Live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, palm trees swaying in the ocean breezes, whimsical palmettos, and vibrantly hued crepe myrtles punctuate the landscape. The 12 miles of beaches are so hard-packed you can ride your bike through the surf; fresh-water lagoons teem with egrets, blue herons, and the occasional alligator. Hilton Head Island, on the southern tip of South Carolina, has 52 golf courses (32 of which are open to the public) and 350 tennis courts. You can kayak on Broad Creek, fish the Intracoastal waterway, sail the Atlantic, and engage in literally hundreds of exciting adventures, educational excursions, historical events, and more.
My parents moved to Hilton Head 27 years ago (knowing that if they wanted to see their grandchildren, they’d better retire someplace more appealing than South Bend, Indiana). I’ve been visiting several times a year since then with my babies, then toddlers, then know-it-all teens, now adults, and can state with some authority that it is an ideal vacation spot for families of all ages, at all stages. Here’s the lowdown on the Low Country:
Where to stay if you can’t bunk down with your folks? There are several full-service beachfront resorts: Marriott and Omni in Palmetto Dunes; the Westin in Port Royal, and the Sonesta, a Four Diamond resort in Shipyard Plantation which recently underwent a $30 million renovation. The newest addition to the island, The Beach House in Sea Pines just opened in March. Disney isn’t on the beach, but overlooks the marina in Shelter Cove. There are also countless villas that can be rented by the week. Most tourists congregate in Sea Pines, Forest Beach, and Palmetto Dunes. Note that all the plantations are gated communities, meaning you need a pass to enter (passes come with your accommodations); conversely, all the beaches are public. One of the most popular is by Coligny Plaza, in Forest Beach, where there are hanging swings, Adirondack chairs, private changing rooms, and an interactive fountain. After your day at the beach, head over to Bomboras Grille right in the plaza for fresh Low Country fare and craft beer and wine. We loved the Southern popcorn; fried black-eyed peas with Cajun seasoning; pulled pork egg rolls; and the sliders (choose from Kobe beef, crabcake, blackened catfish, Buffalo chicken, its award-winning pulled pork, and fried green tomato).
The Aerial Adventure Challenge
Every travel guide tells you to go to Hudson’s, The Crazy Crab, and The Old Oyster Factory, and they are certainly worth a trip if you don’t mind waiting an hour or two for a table during high season, but natives flock to Skull Creek Boathouse overlooking Skull Creek for the convivial atmosphere and the seafood (don’t miss the seafood chowder). Also overlooking Skull Creek is Old Fort Pub, a smaller and quieter venue. (We love their she-crab soup, an island specialty.) It is right next to a Civil War shore battery, Fort Mitchel, which is worth a stroll through.
After a few days of surf and sun and a few rounds of miniature golf, the kids will be clamoring for something different. Brand new this summer at Broad Creek Marina Adventures is the Aerial Adventure Challenge, an obstacle course with three levels of difficulty: 12 feet off the ground for kids 5 and up; 24 feet and 36 feet off the ground for teens and adults. Not to worry: Everyone is harnessed and helmeted as they walk across swinging bridges, jump through hoops, and fly on ziplines (speaking of which, you can also spend a couple hours just soaring through the trees like Tarzan, from tower to tree platform to a sky bridge at heights up to—gulp—75 feet). Also new—and nearby—is HHI JetPack, a water-propulsion system that can propel its rider as high as 30 feet at speeds of up to 30 mph. Afterwards, fuel up at the Up the Creek Pub & Grill; I recommend the burgers and barbeque, which is smoked on the premises. At H2O Sports in Sea Pines Harbour, you can kayak with the dolphins, parasail, or maybe take the popular sunset alligator wine and cheese tour.
Okay, about now, Mom and Dad might like a little time off from the kiddies. While The Sandbox Interactive Children’s Museum is designed for interactive play between children and their care-givers, it offers a Parents’ Night Out program on Wednesday nights from 6 to 9 pm. Kids can play in a pirate ship or real cockpit, do crafts, and have pizza while parents enjoy some adult time. During July, the center holds a day camp from 8:30 to 11:30 am. (Just enough time to get in nine holes of golf!)
You can sneak in a little education while touring the lovely grounds of the Coastal Discovery Museum. There are self-guided tours to explore the butterfly enclosure; three boardwalks over Jarvis Creek where you can look for ospreys, oysters, and fiddler crabs; there’s even a carnivorous plants bog garden. Marsh Tacky horses, an endangered breed that arrived with Spanish explorers in the 1500s (See? Learning experiences everywhere!), romp by the horse barn. In the works for this summer is a dragonfly pond. Pop into the Discovery House for the gift store and exhibits, including a cutaway showing how baby loggerhead turtles (the state reptile!) hatch. By now, the kids are probably tuckered out from all of the stealth learning—but maybe there’s time for one last trip to the beach to watch the sun set.