Hilton Head Island paradise: South Carolina’s favorite resort island appeals to golfers, beachcombers, and wildlife watchers

Hilton Head Island paradise: South Carolina’s favorite resort island appeals to golfers, beachcombers, and wildlife watchers – Brief Article

Alice Ross

While sightseeing around South Carolina, we decided to spend an hour or so looking at Hilton Head Island. We ended up staying two days.

Thick with towering pines and canopied by live oaks and palm trees, the semi-tropical paradise offers one pleasant surprise after another. The first, which we happily discovered at the Welcome Center, is that spending a night doesn’t require hocking the family jewels; Hilton Head offers a wide array of accommodations. And comfortably priced doesn’t mean an unattractive locale; the same beauty that embraces the most elegant lodgings extends to even the most affordable.

Lovely, lush, and green, Hilton Head appears as though some celestial city sailed intact to earth, but it boasts that picture-perfect look because of strict requirements. Buildings blend in with nature here–even familiar food and lodging chains tone down their trademarks–and no neon lights jolt the gray matter. Credit goes to Charles Fraser, who in the 1950s planned Sea Pines Plantation, the first resort and residential community. About two million vacationers visit the enchanting isle annually and nearly 29,000 full-timers now inhabit communities called “plantations.”

True plantations once were in abundance on Hilton Head Island when the main crop was cotton, most notably the widely acclaimed Sea Island cotton. The Civil War and the boll weevil changed things forever, plunging the island into obscurity for nearly a century, until Fraser realized its possibilities. His master plan included strict preservation covenants, resulting in an abundant wildlife population. Bird-watchers delight in sighting snowy egrets and osprey among the hundreds of species of birds; bobcats, otters, minks, and a few wild boar inhabit the forest preserves; alligators lounge around the lagoons and rare loggerhead turtles nest along the beaches. Visitors can learn all about the island’s natural wonders in the Coastal Discovery Museum, which offers eco-adventure tours and cruises.

Shaped somewhat like a foot, Hilton Head Island measures about 12 miles from toe to heel, its “sole” being a beautiful beach, stretching to the blue Atlantic. The beach presents another surprise; dozens of people bicycling. Up to 600 feet wide in some places at low tide, the sand is so firmly packed it’s perfect for jogging, volleyball, running with a high-flying kite, soaking up the sun–or skittering about if you’re a crab or sandpiper–and bike riding.

The beach invites crabbing, dolphin-watching, and occasional sightings of rare sea turtles. Fishing and boating are popular year-round, and nine public marinas provide excursion tours.

Hilton Head Island deserves its reputation for being a golfer’s paradise, boasting 22 public access courses designed by some of the game’s most pre-eminent architects. It’s also host to celebrated golf tournaments, including the MCI Classic. Hilton Head is not a one-sport island; tennis buffs enjoy a variety of courts–seven of 19 tennis clubs are open for public play.

If swatting a ball around all day loses its appeal, go horseback riding, pedal a bike, or enjoy in-line skating along the paved trails. Dig into the past on a history tour. Native Indians inhabited the island as early as 4,000 years ago, and their mysterious shell rings can still be seen. In later centuries, Spanish, French, and English explorers and colonists left their mark on the island, which is named for English sea captain William Hilton. His mission in 1663 was to find new land for planting sugar and indigo. Numerous crops thrived in the island’s fertile soil, but cotton made the planters rich. The prosperity ended in 1861 when 12,000 Union soldiers landed on the island, turning Hilton Head into the site of the Civil War’s largest naval engagement, the Battle of Port Royal.

Until the plantations’ demise, they had been worked by African slaves. Forbidden to speak in their native tongue, they created a unique culture and dialect known as Gullah. In February, Hilton Head Island pays tribute to the Gullah community, showcasing their arts, crafts, history, music, and food with the Native Islander Gullah Celebration.

Cultural activities flourish on Hilton Head. The island has its own symphony, chamber orchestra, and dance troupes. The Self Family Arts Center presents exhibits, concerts, and theater. And the Southeast’s only international piano competition takes place every winter.

With a place and a price for everyone, hundreds of stores cater to those whose favorite sport is shopping. Dining out might present a tough decision, with more than 200 restaurants offering everything from regional Low Country dishes to fine international cuisine.

If you stop by Hilton Head, don’t be surprised if your plans change. A leisurely look has a way of turning into a lingering stay.

Contact: Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce (TravelAmerica Magazine), P.O. Box 5647, Hilton Head Island, SC 29938; (800) 523-3373; www.hiltonheadisland.org.

COPYRIGHT 2002 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group