In the 1660s a group of Barbados plantation owners decided they needed more land for growing sugar cane and indigo. They commissioned British sea captain William Hilton to set sail and find some. In 1663 he landed on an island off the coast of what is now South Carolina. Hilton, of course, claimed this island for the British Crown. As you might expect, the island became known as Hilton Head, although you might not expect that the island actually looks more like a foot than a head.
Today the island, with more than 2 million visitors a year, is a popular stopping place for cruisers transiting the East Coast. In addition to hosting one of the premier resort marinas along this coast, the area offers 12 miles of public access beaches, more than 40 golf courses and five major tennis centers. Plus, the island’s history of hosting diverse cultures means you can find any kind of food you crave, includingSouthern Low Country cuisine favorites like she crab soup and frogmore stew.
When Hilton landed he probably wasn’t at all surprised to be met by Native Americans, although he probably was surprised to hear them speak Spanish. True to form for these locales in those times, the Spanish had already been there — in 1521. They had also been to Florida and apparently these Indians, of the Yemassee tribe, had migrated north from that land.
Even back then, Hilton Head was obviously attracting different types of people.
Other Europeans had also “found” the island. In the 1560s Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in France, attempted to establish settlements on American shores. They were driven out of North Florida by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles (credited for founding St. Augustine), but a group settled on Hilton Head and named the island “Ile de la Riviere Grande.” They named the broad inlet to the north of the island “PortRoyaleHarbour.” Today we call it Port Royal Sound.
But far earlier than the comings, goings and pretentious claims of the Europeans, Native Americans lived on the island. Not much is known about them, although they left mysterious shell rings — circles of piled shells measuring up to 240 feet across and some piled up to 9 feet high. These have been dated back 4,000 years and you can see them in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve at the north end of the resort.
By 1860 the island supported 24 plantations. Cotton was the main crop, but indigo, sugar cane and rice were also grown. In 1861 soon after the War between the States began, the island was captured by the North after a large sea battle and land fighting. The occupation of the region by the North after the war and the end of plantation life ended the island’s prosperity. Ultimately, the boll weevil struck the final blow.
Despite all of the earlier attention it had received, Hilton Head remained relatively isolated for more than 90 years. Even by the early 1950s Hilton Head had no bridge to the mainland, no electricity, no phones and only one store. Only the northern part of the island was considered inhabited.
The small population there, many the descendants of former slaves, nurtured their unique heritage, called Gullah. They thrived on fishing and farming and had their own successful “bush” medicine. One practitioner was the now-legendary Dr. Buzzard. He was said to be a great root doctor who, it is told, could make a pot boil without fire.
The Gullah culture has its own language, which is a unique blend of Creole, European and African dialects. You can still hear it spoken today on Hilton Head and nearby islands. They also passed down recipes and many of their traditions. The Gullah heritage is still alive on Hilton Head, and you can take the Gullah Heritage Trail Tour, (843) 681-7066, the Gullah-N-Gechee Mahn Tours, (843) 838-7516, visit museums and participate in festivities. Gullah communities make up nearly 3,000 acres of the island.
A new dream
By the 1940s people began to notice a feature that had long been overlooked: the island’s tall pine trees. Harvesting them returned some prosperity, but — far more importantly — brought to the island the foresight and wisdom of Charles Fraser.
While cruising for timber in 1956, the year the first bridge to the island opened, Fraser began to envision a type of housing development largely unheard of at the time. It would be a planned resort and residential community — designed around and respectful of the area’s natural heritage. For example, an early restriction declared that no building could be higher than the tallest tree. His plan was to develop a place for people to live and play “without destroying the natural beauty created by God.”
Fraser named this resort, near the south end of the island, “Sea Pines.”
Since then other residential communities have developed on the island, with similar concerns for blending with and preserving the natural environment. To some this might sound like commercial hype, but not on this island. You almost have to see it to believe it, and it’s remarkably easy to do this by boat. The maritime focal point for Sea Pines — and the entire island — is also one of the premier resort marinas on the East Coast.
HarbourTownYachtBasin has been a landmark for yachts traveling the East Coast for more than 30 years. The ICW passes by its entrance or, if you’re coming by sea, that entrance is only about five miles by water from the Savannah Shipping channel leading out to the Atlantic.
It’s in a land of 8-foot tides, but its floating docks are tucked up inside a protected basin, with cable and phone connections and electric power for the largest yachts. A short peninsula protrudes into the basin on the northern side and it symbolizes the essence of HarbourTown — and indeed the island. The peninsula was left when the basin was dredged because it was, and still is, where the giant Liberty Oak grows.
The development of the harbor yielded to this ancient tree. Today we can sit or dock in its shade. Children have a nice playground under its limbs and, on special evenings, there are concerts. Beneath its branches lie the remains of Charles Fraser, who died in 2002 in a boating accident in the Turks and Caicos Islands. His Cheoy Lee ketch, named Compass Rose, was docked nearby in the basin for many years.
As you approach by boat, you’ll recognize HarbourTownYachtBasin by its famous landmark, a 93-foot red-and-white striped lighthouse near the entrance, overlooking Calibogue Sound. A shop now occupies the top floor of the lighthouse and you can get a great view of the Sound and the harbor from its balcony. (This is not an official Coast Guard-maintained lighthouse.)
Surrounding the basin are 20 independently owned shops, including boutiques, gift and craft galleries, jewelry stores, art galleries and beach and tourist T-shirt and souvenir shops. There are also numerous restaurants ranging from laid-back to formal.
The marina area has a large number of attractions. These include charter fishing, sailing, environmental tours, parasailing, powerboat and personal watercraft rentals, kayak tours, dinner cruises, water skiing and wakeboarding. Sea Pines also offers horseback riding, kayaking, bike and walking trails, a forest preserve and miles of beach.
As you enter the harbor, you will notice a spectacular golf course to starboard, overlooking Calibogue Sound. This is the renowned Sea Pines course, ranked the No. 1 course in South Carolina by Golf Magazine and showcased each year by the PGA Verizon Heritage Golf Tournament in April. It was designed by Pete Dye in consultation with Jack Nicklaus. It’s a fitting introduction to the island of Hilton Head if you like golf, because there are more than 40 golf courses in the area with more than 20 championship (18-hole) public-access courses on Hilton Head alone. Golf Digest magazine once named this area one of the world’s top 10 golf destinations. For a copy of the island’s “Golf Planner,” a guide to golf packages on the island, call (888) 465-3475. Also see www.golfisland.com .
But golf isn’t the only thing to do. Sea Pines, with its renowned Sea Pines Racquet Club, was also once called the country’s top tennis resort by Tennis Magazine. The Professional Tennis Registry is headquartered on the island. There are five major tennis centers with more than 100 courts, for both public and resort use, one being right behind the yacht basin.
Also, an Inshore Fishing Association tournament takes place in September. This is a series of inshore redfish tournaments in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and Texas. They are one-day catch, keep alive, weigh-in and release events with cumulative point totals for a series-ending championship. (www.redfishtour.com )
Lodgings at HarbourTown include condominium rentals overlooking the basin, and The Inn at HarbourTown, a new AAA, 4 Diamond-rated luxury hotel. Its amenities include a butler on each floor. There is nightly entertainment around the harbor in season (spring, summer and fall).
The Harbour Town Yacht Club also includes lodgings and more. It is a private equity member club, with three levels of membership. The equity member purchases a set amount of usage time in the club facility; the yacht membership comes when you buy a slip. There is also a “social” membership.
All club members receive privileges at local golf courses (including Haig Point and Daufuskie Island Resorts, across Calibogue Sound on Daufuskie Island, exclusively accessible only by boat) and spas, special rates at Sea Pines resort facilities and the use of the Yacht Club facilities (third-floor meeting space and fourth-floor lounge). The Yacht and Social members receive special room rates in the Yacht Club studio, 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom suites, and the equity member has 28 nights in the Yacht Club suites.
Slips are available at Harbour Town for daily transient rates as well as weekly, monthly or annual rates. The marina ownership told us that a program would soon be introduced for those wishing to leave their boats here over the winter. This will include special rates and privileges.
The climate is usually mild year-round. In the winter, cold spells typically move through for a day or two, but often it then warms up to shirtsleeve weather. Although the marina is a popular transient facility, slips are privately owned. If you’re interested in purchasing a slip, contact harbormaster Nancy Cappelmann at (843) 671-2704.
Beyond Sea Pines
I’ve emphasized Harbour Town Yacht Basin because it has long been recognized up and down the East Coast and it’s a part of Sea Pines, the first major development on Hilton Head.
However, it’s important to note that these other communities are each special and unique. There are 12 in all; the others are Shipyard, Wexford, Long Cove, Palmetto Dunes, Leamington, Port Royal, Palmetto Hall, Indigo Run, Hilton Head Plantation, Spanish Wells and Windmill Harbour. There are also numerous resort hotel complexes within many of the communities for those traveling by land; some of these are on the ocean and some inland. Quite a few people have visited by boat and later bought retirement homes on the island.
It’s also important to know there are many other fine marinas on the island that also cater to transient traffic. One such facility, Palmetto Bay Marina, is on the south end and refers to its location as the “Key West side of Hilton Head,” (843) 785-7131, www.hiltonheadisland.com/palmettobay . This full-service marina with haulout capabilities, charters and eco-tours is up Broad Creek before the 65-foot vertical clearance Cross Island Expressway bridge.
Shelter Cove Marina is mid-island in Palmetto Dunes Resort, (843) 842-7001, www.sheltercovehiltonhead.com. It’s off Calibogue Sound at the head of Broad Creek, and has floating docks to accommodate vessels up to 150 feet. It also offers 30- 50- and 100-amp electric service. Cable and phone hookups are available at the slips, as well as Wi-Fi. This marina offers free transportation within its resort, which incorporates beaches, golf courses, tennis courts, biking, canoeing, hotels, dining and shopping.
Broad Creek Marina is also located mid-island, but a little closer to the south end, (843) 681-3625. Skull Creek Marina (843) 681-8436,
www.theskullcreekmarina.com, is on the northern end. You’ll pass it to port soon after leaving Port Royal Sound to enter the ICW southbound. Hilton Head Harbor — formerly Outdoor Resorts, (843) 681-3256 is also mid-island on the ICW, north of Calibogue Sound and north of the William Hilton Parkway bridge, which is the only connection between the island and the mainland. The marina has an easily accessed fuel dock parallel to the ICW.
Some of the gated communities on the island, such as Windmill Harbour (home of the South Carolina Yacht Club) and Wexford Harbour at Wexford Plantation, have their own marinas and canals winding among the homes. These two harbors are accessed by locks that control the water level inside their basins and around the waterfront properties.
I haven’t mentioned anchorages because there aren’t any that I’d suggest that offer convenient access to Hilton Head. Some cruisers anchor in various open locations off the ICW, but they are plagued by wakes, waves (especially when the wind blows against the current), and difficult shoreside access. Some anchor in Broad Creek, but this is impractical for visiting the island and it can also be uncomfortable because of wakes. There are nearby anchorages in creeks, especially south down the ICW, but these are remote to the island.
Pick your pleasure
Hilton Head Island attracts some 2.25 million visitors a year. The 12 miles of public access beaches, hotels, restaurants, golf, tennis and nature adventures are reason enough to come. In addition there are two multiscreen movie theaters, an independent film theater, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, (843) 842-2787, the South Carolina Repertory Company and the May River Theatre Company. The Coastal Discovery Museum highlights the island’s history, ecology and culture (843) 689-6767.
The island has more than 200 shops, ranging from elegant boutiques to a large indoor mall. There is a West Marine on Hilton Head, hardware stores and a Wal-Mart. In nearby Bluffton, on the mainland, you can find a Home Depot, a Lowe’s and other shopping opportunities. Many of the attractions and shops are too far from the waterfront for walking or biking, but the island has several car rental services.
There are more than 250 restaurants on the island, serving cuisine ranging from fast food to fine dining. Many different types of cooking styles are represented. My favorite is home-style Southern Low Country cuisine with specialties like she crab soup and frogmore stew, a seafood boil that includes shrimp, corn and sausage. There are no frogs in the frogmore stew recipe, but with Low Country cooking you can be as creative as you want as long as the end result tastes good and your constitution can handle what you dump in. So feel free to throw in a few frog legs if you make your own.
If your tastes favor other locales there are restaurants specializing in French, German, Italian, Caribbean, Japanese, Greek, Chinese, Thai and Mexican foods.
Being a boating magazine writer, I can’t afford to try out a “sampling” of restaurants. However, when I was last on the island in December 2006, Mel (my wife) and I had lunch at The Harbour Town Grill, which overlooks the Harbour Town Golf Links. It’s in the Harbour Town Clubhouse and less than a block from the marina docks. We found it excellent, especially the she crab soup and the daily homemade potato chips.
Hilton Head has long been recognized as a premier resort area by land tourists, but it’s just as convenient by boat. If you’re making a trip up or down the coast it’s a great place to stop, kick back and savor.