In October 2019, for the third year in a row, Hilton Head was voted ‘Best Island in the US’, by readers of Condé Nast Traveler. Superb resorts, pristine nature and a character all of its own, what more could anyone want?
“The air is clean and sweet, the country very pleasant and delightful”, wrote Captain Hilton in 1663, the first Englishman to set foot on the island later named after him. Having sailed from Barbados to explore the Carolina coast, he identified a headland near the entrance to Port Royal Sound, an Atlantic inlet among the Sea Islands in Beaufort county. Three hundred years later, developer Charles Fraser fell in love with this shoe-shaped island, just fourteen by seven miles, and ahead of his time, he planned to create a holiday paradise in harmony with the natural world.
As we drove across the connecting bridge, I was not sure what to expect but my first impression was space and greenery. The luxurious Omni Oceanfront Resort greeted us with flowers and trees – no building higher than the canopy – 25 tennis courts, three championship golf courses, indulgent spa, hot tubs and swimming pools. You could canoe 11 miles on the lagoon system but the beach with private access held us spellbound, wild dunes and sweeping sands almost deserted in early spring. Yet, a breezy cycle ride across the island would lead us to Harbour Town.
Set by the water, this attractive little town nestles around a ‘historic’ lighthouse, striped red and white, just 50 years old yet a beacon for gleaming yachts in the marina and an icon for Hilton Head across the world. Climb up and take in the museum-like exhibitions, to the sound of Low Country music, and when you reach the top, the island’s highest point, you can enjoy a spot of shopping and stunning views all around. Below are art galleries, boutiques, gourmet restaurants festooned in hanging baskets and al fresco cafés where you might try the traditional ‘she-crab soup’, ‘shrimps and grits’ (ground corn) or a hearty ‘Frogmore Stew’. Then should you feel adventurous, there’s parasailing or bumping in a power boat, water skiing, sailing or kayaking in gentle waters. Or relax on a cruise and watch bottlenose dolphins frolicking here and there as the sun sets in spectacular colours.
Leisure aside, Hilton Head claims a unique history. In 1862, at the height of the civil war, some run away slaves gathered around Fish Haul Creek and helped by Union General Mitchel, they built their own settlement, wooden houses, chapel and a garden for everyone. They were granted the right to govern themselves, set up taxes and laws, including compulsory education for all children. Today in the Mitchelville Freedom Park, huts shelter once again under the trees and descendants of the Gullah slaves told us their haunting but inspiring story. We browsed their intricate sweet-grass baskets, still hand-coiled and sewn in African tradition, and gazed across the salt marsh where their ancestors fished and traded with Union forces. As the sun lit up the water, we spotted great and snowy egrets, a little blue heron and a raccoon dabbling in the reeds.
From marshes to forest or tidal wetlands, nature lovers have a great choice of walking trails where one might come across white-tailed deer, alligators, up to 12 feet long, or opossum, America’s only native marsupial. There are sea snails and tree frogs, river otters and birds on land and water. My favourite was the roseate spoonbill, pink with white head and a big bill shaped like a spoon. More wildlife can be seen on Hunting Island, about an hour ‘s drive but worth the effort. It’s the most popular State Park in South Carolina. Explore the wooded trails then climb 130 feet to the top of the lighthouse where the panorama stretches for miles, from the maritime forest to the vast deserted beach and rolling ocean.
Or just 30 minutes from Hilton Head, beyond Pinkney Island and its national wildlife refuge, take a gentle stroll around Bluffton on the mainland. Clapboard houses, white fences, pretty gardens, the old district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Quaint cottages or genteel homes, most date back to the early 1800s. It’s a delightful place, easy to walk around, with an old Oyster Factory, specialising in fresh local seafood, a marina on the river May and oak trees draped in moss spreading their shade along the lanes.
Getting there: BA provides direct flights from Heathrow to Charleston, twice a week from March to October, and year-round connections with partners. It’s about a two-hour drive to Hilton Head Island.
Best times to visit are spring for blossom and autumn for festivals. Summers are hot, perfect for swimming in the ocean but expect crowds and possibly hurricanes until early autumn.
There are no street lights after dark – that would disturb the wildlife – so if you decide to wander, be extra careful. However, resorts are safe with good lighting to keep away alligators.