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Exploring Hilton Head: Worth the Hype?

We recently traveled to Hilton Head, a tourist destination along the beach in South Carolina. In this article, we will break down whether or not it is worth the trip and what the must-see and do items are.


Size of the Island

Hilton Head Island was bigger than we expected. You could easily spend 30 minutes driving from the North to the South end of the island or 20 minutes driving East to West. In total, the island is 69.15 square miles and full of beautiful trees! This made it a little harder than we anticipated to see everything that Hilton Head had available to us, in addition to the constant traffic. The island has approximately 32,000 residents but experiences over 2.5 million visitors a year.


Layout of Hilton Head

The island is shaped like a shoe, mid-step, with the toes angled southwest of the heel. Divided into a number of "sections" based on different areas of ownership and resorts, you could easily spend half a day at each section and still not experience the whole island.


For instance, Sea Pines is a residential neighborhood resort with activities and attractions, nature preserve walking trails, and beautiful houses. Other areas include: Coligny Beach (the main tourist beach), Shipyard, Palmetto Dunes, Port Royal, Marshland, Shelter Cove, Long Cove, Wexford, Palmetto Bay, Spanish Wells, Indigo Run, Palmetto Hall, Hilton Head Plantation, and Skull Creek.



Hilton Head Island Coligny Beach


Initial Impressions

Our first impression, wasn't too positive. We were comparing this to another one of our beach experiences in Pensacola, where I had spent countless hours collecting seashells. Pensacola has been strategically designed with two roads, one to access the beach and one to access food and other attractions.


Hilton Head on the other hand lacks seashells, isn't laid out as strategically, and also felt more touristy. It didn't help that our first day was cold and rainy, however, once we discovered places off the beaten path - and embrace the jungle (not just the beaches) we found this a more favorable destination.


Bikes

The island is covered in amazing walkways, allowing you to walk anywhere. While it certainly would take a long time to get from one end to another - there is another option - biking! There are so many bike rental options on Hilton Head. While we didn't get bikes ourselves and were able to get around by car rather efficiently most of the week - it was one of our biggest regrets.


Bike rental agencies are all priced competitively similar with rental options ranging from a half-day to one-month options. Not only do bikes make it easier to get around on weekends (when parking can be difficult to come by, especially in the afternoons) but, it would have given us some flexibility to explore the island in more depth.


Beaches

There are a number of beaches around the island, but we'll let you decide which is your favorite.


Coligny Beach

This beach is where a lot of the tourist spend their time as there are a lot of great amenities nearby. In addition to restrooms, seating, and showers - you also have access to shops and restaurants only a few paces away. The best place to park for beach access is Forest Beach Parking Lot though it can get rather full in the afternoon and on weekends.


Fish Haul Beach Park

This park has the most amount of seashells, though it is largely full of clams. While not outright dirty, is definitely muddy, full of reeds, and not as pleasant. It is off of the beaten path so there are fewer tourists, and it still has restrooms and showers.


Folly Field Beach Park

This one promised to be a great place for tidal pools. While we did out best to time our visits with the low tide, we never saw the tidal pools. (We may have just had our timing off.)


While more crowded than Fish Haul, it was pleasantly quieter than Coligny. Parking was limited and this was the only place we went that had paid parking, but the Lord graced us with their pay system being down lowering the cost of the visit. Note, parking is at Folly Field Beach Park not at Folly Field Beach. Typical cost for parking is $1 an hour.


Restaurants

We were attempting to do this this trip on a budget, so we only tried a handful of restaurants.


Fish

They offer an all-you-can-eat crab every day from 11 am-4 pm. The rest of their menu is, as you guessed, a lot of different seafood options. This was a more costly place to go, but with it being close to Coligny Beach, it was a welcomed option.


Local Favorites

We tried Sea Shack and it was exactly as it said online - delicious, but not fancy. We loved the food and would highly recommend it. Plus the prices were reasonable and the food quantity was good too.


Sea Shack Hilton Head Meal

Other places we didn't try, but we read were local favorites were Marley's Shrimp and Burger Shack and Harold's Diner.


Sea Pines

We ended up staying at an Airbnb in Sea Pines, closer to Coligny Beach than to South Beach. Sea Pines has a daily pass for any guest who wants to see the area ($9 per car.) But they also offer a weekly option ($30) which makes more sense if you plan to stay at Sea Pines for more than 3 days.


My first impression wasn't too high, to be honest. But on one of our last days there we did a little bit more exploring. Not only did we have a community pool, but there were golf courses, horse riding areas, gardens, a lighthouse, and my favorite - the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. It is 605 acres of natural beauty with hiking trails. It felt like we were walking through a jungle!


Sea Pines Forest Preserve

The only thing to be aware of - is that there are alligators throughout Sea Pines and Hilton Head. We saw a few alligators while walking HH, but saw quite a lot more in Sea Pines. The most important thing is to follow all posted rules: don't feed them, stay 4-6 car lengths away (60 feet), and keep all pets close to you as those are their most tempting treat. Most of the alligators we saw were quite a good distance away, but some trails walk directly beside water, which meant there was one alligator sunbathing that we got closer to than intended.


Sea Shellers

For those of you who like going to beaches solely for sea shelling - I can't say that I recommend Hilton Head. There were a lot of clam beds at Fish Haul Beach Park, but our best experience was north of Hilton Head at Hunting Island State Park. It is ranked as the number one State Park in South Carolina and I can see why.


Hunting Island State Park

Within a minute of being on the beach I had found two sea shells that were the size of my palm. By the end of the day - I had a huge collection of quite a variety of beautiful and fully intact shells. I could have spent the whole day wandering, but my husband eventually pulled me off the beach to hike through the jungle.


I can't sing high enough praises for that either. The trails were absolutely beautiful and when we went to Boneyard Beach - we felt like true explorers uncovering another world. While this area had less seashells, it was still breathtaking in it's own way.


Boneyard Beach Hunting Island State Park

Vacation Rentals near this area is a bit more expensive than staying at Hilton Head Island, but there are options available. Most average $200 a night. If you want to stay at the one cabin in Hunting Island State Park, which averages $425 a night, you will likely need to book your reservation over a year in advance!



God Moments

We saw God show up in several ways on this trip, from the local kindness of people we met to having Easter sunrise service on the beach with over 600 other individuals! But one of our favorite moments was meeting a local while playing Disc Golf. After we lost a frisbee to the swamp, a local college student waded throughout and retrieved it for us. He also did some hunting for his own lost discs - which being honest we personally didn't dare to do for fear of alligators. However, he shared some local insights and brought some unexpected joy to our day. We are incredibly thankful for God leading us to that amazing connection.


Jesus Sand Sculpture Hilton Head Good Friday

Recommended Itinerary

Based on our experience, if we had the opportunity to visit Hilton Head again, this is the itinerary we would go with. We would visit again in early spring when humidity is still low, and get bikes to be more mobile.




Day 1 - bikes and explore

Day 2 - beaches

Day 3 - Sea Pines

Day 4 - Hunting Island

Day 5 - Beaches/ More exploration


Final Thoughts

Hilton Head is a tourist destination with lots of traffic and people. If you are looking for something off of the beaten path, it's possible at Hilton Head, but requires some intentionality. If you are traveling with a group that enjoys different aspects of the outdoors - there are certainly options at Hilton Head, but if you are solely going for a beach experience we recommend Hunting Island State Park instead.


If you are looking for other Christians to visit Hilton Head with - we highly recommend planning a trip and inviting others by using Christian Travelers' Network platform!


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