Nature and relaxation meet at South Carolina’s popular getaway isle.
By Susie Wall
Hilton Head Island has changed a great deal since Captain William Hilton landed on its shores in 1663, but not in the way one would assume. The town leaders could have turned this beautiful isle into a kingdom covered in high-rise condos and strip malls. Instead, every generation has succeeded in preserving the natural wonders and significant historical sites while still providing an oasis of adventure and endless ways to unwind.
The island is divided into several “plantations” with memorable names such as Shipyard, Sea Pines, Port Royal, and Palmetto Dunes. Some plantations offer experiences for tourists, while others cater to year-round residents. Many also require a small fee to enter via a day pass. Still, it is easy to move about the island on the major roads and even into specific plantations, taking in what each area has to offer, whether it be historical tours, wildlife watching, bicycling, golfing, shopping, or just relaxing on the beach.
All that being said, it’s important to know that the two RV resorts on the island, Hilton Head Harbor RV Resort & Marina and Hilton Head Island Motorcoach Resort, are not located within specific plantations. They are easily accessible.
The first order of business for any Hilton Head visitor is to rent a bicycle or to get out the bikes you brought with you in the motorhome. Bikes are delivered by rental companies to both of the island’s RV resorts. The island offers close to 60 miles of bike paths and nature trails, giving cyclists an intimate view that motorists miss. Few activities are more relaxing than cruising along the winding trails, surrounded by saw palms and loblolly pines. Just be aware that you may have to dismount once in awhile to let one of the island’s many resident alligators cross your path.
Be sure to pick up a map of trails for planning your routes. Your rental company can provide one, or you can pick one up at the Hilton Head Welcome Center. You can get just about anywhere on the island on two wheels, the only limitation being how far you wish to venture. It’s easy to devote an entire day to exploring by bike.
Please note, however, that anything with a motor is forbidden on the bike paths, and this includes mopeds and electric golf carts. Electric-powered wheelchairs are permitted, however.
Include the beach as one of your many stops. All public beaches on the island allow bikes, so be sure to rent (or bring) one that has fatter tires, making it easier to ride over sand. Plan your beach ride for early morning or evening to avoid the crowds — and for the best opportunity to see dolphins feeding just offshore.
A bike path leads directly to the front door of what should be the first stop on your historical tour of Hilton Head: the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. This 68-acre site houses a museum, a gift shop, boardwalks, and heritage gardens. Various small fees apply to an array of tours and special programs that range from nature encounters to walks focusing on the island’s history. Otherwise, admission is free. (Further information: www.coastaldiscovery.org.)
The Discovery House, built in 1859, is a good jumping-off point. Exhibits explain the vital relationship the island’s residents have had throughout the years with the waters that surrounded them. After shopping for beautiful handcrafted jewelry and artwork in the gift shop, pick up a map to start a self-guided tour of the rest of the property.
The Oyster Alley and Fiddler Crab Cove boardwalks lead out over the salt marshes and tidal flats, where you can see the namesake crabs and oyster beds. Watch for hungry ospreys soaring overhead, waiting for the right time to dive for dinner. The remainder of the often-shaded path circling the museum’s grounds will bring you past the butterfly enclosure, the camellia garden, and the barn where the unique Marsh Tacky horses are housed. This small equine breed was essential to many of the island’s inhabitants, from American Indians to European farmers, because it can traverse the soft, swampy ground.
Many more fascinating historical sites can be explored on Hilton Head. Tucked away within the trees of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve you will find an Indian shell ring, a construction of mussel, clam, and oyster shells dating back 4,000 years. Little is known about the purpose of this ring, which stretches 150 feet in diameter. Theories suggest that it was used for community gatherings and ceremonies.
Also on the Sea Pines Plantation are the ruins of the Stoney-Baynard home. Eerie and haunting describe what is left of this house built by Captain John “Saucy Jack” Stoney, circa 1793. Around 1840 or so, an heir allegedly lost the family estate in a poker game to William E. Baynard. Union soldiers captured the property during the Civil War; some time after the war, it burned down. Today all that remains are jagged walls that jut from the forest floor. They were made using an old masonry material called tabby, produced by mixing burned and crushed oyster shells with sand, whole shells, and water. You can tour this site on your own, or take a guided tour through Sea Pines Resort.
While at the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, make time to take in the preserve’s natural wonders. Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser was dedicated to preserving nature, and it shows in this 605-acre tranquil escape. Walking paths interlace the swamps and meadows, and for an aquatic view of the place, you can take a boat tour of Lake Joe.
It’s hard not to feel like you are on a personalized tour in the 12-passenger electric boat that cruises the lake several times a day. You float below palmettos and oak trees draped with Spanish moss while white ibis and anhingas spread their wings to dry off, and an alligator quietly slips past your boat. The captain cuts the engine so passengers can be engulfed in the sounds of nature. Schedule a tour for the early morning to see the most wildlife, or treat yourself to the wine and cheese tour offered one evening each week to satisfy your sense of wonder and sense of taste.
No matter when you visit, pine forests, tidal creeks, and wetlands covering Hilton Head add to the island’s beauty and provide a home to a variety of plants and animals. In summer you will be hard-pressed to spend one day on Hilton Head without seeing dolphins splashing in the waves, great blue herons plucking along the tidal flats, and alligators basking on the shores of the many ponds. Fall and spring weather bring different creatures here, including migrant songbirds. Temperatures usually top out in the 60s and 70s in November.
If a closer view of nature is what you seek, sign up for one of the numerous kayak tours offered at locations around the island. Better yet, take two trips, so you can see the diverse island environment. The salt marshes of Broad Creek are a good place to start. A float through this creek at low tide offers the perfect opportunity to spot piping plovers — a threatened shorebird — feasting on ghost crabs, and otters playing along the banks. On a lucky summer day, you may be treated to a rare sighting of a manatee.
Move to the open ocean for a different view of the island’s wildlife. Numerous marinas on Hilton Head offer nature tours on vessels ranging from multi-passenger cruise ships to smaller boats, where dolphins are the main attraction. Although you can see them from just about every dock and beach around Hilton Head, it’s a real thrill to watch them race along with your boat or to be close enough to reach out and touch them.
Hilton Head is a great place to try new activities. Kids (adults, too) will love a trip on the Crabber J. Each passenger gets a chicken neck (to use as bait), a basket, and a brief lesson about crabbing. Then it’s off to the races as you dangle your basket over the side, waiting for blue crabs to take a nibble. The passenger who catches the most crabs gets a T-shirt and bragging rights as a master crabber.
Looking for something a little more exciting on the end of your line? Charter a fishing expedition. Outcast Sport Fishing departs on a 27-foot catamaran from the marina at Hilton Head Harbor RV Resort. Captain Chip Michalove boasts that you are guaranteed to reel in “monsters” such as hammerhead sharks, tarpon, and amberjack.
If the “thwack” of a golf club and the sight of endless greens gives you a thrill, Hilton Head is your place. It has a wide assortment of spots to get a tee time, including a PGA Tour stop, Harbour Town Golf Links. If you prefer your course with a few windmills, mini golf is available, too, with courses ranging from goofy to downright challenging.
All good things must come to an end, as does your trip to Hilton Head Island, but you will find that the “must see” list for your next trip there has already been filled.
The Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau
1 Chamber of Commerce Drive
Hilton Head Island, SC 29938
Hilton Head Harbor RV Resort & Marina
43-A Jenkins Road
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926
Hilton Head Island Motorcoach Resort, C2053*
133 Arrow Road
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928
*an FMCA Commercial member