As the weather warms, you can feel the excitement in the air as the countdown to vacation begins. Every year my family takes our annual trip to our favorite place- Hilton Head Island, SC. What started as a honeymoon trip has now become a family tradition.
As I planned this year’s trip, I considered all of the things I wish I had known back on my honeymoon. There are things we missed out on that are now impossible to do with young kids in tow. Also, we learn new things every year.
With that in mind, I wanted to create a list of list of things to do, places to try, and general recommendations for the first time visitor to Hilton Head Island, SC. As always, please comment if you have more ideas that I have missed. You may even see your suggestion show up later in this post!
1. Go to the Beach
This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but many first time visitors have questions about “how” to go to the beach when the majority of properties on Hilton Head are a few blocks away. The coastline of Hilton Head is not crowded with oceanfront high rises, so beach access is usually one of the first questions that come up.
All of the private resort communities (such as Palmetto Dunes, Sea Pines, and Shipyard) have private beach accesses. There are many hotels on the island that do have ocean front access as well. Palmetto Dunes and Sea Pines both offer free beach shuttle service throughout the summer, as do other resorts such as Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort and the Hilton Head Beach and Tennis Resort.
Hilton Head Island has multiple public beaches, but the parking situation and rules can change depending on the situation. Make sure to check the town website for descriptions of each public beach as well as parking rules. The public beach at Coligny is by far the busiest. You will find less crowds if you go to beaches further away from the main tourist spots. Additionally, the less crowded beaches are better suited for wildlife observation and shell collecting.
Sea Pines has a “Beach Club,” but parking at this location is very limited and usually only reserved for owners. The rules seem to change every summer, so check their website if you are worried about parking close to the beach. Also, if you book a rental direct through the Sea Pines website, they include Beach Club parking. Otherwise, the only other parking lot is a bit far to walk, but luckily there is a free shuttle service.
If you do not go to the beach very often, make sure to check out my top tips for making the beach experience as smooth as possible.
2. Play Golf
If you are a golf enthusiast then this island will not disappoint! Hilton Head has 24 championship golf courses designed by famous golf architects including Robert Trent Jones Sr., Pete Dye, and Jack Nicklaus. Voted one of the top 10 golf destinations in the world, Hilton Head also is a PGA TOUR event destination as well as the host of the annual RBC Heritage.
Hilton Head has many unique shopping areas that are fun to explore. Whether you are looking for high end boutiques, eclectic keepsakes, or just general souveniers, there is something for everyone.
Some of the main shopping areas are:
- Coligny Plaza Shopping Center – My family’s favorite shops are Black Market Minerals and the Shell Shop, but there are tons of little shops here and many popular restaurants including the famous Frosty Frog Cafe.
- Village at Wexford – This is a quaint shopping area with high end boutiques and various eateries including Java Burrito Co., Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse, British Open Pub, and the popular Jazz Corner
- Harbour Town Shops at Sea Pines – Harbour Town is located in Sea Pines and has multiple restaurants, a beautiful view of the marina, the lighthouse (which is also a museum), and many fun stores. Some of our personal favorites are the Cinnamon Bear Country Store and Harbour Town Christmas, but there are also many clothing boutiques and gift shops.
- Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina – Walk along the marina and enjoy multiple waterfront dining options including ELA’s on the Water, Bistro 17, Hilton Head Social Bakery, and interesting stores such as Neptune’s Niche, Tradewinds Trinkets and Treasures, and Christmas on the Harbour.
- Shelter Cove Towne Center – Once you are done exploring the harbour, head next door to Shelter Cove Towne Center for even more shops and dining.
- Tanger Outlets Hilton Head – these outlets are located before you cross bridge to the island. The outlets are split are separated into two sections on the highway, so if you want to visit both then you will have to drive from one to the other.
- South Beach Village – Located in the very back of Sea Pines, pick up a Salty Dog T-Shirt or explore the general store for fun finds after you grab ice cream, take a sunset boat tour, or grab dinner at the Salty Dog Cafe
4. Go for a Bike Ride
One of the other things Hilton Head is famous for is the miles and miles of bike paths. In fact, you can literally get around the entire island with just a bicycle. There are over 50 miles of bike paths and bike lanes on the island (which is amazing considering how small the island is). You can find the town’s bike map by clicking here.
5. Go Fishing…On the Ocean
There are multiple companies that provide fishing charters throughout the island, and you can do everything from deep sea fishing to catching sharks!
6. Salty Dog Happy Hour Cruise
The Salty Dog Happy Hour Cruise is a nightly adventure on the 63′ Catamaran called the Salty Dog. It features a full bar, food, and live entertainment.
7. Restaurants Abound
Hilton Head has many amazing restaurants. Some are fun and eclectic, others are fancy, and many are just laid back but have amazing views. Also, you can’t come to Hilton Head and not try the amazing fresh local seafood!
Here is a list of some favorites that are recommended by visitors again and again. There are so many eateries for every palette and occasion, it is impossible to list them all in this post.
- Hudson’s on the Dock
- ELA’s on the Water
- Old Oyster Factory
- Skull Creek Boathouse and/or Dockside
- Crazy Crab (we love the one at Jarvis Creek right when you get on the island)
- Salty Dog
- Frosty Frog Cafe
- The Jazz Corner
- Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana
- Java Burrito Company
- Wise Guys
- Ocean Lounge
- A Lowcountry Backyard
- Frankie Bones
- Palmetto Bay Sunrise Cafe
- Kenny B’s
8. Get ON the water
In addition to fishing charters, there are many different options for getting not just in the water, but ON the water. From sunset cruises to dolphin tours, private boat rentals to water sports, and kayaking to paddleboarding, Hilton Head is not lacking in options!
9. Check out Pool Bar Jim’s for a frozen treat
Pool Bar Jim’s is known for having the best frozen drinks on the island. He specializes in drinks for the adults but also makes yummy frozen treats for the kids too! He is currently located behind the Sea Crest, across from Coligny Plaza. Check out the Facebook page for more information.
10. Enjoy Harbourfest
Harbourfest is a nightly summer festival that is hosted by Palmetto Dunes at Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina. Live entertainment is provided each night by Shannon Tanner, and Cappy the Clown provides face painting, balloon animals, and more. On Thursday nights they perform a Jimmy Buffett tribute called Parrot Palooza. Also, every Tuesday night concludes with a a fireworks display.
11. Check out Shelter Cove Towne Center Events
Shelter Cove Towne Center hosts multiple events during the summer including outdoor movie nights, Friday night concerts, and more. Check out their events page to see what’s planned during your vacation.
12. Take the Kids on a Pirate Adventure
If you are looking for a way to get on the water and keep the little ones happy, then check out Pirates of Hilton Head. This excursion is themed all the way from the design of the ship to the face painting and dress up.
13. Spend some time at Coastal Discovery Museum
The Coastal Discovery Museum is more than just a museum. The grounds are beautiful and include a horse barn, historical buildings, trails, a boardwalk through the marsh, and a butterfly garden. They also provide multiple tours and events on both land and water.
14. Explore Pinckney Island National Island Refuge
If you are looking to encounter wildlife and natural low-country beauty, then this is the place for you. With over 14 miles of trails and 250 species of birds, you may also find white-tailed deer, alligator , red fox, and bobcats. Bring your camera since this is one of the best spots on the island for nature photography. You can find more information here.
15. Enjoy the Nightlife
There are plenty of fun places to hit up after the sun goes down. Some of the most popular options are listed below, but many restaurants on the island have live music at night during the summer as well.
- Tiki Hut Barefoot Beachfront Bar
- Poseidon’s Rooftop Bar
- Crave by Daniels
- The Boardroom
- Reilly’s Grill and Bar
- Hilton Head Brewing Company
- Comedy Magic Caberet
- The Jazz Corner
- Black Marlin Hurricane Bar
16. Take a Day Trip
Bluffton is a small town on the way to Hilton Head Island, and it is definitely worth a stop. The old town is located on the May River, and there are multiple historic sites you can visit. There are also some shops, local artisans, a weekly farmers market, and a ton of seafood restaurants. You can check out all that Bluffton has to offer on their tourism website.
Historic Savannah, GA is only a 45 minute drive from Hilton Head. While you can drive there, you can ditch the car and take a ferry instead. Vagabond Cruises offers a ferry service every Tuesday and Thursday with a 4 hour stop in Savannah. They even have a full bar on the return trip!
Beaufort, SC is another town that is only 45 minutes from Hilton Head. Beaufort is one of the few towns in the U.S. that has had the entire downtown designated as a historic district. This picturesque town is definitely worth a visit.
Daufuskie Island is a very interesting island that is only a few miles from Hilton Head but only accessible by a ferry. The island is home to many artisans as well as historic buildings, learning opportunities about Gullah culture, some dining options, and a handful of shops. The best way to explore the area by renting a golf cart when you arrive. The ferry ride is an hour long and can be booked through this website.
Charleston, SC is probably one of the most famous stops on the list, and it is also the furthest away (a 2 hour drive). If you do not get to this part of the country often, then a day trip to Charleston is definitely worth it. You may find an overnight trip may be a better option in order to really experience the town.
17. And Finally… Enjoy the sunrises and sunsets
There is nothing more breathtaking in Hilton Head than a glimpse of the sun going up or coming down, and you do not want to miss it. Set an alarm one morning and take a quiet stroll on the beach as the sun comes up. Time a dinner at a waterfront restaurant so it coincides with the sunset, or book a sunset dolphin cruise. Hilton Head is a special place with lush plant life, beautiful scenery, and water views, and it is even more spectacular under the glow of the setting or rising sun.
If you are a first time visitor you may find that this small barrier island actually has way more to do than you originally expected. Hopefully this list will make it easier to narrow down your itinerary. If you are like me, you will go from being a first timer to a repeat visitor after experiencing the beauty of Hilton Head Island, SC.
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