Hilton Head Island, located at the most southern tip of South Carolina, is famous for its golf (it has more than 24 championship courses and hosts the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing), but there’s so much more to see and do in this iconic resort town. Named after 17th-century English explorer William Hilton – and only a 45-minute drive from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) – the island boasts white-sand beaches and serene salt marshes, along with maritime forests and walkable island communities that make an idyllic setting for a family retreat. Here are the best places to stay, eat and explore on Hilton Head Island.
Two young children playing with a toy sailboat in the waters of Hilton Head Island
The Non-Golfer’s Guide to Hilton Head Island
With miles of pristine coastline, white-sand beaches and leisure trails, Hilton Head Island is a dreamy place to unwind and explore the great outdoors.
Where to stay on Hilton Head Island
Photo: Omni Hotels & Resorts
Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort —Take in the stunning views from this resort’s 323 suites – the largest accommodations on the island – each equipped with a mini-kitchen and separate dining area. Located right on the sugar-sand beaches of the Palmetto Dunes community, you’ll find hard-packed sand that the island is known for (perfect for walking, running and biking), kid-friendly pools and a splash zone, a lagoon for kayaking and canoeing and nature trails. And apart from its three championship golf courses, there are 25 courts for tennis and pickleball – a cross between tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong and the fastest growing sport in the U.S.
Photo: Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island
Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island —This picturesque beachfront property in the Shipyard community offers a kids’ club (for ages three to 12), lagoon pool with a graduated entry (great for small children, the elderly and people with disabilities), and it’s right next to the Van Der Meer Tennis club where you can train with international pros and get daily sessions for $20.
Where to eat on Hilton Head Island
Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks. Photo: Michael Hrizuk
Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks —Go for an early boat-to-table dinner and take in the incredible view of Port Royal Sound against a cotton-candy sunset. Hudson’s has been a local institution since the 1920s when it opened as an oyster factory, and they have all the fresh seafood connections you would want on the island: they farm and harvest their own oysters and soft-shell crabs and have three 80-foot shrimp trawlers to supply the restaurant, as well as a network of fishermen who provide dozens of species of daily catches. Don’t miss the blackened shrimp and stone-ground grits or flounder stuffed with jumbo lump crab.
Lucky Rooster —Chef Clayton Rollison came back to his hometown of Hilton Head to start his own restaurant after working at the Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan and Merchants in Nashville. His menu is at once wildly eclectic and sincerely southern as he draws on flavours that shaped his childhood food memories. The menu is seasonal but keep an eye out for fan favourites, including deep-fried chicken skins served with sriracha honey, fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese, and a 12-ounce pork chop in tangy Alabama white sauce. They also make a mean brooklyn cocktail, a cross between a manhattan and an old-fashioned.
Fishcamp on Broad Creek. Photo: Crab Marketing
Fishcamp on Broad Creek —Heaping plates of seafood, coastal-inspired cocktails and a spread-out patio on the water make this a fun spot for a family-friendly happy hour. Kids play backyard games such as cornhole (bean-bag toss), while grown-ups knock back local May River oysters and shrimp-topped Bloody Marys. But perhaps the most memorable thing about this restaurant is its history: The real-life fish camp was owned by a beloved leader in the Gullah community, Charlie Simmons, who spent most of his life travelling back and forth to Savannah on his motorboat to bring supplies to the island.
Hilton Head Social Bakery. Photo: Marissa Feret
Hilton Head Social Bakery —Normandy-born chef Philippe Feret traded New York City for the laid-back island life a few years ago and has been a passionate ambassador for Hilton Head’s international culinary community ever since. The former executive chef of Windows on the World restaurant in the original World Trade Center has set up shop (and done much of the rustic woodworking) at Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina, where the wafting aromas of freshly baked bread, tarts and cinnamon walnut buns mingle with the salt-scented air. Their menu can vary on any given day but keep your eye out for their chocolate-raspberry stuffed croissants.
Things to do on Hilton Head Island
Coligny Beach Park (left).
The best way to experience Hilton Head on land —Shaded by canopies of trees and cooled by the fresh ocean breeze, Hilton Head is a great place to explore by bike, including nearly 100 kilometres of public pathways and 20 kilometres of bikeable white-sand beaches, famous for that hard-packed sand. If you just want to relax, there are eight public beaches on Hilton Head Island to choose from, but one of the island’s most popular, Coligny Beach Park, has it all: beach volleyball, a kids’ splash pad, swings and Wi-Fi and it’s in walking distance to shops and restaurants. If walking is your thing, the Coastal Discovery Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate with a sprawling 68-acre Honey Horn property, is a must. The trails, salt marshes, gardens, butterfly enclosure, resident horses and massive live oak trees dripping with lacy Spanish moss, are just a few of the things that will make your heart skip a beat.
Mermaid of Hilton Head’s Mermaid Encounter Boat Tour.
The best way to experience Hilton Head on water —Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Calibogue Sound and calm inland waters such as Broad Creek, Hilton Head Island is a boating heaven offering nature excursions, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, fishing charters, sport crabbing and water sports. There are also lots of family-friendly water activities on offer. Spot dolphins and go birding in the serene salt marshes with Outside Hilton Head’s dolphin eco tour. Discover the world of fantasy adventure with the mind-blowing Mermaid of Hilton Head’s Mermaid Encounter Boat Tour. Kids will love the Pirates of Hilton Head, where they can search for hidden treasures and douse a pirate with water cannons.
Mitchelville Freedom Park (right).
Where to experience Gullah culture on Hilton Head Island —The Sea Islands of South Carolina and Hilton Head are home to communities that are direct descendants of slaves brought to the region more than 300 years ago from West Africa and these native islanders and their traditions remain a vibrant part of Hilton Head today. Gullah refers to a people, a language and a culture. Their Creole dialect is still spoken and written, and much of South Carolina’s adored food culture is Gullah in origin. Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, led by fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation Gullah family members, take you through the historic sites, including the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island and Mitchelville Freedom Park, America’s first self-governed town of freed slaves. If you have an extra day, take the ferry to Daufuskie Island (pronounced dah-FUS-key), rent a golf cart and bump along the dirt roads to discover the authentic charm of the eight-square-mile island and the few hundred residents who still live there, including its most famous resident and advocate, chef and author Sallie Ann Robinson.
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