee times are usually available, and if you play early or late, you can beat the heat.
Tennis and Hilton Head Island have been synonymous since the old Family Circle tournament days, when names like Van de Meer and (U.S Open champion and Hall of Famer) Stan Smith first burst onto the local scene. Smith is still a fixture at Sea Pines, and international champion Ivan Lendl has added his name to luminaries calling Hilton Head home for tennis teaching programs.
You don’t have to be part of tennis teaching to play, however. With more than 300 courts on the island, there are plenty of places to just get out and hit the ball around.
Over 200?!: Yes, that’s right. Hilton Head Island boasts over 200 restaurants to choose from, many with water views.
Bouillabaisse photo courtesy of the Old Fort Pub.
All in good taste
It’s only been lately that Hilton Head Island has begun making waves as a culinary destination. Not that the restaurants haven’t been exceptional until now; it must just be that it takes a while for the rest of the world to discover great food on an island that hangs out into the ocean.
This sudden uptick in reputation has been helped by a few recognizable faces, including Robert Irvine, Food Network host of Restaurant Impossible and Dinner Impossible, restaurant owner and author, and Orchid Paulmeier, finalist for The Next Food Network Star last year, restaurant owner and international traveler.
Both have helped put a couple (eat! and One Hot Mama’s) of the more than 200 restaurants on the island on the map. It also didn’t hurt that several other restaurants, chefs and Lowcountry genres were featured in a series of ads in Bon Appétit magazine last year, raising the profile of David Vincent Young (Roastfish and Cornbread), Leslie Rowland (The Cottage in Bluffton) and others.
Perhaps it’s the wide variety, from upscale to country casual, that distinguishes Hilton Head Island as a culinary mecca. Or maybe it’s the constant surprises—finding astonishingly good restaurants tucked away in what used to be called “strip malls.” It’s just hard to believe you’re eating something so wonderful sometimes with a parking lot view. Many of Hilton Head’s restaurants, however, combine exceptional food, fine service and extraordinary water views—the perfect trifecta!