A hub of Lowcountry culture, the resort town of Hilton Head shares its name with the island on which it is located. Connections to the mainland are available via bridge, boat, and plane, making it easy to travel to nearby Savannah, Georgia (22 miles/35 kilometers), and Jacksonville, Florida (140 miles/225 kilometers). The Intercoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean provide ample watersports and pristine beaches, as well as numerous marshes and lagoons teeming with wildlife. A humid subtropical climate makes for pleasant weather year round, with temperatures rarely dipping below freezing in winter, mild shoulder seasons, and summers that often see the mercury hold steadily in the 90sF (23-27C).
After Hilton Head fell to the Union during the Civil War, hundreds of ex-slaves swarmed to the island seeking refuge. Their descendants now make up the ethnic group known as the Gullah, whose heritage is well preserved in the region. The island’s natural beauty is a source of local pride, and as such is protected by local laws that seek to curtail the impact of development. Considering the relatively small population (just over 37,000 in 2010), Hilton Head boasts a surprising number of cultural attractions, including an orchestra, choral society, and theater productions at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. Several big-name golf events draw large crowds each calendar year.
Evidence of the original inhabitants can be found at locations such as the Sea Pines shell ring, an archaeological site believed to date back 2,000 years. Plentiful trails and hard-packed beaches make biking a popular activity for visitors and locals. Alligators and bobcats roam the protected lands at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, while cold-blooded critters slither and crawl at the Edisto Island Serpentarium. Golf is a main draw, with more than two dozen courses on the island and more than 40 in the area. Hilton Head being an island, beaches are a main draw, as are the area’s numerous bottle-nosed dolphins who rarely fail to make an appearance during boat tours.
Although much of the island consists of gated communities (referred to by locals as “plantations”), Hilton Head caters to visitors with quaint town centers showcasing the coastal lifestyle. In the Sea Pines neighborhood, Harbour Town features dining, recreation, and shopping for local art, as well as extravagant yachts demonstrating the area’s affluence. Tennis and golf figure prominently in Palmetto Dunes, while the largest ungated community, Forest Beach, is the destination of choice for walking among the many shops and restaurants. For its size, Hilton Head also hosts an abundance of shopping options, including marsh-side Shelter Cove Towne Center. The nearby colonial town of Beaufort, on Port Royal Island, boasts antebellum architecture and horse-drawn carriages that make it an exemplar of Southern charm.