Hilton Head Island may not be the first place you think of when you think of vacation destinations in South Carolina. It seems like Charleston gets all of the glory in that regard. However, Hilton Head Island was voted best island in the continental United States by Travel + Leisure readers in 2019. You can read about the top 10 islands in that list here. Plus, Hilton Head Island was in Southern Living’s list of “11 Trips Every Mother-Daughter Duo Should Take in 2019,” which you can find here. Hilton Head Island has received many other accolades as well, such as #6 in U.S. News and World Report’s “15 Best Family Beach Vacations,” (the full list is here). And on, and on.
I first visited Hilton Head Island way back in the late 90’s and have since been back a few times. Very little has changed over the years, and that’s a good thing, in my opinion. When you have a place as special as Hilton Head Island, change isn’t necessarily helpful or desirable.
Hilton Head Island is small, at just 12 miles long and 5 miles across but it packs a punch with paths suitable for cycling, running, or walking. There are 6 miles of bike lanes, 117 miles of shared-use pathways (108 of which are paved), and 24% of streets have bike lanes or paved shoulders. Access to plantations is limited to residents and guests but you can purchase a day pass for Sea Pines Community, for example. Visitor passes are $8/vehicle, plus $1/bike on car (if you’re transporting a bicycle on your car into the community). You can not ride a bike into Sea Pines nor can you walk into the area.
Things to Do
If you enjoy outdoor activities, Hilton Head Island is full of things to do besides go to the beach (more on that later). There are over 30 golf courses, at least a dozen or so places to rent bicycles not including ones that some hotels provide, 10 or 12 places to rent kayaks or stand up paddle boards, plus several fishing and boat tours.
Since I tried stand up paddle boarding for the first time in Hawaii (My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected), I’ve loved it and in addition to going on Sundays when I’m home, I also try to go paddle boarding when I’m on vacation. I had a great time in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, so of course I checked to see if there were any places to rent boards in Hilton Head and was happy to see there were a few places that rent them.
We rented stand up paddle boards from Soul SUP Paddleboard Hilton Head. You can rent boards by the day or week, take a yoga class, take SUP lessons or a tour, or buy a board from the laid-back and friendly people here. You save some money if you pick up the boards yourself but they will deliver to you for an extra fee. They provide everything you need to secure the boards to the roof of your vehicle if you will be transporting them on your own and my husband and I found it to be easier and quicker than transporting inflatable boards plus we just prefer hard boards to inflatables.
If you’re unfamiliar with the area, you should ask someone at Soul SUP about current water conditions and get recommendations about safe places to paddle board. We went to the Rowing and Sailing Center at Squire Pope Community Park and the Broadcreek Marina-Freeport Marina areas and saw about five dolphins, many different birds, and fish (and no alligators!) the day we went out paddle boarding. Just be sure you don’t fall into the water where there are oyster beds (I’ve been told they scrape you up pretty badly).
As I mentioned earlier, Hilton Head Island has paved pathways all over the island, making it easy to find a safe place to run and cycle. I literally walked out my hotel door and got on a path less than a tenth of a mile away and went out on a run. One thing that I should mention is this is the south, which means during the summer months it gets extremely hot and humid. By 9 am one morning on a run, it was 86 degrees with a real feel (taking into account the humidity) of 98! These pathways are sometimes shaded but not always. If you’re into running on the beach, I’ve heard the beaches here are nice for running, but personally I don’t like running on the beach and don’t even try anymore.
We rented bicycles from Bubba’s Bike Rental, and we had a coupon for 2 free bikes for the day from them, but I’m not sure I would have chosen them otherwise. They have “iffy” reviews online. There are many bike rental companies to choose from, though. Our bikes were delivered to our hotel and picked up at the hotel when we texted them that we were done with them, so it honestly couldn’t have been any easier. The bikes weren’t the greatest- they didn’t have gears and had only foot brakes (my husband said his brakes were awful) plus the seats weren’t that comfortable, but they did get us where we wanted to go. Luckily Hilton Head Island is pancake flat, so we didn’t have to worry about hills (because of not having gears).
You can also visit Harbour Town Lighthouse, which is open every day from 10 am to sundown. Admission to climb the lighthouse is $4.50 per person and children 5 and under are free. We did this on a previous visit and got great views of the area from the top of the lighthouse. The lighthouse is located in Sea Pines Resort and there are many shops and restaurants as well as fishing tours, boat cruises, and watersports so you can easily spend a full day here.
Where to Eat
Some of our favorite restaurants include:
Skull Creek Boathouse (mostly seafood, brunch buffet on Sunday with made-to-order omelets plus tons of other foods, water views, outdoor area, dog-friendly)
Sandbar Beach Eats (by Coligny Beach)
Hilton Head Brewing Company (good BBQ and beer, outdoor area, dog-friendly)
Relish (Asian and Southern food, outdoor area, dog-friendly)
Thai Smile (fantastic pineapple curry and Som Tum)
Many restaurants in the area have outdoor seating areas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dog-friendly. Just call ahead if you want to bring your dog with you, to be sure.
Where to Stay and How to Get Here
In addition to many Airbnb properties, there are a huge range of hotels, including the more expensive Westin, Omni, Marriott, and even a Disney-owned resort, to more affordable but still nice hotels like Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn, right down to simple, no frills motels. There are also a huge number of time shares in this area. As you might guess, places directly on the beach are more expensive but usually offer perks like a kitchen, swimming pool, bicycle rental, among others.
If you’re driving here, you can take US-278 East from mainland South Carolina directly into Hilton Head. There is the Hilton Head airport, but flights are limited. A better option might be to fly into Savannah, Georgia, which is just 40 minutes from Hilton Head. Speaking of Savannah, you may want to consider a day trip to Savannah if you’re spending several days or more in Hilton Head or add on a few days to spend in Savannah since a day would just skim the surface of this beautiful town.
Unless you plan on spending your days lazing by the pool and walking to the beach and back to your hotel (which is fine if that’s what you like), I recommend a rental car if you want to see more of the island. There is a trolley service, The Breeze, that charges $1 per person per destination, but it only goes between Coligny and Shelter Cove, and only from 1 pm to 10 pm. Uber and Lyft are also transportation options if you don’t want to or can’t rent a car.
I would be remiss to not mention some of the beaches of Hilton Head Island. Think powdery, soft sandy beaches, many with dunes. Some of my favorite beaches on the island are Folly Field Beach Park, Driessen Beach Park, and Coligny Beach Park but there are many other beaches. There is free parking at Coligny Beach Park and a shopping area with restaurants and a grocery store by the parking area, plus there are restrooms and a splash area for kids. Both Driessen and Folly beaches have paid parking spaces, but it’s very reasonable (we paid $1/hour at Folly and $1 for two hours at Driessen); just pay at the kiosk with cash or credit card. Driessen has a children’s playground and a long boardwalk to get to the beach, which can be a pro or con depending on your point of view. Both Driessen and Folly beaches have dunes and restrooms plus sprayers to wash the sand off. Leashed dogs are only allowed on the beaches before 10 am and after 5 pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day but any time the rest of the year. All of the beaches I’ve been to on Hilton Head Island have been clean and safe. They do get crowded during the summer months especially on weekends, but they’re big enough that they can handle pretty large crowds of people without feeling too crowded.
Hilton Head Island is one of my favorite beach destinations, especially on the east coast. The water is warm during the summer and even into the fall, the sand is soft, and the area is clean and safe. September after Labor Day is a great time to go because it isn’t as crowded and it’s a bit cooler but still warm enough to get in the ocean. October would also be a good time to visit. Have you been to Hilton Head Island or do you want to go there? What are some of your favorite beach areas in the United States?