Thursday, April 1, 2021

Hilton Head, South Carolina

I'd heard so many great things about Hilton Head Island: the weather, the beaches, the food. But in the end, it was the 60 miles of paved bike paths that convinced me to make this our first post-pandemic vacation destination. Everyone in my family enjoys a good bike ride, and just about all of Hilton Head is flat and bike-able, with scenic roadways around the entire island dedicated to pedestrians and bicyclists. We biked to the beach, we biked to dinner, sometimes we just biked around the complex we stayed in. It was so relaxing and fun, and a great way to work off all the sweet tea we were drinking. If your family likes to bike, Hilton Head is the perfect place for you.

Where to Stay

After much research into both hotels and rental properties, I ended up selecting the Coral Reef Resort as our home base. I liked that the two-bedroom duplexes were centrally located (in the gorgeously maintained Shipyard Plantation) and gave my family of four enough room to spread out in. Each duplex includes amenities like a full kitchen, washer/dryer, and jacuzzi tub, and the resort features a heated pool, daily tennis pass, two bicycles from the popular bike rental company Wheelz, and picturesque biking/walking paths. We took advantage of all these extras. 

The downside to this property is that it's not the most organized or focused on customer service. There was some confusion over where the tennis courts are located (not right within the complex, as advertised on the website, but 15 minutes away by car) and how to redeem the free bike rentals. The front desk was not at all willing to help, so we were on our own to figure things out.

What to Do

The main draw of Hilton Head are the dozens of public beaches, but we spent all our time at the biggest one, Coligny Beach, mostly because it was closest to home. We biked there and even biked on the beach itself, which is a popular thing to do during low tide. (Pro-tip: Bike against the wind first, while you're still full of energy, and then return with the wind pushing against your back.) Also popular during low tide is wading out into the ocean and onto the sandbars a few yards from shore.

Coligny is an expansive beach, both in length and width, and we spent a couple of relaxing afternoons there, picking up a yummy poke bowl lunch from Al's Aloha Kitchen while biking over, and then grabbing ice cream from Frozen Moo (featuring 92 flavors!) on the bike ride home. 

One of the most interesting things we did on this trip was take the Vanishing Island and Beachcomber tour with the boating company Outside Hilton Head. The tour takes you out on a boat through Broad Creek and out onto the sound, toward the Atlantic Ocean, until you reach an island that appears only during low tide ("vanishing" during high tide). 

Our tour guide, Nick, was entertaining and informative, alternating between delivering interesting tidbits about Hilton Head island and its local wildlife while we cruised along slowly, and picking up speed to jet across the water. The kids loved going fast, and in fact, our boat had to dock on the island by ramming directly onto the shore! I took a photo of another tour boat doing the same thing. 

Once on land, we were given an hour to discover the treasures of the vanishing island. Because the land is submerged under water most of the time, there's a ton of interesting sea life to discover when it does become exposed. The time went by quickly as we explored the tide pools and shallow areas on the edges of the island. 

We were allowed to collect seashells and sand dollars, but told to simply observe the live creatures, like the starfish, hermit crabs, clams, and jellyfish. 

Here's a compilation of our day's discoveries. My daughter was really into taking photos and videos of all the sea creatures, while my son loved peering into each and every tide pool.

It was a unique experience that I don't know we'll ever have again, and we all really enjoyed ourselves. In the end, we collected a handful of beautiful seashells and four sand dollars, which were very exciting to find intact. And on the ride back, we even saw wild dolphins swimming near the boat. 

It was also just really nice to have a tour guide give us more details on all the places and animals we'd been observing and wondering about during the trip. It's fun to explore on your own, but having a local give you the inside scoop always puts things into helpful context. 

Another fantastic local activity that we enjoyed was a trail ride inside the Sea Pines Forest Preserve with Lawton Stables. The preserve is an expansive, beautiful place to hike and bike in, but taking it in on horseback is a truly special experience. Plodding through the quiet forest, populated with ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss, I was awed at the thought of these trees being around for longer than the U.S. has been a country. 

The horses were calm and gentle, although they did sometimes get a bit naughty, snacking on the foliage along the trail. The cutie pie I was riding, Little Debbie, attempted to munch on just about everything she encountered, and sometimes I was so busy taking in the gorgeous scenery that I didn't notice she was going for a bite until it was too late. 

The staff at Lawton is incredibly nice and obviously passionate about their horses. We had a really great time on our trail ride. 

After the ride was over, we checked out the cute petting zoo, featuring everything from goats and pot-bellied pigs to donkeys and alpacas, plus at least one resident cat. 

While in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, we spent some time wandering around to take in the wildlife and foliage. We were too early for the spring wildflowers, but we did spot many turtles in the lake, an alligator sunbathing on the shore, and a great blue heron wandering around on the grassy lawn. 

My kids love to check out the local mini-golf courses whenever we travel to a beach town. During this trip, we putted our way through two of the island's courses, Pirate's Island and Legendary Golf. Pirate's had better theming, but Legendary had a more challenging course and great prizes at the end for each hole-in-one your party scores. 

Where to Eat

My favorite part of visiting any Southern destination is the food. There's always so much good food! Just about all our meals were amazing, and I'll list just some of the highlights here. A note before I get into it: None of the following restaurants take reservations, and during high season, each one will require a half-hour to two-hour wait for either lunch or dinner. My recommendation is to arrive for a super early dinner, at 5:00 (even 5:30 is too late!), or a super late dinner, after 8:30. Or be prepared to put your name down, entertain yourself for a while, and then return when summoned via text.

The restaurant at the top of my must-visit list was Lowcountry Backyard Restaurant, which serves Southern food in a cute garden setup that's ringed with wisteria. I highly recommend splurging for the Backyard Sampler to get a taste of the meatloaf, shrimp and grits, corn bread, and fried green tomatoes. You also get to tack on sides like mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, fried okra, and macaroni salad. And of course, you must wash everything down with the excellent sweet tea. 

It took us awhile to get to another restaurant at the top of my list, Skull Creek Boathouse, because every evening that I called to find out the wait time, it was at least two hours. It's also situated really out of the way. But when we finally made it out there, we saw what the fuss was all about. The restaurant overlooks the water, and the views are gorgeous during sunset. There's a huge lawn area boasting everything from corn hole to ping pong for entertaining your family while you wait for a table. And the seafood is fresh and excellent; I particularly enjoyed the local oysters. 

Kenny B's French Quarter Cafe is a crazy popular Cajun joint that had a line out the door when we biked over for dinner early one evening. Because it's more of a takeout place and seating is limited, we took our meal (the gumbo, red beans and rice, and beignets are the real deal) across the street, to Lowcountry Celebration Park, which features picnic tables and an impressive playground that's perfect for turning the kids loose on while you wait for your food. 

Given all the rich, heavy foods we were consuming, it was a relief to be able to detox every once in awhile with some healthier, yet still incredibly delicious, options. In addition to the aforementioned Al's Aloha Kitchen (such good poke and acai bowls), there's Delisheeyo, a health food lunch joint that makes amazingly flavorful wraps, bowls, and salads. I'm not someone who gravitates toward vegetarian restaurants, but we ended up visiting this one twice. 

What's Nearby

Two beautiful, historical Southern cities, Savannah and Charleston, make a great day trip from Hilton Head and provide a change of pace from the beach. In addition to all the cool history and gorgeous streets, there's even more great Southern eating to partake in. Here are my kid-friendly itineraries for Savannah and Charleston

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