HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC
Think you know all about Hilton Head? Think again. We’ve tracked down friends and asked for insider tips on enjoying this world-famous coastal resort.
We’ve got recommendations you’ll never find elsewhere. And, since winter is in full swing, we’re steering clear of admittedly fun activities like parasailing and jet skiing. Even though these winters are temperate, and folks play golf and tennis 12 months a year, it’s undeniably a bit chilly for donning your bathing suit and going for a swim.
So, if Hilton Head is your family’s vacation destination, follow along and see if we’ve uncovered your favorites. If not, this Lowcountry paradise might tempt you for a sweater weather getaway soon.
First, you’ll need a room.
The recently renovated Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa is worthy of consideration. Locals are wowed by the recent renovation and the vibe is distinctly family friendly. Three Port Royal Golf Courses, award winning tennis courts, a renewal date with yourself at the Heavenly Spa by Westin™, and ample opportunities to relax and enjoy the simple art of conversation – it’s all refreshed and visitors love it.
The Inn at Harbour Town – Sea Pines Resort should certainly be on your short list. Recently named Traveler’s Choice 2011 top ten best hotels in the US under the “Luxury” category, this resort is filled with amenities and draws rave reviews on Trip Advisor. The Inn has complimentary bicycles for use, and both golf and tennis are located on the property. Harbour Town is a very short walk away and is filled with shops and restaurants.
The island has no shortage of attractive resorts, so shop around to find what you want, where you want it.
Bicycles are common on the island and lots of paths take you almost everywhere. We suggest that you get your bearings, find the beach, and plan your strategy for this two-day adventure.
Because you’re in a resort, take time to pamper yourself. There are highly rated spas, including Ahh Green Spa, Fountain Spa, Bodies in Balance, and FACES, located in the Village of Wexford plaza. It’s the recipient of the 2011 Reader’s Choice award for Best Day Spa, Best Massage, Best Manicure/Pedicure, Best Tanning Salon, Best Cosmetic Store. Sounds like a winner, for sure.
FACES regularly receives worldwide media attention and was included in Allure magazine’s “A List”, Vogue magazine’s “Best of the Carolinas” feature and Elle magazine’s “Beauty Hot Spots.”
Internationally, FACES was chosen to be featured, along with photos, in a front-page article on anti-aging in Yomiuri Shimbun, the Japanese newspaper with the world’s largest circulation. Salon Today magazine listed FACES’ Golf Widow’s Revenge spa package as one of the top 100 signature spa services in the nation. Other mentions have included the Wall Street Journal, Golf for Women magazine and many more.
It’s cozy and intimate, with six soundproof spa treatment rooms, a wet room with hydrotherapy tub, a steam room and locker room with sauna, a serene Relaxation Lounge and a chemical-free nail studio. Reminiscent of a European Apothecary, FACES retail departments include aromatherapy, bath and body items and top selling professional cosmetic lines.
Indulge in a couples massage, or send your significant other away to play golf or walk on the beach. You’ll leave refreshed and relaxed, as well as looking great. And although we’ve saved most of the shopping for tomorrow, you’re very close to Taffeta, an upscale shop which carries fashions from Europe. The clothes are beautiful and the jewelry stunning. Expect to pay a bit more, but the quality is excellent and the fashion, timeless.
If it’s dinnertime when you emerge, consider the new OMBRA restaurant. Celebrated Hilton Head Island Chef Michael Cirafesi has reunited with his long time mentor, Chef Nunzio Patruno to open OMBRA Cucina Rustica about offering classical regional Italian cuisine with an innovative style. Check out their early dining option. Reservations needed.
However, if you’ve chosen your spa experience early in the day, you’ll be hungry for lunch, and animal lovers will delight over Bistro 17, with its doggie menu and outdoor patio where canine friends are welcomed. Located at Shelter Cove Harbour, the setting provides lovely views of the harbor. The food is French-inspired, and the seafood sandwiches and salads make it a favorite with locals – with or without Fido.
Another great choice is Skull Creek Boathouse, located on the waterfront of Skull Creek. Beautiful views are everywhere, indoors or outside on the terrace, and you have more options, including the Dive Bar – a raw bar featuring fresh sushi, oysters and more. Sushi and Ceviche lovers will take one look at their online menu and feel compelled to give it a try. The locals found it as soon as it opened.
Your afternoon can be spent several ways including biking, horseback riding, exploring by land or water, or shopping. We’ve saving shopping for tomorrow, so let’s take a look at the rest.
BIKING, HIKING, DRIVING
Pinckney Island National Refuge is set apart and that’s a good thing.
Once a plantation, the refuge now is home to a variety of wildlife and plant life. There are fourteen miles of hiking and biking trails, but don’t expect to see a grand mansion – that’s long gone. This is an outdoor adventure where you’ll pedal through forests, beside marshes and along paths that have been used for generations.
You may prefer a stroll (or drive) through Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Hiking, fishing, picnicking and wildlife viewing opportunities abound in the 605-acre preserve. The Warner W. Plahs Wildflower Field is a "must see" in spring. Any time of year, be sure to visit the 4000 year-old Indian Shell Ring, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and enjoy a scenic ride down the rice dike. Note: Bicycles are not permitted on the nature trails, so park them at the locations provided. In summer, bug spray is critical, but this time of year, not so much. Watch out for alligators, especially around children and pets. They may look slow, but for short bursts, they can be quite speedy. The elevated boardwalk keeps you above the fray.
If you haven’t ridden a horse since long-ago summer camp, it’s time to revisit this enjoyable way to spend an hour or two. Lawton Stables is a full-service equestrian center offering horseback riding. A one-hour escorted Western-style trail ride through the Sea Pines Forest Preserve is a magical experience. Younger children will enjoy pony rides, and there’s a small animal farm as well. The Lawton name is filled with history and Lawton Plantation was the source of the name and beginnings of the stables.
The horses are gentle and sure-footed and the staff is friendly and professional. Several years ago, Harley arrived at his new home, here. This remarkable Clydesdale comes from noble Anheuser-Busch lineage. He can’t be ridden, but you’ll enjoy watching this gentle giant enjoy carrots and lots of attention.
ON THE WATER
We’ve written about Live OAC before, in conjunction with a Carolina Adventure visit to Daufuskie Island. For landlubbers who want to take advantage of all that water, Live OAC provides a professional and entertaining experience.
Choose from dolphin tours, excursions, fishing and even kayaking adventures. If you have little ones, make sure your water adventure is appropriate for all ages. Take plenty of sunscreen and bring a sweater.
Paddleboarding has become increasingly popular on the island. Ask around if that sounds like your kind of exercise.
TIME TO DINE
Hilton Head Island has a remarkable number of award-winning restaurants. We’ve already mentioned eat!, but there are other Food Network chefs in the area. One Hot Mama’s is a casual restaurant owned by chef Orchid Palmeier, a finalist on last season’s “Next Food Network Star.” And just down the road is Savannah, and Paula Deen’s “The Lady and Sons,” an experience in itself. Note: since the debacle with the Food Network, the restaurant is busier than ever!
This time of year, oyster roasts are plentiful, so ask about when and where you can enjoy this seasonal feast.
Also to be considered is Vine, an island hotspot that’s drawing great buzz. Currently Number 2 on Trip Advisor, reviewers praise the large wine-by-the-glass selection and the innovative cuisine. Be forewarned. Reservations will be needed up to four weeks in advance, so plan accordingly. Small, dark, intimate and quite the thing.
The Sea Grass Grille is an excellent choice for divided families (he likes steak; she prefers seafood). The meat-eater will be thrilled with a filet mignon topped with gorgonzola butter, while the grouper piccata guarantees a luscious meal. Expect a Lowcountry beach house theme, in a vacation casual atmosphere with a touch of elegance.
If Southwestern cuisine is what you crave, Santa Fe Café has a rooftop cantina where you can dine under the stars (heaters provided in winter). Guitar music is often provided.
Now, if all of the above sounds great, but you’re searching for something really different, take a look at Roast Fish and Cornbread where the atmosphere is extremely casual and the chef draws on his Gullah heritage to create Lowcountry dishes that are authentic. As casual as it is, the food includes organic beer and wine, and organic greens. Chef David’s signature dish is a whole roasted flounder, served with a savory mango, onion and mushroom chutney, collard greens and sweet potato cornbread.
Whatever you choose, the night will end with a satisfied palate and anticipation for tomorrow’s shopping adventure.
Fortify yourself for the day ahead. If you head out for breakfast, the Palmetto Bay Sunrise Café is a hands-down favorite with the locals and visitors in the know. You can opt for the Blue Plate special or choose one of their benedict dishes (we suggest crab), or perhaps a delicious strata.
Another option is Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery and Café where you can order Signe's signature deep dish blackberry French toast among other, more traditional fare.
Visitors often wonder about the Gullah traditions talked about in the Lowcountry. While you're here, take the time for a delightful and educational tour and learn about the people and customs that make up the Gullah heritage.
Contact Gullah Heritage Trail Tours and discover this enduring West African based system of traditions, customs, arts and beliefs. You'll be taken through historic places and learn from a fourth generation Gullah Native. Along the way, you'll pick up a bit of the memlodic language -- based on English, Creole and African-based languages -- all surrounded by the subtropical landscape of Hilton Head Island.
OK, we promised you insider trading here and we won’t disappoint. We have it on good authority that these are just a few of the stores worth your time and money.
Let’s begin with The Porcupine, which carries clothing, shoes, jewelry and handbags. Check out their website for a list of designers. It’s all fabulous, but I’m drawn to the jewelry most. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and run into a sale during your visit. One insider told us that her friend from Chicago was amazed that such a collection could be found in one location. Pricey, but top quality.
In the same shopping center you’ll find Patricia’s, another shop worth a visit. You’ll find unique apparel in all sizes, jewelry and accessories, including scarves, belts, handbags, jewelry, shoes and more. We’ve been told that Patricia attends specialty clothing, jewelry and accessory shows in both New York and LA to bring the newest fashion looks to the store. Formally a plus-sized woman, Patricia understands the clothing concerns of the generous woman and brings a sense of style to all of her fashions.
Don’t forget Taffeta’s, described in yesterday’s suggestions. If you didn’t stop by yesterday, make sure to do so today. It’s that good. The Back Door is another strong option for women’s clothing, And finally, Palmettoes is quite popular with locals and sells men’s and women’s fashions for “fun-loving” folks.
OK, shoppers don’t live by clothing alone, so plan to stop in at Loggerheads, which is filled with handcrafted items from all over (including third-world countries). There’s something impressive about a website that starts, not by touting its wares, but rather, explaining the plight of loggerhead turtles that lay eggs on Hilton Head each year. You’ll find turtles in every shape, but you’ll also find clothing, wall art and lots of perfect gifts for all ages. There’s also a plug for the Coastal Discovery Museum and an application to adopt your very own turtle nest for safekeeping.
One of the oldest art galleries on the island is the Red Piano Gallery, which features art by a number of well-known painters.
If you’re seeking accessories for the home, J. Banks Design is appealing, with items from around the world. Check out the high quality, custom-embroidered bed linens, the hand-painted dishes and map-inspired artwork, plus carvings, pillows, antiques, and furniture.
Time for a quick bite before you leave (or go back and reserve another night)?
One relative newcomer to the island says that the meatloaf sandwich at the Back Yard restaurant is “to die for.” Another suggests the Crab Shack for an authentic seafood experience. Or, stop by one of yesterday’s suggestions for a perfect finish or continuation – to your very special road trip.
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