This installment in my series of insider guides to wonderful places to visit in the United States focuses on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Authored by our Vice Consul Joseph Bergen, the article relates fond memories of the island he visited as a child every summer with his family. Enjoy his travel tips and insight regarding this Southern paradise.
HILTON HEAD, PRESERVE AND PROSPER by JOE BERGEN
Hilton Head Island is the embodiment of Southern grace and charm. Royal blue skies stretch from horizon to horizon until they plunge into the sea amongst gently rolling azure waves. Twelve miles (19km) of pristine beaches, well groomed and cultivated urban and rural environments, and numerous golf courses designed by some of the game’s best make Hilton Head a special, beautiful resort to visit. Even the wildlife seem to be at ease here, as dolphins and birds will come right up to you. Since my first steps on this island in the mid 1980’s, I have been enchanted with its mystique.
Hilton Head’s original inhabitants were a Native American tribe that came to the island seasonally hunting small game and harvesting seafood. The only documented remnants of this tribe are “shell rings,” large circles of shells on the ground 150 feet (46m) across. These rings, found at the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, are believed to be more than 15,000 years old. By comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza was built only around 4,500 years ago.
Through the intervening thousands of years, Hilton Head was populated by various peoples – members of the Yemassee and Ewascus tribes settled on the island, followed by Spanish explorers in 1521, and French Huguenots in the 1560s. Captain William Hilton claimed the island for the British crown in 1663, naming the headland by Port Royal Sound ”Hilton’s Head.” This 586 square mile (310 sq km) island is now home to 37,000 South Carolinians.
Today, Hilton Head is one of the United States’ premier resort towns, enticing more than 2.5 million visitors to its groomed beaches, lush pine forests, and challenging golf courses. In particular, Hilton Head’s warm waters make this resort town an ideal place for families with small children. With an average ocean temperature of 20 degrees Celsius, beachgoers can run right into the waves without having to experience the stomach-clenching, toe-curling effects of that first splash in icy water. Any parent who has spent several minutes coaxing their child to take that leap into the pool can give their thanks to the Gulf Stream, which provides the warm current.
The island’s plethora of beach spots offers many excellent options for a lazy afternoon in the sun. My family spent the bulk of its time by Folly Field Beach. Many of the families I’ve come to know over my years visiting the Hilton Head continue to stay at resorts near this beach, and so a sunset walk becomes a sort of family reunion. Summer friendships don’t have to end with the season, and now our children have the same opportunity we did.
Hilton Head’s pristine environment separates it from many other tourist destinations in the U.S. and elsewhere. On the island you will find a well planned community that has maintained its environmental integrity. There are acres and acres of well preserved wet-land and forest. In the Sea Pines Resort alone you can find 30 species of mammals, 133 types of birds, 11 types of fish, 37 types of reptiles, and 20 types of amphibians. This is in part the result of the island’s isolation, as it remained separated from the mainland U.S. until 1956, when the J. Byrnes Bridge was built. Because of this divide, the island didn’t begin “development” until well after its mainland neighbors.
The island’s pristine environment also comes from the vision of Charles Fraser, the founder of Sea Pines Resort, the first resort community on the island. When Charles Fraser started designing Sea Pines, he visited other communities along the East Coast to see what worked. He then partnered with the influential landscape architect Hideo Sasaki to develop a resort community that incorporated the surrounding environment in the overall aesthetic. Development for the rest of the island followed Fraser’s lead, banning billboards as well as the construction of most buildings that stand above the trees.
You will never be bored while in Hilton Head, as there is always something to do. One of the island’s most popular activities is playing beach volleyball. From sun-up to sun-down I would stand by the court waiting to test my skills against others. I normally came out alright on Folly Field Beach, where the competition is friendly. But different beaches offer different levels of skill, and understanding which location is which will save a bundle of embarrassment if your moves are similar to mine.
Another excellent activity available only because of the island’s majestic environment is kayaking. A jaunt around the island with a friend can bring you into contact with bottle nose dolphin, up to 200 hundred species of birds, loggerhead turtles, and sweeping panoramic views of locations like Calibogue Sound.
If gliding across the water isn’t so much your thing as biking across land, Hilton Head covers that mode of transport too. You can explore the coast riding on the island’s firmly packed beaches, or the interior of the island via its 100 miles of bicycle pathways.
Hilton Head has been rated by the League of American Bicyclists as a Silver Level Bicycle Friendly Community for good reason. Any time a new park is designed, one of the major considerations is how to connect it to the existing bicycle pathways, creating an easily navigated spider web of bike tracks that allow visitors to easily traverse the pine forests that create the backdrop for the resorts on the island.
No trip to Hilton Head is complete without seizing the opportunity to learn about Gullah culture. Descended from slaves brought from Africa, the Gullahs settled in the coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia. Due to the region’s isolation from the mainland U.S., the Gullahs retained their language, cuisine, and traditions. Visitors can now experience traditional gumbo and red rice, visit a root doctor, or join in the call and response rhythm of a spiritual gathering.
Hilton Head is part of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that extends along the coast of the South Eastern United States and is run by the National Parks Service. Along the corridor you can visit the Penn Center on Helena Island, home to one of the first schools for freed slaves in the country. Several famous African Americans with Gullah roots include James Brown, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Hilton Head’s annual Wine & Food Festival is a must for all food and wine lovers. Now in its 28th year, the event gives you the opportunity to sample some of the best cuisine from the region, as well as some of the best wine from around the world. The 2007 edition of the festival was the largest outdoor tented wine tasting on the East Coast, featuring more than 1,500 domestic and international wines. Next year’s festival starts on March 4, 2013 with themed dinners and master classes, and finishes on March 9th with a public festival and silent auction at the Coastal Discovery Museum.
Of course, you do not have to come to Hilton Head during the Wine & Food Festival to experience world-class food. With its combination of delicious seafood and breathtaking seaside views, Skull Creek Boathouse is one of my personal favorite eateries in the world. Its menu and location are absolutely divine, so much so that Travel + Leisure Magazine ranked the restaurant as one of the top Outdoor Bars in America.
Once you’ve had your breakfast or lunch of scrumptious seafood, you can take advantage of more than 20 worldclass golf courses designed by notable golf architects like Jack Nicklaus. Whether you are an amateur or a pro, you should spend a day at the links overlooking Hilton Head’s breathtaking beauty, from the oceans to the marshes to the forestes. Do not let the grandeur lull you into complacency, though, as some of these courses can be quite challenging.
Hilton Head is home to the only PGA tournament in South Carolina, the RBC Heritage. This event started in 1969 with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and continues to attract the sport’s biggest stars, such as Tiger Woods and Peter Lonard. The tournament is held at the Harbour Town Golf Link. Golf Digest ranks the course as one of the top 14 golf courses in America. This year’s tournament will be held April 15-21, 2013. Make sure you wear plaid.
As the site of the largest naval battle to occur in U.S. waters, Hilton Head offers something special for American history buffs. During the American Civil War, Union forces met Confederates forces at Fort Walker in what is now known as the Battle of Port Royal. The Union forces won, capturing Fort Walker and enabling the Union to effectively blockade Confederate ports throughout the war. Fort Walker still stands at Port Royal and open to visitors.
For those interested in seeing where the American Civil War began, it’s just a short two-hour trip from Hilton Head to beautiful, history-laden Charleston, the home of Fort Sumter. Although construction of the fort had started in 1829, it remained unfinished when South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 24, 1860. Confederate forces demanded that Union troops leave the fort, but President Abrham Lincoln refused. A few months later, on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on the fort, starting the Civil War.
After visiting Fort Sumter, stay awhile in Charleston, one of the most charming cities you will find in the United States or anywhere. Charleston maintains an vintage, preservationist attitude in its city architecture, easily seen as you walk through Charleston’s historic district with its 81 beautiful buildings built in the 18th and 19th centuries.
If you are looking for a bit more current history, stop by Patriots Points and take a tour of the USS Yorktown. Commissioned in 1943 and named for the carrier lost in the Battle of Midway, this stalwart of the Pacific war will you can get a feel for what it was like to be sailor during World War II, sharing bunk rooms with the crew, eating in cramped mess halls, and walking through one of the most powerful mechanisms ever constructed by man.
The moment I knew Hilton Head became my home occurred during the winter of 1992, ironic because till then I’d never witnessed the island in the winter months. I had just finished my first semester at Pepperdine University, and my family planned to meet up in Hilton Head for Christmas. Due to scheduling issues I arrived a week before everyone. During that week, I spent a long time walking and bicycling around the island seeing all the familiar sites of my childhood. I remember being impressed at how beautiful and calm the island seemed during this time of the year. It was then that I realized that what had started off as a place to go for the summer time had become a home for me all year round.
I love Hilton Head. I make new friends every time I visit, friends I’ll see year after year upon my return. I take my children walking along the beautiful beaches. My wife and I enjoy the festivals. My family can mingle with everyone from foreign travelers to the Gullah. More than anything else, it’s a place where anyone can rest, relax, unwind, and remember to stop and watch the clouds, smell the roses, and enjoy life. It truly is a slice of paradise. I hope that you come see for yourself during your next trip to the United States.
For more information about Hilton Head, what to see, and how to plan a visit, please take a look at the island’s website.