Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island: Where Should You Visit?

Nestled along the stunning coastline of South Carolina, Hilton Head and Kiawah Island are two of the most popular beach destinations. In considering Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, you will find pristine beaches, world-class golf courses, and endless outdoor activities.

Still, there are differences worth considering. We will compare the pros and cons of each coastal getaway to help you decide where you should visit.

Which is Better? Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island

While much of Hilton Head sits in gated communities, visitors can still easily access many of the beaches and waterfront restaurants. On the other hand, Kiawah Island is much more exclusive and only boasts a small section of beaches that are accessible to the public.

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, public accessibility is probably the biggest difference. Even so, there are smaller nuances that will help highlight.

In considering Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, both are fantastic coastal getaways.

Location and Geography: How Close Are Hilton Head and Kiawah Island?

Hilton Head Island sits just north of the Georgia state line and about 2.5 hours south of Kiawah Island. You might not expect the two island destinations to be that far apart, but you have to drive around the Lowcountry marshes and waterways to get from one to another.

While Hilton Head and Kiawah Island have much in common, one similarity is that they are both about 45 minutes from bigger, more historic cities. You will find the epitome of Southern charm when visiting Savannah or Charleston, respectively.

Hilton Head Island (HHI), South Carolina

The beautiful island is located on the southern coast of South Carolina. The Atlantic Ocean mostly surrounds the island. Of course, the Broad River (a tidal channel) borders the northern edge of the island.

One reason that I love the island is that it isn’t as overdeveloped as many beach communities. It’s a fairly big island covering 69 square miles and boasts 12 miles of beautiful beaches.

Massive oak trees cover the island. It doesn’t feel like you are on an island until you reach the beach. Still, there are plenty of palm trees and marshland too. The Hilton Head Island Trust preserves the natural habitat of the island. Its 300 acres include the Whooping Crane Pond Conservancy, Cypress Converancy, and Fort Howell.

You will see signs all across the island reminding visitors to stay away from alligators. I’ve never seen one while visiting, but they clearly thrive in the marshes. The alligator signs remind you of the island’s still natural state.

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, Hilton Head offers more to do and see, including the Harbour Town Lighthouse.

Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Kiawah Island is a small barrier island situated off the coast of South Carolina. It is about 25 miles south of Charleston, which makes it a popular weekend getaway for people living in and around South Carolina’s largest city.

Most people recognize I-95 as the main interstate artery running along the Eastern United States. In many locations, I-95 is just a few miles from the beach. But Kiawah Island is a full 60 miles to the east of the interstate. One major reason for this is that the Lowcountry marshlands and the Wadmalaw River sit to the west of the island.

So, Kiawah Island isn’t that easy to get to unless you are driving down from Charleston. Since many of the island’s beaches are private beaches behind gates, the distance from major interstates only adds to the island’s exclusive feel.

Boardwalk along the beach.

The Beaches! Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island Coastline

Hilton Head Island is very accessible to the public and offers access to plenty of shopping, dining, and entertainment options. In comparing Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, you will find that Kiawah Island is much more private and less accessible to the public. Many Charleston area visitors go to Folly Beach instead.

An Overview of Hilton Head’s Beaches

Perhaps its that access to the island is naturally limited by the one bridge entering the island, but the island feels more natural and untainted by humans than many beaches. Some beaches on the island, especially near the Broad River, look like you might expect them to have looked when explorers first found the island.

Marshes run near the coast such that reeds are pilled up on some of the shores, and the beaches are filled with shells.

Still, most of the beaches have the whitest sand I’ve seen anywhere along the eastern coast of the United States. I grew up in Florida going to the beaches, and Hilton Head’s beaches are much better, especially along the Atlantic.

And even so, something feels more natural than other beaches, even those in South Carolina. The last time I was there with my kids, a beautiful sting ray swam by about 5 or 6 feet away from where we waded into the ocean. Later we saw a cannonball jellyfish float on by.

I love Hilton Head Island because it feels so natural, even though thousands of beachgoers enjoy the island’s 12 miles of beaches daily. Hilton Head might have my favorite beaches in either Carolina.

Life guard at the beach.

An Overview of the Beaches on Kiawah Island

Kiawah Island is known for its beautiful beaches. And while the number of private beaches might feel like a downside, that is just what some visitors are looking to find. The Island features a unique mix of public and private beaches, which caters nicely to visitors looking for different experiences.

  1. Beachwalker Park: Located along the west side of the island, facing the mainland, this is the most popular public beach access on Kiawah Island. The beach itself feels very natural, but you will also find a scenic boardwalk and amenities such as a picnic area, restrooms, and chair rentals.
  2. Kiawah Island Golf Resort Beaches: The Kiawah Island Golf Resort covers a significant portion of the island’s coastline. As a result, resort visitors can access several miles of private, well-maintained beaches. The cleanliness and tranquility are second to known. This is the place to go when you desire peace and quiet but also want access to resort and beachside amenities.
  3. Vanderhorst Plantation Beaches: While the beaches are Kiawah Island Golf Resort are secluded, the Vanderhorst Plantation beaches are among the most secluded beaches on the East Coast. The beaches are behind two security gates and are only accessible to residents and their guests. As a result, the Vanderhorst Plantation is home to very exclusive beaches most only wish they could explore.

So, tourists looking to enjoy the beaches on Kiawah Island will likely find themselves at Beachwalker Park. On the other hand, those looking for resort-style amenities on the beach will enjoy staying at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Spots like the Vanderhorst Planation beaches are the most exclusive, but more power to you if can get in.

Aerial view of the beach.

Activities: Does Hilton Head Island or Kiawah Island Offer More To Do?

When comparing Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, the range of activities and local atmospheres are very distinct. Hilton Head is a more lively and social atmosphere, featuring golfing, tennis, shopping, dining, and outdoor activities. In contrast, Kiawah Island is more tranquil and secluded. You can still golf, but the island is known as a peaceful retreat for relaxation.

What Activities Are Available on Hilton Head Island?

Hilton Head Island is a true paradise for those seeking outdoor activities. The iconic red-and-white Harbour Town Lighthouse is a must-visit attraction that has served the island for over five decades. Visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse for breathtaking views of the Yacht Basin and island.

For those who prefer to explore the island by land, there are over 60 miles of bike paths to explore, as well as numerous hiking trails and nature preserves.

Golf enthusiasts will find plenty to love on Hilton Head Island, which is home to over 20 championship golf courses. These courses offer a range of difficulty levels and styles, and Hilton Head was voted a Top 10 golf destination in the world. In fact, the island is home to a PGA Tour event known as the RBC Heritage.

For those who prefer to explore the island’s natural beauty from the water, kayaking is a popular activity on Hilton Head Island. Visitors can rent kayaks and explore the island’s many waterways, including Broad Creek and the Calibogue Sound. Kayaking tours are also available, offering guided trips through some of the island’s most scenic areas.

Of course, no trip to Hilton Head Island would be complete without a visit to the beach. With 12 miles of white-sand beaches, the island offers plenty of opportunities for swimming or just relaxing.

There are so many activities on Hilton Head Island that there is something for everyone. This includes the massive Adventure Playground, which is a playground for kids made to look like a pirate ship.

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, you may find there is more for families and little kids at Hilton Head.

What Activities Are Available Near Kiawah Island?

The obvious allure of Kiawah Island is the beautiful beaches and exclusive golf resorts, but there is a range of other interesting activities to consider. For instance, the island features extensive bike trails, which are great for exercising and exploration alike.

And for those that enjoy an active lifestyle, you can consider water-based activities like kayaking, paddle boarding, boating, and fishing. The island’s waterways and marshes also create a near-perfect spot to watch for dolphins. Likewise, birdwatching is a popular pastime on the island.

Even so, Kiawah Island is known for its rejuvenation, and that is the big reason that many people visit. You will find scenic views, tranquil beaches, spa-like services, and every opportunity to unplug and unwind.

For most people, this is enough, but Charleston is less than an hour away if you want to visit museums and art galleries. Charleston also offers a larger variety of dining options and more lively nightlife.

Low tide in the Lowcountry.

Places To Stay: Where Will You Stay?

Kiawah Island is exclusive by design, so it is much easier to find somewhere to stay on Hilton Head. Still, both beach destinations are worth considering. And while there are many similarities between the two getaway destinations, staying on or near these islands will likely appeal to very different crowds.

Where Should You Stay Near Hilton Head?

There are plenty of places to stay on Hilton Head Island, including luxurious resorts and beachfront rentals, so you will surely find something that fits your needs. One of the best ways to choose where to stay on Hilton Head Island is to consider the distinct neighborhood vibes.

Sea Pines is one of the island’s most well-known and picturesque neighborhoods. It’s home to the Harbour Town lighthouse, as well as a number of high-end resorts and vacation rentals. The vibe here is upscale and family-friendly, with plenty of outdoor recreation and places to relax.

Palmetto Dunes is another popular neighborhood on the island with some of the most direct exposure to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s known for its beautiful beaches, as well as its golf courses and tennis facilities. Palmetto Dunes is active and sporty but still offers plenty of access to the beautiful island beaches.

Some of the neighborhoods on the island, like Mitcheville near the airport, offer more residential neighborhood experiences. This makes it a great place to find VRBOs and AirBnBs. This is also a neighborhood with more secluded beaches that attract fewer tourists. Neighborhoods like Mitcheville are ideal for visitors looking for a more low-key experience.

We recommend considering Bluffton if you are looking for something a little different. While not on the island, the town of Bluffton is only a few miles away, and it is one of our favorite towns in all of South Carolina. Bluffton has a historic downtown area that is only a few blocks from a public dock on the nearby May River. It may be the perfect place to go boating or kayaking.

Public dock on the May River, not far from Hilton Head.
Public Dock – May River

Where Should You Stay Near Kiawah Island?

While Kiawah Island is exclusive, there are still diverse accommodations worth considering. The East Beach area is home to the Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Here, you will find a luxurious oceanfront hotel known as The Sanctuary. Fine dining, spacious pools, and spa services are available for guests visiting the golf resort.

You can find a mix of laid-back and more lavish vacation rentals along East Beach, but none will meet the privacy and exclusivism of those found on the Vanderhorst Plantation. The upscale, gated community offers high-end private home rentals and is a renowned choice for wealthy travelers seeking tranquility.

For those who can’t find on-island accommodations, Johns Island and Charleston offer alternative accommodation options. Johns Island is just a short drive from Kiawah Island and offers a wide range of lodging options, including bed and breakfasts, historic inns, and traditional vacation rentals.

Charleston is further from Kiawah Island but offers a completely different vibe that some travelers will prefer. While Charleston is a historic city, it is also modern and offers a more urban experience, with many restaurants and shopping options nearby.

Dining and Nightlife: Where Are The Best Places to Eat and Drink

Considering that Kiawah Island is more tranquil than many other places along the South Carolina coast, you will likely find more dining and nightlife options elsewhere. To be sure, there are places to eat, but Hilton Head has a wider range of options.

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out on Hilton Head Island?

Hilton Head Island is known as a fun and relaxed place to hang out, with a wide variety of restaurants and places to eat. While some of these spots are high-end restaurants, I appreciate that there are also several local restaurants that are still affordable.

Coligny Plaza is one of the most popular areas to eat on the island. My family loves to stroll around Coligny Plaza in the evenings because there are plenty of low-key places to eat and shop (and eat ice cream!). And there is a massive play area for kids, including a huge pirate ship, across the street at Coligny Beach.

Another popular area for dining on Hilton Head Island is Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina. This waterfront destination is home to a number of restaurants and bars. Naturally, many of the restaurants offer outdoor seating with beautiful views of the marina.

Overall, Hilton Head Island has no shortage of dining options, from casual beachfront eateries to more high-end restaurants. Whether you’re in the mood for seafood, pizza, or something in between, you can find something to satisfy your appetite on this beautiful island.

Coligny Plaza is one of the better shopping and dining destinations when comparing Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island.

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out Near Kiawah Island?

Since much of Kiawah Island sits behind gated communities, you will find that many of the most popular spots are either just outside the island or on one of the resorts. For instance, popular restaurants such as The Ocean Room and Jasmine Porch are actually located at The Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

The Market at Town Center is another popular spot on the island, and it is located at East Beach Village instead of on the resort. You can eat at The Market or grab one of their ever-popular picnic bags and take it to go.

And while Freshfields Village is technically across the bridge from Kiawah Island, it is one of the most popular local destinations for shopping and dining. Freshfields Village is a unique Lowcountry destination that supports the more residential feel you get on the island itself.

Visitors will find everything from tacos to ice cream and clothing to home goods. There are a few coffee shops and bars, too, but most nightlife is up the road in Charleston.

Barrier rocks.

Should You Visit Hilton Head or Kiawah Island?

While these two island destinations share many of the same geographical and Lowcountry island landscapes, that is about where the similarities end. In considering visiting Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, you will find that Hilton Head offers more activities, shopping, and dining. In comparison, Kiawah Island is tranquil and serene.

Still, Hilton Head is fairly low-key as well. For a more lively experience, with boardwalks, a SkyWheel, and even rollercoasters, compare Hilton Head vs. Myrtle Beach.

You might also spend a little time comparing Charleston vs. Kiawah Island since they are only a short drive apart.

The Verdict: Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island

I recommend that you consider Hilton Head if you are traveling with family or friends that like to get out and enjoy activities beyond beachgoing and golfing. Hilton Head offers more shopping, dining, and even more watersport activities than Kiawah Island.

In comparison, I recommend that you visit Kiawah Island when you are looking for somewhere to unplug and unwind. You will still have access to nearby golf and tennis, but the island vibe is all about relaxing.

Both Hilton Head and Kiawah Island are treasures of the South Carolina coast, each offering its own unique flavor of Southern charm.

Jeremiah moved to the Charlotte area with his wife, Erin, back in 2013. The family has grown over the years, and they now call the Carolinas home. They enjoy hiking and adventures, road trips, backyard fire pits, and pizza night. Jeremiah loves to explore, and looks forward to sharing tips, tricks, and resources for your next trip.