Hilton Head Island: A Guide for Non-Golfers

The first time I visited Hilton Head Island, the lush landscapes surprised me. With fertile salt marshes, forests of moss-draped oaks, pine and magnolia trees and networks of lagoons and creeks, it’s no wonder the island is considered one of the prettiest golf destinations in the country. And with 30 championship golf courses — 24 of which are public — it certainly lives up to its reputation. Seven of the area’s courses have been ranked among the nation’s top 100 in key golf publications.

But even though I’m a frequent visitor, I don’t play golf. Fortunately, the island offers more than 300 tennis courts, eight marinas and just about every activity imaginable: biking, kayaking, sailing, surfing, scuba diving, water skiing, fishing, horseback riding and dolphin-watching, plus historic tours and even hayrides. In short, you’ll find something for everyone.

Biking Along the Island

I love to bike, so I when I visit Hilton Head Island, I usually start there. Since the Gulf Stream warms the island year-round, the average daily temperature is a mild 70°F — ideal for bike riding.

Rated a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Community by the American League of Bicyclists, the island boasts 60 miles of trails. Plus, with fewer than 40,000 permanent residents and only 2.5 million visitors a year, the bike paths aren’t crowded. I’m able to get around easily, even to the beaches.

Quick Tip:

There are plenty of spots where you can rent bikes, including tandems (if, say, you’re traveling with little kids).

Active Adventure Galore

I’m a big fan of zip lining and elevated obstacle courses, not only for the adrenaline rush, but also for the incredible views. I chose Zipline Hilton Head, which features eight ziplines with heights up to 75 feet. The backdrop of boats, oak trees and marshes wasn’t bad, either.

I also really enjoyed the aerial adventure — navigating swinging bridges, climbing over military-style walls and crossing over netted areas. Each section is broken down by age and activity level, so you can easily gauge whether you want to keep it simple (like I did) or challenge yourself.

Getting on the Water

You can’t vacation on an island without getting in the water, and kayak tours are one of my favorite ways to do just that. The voyages led by Outside Hilton Head include two-hour excursions (the most popular with families, and what we chose) or longer trips.

We kayaked out through the tide and saltmarshes and came across plenty of bird and aquatic life, including bottlenose dolphins. Along the way, our guide explained that it’s possible to encounter heron, ibis, bald eagles, sea turtles, red fish, oysters, sea pickles, live oaks, Spanish moss, osprey, mink, and pelicans. We saw tons of birds (including the bald eagle), and it was nice to hear the guide explain how the wildlife coexisted within the overall ecosystem.

Quick Tip:

The company also does dolphin tours, stand-up paddle board programs and fishing trips.

Spa Time

All that activity calls for some relaxing downtime — preferably at a spa. And Hilton Head Island is home to one of my favorites, Indigo Spa. Indigo has a soothing ambience and intimate charm and offers customized treatments. If you’re sore, for instance, choose a massage with arnica oil. In need of relaxation? Opt for lavender oil.

I especially love the hot stone treatment. The massage combines long strokes with some deep pressure, and the stones are exactly the right temperature (at other spas, I often find them to be too hot). It is heaven — and the  perfect  way to end an active day on Hilton Head Island.


Judy K. is a travel writer living in New York.