People may come to this South Carolina island for the beaches and the golf, but they come back for a hundred other reasons. When Sea Pines, the first gated-resort "plantation"—they resemble wealthy, tasteful suburbs more than Tara—opened over 40 years ago, it was the first step in Hilton Head's self-invention. These days, the island is the very essence of good old American R&R, a place where families, Yankee retirees, and college kids cross paths in a lush, manicured playground shaded by cool pines. (If it all starts to seem a little too perfect, you can always jump over to the mainland for a taste of the quirkier South.)
where to stay
Since so many visitors rent or own houses, Hilton Head's hotel rooms are limited and expensive, with large, name-brand resorts making up the bulk of them. If you're bringing a sizable group for a week or more, consider renting a house. Island Rentals (800/845-6134) has a small inventory—just 100 properties—but 40 years in the business has given it a solid following.
Westin Resort Hilton Head Island Port Royal Plantation; 800/228-3000 or 843/681-4000, fax 843/681-1065; doubles from $235. The quietest and most elegant of the big hotels, with a glassy pool under a curving white colonnade bridging the beach and main building. The 412 rooms are smallish, but you're not supposed to be spending a lot of time indoors anyway. A cast of avian alter egos by local sculptor Walter Palmer populates the hotel—you'll pass Rhett and Scarlett on the way to breakfast.
Hyatt Regency Hilton Head Resort Palmetto Dunes Plantation; 800/233-1234 or 843/785-1234, fax 843/842-4695; doubles from $210. Like an import from Cancún, this 10-story, 505-room hotel—the island's biggest—muscles up to the ocean with shoulders squared. The rooms are expansive, the balconies private, the mid-island location convenient.
Hilton Oceanfront Resort Palmetto Dunes Plantation; 800/221-2424 or 843/842-8000, fax 843/341-8033; doubles from $254. Like the Hyatt, the Hilton has large rooms (with kitchenettes) and plenty of conventioneers, but your elbows won't feel as rubbed, thanks to the decentralized layout. You get from your room to the beach on boardwalks lined with azaleas and palmettos; snapping turtles and spotted carp glide in ponds underneath. The buildings are barely taller than the palmettos.
Main Street Inn 2200 Main St.; 800/471-3001 or 843/681-3001, fax 843/681-5541; doubles from $210. It doesn't have a beach. It does have faux-louvered doors (real louvers would let the air-conditioning escape), ceiling fans, an in-house spa (visits cost extra), and wicker furniture that gives off just the right creak. Even though this 34-room hotel went up only three years ago, it somehow feels older. Unfortunately, its youthful inexperience pokes through via occasional lapses in service. Yet everything else here is worth the high tariff: huge marble baths, quiche and fruit for breakfast, and a superbly decompressing garden, often the scene of a summer wedding.
Palmetto Dunes Resort Palmetto Dunes Plantation; 800/845-6130 or 843/785-1161, fax 843/686-2877; one-bedroom villas from $140. Something between a hotel and a time-share, this old favorite spreads over 2,000 acres from the beach to Shelter Cove Marina. There's a two-night minimum.
Holiday Inn Oceanfront 1 S. Forest Beach Dr.; 800/465-4329 or 843/785-5126, fax 843/785-6678; doubles from $190. Big, straightforward rooms decked out in aqua and orange, guarded by a dowdy exterior; in other words, pretty much what you'd expect. The same goes for the clientele: many families, and the college-age set never far from view, not just in the hotel but slurping daiquiris at the beachside Tiki Hut bar or playing volleyball at the nets just beyond.
South Beach Marina Inn 232 S. Sea Pines Dr.; 800/367-3909 or 843/671-6498, fax 843/671-7495; doubles from $125. Slated to finish their much-needed face-lifts this month, the 17 suites here should emerge as something more befitting the only hotel in upscale Sea Pines. The inn's new owner has refinished the heart-of-pine floors, replaced furnishings (early word on the coming style is "nautical"), and installed wet bars. But you may not need them, with four restaurants and two great happy hours located in the same New England-esque "village."
Best Western Inn at Hilton Head 40 Waterside Dr.; 800/528-1234 or 843/842-8888, fax 843/842-5948; doubles $85. Since replanting its flag here last year, Best Western has had the most desirable budget property on the island. While the rooms aren't huge, they're comfortable enough, and only a five-minute walk from the beach.
how to get around
The rigid zoning and signage restrictions that keep Hilton Head's chain motels, fast-food restaurants, and outlet stores from imposing themselves on you also make it hard to find your way around. Some advice: Grab the most detailed map you can, always call ahead for directions, and try to scout during the day any place you'll be driving to at night, as the island has almost no streetlamps. The good news: the recently opened Cross Island Parkway lets you zip between the island's north and south ends in record time. Bypassing traffic-clogged Route 278 is more than worth the $1 toll.
The first rule of any sport is survival. Which explains my question to Dick, the pro leading the clinic for new golfers at the Golf Academy of Hilton Head Island: "Is it true that on Southern courses you shouldn't chase a ball into a water hazard?"
"Well, if you do, take a club with you," Dick said.
"You can beat back a gator with a golf club?" I asked, surprised.
"No, but you sure can't outrun one."
Neither could the turf outrun my trusty driver. While the guy to my left sent ball after ball sailing into the blue heavens, the grass around my tee became a sort of miniature no-man's-land.
Over the three hours of Full Swing School—driving with woods and irons—and three hours the next day in Scoring School learning the sand wedge, the pitching wedge, and the putter, Dick coached me using instant-playback video, mirrors, putting tracks, and plenty of patience. The diagnosis?I wasn't keeping my left arm straight.
My real problem, of course, was that I'd never done this before; the clinic cured that, at least. Now if I ever need to join a golfing party, I'll be able to look as though I know how to handle a club. And after class, on a couple of tries at the driving range, my grip was solid, my swing smooth, and my follow-through just twisty enough. When my swing ended, amazingly, the ball wasn't left sitting on the tee. It was lofting toward the red flag at the center of the range while the resounding thwack of contact hung in the air. It was one of sweetest sounds I've ever heard.
Golf Academy of Hilton Head Island Sea Pines; 800/925-0467; Full Swing School $95, Scoring School $129.
how would you play that hole, mr. pro?
Harbour Town Golf Links Sea Pines; 800/955-8337. SIGNATURE HOLE: 18. HOW TO PLAY IT: Use Harbour Town's candy-striped lighthouse as a target; the perfect bailout spot is to the right of the green.
Ocean Course Sea Pines; 800/955-8337. SIGNATURE HOLE: 15. HOW TO PLAY IT: There's more wind than meets the flag, and you'll need more power than your instincts suggest. Play up a club.
Golden Bear Golf Club Indigo Run; 843/689-2200. SIGNATURE HOLE: 18. HOW TO PLAY IT: Lay up short of the water in two, play third shot over the water.
Old South Golf Links 50 Buckingham Plantation Dr., Bluffton; 800/257-8997. SIGNATURE HOLE: 8. HOW TO PLAY IT: No need for a driver to hit this target; play a 6- to a 9-iron.
Country Club of Hilton Head Hilton Head Plantation; 843/681-4653. SIGNATURE HOLE: 14. HOW TO PLAY IT: Wind is what gives this hole its teeth. Go on a calm day and you've won half the battle.