Hilton Head, South Carolina, calls itself “America’s Favorite Island,” and the numbers don’t lie: This twelve-mile-long by five-mile-wide barrier island attracts more than 2.5 million visitors a year but only counts less than forty thousand permanent residents. But if you want to know how the locals find their paradise amid crowds, take a few pointers from those—like my husband and me—who have been “doing” Hilton Head for many generations. We first traveled to the island in the 1980s and have returned many times over the years, making friends with business owners and other regular visitors. We love the beautiful beaches, casual vibe, and walking and bicycle paths—and most of all, the food. Now when we visit, we stay at the Westin Hilton Head Resort & Spa with our pup because the property is pet friendly.
Hilton Head is also home to twenty-four championship golf courses, and the beaches are a huge draw during the summer high season. While it may not be easy to avoid popular spots entirely—after all, they’re popular for a reason—here is a bit of advice for where to belly up to the bar next to neighbors and friends, spend a day at a quiet beach, and watch a gorgeous sunset over a little slice of heaven.
Timing your trip
Consider timing a trip for the “shoulder seasons” in the spring (April and May) and fall (September and October). The temperatures typically peak in the seventies and eighties, and there are fewer tourists. While the island landscape is lush year-round with towering live oaks and tropical vegetation, the most colorful time is March and April when the azaleas, cherry trees, and dogwoods are in full bloom. If you’ve got a hankering for soft-shell crabs, plan to visit in early March through June (depending on the water temperatures), when these local delicacies are in season.
The busiest times on U.S. Route 278 are Saturdays in season (June through August) starting anytime around noon. “Unbearable” is how residents describe the traffic backup from I-95 through Bluffton on the way to Hilton Head. Midday Saturday is when the rentals turn over and eager vacationers head to the island for early check-ins at their condos or hotels. You’ll also want to skip the airport on Saturday in Hilton Head and Savannah. Come a day earlier or arrive later to avoid the rush. Thankfully, the traffic and congestion ease up as kids head back to school at the end of summer.
Overlooking Port Royal Sound and tucked away in Bay Gall in one of the island’s historic Gullah neighborhoods, Fish Haul Beach Park may be one of the island’s best-kept secrets. It’s easy to think Google Maps has sent you on a fool’s errand as you drive past the airport, through a neighborhood, and down a dirt road before reaching the parking lot. Once you arrive, you realize it’s hidden for a reason: This quiet gem on the island’s north end is popular with local families. Parking is free, and there are outdoor showers and restrooms.
There are other low-key beaches on the island too, including Burkes Beach. Located between Port Royal Sound and Port Royal Plantation, this secluded stretch of sand sits just past the protected dune line. It’s an ideal spot to watch for sea turtles, dolphins, and shorebirds, and to linger over a sunset beach picnic.
If you want to avoid the crowds, don’t plan to spend the day at Coligny Beach Park, especially in high season. Finding blanket space is second only to the struggle of finding a parking place across the street at this very popular destination.
Minding the tides
Before you pack your sunglasses and flip-flops, you’ll want to check the times for the high and low tides that day. The tidal salt marshes create a unique situation for the island, as there is no clear divide between the creeks, rivers, and land. There are two low and two high tides per day, where the difference between the tides can shift six to twelve feet. Low tide is the perfect time to walk the packed-sand beaches—and you can look for shells left behind as the waters recede.
Which way to Coco’s?
If the website for a beach bar tells you, “Finding us is half the fun,” come prepared for an adventure. And know in advance that Google Maps clearly does not know the easiest way to Coco’s on the Beach. Let’s just say you have to really want to go to Coco’s if you’re not staying at the Hilton Head Resort or in one of the private homes next door.
Here was our adventure: After paying $5 to park outside the gates at the resort (which you get back with your purchase at Coco’s) and taking the long walk through the parking lot and past the condos in mid-ninety-degree temperatures in July, we finally came to a long boardwalk that stretches over the marsh grasses. If you reach that point when the golf cart chauffeur is operating, you’re in luck (it runs every half-hour throughout the day with breaks). We weren’t so lucky, as we arrived at noon. Thankfully, when we climbed up the steps to Coco’s after a journey through the resort and over the boardwalk, we were greeted with an extensive selection of frozen boozy concoctions and a short menu of tasty bites, including spicy wings, boom boom shrimp, and one of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time. It didn’t take much to convince us to stay a full hour and a half, and we zipped back over the boardwalk in the courtesy golf cart. (Real talk: Try to make a friend that lives in one of the homes next door and take the shortcut to Coco’s through the gate.)
Dining around the island
If it’s good enough for residents to visit during the high season, then it’s worth a visit. These are the restaurants that kept coming up in conversations around the island:
Palmetto Bay Sunrise Café has been a top breakfast pick for locals for more than twenty years. If you arrive to find a crowd lined up for Sunday brunch, grab a mimosa or Bloody Mary at the outdoor bar while you wait for your table.
The family-owned and -operated bakery Sprout Momma recently opened a restaurant on the island’s south end. Dine in for breakfast and lunch, or stop by for happy hour. You can also take home hearty artisan breads and pastries, many made with organic whole and sprouted grains.
The Sea Shack is a casual counter-service eatery that features fried, grilled, and blackened seafood, including those tasty soft-shell crabs. Don’t be surprised to find a line out the door when you arrive.
If you’re in the mood for European comfort food like Wiener schnitzel or Hungarian goulash and chicken paprikash, check out the specialties at Taste of Europe. Lunch or dinner at this laid-back spot is like dining at someone’s home with grandma cooking in the kitchen.
The menu at Chez Georges Bistro & Bar pairs classic French cuisine with Southern flair in dishes like sorghum glazed foie gras with a spiced peach consommé and seared duck breast with collards and a black cherry Grand Marnier reduction.
At Lulu Kitchen, locals stop by for Southern-inspired fare such as house-fried chicken with pimento cheese and seafood dishes like butter-poached lobster and the French fisherman’s–style stew, bouillabaisse. If it’s red meat you’re after, make reservations at Bowdie’s Chophouse for top-notch steaks.
If you want show-stopping pastries and one of the best baguettes or croissants outside of Paris, take the drive to Hilton Head Social Bakery. Residents know to avoid the line at the Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina location and head to the south island location instead. It’s just a few miles down the road, and I never leave the island without popping in to grab fresh loaves and say hello to the chef and owner, Philippe Feret.
There’s no better way to end a day on island time than with a sunset over the water. Hudson’s Seafood on the Docks is one of the oldest restaurants on Hilton Head and offers one of the best views. It does get packed with locals and tourists, especially in the summer, so arrive early (they don’t take reservations) for a front-row seat outside on the docks. Order local shrimp (you’ll be sitting by the shrimp boat) and oysters farmed by the restaurant’s owners.
Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina at mid-island is one of our favorite places to visit as evening approaches. We walk the long promenade and then snag a seat outdoors at one of the waterfront restaurants to watch the sun sink over the boats in the harbor.