From horseback riding along scenic trails to savoring Southern coastal cooking, here’s how one travel enthusiast enjoyed the unique cultural and natural wonders of Hilton Head Island.
I arrive on the island for my Hilton Head getaway, and as I always do on my first trip to a new place, I turn to food for inspiration, not simply to satisfy my palate, but to ignite my imagination. Connecting with any destination for me is as simple as asking a local, “What’s the best …?” It doesn’t take long to uncover the intoxicating passion of its people and the finest of what it offers.
Upon a resident’s recommendation, I find myself in Poseidon, a restaurant with a sunset view of Broad Creek, which I soon learn to be the island’s heartbeat, often filled with kayakers and sailing vessels. I dive into my order of perloo, South Carolina’s answer to jambalaya, and a regional classic — and the flavorful recipe is just the first of many treasures I discover during my visit.
The next morning leads me to Sea Pines Resort, a 5,200-acre vacation villa and residential community occupying the southern portion of the island. I head first to the resort’s picturesque Harbour Town Yacht Basin and the iconic candy-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse. From the top, I take in sweeping views of fishers and boaters on Calibogue Sound, and beyond that, wild and largely undeveloped Daufuskie Island.
I continue my resort exploration with a guided trail ride at Lawton Stables. The gentle horses provide a great way to experience the island and the 600-plus acres of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. I stop at the free petting area that houses donkeys, alpacas, and pot-bellied pigs.
In the afternoon, I step back in time at Stoney-Baynard Ruins, the remains of a grand antebellum estate. Captain Jack Stoney, a wealthy Irishman, built the house around 1790 and, according to legend, lost it in a poker game to cotton planter William Baynard in 1840 (hence the name). The property was taken over and used as a Union Army headquarters during the Civil War. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and helpful signage provides insight into the daily lives of landowners and slaves.
I finally arrive at Sea Pines’s South Beach Marina Village on the southernmost tip of the island. It’s chock-full of activities, shopping, and dining to keep the entire family entertained. It’s also home to the famed Salty Dog establishments, named for the hero of a local legend — a dog that swam for three days to get his owner to shore after a mid-Atlantic shipwreck (so the story goes). I visit the Salty Dog T-Shirt Factory and meet the decades-old pair of talking parrots, Roscoe and Ernest. Then I board a 63-foot catamaran for the 21-and-over Salty Dog Happy Hour Cruise, and head toward the open water of Calibogue Sound.
Out and About
The following day, I embark on a different Hilton Head water experience. I go to Shelter Cove Marina and find Outside Hilton Head, an adventure outfitter that offers a variety of outdoor tours and programs. I opt for the popular two-hour kayak tour and follow beautiful Broad Creek, which flows from Calibogue Sound and extends 6 miles into the island. Our guide leads us through marshes and creeks for views of herons, ospreys, eagles, oystercatchers, and more.
From a gentle morning to a Low Country high, it’s time to fly at ZipLine Hilton Head. My two-hour canopy eco-adventure takes me through live oaks and pines as I attempt to keep my eyes open and enjoy the sight of the marshes. I soar along eight zip lines, navigate swaying bridges, and climb an aerial staircase that leads to a side-by-side 900-foot-long final run. It’s a wild ride and a must-do for thrill-seekers.
Still on an adrenaline high, tonight I enjoy one of the stars of the island, Ruby Lee’s. Visitors come to the original (and tiny) Ruby Lee’s, and to the new, larger Ruby Lee’s South, for two things: the sultry blues and jazz, and the down-home Southern coastal cooking. In both spots, owner and Hilton Head native Tim Singleton proudly serves up his grandmother’s family recipes for soul food, including fried okra and oxtail stew with collard greens. The spacious new location pays homage to the rowdy juke joints of the South with nightly live music and dancing.
I’m told that a bicycle ride is a prime way to get to know some of the island’s smaller communities. Year-round, residents and vacationers alike set out on two wheels along the more than 50 miles of multiuse leisure paths. There are kiosks with detailed maps, as well as points for beach access. The hard-packed sand makes for easy pedaling, and I revel in the sheer joy of beach cruising.
After an invigorating morning, I set out to learn more about the island’s long and storied past. I visit Mitchelville, the first self-governed freedman’s town in the United States. Placards provide information about the Gullah, descendants of enslaved Africans, who, for centuries, have formed a tightly knit community, protecting and preserving the linguistic and cultural heritage of their ancestors. The Gullah are intensely proud of their African ancestry, and through music, food, stories, and worship, they maintain centuries-old customs and an African-influenced dialect.
Close by is the Coastal Discovery Museum — a Smithsonian affiliate, and perhaps the best of the Low Country all in one location. From the butterfly habitat to the historical buildings, to trails, gardens, and exhibits, it’s a beautiful compilation of the Old South and the coast. Two hours here goes by quickly, and I could happily spend two more.
Before I leave this barrier island, there’s a bit more exploration to be done. I join the Dolphin Eco Tour from Outside Hilton Head. This 90-minute powerboat excursion is led by an interpretive naturalist captain who shares information and tells stories about the area. Navigating through open waterways and remote salt marsh grids, the small boat brings us face-to-face with an active population of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. There’s no better way to end my stay here.
Where to Stay: