Golf courses by the dozen, beaches by the mile—they've got it all here. As well they should. They planned it that way.
Fran Gealer

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.

swing time
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.

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.

bluffton's boutiques
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.

At Eggs'n'tricities (71 Calhoun St.; 843/757-3446), yellow and purple is everywhere, as though the papier-mâché fish hanging from the ceiling and the funky furniture needed a more boisterous backdrop. Next door, the Red Stripe Gallery (69 Calhoun St.; 843/757-2318) features pottery and ironwork; you can't miss the motorcycle gang assembled from potbellied stoves, coffee cans, angle irons, and other yard junk. At the Store (56 Calhoun St.; 843/757-3855), Babbie Guscio jokes (we hope) that her job is to "crack the whip" over her stable of painters—Guscio's own mother, daughter, sister, and niece. An expanded area opened last fall displays rotating folk-art selections from dealer Louanne La Roche's collection. Several antiques shops are located along Route 46 (known on this stretch as May River Road): Antiques & the Garden (1263 May River Rd.; 843/757-8046) has outdoor statuary, sago palms, and topiaries of moss; and eight dealers offer toys, books, and furniture at Bluffton Antiques & Gifts (1261 May River Rd.; 843/757-7488).

For lunch, grab a sweet tea and a big old burger at the Squat & Gobble (1231 May River Rd.; 843/757-4242), an archetype of locals' joints the world over. Though the Copper Kitchen (5 Godfrey Place; 843/815-4557) can't match the Squat & Gobble's no-nonsense vibe, it does have good salads and sandwiches.

Before you leave Bluffton, be sure to stop at the end of Calhoun Street to admire the Episcopal Church of the Cross (110 Calhoun St.; 843/757-2661), a handsome wooden building from 1844, overlooking the May River. Die-hard shoppers coveting a Brooks Brothers tie or Coach handbag can always stop at the outlet mall, Hilton Head Factory Stores 1 & 2 (Hwy. 278, one mile from the bridge; 888/746-7333 or 843/837-4339), on the way back to the island.

meet jacob preston
The dean of the town's art community, Jacob Preston calls himself "Bluffton's Tallest Potter." Tall he is, with a bushy beard that made him the perfect model for the Neptune statue at Hilton Head's Shelter Cove Marina. When Preston isn't off sailing, as he is for three or four months starting in January, he'll show you around his studio (10 Church St.; 843/757-3084), recommend bike routes, and tell stories. One tale concerns a local composer who transcribed Gullah spirituals: After a tree fell on his house, the composer closed the door to the damaged room. When the resulting moisture began to make some of his piano keys stick, he simply wrote songs around them.

the beaufort style
After Hilton Head's postwar suburban layout, it's refreshing to hop over to the mainland to this stately old town. Bay Street, Beaufort's thriving main drag, makes for prime strolling, as does the parallel promenade along the Beaufort River. There's antiquing aplenty (a brochure listing the dealers is available at the visitors' center, 1106 Carteret St.; 843/524-3163), and—because the town was occupied by Union troops throughout the Civil War and therefore never attacked—blocks and blocks of antebellum atmosphere. The T-shaped floor plans and double verandas of houses here, in fact, have a nom d'architecture all their own: the Beaufort Style.

Where to Go
St. Helena's Episcopal Church (507 Newcastle St.; 843/522-1712) was built of English brick in 1724 (the balconied interior—closed until summer for renovation—dates to the 19th century). The oldest tombstone in the walled graveyard marks the burial spot of two British officers killed in the Revolutionary War. A tiny Union Jack, left by a British group that conducts an annual memorial service, stands next to the stone. At noon, sunlight filters through a thick canopy of Spanish moss as the church bells toll, and it's downright spooky to be here.

Inside the foreboding iron gates and yellow walls of Beaufort Arsenal is the quirky local attic, the Beaufort Museum (713 Craven St.; 843/525-7077). Another place to introduce yourself to the area's history is the Federal-period John Mark Verdier House (801 Bay St; 843/524-6334), where the Marquis de Lafayette was once entertained. Or you could browse the McIntosh Book Shoppe (917 Bay St.; 843/524-1119), with its wide selection of secondhand titles on South Carolina and a set of 1910 Tom Swift novels. The Longo Gallery (103 Charles St.; 843/522-8933) is filled with ceramic sculptures and expansive abstract canvases; the entrance is marked by two fantastically gnarled thrones made of found objects.

Where to Eat
If you can, stay for dinner—the town has been disproportionately blessed with inventive chefs. Bistro De Jong (205 West St.; 843/524-4994; dinner for two $55), owned by the former chef of the Beaufort Inn (809 Port Republic St.; 843/521-9000; dinner for two $100)—which locals say still lives up to its reputation—is the place to go for sashimi tuna in a spicy peanut-mushroom sauce. Emily's Tapas Bar (906 Port Republic St.; 843/522-1866; dinner for two $50) has slow-baked alligator ribs and peppered ostrich steak. Some find Hemingway's Bistro (920 Bay St.; 843/521-4480; lunch for two $15) cozy, others claustrophobic. A pubby place, it's decorated with bullfight posters and dollar bills stuck to the ceiling. For a midday salad or sandwich, try Caviar Wishes (221 Scott St.; 843/522-8387; lunch for two $12), run by a sushi chef born and reared in Beaufort.

a detour from your day trip
Five minutes from Bluffton, in Port Royal, you'll recognize a scene from Forrest Gump: shrimp boats tied up at 11th Street Dockside (1699 11th St. W.; 843/524-7433; dinner for two $40). If you've been wanting to try frogmore stew, a sort of Low Country bouillabaisse (made by request—it's not on the menu), this is the place. To get there, follow Route 281 south from Beaufort and bear left at the Exxon station, then turn right on 11th Street. Going the opposite direction on Seventh Street will bring you to the Port Royal boardwalk, where you can take in the Intracoastal Waterway from the top of a wooden tower or join the locals crabbing with a chicken neck tied to a piece of string.

for night owls
Before you head out, get used to the idea of bars in shopping centers—on Hilton Head, everything is in a shopping center.

A good place to start is the dockside happy hours at South Beach Marina, in Sea Pines. Go for something frozen and fruity at the Salty Dog Café (843/671-2233), or a plate of peel-and-eat shrimp (15 cents apiece) and a $5 pitcher at South Beach Deli (843/671-4406).

The place for a mini pub crawl is the "Barmuda Triangle," three watering holes in the Hilton Head Plaza shopping center. Say what you will about the cigar-and-martini-bar trend, but you've got to admire the Lodge (843/842-8966). It has antler chandeliers, four pool tables, a walk-in humidor, a full menu of single malts, and two stone fireplaces complete with roaring fires—the air-conditioning is that strong. The island's biggest party warms up around 11 p.m. on Wednesday: Disco Night at Hilton Head Brewing Co. (843/785-2739), universally known as "the brewpub." By midnight, the young crowd is wall-to-wall, an Afro-wigged DJ is deep into his set, and any notion that Hilton Head is just for golfers, families, and retirees has been discoed out the door. Cavorting to the sounds of the seventies usually lasts until three or four. For a quiet barstool and a pint of stout, head across the courtyard to Reilley's (843/842-4414); it seems to be in crisis over whether it's an Irish pub or a sports bar. Whatever. They know how to pour a Guinness.

The island's top spot for music is Blue Nite (4 Target Rd.; 843/842-6683). It was the Blue Note until lawyers for the famous New York City jazz club swooped in. You could be partying with college students just off their shift waiting tables or soccer moms cutting loose on a baby-sitter night—often both at once. Try to be there on Wednesdays, when local diva Shuvette Colvin takes the stage. At Moneypenny's (Palmetto Bay Rd., Village Exchange; 843/785-7878), the atmosphere is that of a snug, dark coffeehouse, and the music is acoustic.

Hungry?Settle into a semicircular booth at the Brick Oven Café (25 Park Plaza; 843/686-2233), pick a wine from a list of nearly 50, and order a wood-fired pizza. Through a connecting door is Monkey Business (25 Park Plaza; 843/686-3545), which, like the very popular Wild Wing Café (72 Pope Ave.; 843/785-9464), pulls in the collegiate (or collegiate-at-heart) crowds looking for a dance floor.

For a thorough lowdown on the nightlife scene, pick up the Posh Rock Rail, a free monthly available at most island nightspots.