You Can Swim With Dolphins in the Wild and Adopt Baby Sea Turtles on the Best Island in the Continental U.S.
“We’re like celebrities around here,” Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project volunteers Kym Castillo and Jayme Lopko say as we make our way down a wide stretch of beach in our truck, a small pink turtle on Castillo's hat and a giant one painted across the side of the vehicle.
It’s just after 6 a.m. and the sun is only starting to rise, spilling deep shades of pink over the still-dark waves. Early risers are already on the sand, some jogging, others toting a sleepy child or a dog eager to splash in the surf. Castillo and Lopko are right — all of them stop and stare as the turtle mobile drives slowly by, snapping a photo, wandering over to ask a question, or at least cracking a smile.
We’re taught to look for tire-like tracks coming out of the water, markings of a mama loggerhead dragging her roughly 300-pound body up far enough on land to lay her eggs. It’s been a slow season so far, Castillo says, due to a cooler winter. Members of the volunteer patrol have been out on the beach at 5 a.m. every day since May 1, and up until that early July morning they’d found 128 nests along Hilton Head Island’s coastline — a small number compared to 2016’s record 411 or even 2017’s 325. But after a few false alarms we find one, and it feels like there should be some sort of siren to blare. Instead it's our squeals of excitement alone that drown out the sound of the crashing waves.
Lopko digs a careful hole (one egg from every nest must be sacrificed for DNA testing) as Castillo measures the exact location of nest No. 129. The morning is officially a success.
Related: The 15 Best Islands in the World
Although they're just 31 miles from Savannah, Hilton Head Island residents seem to co-exist with nature in a way that's rarely seen in the U.S. today. They take pride in their wildlife, from the birds of the salt marshes to the dolphins swimming in the sound — and continuing the legacy of Charles Fraser, who developed the island with an emphasis on conservation in the 1950s. And while they love their 12 miles of pristine beaches and 24 championship golf courses, they want visitors to know Hilton Head Island is more than a place to work on their tans or perfect their swings.
Fly Into One of T+L Readers' Favorite Airports
While Hilton Head Island does have a small airport of its own with flights to and from Charlotte, North Carolina, often the easiest (and most affordable) way to fly there is through the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, which has consistently found its way into the T+L World's Best Awards top 10 domestic airports list.
Not only is the space almost shockingly calm and orderly (there's even a separate TSA line for travelers with mobile boarding passes), but there's a serene sitting area designed to look like one of Savannah's historic squares, and an outpost of Savannah-favorite Leopold's Ice Cream, where you can pick up a scoop (or a pint) of a delicious flavor like strawberry shortcake, rum bisque, or butter pecan. From there it's about a 45-minute drive to Hilton Head Island.
Learn About, Meet, and Adopt the Wildlife
The Coastal Discovery Museum sees most of its visitors mid-week, according to Rex Garniewicz, president and CEO, once families are thoroughly fried and need a break from the sun. But if you want to be able to identify the flora and fauna you'll see throughout your stay, it's a great place to start your vacation. Set on the lush grounds of a former plantation, the museum includes a Discovery Lab where kids can see local animals such as hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, and turtles, a walk-through butterfly habitat filled with native species, and the opportunity to get up close with busy worker bees as they make honey.
Visitors can also take guided walking tours and stop to adopt a sea turtle nest — a great reminder of your trip each time you get a personally written email update on your hatchlings. (Yes, I did adopt nest No. 129 and I'm expecting my hatchlings in less than two months.)
Experience Gullah Culture
Traces of Hilton Head Island's rich history are still being uncovered — most recently in a dig at a 4,000-year-old Native American site in Sea Pines — but there are many places to learn about the Gullah people, an integral part of the island's culture. The heart of this is in Mitchelville, a town of escaped slaves dating back to the Civil War, which visitors can tour today. Members of the island's current Gullah population are direct descendants of the freedmen of Mitchelville, and many are dedicated to carrying on the traditions through educational programs and the month-long Gullah Celebration featuring Gullah art, music, and food every February.
As Michael Smalls, a seventh-generation Gullah sweetgrass basket-sewer explained, slaves brought over from different regions of Africa were unable to communicate with one another, so they formed the Gullah language as common ground. Smalls' baskets, handmade with locally foraged materials, are his main tool for passing down his culture to future generations. The nearly indestructible baskets were used by slaves to clean rice, carry vegetables, and even hold babies while their mothers worked in the field, Smalls explained, and today intricate versions are used to hold fruit, decorate homes, and are commonly given as wedding gifts. Smalls and his partner, Dino Badger, sell their work at the Coastal Discover Museum and on their website, and hold classes for those interested in learning the craft.
Get Out on the Water
From dolphin tours and historical excursions to neighboring Daufuskie Island to kayaking, paddle boarding, catamaran sailing, and tubing, there are ways to see Hilton Head Island by water at every speed. Outside Hilton Head gives you the option of joining up with a group tour or planning a private tour just for you and your family and friends.
The Outback tour combines dolphin-watching with a local history lesson and then drops you off on the adventure company's private island to explore before getting in a kayak and taking a guided tour along the marshes, where you'll paddle among dragonflies, birds like osprey and heron, see Native American oyster deposits, and likely spot even more dolphins.
Explore by Bike
There are more than 60 miles of bike paths on Hilton Head Island, making it easy and fun to navigate on two wheels. Whether it's a ride to the beach or a favorite lunch spot or just a scenic tour, you'll see people of all ages pedaling their way around the island at almost any time of day, humidity be damned. At low tide, cyclists can even be seen taking to the tight-packed sand beaches.
While many resorts and home rentals come with free bikes to use, shops offering bicycle rentals are scattered throughout the island, including Hilton Head Bicycle Company, LowSea Bike, Beach & Baby Rentals, Bicycle Billy's, and more. You can check out a map of the island's bike paths here — and you can even get rental bikes delivered to your doorstep.
Eat All the Seafood (and Don't Miss Happy Hour)
The culinary scene on Hilton Head Island is quickly evolving thanks to passionate chefs like Clayton Rollison, owner of the Lucky Rooster, where you can pair tasty southern-inspired bites from fried green tomatoes and oysters to bread cheese and chicken skins with on-draft craft cocktails. Then move on to the shrimp and grits and stay late for a thoroughly shaken Ramos Gin Fizz, which will knock you off your feet but comes with a promise to help you feel better in the morning (really).
For oceanfront dining, head to Coast at Sea Pines for some blackened shrimp nachos, an elaborate raw bar selection, and fresh seafood specials. For barbecue, you'll want to stop at Food Network star Orchid Paulmeier's One Hot Mama's.
And Hilton Head Island locals will be the first to tell you they love a good happy hour — which never lasts just an hour — so for all-day cocktails by the water, pull up a chair at Dockside and leave the kids to play in the on-site nautical-themed playground.
Make Yourself at Home
Hilton Head Island has 3,000 hotel rooms, ranging from full-service resorts to quaint inns, the most iconic spot being the 5,000-acre oceanfront Sea Pines Resort on the island's southern tip. The resort's grounds include three championship golf courses, tennis courts, the marina that's home to the very recognizable Harbour Town Lighthouse, horseback riding trails, a beach club with live music, and a luxury boutique hotel, the Inn & Club at Harbour Town, voted one of the top 10 resort hotels in the American South in the 2018 World's Best Awards.
And Dru Brown, director of sales and marketing at The Vacation Company, says more visitors than ever are opting to rent private homes. “Vacation rentals made up only about 8 percent of travel about five years ago; now it’s well over a third of all vacations,” he said. “The personal and private space as well as the ability for everyone to be together but separate is a huge draw.”
Of the 6,000 homes and villas available, Brown recommends renting in North or South Forest Beach to be close to Coligny Plaza, the main downtown area with shops, restaurants, and bars, plus prime beach access. The SeaCrest complex offers everything from one-bedrooms to four-plus-bedroom penthouse villas ranging from affordable to luxury. In the off-season, post-Labor Day until early March, Brown says you can find smaller villas for as low as $99 per night. He recommends booking within 30 days of arrival to score the best deal, but notes that many return visitors are booking their summer rentals over the winter holidays or even sooner, so if you have a specific place in mind, it's better to act fast.
In addition to summer and RBC Heritage in April, the area's biggest golf event, Brown said the winter holidays and Easter are popular times to visit, but the real best time to be in Hilton Head Island is the fall. “The locals will kill me for saying this, but I love the fall,” he said. “The weather is so great, it's warm enough to get in the water, there's far less tourist traffic, and you don't have to deal with the crowds. You get to enjoy what Hilton Head Island is all about.”
To find a rental, visit vacationcompany.com.
Note: Visit Hilton Head provided support for the reporting of this story.