Hilton Head, South Carolina
Whether your goal for a beach vacation is to take a few strokes off of your golf game, improve that slicing backhand on the tennis court, or just relax by the shore, Hilton Head Island has it all. One of the largest islands on the East Coast, Hilton Head is perfect for families and individuals who are looking for a large resort area with an array of activities to enjoy.
The action in Hilton Head peaks in the southern part of the island and gradually mellows as you move north. Visitors are welcome to bike on the beach and countless trails, golf at more than 30 courses, and play on any of 300 tennis courts. And there's plenty for the kids to do, including rollerblading, kayaking and swimming. There is hardly a dull moment to be had in Hilton Head.
Hilton Head is divided into large quadrants of developed communities called "plantations." An array of hotel and housing developments cover these areas and offer all of the services you could possibly need, including arranged babysitting and marvelous dining. Despite 12 miles of clean, well-maintained beaches, only four small points allow the general public to enter, which creates some parking difficulty. However, shuttles abound, and once on the beach you can wander freely.
Even with so much to offer year-round, people continue to vacation at this semi-tropical beach destination en masse in July and August, the hottest times of the year. Consider the "secret seasons," April through May and September through October, when the weather turns more temperate and better values can be found.
The Main Street Inn
European elegance and Southern charm greet visitors at this leisurely, exquisite inn. Stride through the arched breezeway and then browse the refined tea room, library and dining areas. A stroll in the garden or a dip in the pool are perfect evening activities. There are more than 30 rooms, all of which are decorated in period furnishings from France with goose-down pillows, pine floors and high ceilings. A fabulous European-style buffet breakfast and afternoon tea are served in the garden, one of the lounges, or privately in your guestroom. European spa treatments are also available.
Best Luxurious Hotel
The Westin Resort Hilton Head Island
Located on the beach in the Port Royal Plantation, the Westin is the belle of Hilton Head. In the lobby, an aura of gentile Southern hospitality shines amid oriental porcelains, radiant chandeliers and varnished wood. The Westin's 412 large guestrooms, including 30 suites, all have a private balcony with either an ocean or island view. Try for room 1005 - the only one with an extended outdoor porch at no extra charge. The grounds offer 3 pools (one indoor), a pond and a wooden deck ideal for people watching, sunbathing or getting a massage. Day and nighttime activities are available for children age four to 16.
Best Family Hotel
The Hilton Oceanfront Resort Hilton Head Island
When traveling with a family, space matters. And you'll get just that at the Hilton, which boasts the largest guestrooms on the island. Each of the 324 rooms (including 32 suites) includes a mini-kitchen and a private balcony with at least a partial view of the beach. Suites include a pullout sofa and a separate bedroom with king-size bed, while standard rooms have two queen-size beds. The U-shaped hotel has a semi-tropical feel and offers an adults-only pool, a family pool, whirlpools, fitness center, and day and evening activities for kids. Located within the Palmetto Dunes Plantation and near Disney's resort at the Shelter Cove Harbor.
Best Budget Accommodation
Located mid-island, the Fairfield Inn does not have private beach access, so guests must deal with the crowds at public access sites. The trade off? The Inn is centrally located amid many of the island's other attractions. This thrifty, clean Marriott property offers down-to-earth prices and a clearly affordable alternative to the hotels on Hilton Head's plantations. There are 119 rooms, including 14 two-room executive suites. Rooms have either king-size or double beds. There is an outdoor pool, 24-hour coffee service, free continental breakfast and a pleasant staff.
Best Beach Pad/Tiki Bar
Holiday Inn Oceanfront
The Holiday Inn Oceanfront is the place for socialites on the island. Located on populated Coligney Beach, the hotel includes a pool overlooking the ocean and the very popular Tiki Hut Beach Bar, where a melting pot of thirsty beach lovers gather. Some families occupy the 202 rooms, but the younger crowd dominates. The Tiki Hut Beach Bar opens for business at 11 a.m. and closes around midnight. And with plenty of other restaurants in the vicinity, you need not ever worry about driving.
Best Hotel Guest Services
Crowne Plaza Resort
Located within the Shipyard Plantation, the Crowne Plaza is known for its exceptional service. The 340-room resort prides itself on full concierge services. Lagoons and pools lead to a large outdoor pavilion facing the ocean that is quite popular for weddings and weekly entertainment during the summer. It has all the amenities of a full-service hotel, but only about 20 of the 340 rooms have ocean views.
Food & Drink
Best Waterfront Atmosphere
The Old Fort Pub
Sunsets at the romantic Old Fort Pub are magical. Whether dining at a table in front of the large windows or enjoying a cocktail on the rooftop walk, intimacy and peace abound here. Try the Skull Creek Bouillabaisse with fresh seafood in a shallot tomato saffron broth, or the Chocolate Mocha Pumpkin Torte with cranberry whiskey sauce. Romance pervades in the evening with classical music. Take time to chat with Pierce Lowry, the energetic owner who checks on diners. After dining, walk off your meal in the adjoining remains of a Civil War gun battery called Fort Mitchell. Advance reservations are highly recommended.
Best Local Seafood
Charlie's L'Etoile Verte
You can get shrimp and oysters anywhere on Hilton Head, but for the finest seafood, Charlie's is unforgettable. An unpretentious French restaurant, Charlie's features about 10 fresh fish dishes each evening. The open kitchen produces marvels such as Tilapia en papilliote, spinach and wild mushrooms and poached sea scallops in lemon caper beurre blanc. The Cobb Salad is a favorite for lunch. Veal, beef and lamb are also featured on the menu. And Charlie's wait staff measures their tenure in decades, not seasons. Customers must walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom (check out the distinctive light switch in the men's room - it's been stolen more than once).
Best Family Restaurant
Hudson's Seafood House
Web site: www.hudsonsonthedocks.com
With its own fishing fleet, Hudson's was one of the first family seafood restaurants on the island. Overlooking the intercoastal waterway on Skull Creek, Hudson's has a let's-get-messy attitude unparalleled by any other seafood restaurant in Hilton Head. Because reservations are not accepted, the line outside can be long, but pass time at the oyster bar with a tasty dozen. Most of the food is fried, but there are some steamed dishes including the Shrimp "Pinkie" that combines shell-on shrimp with corn and sausage.
Best Sunday Brunch on the Water
Sunset Grille is the best Sunday brunch spot as well as the restaurant with the strangest location: in a trailer park, atop a laundry mat, next to a marina. Chef Brad Blake prepares affordable delicacies for customers seated in the small, comfortable dining room with large windows overlooking the water. For brunch, try the Sunset Benedict with smoked salmon, fresh saut��ed spinach, poached eggs and charon sauce over gourmet grit cakes with fresh fruit and breakfast potatoes. If a trip to the Tiki Hut Beach Bar the previous evening has you hurting, try Hugh's Hangover from Hell Sandwich - a gourmet grilled cheese with mozzarella and American cheeses, tomato, onion and bacon.
Best Places for a Glass of Wine
Web site: www.cqsrestaurant.com
Choosing a favorite wine can be tough. The same is true when choosing the best place to enjoy a wide selection of wine in Hilton Head. CQ's wins, hands-down, for having one of the best classic bar atmospheres on the island.
Best Kid Stuff
Kayak and Dolphin Nature Tours
These expert-guided tours through creeks and the Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge teach kids how to kayak and introduce them to underwater creatures. Guides are experienced paddlers and interpretive naturalists that educate children on the dolphins, egrets and pelicans found in the area. These tours depart from a variety of locations throughout the island. There are two- and three-day programs for kids and a teen Kayak Camp. Ask about special sunrise, sunset and moonlight trips. The minimum age is 4.
Best Day Trip
Web site: www.savannahvisit.com
Savannah, Georgia, the Hostess City of the South, is a quick 45-minute drive from Hilton Head. An urban example of traditional Southern living, Savannah was America's first planned city. Popularized by the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, Savannah will entice adults and children with its traditional hospitality and architectural beauty. The 2-and-a-half square-mile historic district is ideal for a walking tour of the more than 1,200 restored buildings and the 21 of Savannah's original 24 town squares that remain intact. Tours are also available by carriage and trolley.
Best Place for Valuable Tourist Information
Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center
Web site: www.hiltonheadisland.org
Most consider welcome centers to be boring tourist traps. This is the exception. A back porch is open to the public and offers a magnificent view of live oaks and Spanish moss framing the marshlands. An adjacent museum profiles the island's history, wildlife and various crafts, including a few examples of radiant, humorous "visionary art." A video plays a presentation on the island, and plenty of invaluable maps are available to help you find your way around.