THE LONDON TELEGRAPH
By Paul Bray
“Give the blues the boot: head to Hilton Head.” You’re unlikely to see this flashing in neon in this exclusive island retreat off the South Carolina coast. Darker skies are preferred by nesting turtles and stargazing humans on an island with impeccable green credentials. But Hilton Head is shaped uncannily like a boot, dipping its elegant toe into the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. And if anywhere has been designed to banish the blues it’s Hilton Head.
Picture yourself cycling or swimming on sugar-sand beaches, flexing your five iron on championship golf courses, savouring fresh seafood beneath starry skies and you’ve pictured Hilton Head. It’s a barrier island, close enough to be bridge-linked to the mainland but distinct enough to have its own unique atmosphere, history and culture.
Much of the latter is provided by the Gullah people, descendants of West African slaves who settled along the south-eastern coast including Hilton Head Island more than 150 years ago. The Gullah remain one of the most culturally distinct African American populations, with their own language, crafts, cuisine and folklore.
In 1862, General Ormsby Mitchel established Mitchelville, one of the first self-governed freedmen’s villages in the USA. While still a work in progress, The Mitchelville Freedom Park has been fitted with a covered gazebo, an observation platform looking out toward Port Royal Sound, and kiosks telling the Mitchelville story through words and historical images.
Modern-day Hilton Head boasts upmarket resorts where you can settle back and decide to hide away for a week while you enjoy the private beaches, woodland walks, spas, restaurants, sports and other facilities to the full.
The oldest and grandest is Sea Pines Resort, claimed as the prototype of the modern resort community and a success story copied around the world. Founded in 1956, Sea Pines continues to expand. In 2014 it opened a new Sea Pines Beach Club with restaurants, shops, showers and a second-floor bar offering elevated Atlantic views.
It’s just one of a raft of recent developments and renovations totalling a cool $400million, many of them timed to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the island’s discovery by one Captain William Hilton in 1663. Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa has given its guest rooms and suites a complete, $12 million makeover, while Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort has lavished $17 million on transforming its spa, fitness centre and outdoor spaces. Also recently opened is Shelter Cove Towne Centre, a chic waterfront village with restaurants, shops and a natural park that serves as a hub for open-air concerts and other events.
At Sea Pines Resort’s Harbour Town Golf Links a new clubhouse features a state-of-the-art locker room, pro shop, restaurant and a hall of fame featuring golf legends who’ve played there. When you see that these include Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson you realise just how high-profile the course is: it hosts the PGA Tour’s annual RBC Heritage event, won this year by Jim Furyk.
Hilton Head really is a golfer’s delight, with more than 20 other championship-class courses designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye dotted among the oak forests and sea marshes, the possibility of snoozing alligators adding piquancy to the water hazards. Several courses offer all-in golf packages including expert tuition.
Tennis players can receive equally good tuition. The island boasts eight of the world’s top 100 tennis resorts and camps, including Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, named one of the world’s top tennis resorts by Tennis Resorts Online in 2014, and the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy at Sea Pines, headed by former Wimbledon champ Stan Smith. In all the island has more than 350 courts.
With more than 60 miles of cycle paths, Hilton Head is a great place to cycle, recognised as such by the League of American Bicyclists. You can easily rent a bike and pedal off through the palmettos and pines to seek out some of the island’s quaintest corners. Many of these are only accessible by bike, including the crabbing pier at Old House Creek and the salt marshes and boardwalks of Fish Haul Creek.
You can even cycle on the glittering sands of Hilton Head Island’s 12 miles of beaches, such as Coligny Beach Park, voted one of the top family-friendly beaches in America. For more solitude try hiring a kayak or paddleboard and exploring some of the creeks and tidal marshes along the Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina. Island outfitters such as Outside Hilton Head and H2O Sports offer guided tours with expert naturalists.
To see how Hilton Head looked before the resorts moved in, visit its smaller neighbour Pinckney Island. This is a designated National Wildlife Refuge and its trails and creeks are an excellent place to observe bald eagles, white ibis and vast flocks of wading birds. Dolphins are easily spotted in summer, even from the shore, and a choice of boat tours from the excellent Coastal Discovery Museum and private operators will let you get up close to these endearing creatures.
After a day in the great outdoors you’ll be hungry, and Hilton Head won’t disappoint. Sustainable, local ingredients from land and sea are served up at more than 250 restaurants offering everything from classic European to traditional Gullah and South Carolina “Lowcountry” dishes. Can’t decide? Then try one of Savor the Lowcountry’s walking tours with sampling stops at four or five of the island’s most mouth-watering dining destinations.
As always, on Hilton Head Island you’ll be spoilt for choice.
To plan your Hilton Head Island holiday by the sea, visit hiltonheadisland.org/uk »