red and white candy-cane striped lighthouse looms
over the Harbour Front Marina at Sea Pines
HEAD, S.C. ó This lovely island just off the South
Carolina mainland is as renowned for its hospitality
toward visitors as it is for its Low Country cuisine and
distinctive Gullah culture, the latter originating from
the descendants of former slaves who migrated here after
the Civil War.
visitor, however, got a less than warm welcome when he
arrived last fall.
Oct. 8,, 2016, Hurricane Matthew blew onto the island
bringing torrential rain and winds of nearly 100 miles per
hour. When he skipped town a day later, he left behind
damages still being assessed but projected to be in the
millions, and one paradise that in a nod to poet John
Milton, needed to be regained.
good news is that it definitely has.
a little more than four months since Matthewís
departure, the island, only 12 miles long and five miles
wide, despite losing some of its lush tree cover, is once
again its sun-dappled, palmetto-fringed, ocean
was the first hurricane weíve had in 126 years, and
thanks to amazing planning and rapid clean-up efforts,
everything was pretty much back to normal very
quickly," says Charlie Clark, vice president of
communications for the Hilton Head/Bluffton Chamber of
of our hotels opened the weekend after the storm with
weddings and groups," she continues.
"Restaurants also opened the week following the
storm, and we hosted one of the islandís largest outdoor
events (the classic car show Concours díElegance) just
three weeks later.
fact, we showed record-breaking visitor numbers last
November and December over those of the previous
year," Clark says.
first arriving in Hilton Head, visitors are pleasantly
surprised to discover an orderly, well-laid out community
conspicuously lacking in chain motels, fast food outlets
and convenience stores. Bike paths crisscross the island,
through lush manicured grounds shaded by towering pines,
and 12 miles of Atlantic waters wash up on blindingly
white sand dunes.
of this perfection is no accident. Hilton Headís
beginning as a world-class resort dates to 1956, when
Charles Fraser, a real estate developer and visionary
began sculpting Sea Pines Plantation from a swampy tract
on the islandís southern tip. Fraser was also something
not usually associated with developers, however visionary
ó a committed environmentalist.
he discovered that original plans for his Harbour Town
Marina meant displacing an ancient oak, he altered the
configuration of the marina to preserve the 1,000-year-old
tree. Today, the Liberty Oak is as symbolic of Harbour
Town as the much-photographed red and white candy-cane
striped lighthouse overlooking Calibogue Sound.
Fraser put Hilton Head on travelersí maps, others
quickly followed, and today Marriott, Hilton, Westin,
Disney and other industry heavy-hitters all have a
presence here. Seventy percent of the islandís homes and
accommodations are in gated communities with charming
names such as Palmetto Hall Plantation and Port Royal
the 5,000-acre Sea Pines Resort remains the granddaddy of
them all. Itís home to the RBC Heritage Classic Golf
Tournament held every April at Harbour Town Golf Links,
where the 18th hole has to be one of the most picturesque
to be found anywhere. The Heritage Classic, a stop on the
PGA Tour, may be the most prestigious, but with 23 golf
courses island-wide, Hilton Head has something for every
not a golfer, but I do love to ride, and the one-hour
trail ride leaving from Lawton Stables at Sea Pines was an
enjoyable way to see some of the islandís natural
proved the perfect mount ó a tad frisky, but responsive
to my commands. Together, we wended our way through groves
of palmettos, pines and oaks hung with Spanish moss, and
circled peaceful lagoons. At one lagoon, our trail guide
pointed out an alligator whose snout bobbed just above the
surface. I saw him before he sunk back under the water,
but was glad that Whiskey appeared not to have.
the Harbour Town Lighthouse was closed for repair during
my visit (it has since re-opened), so I wasnít able to
climb the 114 steps for a birdís eye view of the island,
but I did spend time in the marina village overlooking the
harbor crammed with pleasure craft.
started the morning with coffee and sinfully caloric
pastries at the Harbour Town Bakery & Cafe; browsed
the boutiques, art galleries and craft shops, and even saw
dolphins in the Sound (the island and waters around it are
home to a vast array of wildlife including dolphins,
gators, loggerhead turtles, manatees, deer and many
species of birds).
as prolific as the wildlife are the number of restaurants
ó 250 on this small island, offering everything from
burgers and fish tacos to Low Country and haute cuisine.
For a contrast, try lunch or Sunday brunch at Skull Creek
Boathouse and dinner at the Lucky Rooster.
Boathouse is quintessentially Low Country, live oak shabby
chic. Your servers might be dressed like Líil Abner and
Daisy Mae, but the seafood and the sunset are first rate.
dining is available (and advisable during the sultry
summer months); the rest of the year ó if you want local
color ó opt for an outside table by the water, but donít
forget the mosquito repellant.
Lucky Rooster is short on local color (being located in a
small upscale shopping area), but the food and service are
topnotch. Described as an American Bistro with Southern
soul, it specializes in comfort food taken to a new level.
Among Chef Clayton Rollisonís signature dishes are a
half chicken ó fried or roasted ó with beer and bacon
collard greens, warm potato salad and a hot honey dipping
sauce ó and pilau, a traditional Southern rice dish
usually made with chicken and sausage.
version substitutes blackened catfish, wild caught shrimp
and crispy oysters for chicken and is paired with rice
helpful hint: the strict preservation code that prevents
the encroachment of hotel and restaurant chains also has
restrictions on the type of signage on the island (i.e. no
billboards or even large direction signs), which can make
finding a location challenging. If youíre not an island
regular and are going somewhere after dark, better make a
practice drive during daylight hours to scout out your
your idea of a perfect vacation involves golfing,
beachcombing, biking, horseback riding, gallery-hopping,
spa treatments or adventurous dining, Hilton Head will
more than fill the bill.
favorite memory might just be that of evenings spent
watching the sunset from the terrace of the Ocean Club at
Sea Pines. Kicking back with a pina colada and watching a
kaleidoscope of colors paint the sky, I reflected on the
fact that post-Matthew, Hilton Head is one paradise that,
thankfully, has not been lost.