This lovely island just off the South Carolina mainland is as renowned for its hospitality toward visitors as it is for its Lowcountry cuisine and distinctive Gullah culture, the latter originating from the descendants of former slaves who migrated here after the Civil War.
One visitor, however, got a less than warm welcome when he arrived last fall.
On Oct. 8, Hurricane Matthew blew onto the island bringing torrential rain and winds of nearly 100 mph. When he skipped town a day later, he left behind damages still being assessed but projected to be in the millions, and one paradise that, in a nod to poet John Milton, needed to be regained.
The good news is that paradise definitely has been regained.
Today, a little more than four months since Matthew’s departure, the island, only 12 miles long and five miles wide, despite losing some of its lush tree cover, is once again its sun-dappled, palmetto-fringed, ocean breeze-kissed self.
“Matthew was the first hurricane we’ve had in 126 years, and thanks to amazing planning and rapid clean-up efforts, everything was pretty much back to normal very quickly,” says Charlie Clark, vice-president of communications for the Hilton Head/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
“Many of our hotels opened the weekend after the storm with weddings and groups,” she says. “Restaurants also opened the week following the storm, and we hosted one of the island’s largest outdoor events (the classic car show Concours d’Elegance) just three weeks later.
“In fact, we showed record-breaking visitor numbers last November and December over those of the previous year,” Clark says.
Planning for perfection
Upon arriving in Hilton Head, visitors are pleasantly surprised to discover an orderly, well-laid-out community conspicuously lacking in fast-food outlets and convenience stores. Bike paths criss-cross the island, through lush manicured grounds shaded by towering pines, and 12 miles of Atlantic waters wash up on blindingly white sand dunes.
All of this perfection is no accident. Hilton Head’s beginning as a world-class resort dates to 1956, when Charles Fraser, a real estate developer and visionary, began sculpting Sea Pines Plantation from a swampy tract on the island’s southern tip. Fraser also was something not usually associated with developers, however visionary: a committed environmentalist.
When he discovered that original plans for his Harbour Town Marina meant displacing an ancient oak, he altered the configuration of the marina to preserve the 1,000-year-old tree. Today, the Liberty Oak is as symbolic of Harbour Town as the much-photographed red and white candy cane-striped lighthouse overlooking Calibogue Sound.
Once Fraser put Hilton Head on travelers’ maps, others quickly followed, and today Marriott, Hilton, Westin, Disney and other industry heavy hitters all have a presence here. Seventy percent of the island’s homes and accommodations are in gated communities with charming names, such as Palmetto Hall Plantation and Port Royal Plantation.
But the 5,000-acre Sea Pines Resort remains the granddaddy of them all. It’s home to the RBC Heritage Classic Golf Tournament, held every April at Harbour Town Golf Links, where the 18th hole has to be one of the most picturesque to be found anywhere. The Heritage Classic, a stop on the PGA Tour, might be the most prestigious, but with 23 golf courses on the island, Hilton Head has something for every skill level.
I’m not a golfer, but I do love to ride, and the one-hour trail ride leaving from Lawton Stables at Sea Pines was an enjoyable way to see some of the island’s natural habitat.
Whiskey proved the perfect mount — a tad frisky, but responsive to my commands. Together, we wended our way through groves of palmettos, pines and oaks hung with Spanish moss, and circled peaceful lagoons. At one lagoon, our trail guide pointed out an alligator whose snout bobbed just above the surface. I saw him before he sank under the water, but I was glad that Whiskey appeared not to have.
Unfortunately, the Harbour Town Lighthouse was closed for repair during my visit (it has since reopened), so I wasn’t able to climb the 114 steps for a bird’s-eye view of the island, but I did spend time in the marina village overlooking the harbor crammed with pleasure craft.
I started the morning with coffee and sinfully caloric pastries at the Harbour Town Bakery & Café; browsed the boutiques, art galleries and craft shops, and even saw dolphins (the island and waters around it are home to a vast array of wildlife, including dolphins, gators, loggerhead turtles, manatees, deer and many species of birds).
Almost as prolific as the wildlife are the restaurants: 250 on this small island, offering everything from burgers and fish tacos to Lowcountry and haute cuisine. For a contrast, try lunch or Sunday brunch at Skull Creek Boathouse and dinner at the Lucky Rooster.
The Boathouse is quintessentially Lowcountry, live oak shabby chic. Your servers might be dressed like L’il Abner and Daisy Mae, but the seafood and the sunset are first-rate.
Indoor dining is available (and advisable during the sultry summer months); the rest of the year — if you want local color — opt for an outside table near the water, but don’t forget the mosquito repellent.
The Lucky Rooster is short on local color (it’s in a small upscale shopping area), but the food and service are top-notch. Described as an American bistro with Southern soul, it specializes in comfort food taken to a new level. Among chef Clayton Rollison’s signature dishes are a half chicken — fried or roasted — with beer and bacon collard greens, warm potato salad and a hot honey dipping sauce, and pilau, a traditional southern rice dish usually made with chicken and sausage.
Rollison’s version substitutes blackened catfish, wild-caught shrimp and crisp oysters for chicken and is paired with rice grits.
A helpful hint: the strict preservation code, which prevents the encroachment of hotel and restaurant chains, also has restrictions on the type of signs on the island (no billboards or even large direction signs), so finding a destination can be a challenge. If you’re not an island regular and are going somewhere after dark, better make a practice drive during daylight to scout out your destination.
Whether your idea of a perfect vacation involves golfing, beachcombing, biking, horseback riding, gallery-hopping, spa treatments or adventurous dining, Hilton Head will more than fill the bill.
My favorite memory might just be that of evenings spent watching the sunset from the terrace of the Ocean Club at Sea Pines. Kicking back with a piña colada and watching a kaleidoscope of colors paint the sky, I reflected on the fact that post-Matthew, Hilton Head is one paradise that, thankfully, has not been lost.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.