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The Charms of Hilton Head Are All Outdoors

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Story and photos by Cindy Murphy-Tofig

Is it possible to go to Hilton Head and not play one of the islands 24 golf courses?

Yes, and you can still have a fantastic trip.

While still a popular golf vacation spot, Hilton Head increasingly has become more of a family destination. But instead of the family-on-the-go kind of trip, Hilton Head’s more of the put-down-the-BlackBerry kind of place. Even the buildings and signs are toned down. Buildings throughout the island are in muted earth tones or soft colors, and there’s no garish neon sign anywhere to be found.

What you will find are more than 80 miles of bike paths, 12 miles of beach, and loads of family fun. And because the island’s only 12 miles long and about 5 miles wide, you’re always a short car trip or bike ride away from wherever you want to go.

Headed to the beach? Stop at Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Café and get “Signe’s Goes to the Beach.” For $12 you’ll get a cold sandwich, a side order of pasta or fruit, a can of soda, a bag of chips and a cookie. Signe’s isn’t just a take-out place, though. The popular spot, which opened in 1972, is equally inviting to both locals and vacationers. The hand-painted walls in the dining room give you glimpses of South Carolina — the blooming pink and white camellias, the salt marshes, watermelon patches and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean.

The historic Hilton Head Lighthouse. The historic Harbour Town Lighthouse.

With food taken care of, it’s time to explore. Head toward the end of the island to the Sea Pines community (there’s a $5 gate fee to enter). There, you’ll find the Harbour Town Lighthouse, one of the most iconic symbols of Hilton Head. The golf fan in your group will recognize the red-striped lighthouse as a backdrop to the 18th hole of the Harbour Town Golf Links (which has hosted the PGA Tour’s Heritage tournament for the past 40 years).

The story of Hilton Head unfolds as you climb the 114 steps to the top of the lighthouse. The steps lead you straight into a gift shop, but just a few feet into the store is the door that leads outside. There are amazing views of Calibogue Sound and the marina.

If the kids still have some energy, follow the main sidewalk at the marina to the Gregg Russell Harbour Town playground. Named for a famous local entertainer, the fenced-in playground has a treehouse, tire swing, and a live oak that begs to be climbed on. For a more mellow visit, pop into one of the shops or watch the boats at the marina come and go.

We drove to Sea Pines from our hotel in Palmetto Dunes, but for short trips around the island bikes are the way to go. Bike rental places are everywhere, for adult or children’s bikes (tandem bikes and kid trailers are available too). Or you can walk – along the beach, along the bike trails, along the marina. There’s no hurry. Just enjoy the pace of the island.

Take It Outside

When you’re on Hilton Head Island, you’re outside.

Either flying kites at the beach, searching for dolphins, or exploring some of South Carolina’s natural scenery, one way or the other, you’re staying outside. All day.

The island’s 12 miles of public beaches are accessible from public access roads dotted along the shoreline or from a hotel’s private walkway. Let the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean hypnotize you as the kids run along the edge of the water in search of sand dollars. A type of sea urchin, sand dollars are pretty easy to find, particularly during low tide when they wash up on the beach. Just be sure you’re collecting only the dead sand dollars – it’s illegal to collect live ones.

Hilton Head Island was the first beach trip for our youngest travelers, so they were all about the ocean. The water off Hilton Head is the warmest from May through October, when average temperatures range from 73 to 84 degrees. During our September visit, the water was warm enough to play in, but still cool enough to be refreshing.

As tempting as it is to go to the beach every day (and we did), there’s a whole other side of Hilton Head’s geography. The salt marshes and native plants are as vibrant and necessary as the ocean. And one of the best places to see them is the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The birdlife on Hilton Head as most everwhere in the Low Country is pretty spectacular. Here, an egret shares the marsh with some ibis.The birdlife on Hilton Head, as most everwhere in the Low Country, is pretty spectacular. Here, an egret shares the marsh with some ibis.

Fourteen miles of grass and gravel trails wind through the 4,000-acre refuge, which was established in 1975. Mature live oak trees, draped in Spanish moss, flank the main road that leads to the parking area. White ibises cross the hiking trail to head to the salt marsh and, they hope, the sand fiddler crabs or Atlantic ribbed mussels hiding in the mud. Five manmade freshwater ponds are feeding and nesting areas for American coot, redwinged blackbirds, moorhens, and other birds. Alligators also live in the ponds, so be aware.

You also can’t go to Hilton Head without getting on a boat and meeting some of the year-round residents of the waters off Shelter Cove.

As you can imagine, boating is very popular on the island.As you can imagine, boating is very popular on the island.

About 200 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins live in the area year-round, says Captain Scott Henry of Low Country Nature Tours. Several of them have names; their fin markings distinguish them.

There’s no crowd on Henry’s boat, and no miked-up tour leader speaking through the P.A. system. It’s you, a few friends, the spray of the saltwater, and the low-key and knowledgeable Henry. He deftly guides the boat along Broad Creek as it curves past huge summer homes, flows under the Cross Island Parkway and blends into Calibogue Sound. Along the way, he tells us that a dolphin eats about 30 to 40 pounds of fish a day and can hold its breath underwater for up to 10 minutes. Henry never knows when he’ll come across a pod of dolphins, but assures my 7-year-old that we’ll find some.

“I’ve done over 12,000 dolphin tours, and twice I’ve never seen them,” Henry says.

Soon after we meet Choppy, so named because he lost part of his fin when he got too close to a boat. Henry turned off the motor as Choppy and about a half dozen other dolphins chased each other, twisted around and blew out air to talk to each other. The dolphins had already eaten for the morning, Henry said, and were ready to socialize and begin their mating rituals.

Dolphin watching is a favorite activity for visitors and locals alike. Dolphin watching is a favorite activity for visitors and locals alike.

“People ask all the time, when’s the best time to see dolphins, and there’s no best time,” Henry said. “They’re just as active at night as they are during the day.”

The pod broke up into smaller groups after several minutes, so we headed back to the marina. On the way, Henry pointed out a bald eagle, osprey and a wood stork.

Despite having worked in the same waters for several years, Henry says he never gets bored. Every trip is different, he says, depending on the season and the wildlife that are out that day.

“That’s why I really enjoy living in Hilton Head,” he says. “We still have the beauty of our ecosystem.”

If You Go

How2GetThere

The island has its own airport, but your best bet is to fly into Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. Savannah’s only about an hour away, plus the flights are more frequent and generally less expensive.

Where2Stay

Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa
One Hotel Circle
Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29928
Tel: 843.686.8400

The hotel’s location – it’s tucked into Palmetto Dunes — means it’s no more than about 20 minutes to either Harbour Town or the bridge to the mainland. Family fun awaits, whether it’s playing on the beach (the hotel has a private entry), making necklaces with shark teeth or attending a “dive-in” movie at the indoor pool. Adults will like spa services such as massages, facials, and body scrubs or wraps. To unwind at night, tuck the little ones into bed, sit on the balcony with a bottle of wine, and watch the moon dance across the ocean waters.

Where2Eat

Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Café
93 Arrow Road
Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29928
Tel: 843.785.9118
Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

Captain Woody’s
86 Helmsman Way, at the Palmetto Bay marina
Tel: 843.785.2400
Hours: Open seven days, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Sit inside if you want to catch some of the game or chat with the locals. Sit outside to enjoy the weather. Been out fishing and catch a particularly big fish? Captain Woody’s will prepare it for you, for a fee. Call the restaurant for details.

Giuseppi’s Pizza & Pasta
The Plaza at Shelter Cove
Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29928
Tel: 843.785.4144
Hours: Open seven days, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

The kids might want something besides fresh seafood every day, so head here. The menu of pizza, pasta, Bolis (calzones), burgers and wrap sandwiches will keep everyone happy.

Stack’s Pancake House
2 Regency Parkway
Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29928
Tel: 843.341.3347
Hours: Open seven days, 6 a.m.-10 p.m.

Breakfast is reasonably priced and the service is speedy – all good things when you’re on vacation and eager to start your day.

Bistro 17
17D Harbourside Lane
Shelter Cove marina
Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29928
Tel: 843.785.5517
Monday – Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

The French bistro is nice enough for a date (mussels provencal and pistachio crusted salmon, anyone?), but also casual enough for children. The restaurant’s also got a bit of whimsy — bottles of orange and grape Nehi lay in the wine rack alongside Ecco Domani and La Vieille Ferme.

What2Do

Go to the beach!
Hotels and private communities have their own access points to the beach. Public access is available at Alder Lane Beach Access, Chaplin Community Park, Coligny Beach Park, Fish Haul Park, Driessen Beach Park, Burkes Beach Access, Folly Field Beach Park and Islanders Beach Park. Go to www.hiltonheadislandsc.gov/ourisland/beaches.cfm to learn about parking and beach rules.

Harbour Town Lighthouse
(in the Sea Pines community)
149 Lighthouse Road, Hilton Head Island, S.C. 29928
Tel: 866.305.9814
Contact: 843.671.2810
Hours: Seven days a week, 10 a.m. to sunset
Fee: $3 per person. Children 5 and younger are free

Take it slowly as you walk up the stairs. There’s no air conditioning inside the lighthouse.

Low Country Nature Tours
Hosted by Captain Scott Henry
Tel: 843.683.0187

Tours depart from the Shelter Cove marina at 9 and 11 a.m., and 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m. Reservations are needed. In addition to the dolphin tours, Capt. Scott also leads birdwatching tours and a beachcombing trip to Daufuskie Island, which is accessible only by boat.

Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

The refuge is off U.S. 278. Trail guides are available at the trailhead, and round-trip hikes range from 1.2 miles to just under 8 miles. Bring water and a snack if you need, and take everything home with you. There are benches here and there, but no shelters or restrooms. And leave Fido at home; pets aren’t allowed at the refuge.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Yvonne Sweeney January 7, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to write all of this in your blog! So Helpful for a family planning a getaway to H.H.I.!

Hilton Head Golf July 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Yes, I truly agree. The nature preserve, the beautiful beach and plethora of amazing outdoor activities are its charm. It’s the vacation destination that truly exceeded my expectations. And this is reason why we visit Hilton Head island every year. Thanks for sharing such a good post.

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