Arriving in Richmond from California one snowy January, I was thrilled when a new friend described Richmond’s springtime as “gob-smacking” in its beauty.
Seriously? I couldn’t wait. And happily, she hadn’t oversold the season.
Then came summer.
Think I’m about to whine? Nope.
I love RVA in the summer. Her skies open and saturate the world leaving everything green. Her humidity infuses moisture into my elephantine skin (go ahead and Google why those amazing animals have all those wrinkles in the first place!). And Richmond’s centrality to everything beaches? It’s unreal, people.
Despite this last part, some Richmonders get a little stuck when it comes to the family’s beach week. If you’ve been visiting the same beach year after year, give this quick exercise a try: Pretend you’re at a June party and a circulating waiter appears with beach-offerings on a silver tray. You hear him inquire “Beaches! Beaches! Which beach would you like to sample?”
As he glides your way, you think, Don’t mind if I do! Before choosing, you muse, “We love the Outer Banks, but maybe it’s time for something new!” Then from the gleaming tray, you select a barrier island located just off the South Carolina coast.
The waiter responds, “Hilton Head Island. Perfect! Your family will love it.”
Just an 8-hour drive from Richmond is a 5-star, world-famous island community featuring sublime beaches, fine dining, and incredible activities for the whole family.
The first question many of us might ponder before visiting Hilton Head Island: Can everyday-folk feel at home here? Translation: Is the place snooty? Put it this way. If high-end thousandaires, millionaires, and billionaires are splashing around the surf, Hilton Head might just be their home base. That said, I lived in my usual holey shorts and 7-year-old Keen sandals the entire time and never felt out of place. Everyone was friendly and helpful.
And I know what you’re wondering next – what does Paris Hilton’s family have to do with an island in South Carolina? Not a thing, thank goodness. Back in 1663, an English sea captain, William Hilton, was exploring the Carolina coast and happened upon this tiny island, just twelve miles long and four miles wide.
When Captain Hilton landed on the island, he encountered Native Americans from the Yemassee and Escamacus tribes, but historians believe that a number of tribes had called the island home for thousands of years.
Similar to the mystery surrounding Stonehenge in England and the large statues on Easter Island, Hilton Head Island has its own remains – the Sea Pines Shell Rings date back 4,000 years and measure 150 feet across and up to two feet in height. The shell rings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and are protected by law. (You can see the rings near the east entrance to the Sea Pines Forest Preserve – a gorgeous scenic wildlife habitat with walking trails.)
In the eighteenth century, enslaved West Africans were transported to the island to work some twenty plantations. After the Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the freed people remained in the Lowcountry and continued to honor their centuries-old culture and feed their families by shrimping and fishing. All over Hilton Head, you’ll see references to the Gullah people and their spirituality, language, cuisine, and art forms – including sweet grass baskets. As an aside, does anyone remember Nickelodeon’s children’s television show, Gullah Gullah Island, in the early 1990s? That was in celebration of this unique culture.
In 1956, the first bridge connecting the island to the South Carolina mainland brought modern tourism to Hilton Head. In 2014, the bridge was rechristened the Charlie Simmons, Sr. Memorial Bridge in honor of the contemporary figure – nicknamed Mr. Transportation – who brought the first ferry to the island in the 1930s.
In the twenty-first century, Hilton Head Island has become one of the most prestigious islands on the planet for world-class golf and sunny vacations. In 2017, it was voted “Top Island in the U.S.” by Conde Nast Travel and “number one island in the Continental United States” by Travel + Leisure magazine.
Good to Know from the Get-go!
If lounging on a beach with a good book while your kids frolic in the sun says vacation to you, you’re in luck, given the island’s stunning, hard-packed, super-wide beaches. And for those who like to chase tennis and/or golf balls? You’ll find a whopping 324 tennis courts, twenty-four championship golf courses on the island itself (and many more on the nearby mainland), along with more than fifty miles of paved walkways and nature trails.
The island is absolutely swimming in anything you could want to do on – or in – the water. The list of water activities is astounding. Can you see dolphins in the wild, take surfing lessons, or ride a jet ski? Yes, yes, and absolutely. What about windsurfing? Waterskiing? Or partying with pirates? It’s all here. Just Google your activity of choice.
Beyond the beach, lots of Hilton Head Island fun is nestled inside various gated communities. The people who man the gates are not kidding around. If you’re staying in a resort, you’ll receive a pass from the resort for your windshield. If you’re just visiting a gated community, however, it will cost you in the neighborhood of six to ten dollars per vehicle to enter, depending on the time of year and resort. Keep many dollar bills with you. If you need to get into another gated community, it’s cash or buh-bye – and, no, they don’t take credit cards.
The temps in this part of South Carolina range from sublime to perfect. We visited the island in early December and marveled at the toasty 75-degree days. Fall temperatures range from low eighties in September to sixties in December. October and November are usually in the seventies. The coldest months are December through February, lingering around mid-40s to the mid-60s. (And every so often the island does get snow.) In early March, the island temps begin inching back into a heavenly weather range of seventy to the high eighties. Always check weather reports before you travel, and then be prepared to adapt to whatever comes your way because weather is extremely unpredictable. Just ask Andrew Freiden!
Those warmer year-round temps mean alligators, jellyfish, and mosquitoes. Hilton Head is home to all three. Alligators prefer brackish water that’s a blend of salt and fresh waters, and prefer to hide from the likes of you and me. If you see a golf course pond or a canal, assume that an alligator might be present. While alligators avoid full-sized adults, they will go after animals and small children.
Which brings us to jellyfish. They sting no matter a person’s age or size. From late June into mid-August, cannonball jellies are blown by the wind into the South Carolina waters. Cannonballs sting, but they don’t produce a truly dangerous sting like the beautiful, but no-fun Portuguese man ‘o war that occasionally are present in the Carolina waters. Teach kids not to touch jellies that look dead on the beach. They might still have the ability to sting. It’s not a bad idea to stash a bottle of vinegar in your beach bag when visiting a beach that might have jellies. If you need to use it, rinse the stung area for thirty seconds with vinegar and then soak in hot water for twenty minutes or longer if possible.
While vacationing in Hilton Head, always talk to the lifeguard before entering the water. If the lifeguards see a man ‘o war, they’ll alert swimmers.
Summer and fall are usually the bug seasons. Flooding or heavy rains will increase the bug population, and locals joke that after Hurricane Matthew, mosquitoes were the size of hummingbirds. Ha, ha – right? Both mosquitoes and no-see-ums can’t fly high so choosing a hotel room on a higher floor is a smart strategy.
Best Beaches for Families
All of the beaches at Hilton Head Island are awesome for families, but two top the list. The first beach is a hidden gem that the locals don’t talk about much – Driessen Beach. Driessen has a small playground, honor-parking that asks for fifty cents an hour, picnic tables and grills, outdoor showers, bathrooms, and mild waves. It’s located at the end of Bradley Beach Road, a quiet side road that connects to the William Hilton Parkway. The second best family beach is the Islanders Beach Park that has a great playground, clean bathrooms, shaded picnic pavilions, grills, and outdoor showers.
Biking on Hilton Head is practically required. About a dozen bike rental companies are open year round to keep you and the kids pedaling. (The resorts also keep their own stable of rental bikes.) And because you’ll find miles of hard-packed beach sand, you can ride bikes (at low tide) right along the edge of the ocean. When you’re ready to leave the beach, however, miles of bike and walking paths crisscross the island.
Hanging Your Beach Hat
Hilton Head Island is loaded with family accommodations including value hotels, 4- and 5-star resorts, and both small cottages and colossal properties.
Doing the island on a budget? My family and I stayed in the Hampton Inn Hilton Head for two nights. I love to rave about this 3-star chain that delivers clean rooms, a free breakfast, free parking, and free Wi-Fi. Plus the room is cleaned each day (and not by me!).
True, the breakfast, parking, and so on isn’t technically free because the perks are rolled into your room rate. But first, the rate won’t give you sticker shock at the end of your visit and, second, the Hampton’s resort fee is my favorite kind: zero.
The Hampton Inn keeps its prices low by not being on the beach. The good news is that a drive to the beach might take five minutes (longer if you hit red lights). Also? Kroger is just down the street with those lovely low gas prices and food that you can stash in your Hampton Inn fridge or nuke in your Hampton Inn microwave.
RV there yet? While tent camping hasn’t yet made it to the island, both the Hilton Head Island Motorcoach Resort (welcoming only class A, B, and C motorhomes) and the Hilton Head Island Harbor RV Resort and Marina (welcoming fifth wheels, hybrid campers, and more) receive 5-star raves from guests.
Been a stressful year? Show me the beach resorts. For those wanting every amenity, you’ll have your choice of several 4- and 5-star resorts. During our trip, we also stayed at the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort that sits right on a gorgeous beach (with no public access, meaning there’s tons of room for guests) and features two restaurants, a full-service spa, two pools, hot tubs, and a wonderful location with easy access to everything on Hilton Head Island. Every room has a beach view, and the 530-square-foot room has a small kitchen stocked with a microwave, toaster, flatware, and so on. (Again, stuffing Kroger items into your Omni fridge saves bucks.) Other niceties: The spa staff are an unusually dedicated group who seem to love their jobs. And the Omni stay provides an evening turn-down, along with a daily maid service.
Traveling with tiny humans? That’s hard enough without also lugging their gear. There are several rental spots that offer drop-off and pick-up baby items. Check babysawayhhi.com and hiltonheadbabyrental.com.
Taste of the Town
Budget-travel eating (in my travel mom book of tricks) generally means shopping at Kroger or Walmart, and maybe hitting a fast-casual restaurant for dinner. When we’re eating fancy at a destination, we tend to eat lunch out to save on dinner prices.
The French Bakery We had a wonderful (but pricey) lunch at The French Bakery that sits in the lovely outdoor Shelter Cove Towne Centre. The French Bakery is gorgeous: beautiful furnishings, indoor/outdoor seating, and display cases filled with loaves of bread and impressive desserts. Breakfast is crepes, omelets, and really good coffee. Lunch is an array of sandwiches, large salads, and desserts. They open early and close in the late afternoon.
Java Burrito Company Ask a local where to eat and he’ll point you to the Java Burrito Company, a Mexican grill and specialty coffee bar. This fun and casual spot serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Liquid libations include champagne, wine, beer, margaritas –
Tired of Beachin’ It? 7 Things for Families
Children’s Museum The Sandbox Children’s Museum is a sweet interactive experience that blends educational moments together with sheer fun. For infant to age eight.
Coastal Discovery Museum This beautiful 68-acre property has a variety of learning opportunities, including natural history and animal programs. Kids will love visiting the large butterfly habitat that’s home (seasonally) to thirteen species of butterflies in the Lowcountry. You’ll find salt marsh boardwalks, gardens, trails, and more.
Harbour Town at Sea Pines Don’t miss this stunning, movie-worthy spot on Hilton Head Island. You can stay in one of the rental homes in the gated community, or just visit. At Harbour Town, you’ll encounter an awesome playground for the kids, the iconic candy-striped lighthouse structure (just 114 steps up), the upscale, waterfront Quarterdeck restaurant, and casual eating spots for breakfast, lunch, and the inevitable ice cream cravings.
You can also see local sensation Gregg Russell perform under the old liberty tree in Harbour Town. Russell teaches songs and gets everyone singing, and his show is different every night. Check his spring, summer, and holiday schedules at greggrussell.com.
Horseback Riding My kids had never ridden a horse, and as a check-box parent, I was thrilled with the highly rated riding experience at Lawton Stables, also located in Sea Pines. We signed up for a trail ride, and our guide, Miranda, expertly toured us across a street (where the cars politely waited) and through beautiful island spots. At one point Miranda asked, “Do you see the gator?” And “Look! A heron!” Our horses were gentle giants.
Not only do I highly recommend this trail ride, but I also recommend meeting the onsite menagerie of animals (a free activity). The staff humanely cares for the goats, miniature cows and donkeys, potbellied pigs, chickens, a gorgeous Clydesdale, and more. You and the kids can even purchase food to feed these sweethearts.
Allow some time to visit the stable’s site to learn more about the staffs’ dedication to creating a wonderful life for their animal family. And please don’t make the mistake I did and almost miss your horseback riding time. Remember those dollar bills to gain entrance at the gate.
Baynard Ruins Park This beautiful 6-acre ruins-park is tucked into the Sea Pines gated community and features the old Baynard plantation – built in 1793 – with its main house and enslaved peoples’ quarters. The family abandoned the home when it was raided during the Civil War by Union forces who turned it into their headquarters. You’ll find a host of nice walking trails with plaques that explain the story.
Playground The Gregg Russell Harbour Town Playground in Sea Pines is a must and is regarded as one of the best playgrounds on the island. If the kids love to climb, slide, and swing, this spot is for them. Parents of littles will love that the fun stuff is fenced and semi-shaded. Just outside the fenced area, you’ll find a water fountain, picnic tables, and bathrooms.
Skatepark The Bristol Skatepark is a free, spotlessly clean, and friendly facility for all abilities. Pads are required. It’s fun to watch, even if your kids aren’t the daredevil type. This is located at 4 Helmsman Way.
Photo: provided by Discover South Carolina