the wild life
This is the Low Country, and water is everywhere. Make the most of it with a kayak tour from Outside Hilton Head (South Beach Marina; 800/686-6996 or 843/686-6996). Navigating the narrow channels lined with spartina grass is a challenge, and your arms will get a workout. No pain, no gain—you'll come close to herons, egrets, cormorants, and even dolphins. The low-impact version is aboard a Commander Zodiac motorized inflatable (South Beach Marina; 843/671-3344); treat-seeking dolphins usually swim right up to the boat.
On weeknights from mid-July to October, the Coastal Discovery Museum (843/689-6767; $10) leads walks to the nests of the threatened loggerhead turtle. You're on the beach, staring down at a patch of sand illuminated by a red-filtered flashlight. Small clumps of sand begin to hop and jump like kernels of popcorn. The surface trembles and sinks. Eventually the whole patch caves in. Beneath is a mass of tiny brown loggerhead turtles furiously churning their flippers. The hatchlings, no more than three inches long, pause for a moment on the beach before scurrying madly to ocean safety.
"It's a tremendous rush," says Kim Washok, who runs the Turtle Watch program. Witnessing a "natural emergence" is all the more rushy, she says, because the chances of being in the right place at the right time are less than one in five. The odds, though, are tipping in the museum's favor: more and more turtles are nesting on the island's northern end, where the walks are conducted. Loggerheads are awfully popular; you'll need to reserve at least two weeks in advance.
Birding is also big—about 250 species have been sighted on Hilton Head. There are guided walks at the mid-island Audubon Newhall Preserve (843/785-5775); and an island, tucked away in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve (843/785-3333), that is a favorite of snowy and great egrets (croaking a rather vulgar call for such elegant-looking birds). The lakes and wildflower meadow at the center of the preserve make up one of the most serene spots on the island. Want more rookeries?They've got 'em for ibis and tricolor herons, just over the bridge to the mainland at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge (Hwy. 278; 912/652-4415). In summer, you might also see nesting ospreys and their young. Given the long distances and flat paths, probably the best way to see Pinckney is with a Coastal Discovery Museum bicycle tour (843/689-6767).
Bikes are recommended anywhere in Sea Pines Plantation. With miles of trails, and rental shops clustered in South Beach Marina, Sea Pines Center, and Harbour Town, riding isn't just good exercise, it's the most convenient way to avoid parking hassles.
where to eat
The best restaurant on the island, locals agree, is Charlie's L'Étoile Verte (1000 Plantation Center; 843/785-9277; dinner for two $70). Owner Charlie Golson is a local boy, but one taste of the foie gras de canard au Porto and you'd swear he was French. Other good choices are Brian's (1301 Main Street Village; 843/681-6001; dinner for two $70), where you should start with the fried green tomatoes, and Stripes (32 Office Park Rd., Courtyard Bldg., No. 114; 843/686-4747; dinner for two $60), where you should finish with the lemon ice cream and sun-dried blueberries.
But the place that will leave you with the broadest smile might just be Lagniappe (1000 William Hilton Pkwy., Village at Wexford; 843/341-3377; dinner for two $45). Fresh crêpes stuffed with pulled chicken, grilled plantains, and spinach or with roast pork tenderloin and fried eggplant highlight the lunch menu; the basket of knockout biscuits may bring you back for Sunday brunch. This is a restaurant of pleasant touches, from the tastefully colorful room decorated with folk art to the coffee that arrives in a French press.
Starfire Contemporary Bistro (37 New Orleans Rd., New Orleans Plaza; 843/785-3434; dinner for two $80) is another offbeat-yet-urbane spot. Try the lamb quesadilla with Granny Smith salsa and cilantro cream before feasting on sesame-crusted salmon. Chef Keith Josefiak makes a fabulous ginger-peach crème brûlée.
If you're in Harbour Town in Sea Pines Plantation in the morning, head to Café Europa (160 Lighthouse Rd.; 843/671-3399; breakfast for two $20) for a thick omelette—shrimp and asparagus or smoked salmon and cream cheese—and a sweeping view over Calibogue Sound. For dinner in Harbour Town, try CQ's (120 Lighthouse Rd.; 843/671-2779; dinner for two $80), in a particularly rustic setting; the building, patterned after a 19th-century Low Country rice barn, was originally an artist's studio.
Susie Q's Teas & Gifts (32 Palmetto Bay Rd., Village Exchange; 843/686-2136; lunch for two $15) is a friendly gift-shop-cum-luncheonette. Sit in the small garden with a black bean salad or the quiche of the day, and don't leave without a bite of Key lime pie. Truffles Café & Market (71 Lighthouse Rd., Sea Pines Center; 843/671-6136; dinner for two $40) and San Miguel's Mexican Café (Shelter Cove Lane, Shelter Cove Marina; 843/842-4555; dinner for two $40) are two of the island's most popular dinner spots. Twenty-minute waits are common at both. At San Miguel's, at least, you can pass the time holding a margarita and pretending that one of the jumbo yachts in the harbor is yours.
stick-to-the-ribs food at stick-to-the-budget prices
During happy hour, pints are $2 at the Big Bamboo Café (1 N. Forest Beach Dr., Coligny Plaza; 843/686-3443), a 1940's Pacific-island-theme restaurant where you expect Mary Martin to emerge singing from behind the bamboo walls. On the ground level is Market Street Café (843/686-4976), where you can fill up on spanakopita or souvlaki for under $6. Pretty much the only other ethnic food around is Mexican. At the hole-in-the-wall Antojitos (Suite 302A, Pineland Station, Hwy. 278; 843/681-9868; dinner for two $14), two TV's, one speaking Spanish and one speaking English, compete for attention while the ladies in the kitchen cook a mean carne asada. That might be tennis great Stan Smith at the corner table. In the same shopping center, Léon de Paris (Suite 201C, Pineland Station, Hwy. 278; 843/342-5420; lunch for two $8)—run by a real live French couple!—bakes baguettes, country breads, and raisin brioches. You might want to wander in just for the smell.
Shopping on Hilton Head Island is largely limited to expensive resort wear or artsy-craftsy collectibles. But if you feel like browsing for the sake of browsing (and what purer shopping experience is there?), cross the bridge to the mainland. Following Highway 278, turn left onto Route 46 and head into "downtown" Bluffton (watch for the drop in the speed limit—it's a notorious ticket trap). Make a right at the four-way stop and then a left onto Calhoun Street, and you'll be on the town's main commercial strip, which like nearly every other street seems to slumber under live oaks draped with Spanish moss. At first glance, it doesn't look like a thriving artists' colony, but that's what it has become in the past few years as sculptors, potters, and painters have left behind Hilton Head's increasing development.