On the Water
Author: David Tobias
I can’t swim a lick. In fact, I sink like a stone. Even when I’ve put on a few pounds and think the added chub might increase buoyancy, no dice. My fat doesn’t even float. I must have dense fat. Nice image, huh?
So, since I am possibly the worst person to ask about activities that involve being fully submerged in water, I have decided to broaden this report slightly to include not only things you can do in water, but also those accomplished on water and even near water. At least that gives me a comfort zone in two out of three.
On Hilton Head Island, everything starts with water. Every piece of history, culture and nature starts with one thing in common and that’s the water. Talk with those who have been around for a while, like Outside Hilton Head’s Mike Overton or H2O Sports’ Brooke McCullough, and they will tell you that water is the link to ancestors as far back as you can go, and especially to Native Americans, and the Gullah—hunters and gatherers—who plied the waters to survive. Their sustenance was the water.
Settlers focused on the waters; for plantation owners, it was all about the waters; water influences where people put their houses; and, of course, the waters are why people come here from places where their water doesn’t taste like salt.
These days, with access to creature comforts such as restaurants and grocery stores, the water is no longer about survival. We have the luxury of making water all about adventure, exhilaration and fun.
On the Water
Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding
Thirty-three years ago, when Overton was just 19 (do the math), windsurfing was the craze. He knew at the time that the secret to success of any kind on the island was to be granted an audience with Charles Fraser, developer extraordinaire, and the granddaddy of all things environmentally sensitive. Overton’s vision resonated with Fraser, who saw windsurfing as one way to introduce visitors to recreational options on the water that would expose the beauty of ocean, sounds and backwater creeks.
While windsurfing has largely gone away, it’s been replaced by pursuits such as nature-based kayaking and, more recently, stand-up paddleboarding, both of which combine a workout with peaceful exploration of the island’s nooks and crannies. It could be argued that kayaking is both in the water and on the water, but let’s not get technical. It’s still one of the best ways to get close to nature.
Several outdoor outfitters on the island offer guided kayak tours and introductions to paddleboarding, or you can rent a kayak or paddleboard and go it alone. The best way to learn—especially paddleboarding—is to take a lesson, which is why you’ll see a lot of beginner paddleboarders navigating the waters on their knees at first, and then graduating to the upright position where the core exercise really happens. In addition to Outside Hilton Head and H2O, kayak rentals are available at Kayak Hilton Head, Island Watersports, Palmetto Bay Watersports, Waterdog Outfitters, Live Oac, Palmetto Dunes Outfitters, Sea Monkeys Watersports and Marshgrass Adventures in Bluffton.
While there’s not a training ground for kite surfing on Hilton Head Island (the closest is Tybee Island or Charleston), the island certainly is a great place to catch some air if you already know what you’re doing. On a windy day or a day with a little chop, you can usually find kiteboarders/surfers skimming along the waves and performing a few acrobatics along South Forest Beach and the Folly Field area in particular. Wind is the power source for this sport, which can be highly entertaining for both spectators and participants alike. Keep your eyes to the skies.
Parasailing defies the on the water/in the water premise. It kind of fits into near the water, but the higher you go the less near you are. The name is perfect. It says exactly what you’re going to be doing, being pulled behind a powerboat at a high rate of speed with a parachute keeping you aloft. And you have choices. You can go high (about 800 feet) or low (about 400 feet); you can go alone or in tandem with a friend/family member or frenemy. The views are stunning, and you’ll have plenty of chances to take in miles of shoreline, the surrounding landscape and the Harbour Town Lighthouse, of course.
Charles Fraser would be proud. Guided tours of the area’s beauty, especially behind the scenes in secluded spots like Page Island or Bull Island near Daufuskie, have become very popular, especially when dolphins are involved. But the key is an informed and experienced guide/narrator, who can anticipate what you’ll be seeing and point you in the right direction. It’s best to book a trip that allows enough time to settle into the pace of island time—two or three hours at least. Some excursions include photo tours, with a knowledgeable photographer in the lead. These experienced professionals know where to look for bald eagles (more common than you might think) and alligators, where a telephoto lens is strongly recommended. Alligator and wildlife tours are offered inland as well as at the Sea Pines Nature Center. Tour guides can also point out loggerhead nesting areas when you take shore leave, and they will advise you on the importance of low light during nesting and hatch time.
Wind power is a peaceful power that puts you in touch with the very essence of Hilton Head Island. The best way to relax is to put the captaining responsibility in the hands of a seasoned veteran. But sailboats, including catamarans, are also available to rent for those who are certified. Catamarans are especially family-friendly, because they’re much more “beamy.” But both are fun, and they’re an elegant way to discover Hilton Head Island waters.
This is one of those pursuits accomplished from land (a dock will do) or sea (take a boat ride out of Shelter Cove Harbour or Broad Creek and compete for most crabs caught). Crabs have to be six inches from point to point to be a keeper, and they have to be male. How does one know the difference? C’mon, we’re not going to discuss that here; this is a family magazine. But here’s a hint: look for the “rocketship.”
In the Water
Life’s a beach
If you can swim, there’s nothing like a saltwater outing first thing in the morning (I’ve been told) or a dash down the sand beach for a dive into the waves. All of the beaches on Hilton Head Island are public, but five roads lead to public parks and beach access: Pope Avenue ending at Coligny Beach; Folly Field Road leading to Folly Field and “Islanders Beach,” which is open to islanders and visitors; Burkes Beach Rd. off of William Hilton Parkway to Burke’s Beach; Alder Lane and South Forest Beach Rd. to Alder Lane Beach; and Bradley Beach Rd. off of William Hilton Parkway to Driessen Beach Park (Singleton Beach). Those are all technically Atlantic Ocean beaches, if you want to split hairs, but parks like Fish Haul Creek and Mitchelville Beach are also open to the public on Port Royal Sound, which, if you aren’t picky, looks a lot like ocean and is just as salty.
Nothing is more utilitarian on the water than a powerboat. It can pull a tube, wakeboarders or skiers; it can serve as a head boat for individual fisherpeople or be decked out for a charter, usually for up to six passengers. It can take you out for shark fishing, stay inshore for redfish and trout or make a longer run for Spanish mackerel, king mackerel or tarpon.
Offshore is an ambiguous term. For those just in from Ohio or Indiana, it might mean anything in the Atlantic, while others consider it deep water; the hard core might insist it’s nothing less than a trip to the Gulf Stream for more exotic species of fish.
Prices for a day on the water—standing on, hooked to or towed by a boat—range anywhere from double-digit dollars to a hundred or so an hour for deep sea fishing. That’s when catching, rather than just fishing, gets to be a bit more important.
You’d think that in the calm Atlantic Coast waters, surfing would be low on the list of appeals. But don’t discount it. Surfing those smaller waves is challenging and, as a result, in the last 10 years, Hilton Head Island has produced several East Coast surfing champions and a couple of surfers who are making a living at it. If you can surf a two-foot wave and make it look good, getting on a 10-foot wave is easy. Typically, the best waves are here in late August, September and October, the peak of the tropical storm season when we have offshore storms that are throwing waves our way.
Near the water
Life is indeed a Beach
The most relaxing, easily accomplished sport on the island that requires very little equipment is beach bathing. It takes no skill, requires very little space and can be accomplished in minutes or hours, depending on available quantities of sunscreen. Hilton Head Island beaches are people-concentrated or not, depending on your interest in or willingness to walk or drive to popular or relatively remote access points. Beach amenities include restaurants nearby, a famous Tiki Hut, fountains and sprays, bicycle pathways leading to the beach and bicycle parking when you get there, comfortable and clean restrooms and, in some instances, changing facilities. The beach experience on Hilton Head Island is not your usual craziness. It’s somehow more refined, but not exclusive by any stretch—just relaxing, rejuvenating and refreshing.
Restaurants and nightlife near the beach
Ahhh, away from water: You’re still going to have lagoon views, sound views and ocean views, but you don’t have to be in it or on it. The perfect combination of both is a cute little floating ice cream stand that serves boaters in Broad Creek, but most restaurants are on dry land with a walkway to water, a dock, or a landing, if you’d like.
Several dozen Hilton Head Island restaurants fit the “food with a water view” description and many incorporate outdoor dining into their specific appeal; it’s hard not to. Again, we’re on an island, and it’s all about water.