Hilton Head Island is one of the premier coastal destinations in South Carolina and in all of the Southeastern United States. Still, you might wonder, “What is Hilton Head known for?” The pristine island is much different than typical coastal escapes.
Varying waterways and marshlands cover the island. This creates an environment where there is much more to do than lay on the beach.
And when you are ready to visit the beach, you will find more than 12 miles of beautiful beaches waiting. Hilton Head’s history, culture, outdoor activities, and shopping and dining options make this getaway a must-visit destination.
What Is Hilton Head Known For?
Hilton Head is known for its beautiful beaches, world-class golf, endless outdoor activities, rich history, and plentiful shopping and dining options. And even so, there is more to Hilton Head than meets the eye. While the exclusive resorts are well-known, there are also hidden beaches accessible to the public that locals like to visit.
My goal is to help you uncover the things that make Hilton Head unique. It is a destination that my family has gone back to visit time and time again. I hope you will be inspired to do the same.
Hilton Head’s Beautiful Beaches
Colginy Beach and Driessen Beach headline the most popular beachside destinations, but they are far from the only options. One reason that visitors flock to Hilton Head each summer is that the shoreline gradually slopes into the Atlantic Ocean. This creates a calm environment, with mostly shallow waters, that are perfect for family-friendly beach activities.
The beaches are also home to nesting sites for loggerhead sea turtles, which adds a unique charm to the overall experience. Here is an overview of some of the most popular beaches along Hilton Head’s shoreline:
- Coligny Beach: Known as the island’s most popular beach, Coligny Beach offers free access to the public. You will find ample parking, outdoor showers, and various beach amenities. Its close proximity to local shops and restaurants also makes it a favorite among visitors. You can easily walk across the street for lunch or an ice cream cool down. There is also an adventure park in the form of a pirate ship, which my kids love to explore.
- Driessen Beach: This is a great beach for families, offering picnic tables, a playground, and outdoor grills. It’s less crowded than Coligny, yet still easily accessible and open to the public. The playground offers a nice change of pace when your kids need to escape the direct heat. Another interesting aspect of visiting Driessen Beach is the long boardwalk that winds across the preserved coastal landscape. It feels very natural and is a fun way to walk to the white sandy beaches.
- Mitchelville Beach: For those seeking serenity and a touch of history, Mitchelville Beach is the place to be. It offers a quiet, natural beach environment and is near the historic Mitchelville Freedom Park. The park harkens to the area’s Gullah roots, but more on that soon. Mitchelville Beach is also a popular location for visitors interested in renting kayaks or doing some saltwater fishing.
- Islanders Beach: This beach is a local favorite, featuring a playground, picnic pavilion, and a less crowded environment. It’s open to the public, but parking is primarily for annual beach pass holders. Hilton Head is popular for those that like to bike across the island. You will find bike racks available at Islanders Beach, too. Located near the northern edge of the island, Islanders Beach isn’t as close to the shopping and dining options you will find near Coligny Beach. Still, that is also why it is less crowded.
- Burkes Beach: This is another serene, less crowded beach that is open to the public. Burkes Beach is popular with locals and tourists alike. The area is home to wildlife, including sea turtles and dolphins. All this makes Burkes Beach a top option for water activities like kayaking and fishing.
World-Class Golf Courses
While the beaches along Hilton Head are beautiful, the South Carolina island destination might be even better known for its world-class golf courses. Legends like Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jack Nicklaus design more than 25 championship golf courses across the island.
In fact, Hilton Head takes pride in hosting the annual RBC Heritage Golf Tournament, which takes place at the Harbour Town Golf Links. The prestigious event attracts some of the biggest names in golf and visitors from all over the Southeastern United States. I live in Charlotte, NC, which is four hours away. I know multiple people that make the 4-hour drive down to Harbor Town to watch the esteemed tournament.
Here are some top golf courses that have helped put Hilton Head on the global golfing map:
- Harbour Town Golf Links: Known for hosting the RBC Heritage, this course is as challenging as it is beautiful. It features stunning views of the Calibogue Sound and the iconic Harbour Town Lighthouse. Harbour Town is a public golf course that you can play when you visit.
- Atlantic Dunes by Davis Love III: Located in The Sea Pines Resort, this course is a complete reconstruction of the historic Ocean Course. It honors the beauty of the coastal landscape and features a stunning ocean view on the final hole.
- Heron Point by Pete Dye: Also within The Sea Pines Resort, this course was remodeled by Pete Dye. The course features his trademark complexity and challenge, making it a must-play for golf enthusiasts.
- Robert Trent Jones Course at Palmetto Dunes: This course is known for its open, inviting layout and the breathtaking ocean view on the 10th hole. You won’t soon forget a round of golf at Palmetto Dunes.
- Arthur Hills Course at Palmetto Dunes: This course is recognized for its meticulous placement of water hazards and bunkers. Average golfers will find this course quite challenging. Golf Digest named the Arthur Hills Course as one of America’s Top 10 Courses when it first opened, and golfers still love the beautiful course today.
Rich History and Cultural Heritage
While the Harbour Town Lighthouse is one of the most recognized landmarks on Hilton Head Island, it also represents the local history. But not in the way you might think. Many of the lighthouses along the East Coast were built hundreds of years ago. In contrast, locals built this red-and-white striped beauty in 1970.
Hilton Head certainly has a rich history, but the colonial infrastructure isn’t as evident as in Charleston or Savannah. In fact, Mitchelville Freedom Park on the north part of the island stands to honor the first self-governing town of freed African American slaves in the United States. Now, this northern area of the island still offers the most concentrated Gullah culture.
The Gullah people are the descendants of African slaves who worked on plantations in both South Carolina and Georgia. Today, the Gullah culture lives on through local language and dialect, arts (including basket weaving), and distinct Gullah-inspired food. Many local restaurants pay homage to Gullah cuisine, which preserves West African food, but today is often matched to Lowcountry seafood.
Nature and Wildlife (Plus Outdoor Recreation)
Hilton Head passed a restrictive Land Management Ordinance in 1987 that preserves much of the island’s natural beauty and strictly governs new buildings and development. Visitors will often notice how much of the island remains under a tree canopy. Also, much of the island (including tourist areas) sits inside gated communities.
You can trace many unique island features back to this forward-thinking ordinance.
The result is that Hilton Head offers a distinctly different vibe than other potential coastal destinations. Hilton Head is home to one of the most diversified ecosystems in the Southeastern United States. You will find marshes, maritime forests, and sand beaches. Plus, the island sits in the Atlantic Ocean, near the Port Royal Sound. And half of Beaufort County sits under marine waters.
Why is all of this significant? Well, the island features preserved natural beauty that you can’t find elsewhere. This all serves as a backdrop to the beautiful beaches and pristine golf courses. It also means that Hilton Head Island is an uber-popular destination for outdoorsmen that enjoy activities such as hiking, paddle boarding, kayaking, boating, and fishing.
Luxurious Resorts and Accommodations
The island and nearby mainland areas feature plenty of hotels and vacation rentals that make the island an accessible destination for all. Still, there’s no denying that the island features a luxurious feel. For those interested in enjoying the full resort experience, here is a list of the most popular resorts.
- The Sea Pines Resort: Located on a 5,000-acre oceanfront retreat, the Sea Pines Resort offers access to tennis courts, golf courses, and horse stables. It’s also home to the famous Harbour Town Golf Links.
- Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort: This award-winning resort features three championship golf courses. You will also find a tennis center and an 11-mile lagoon perfect for kayaking and canoeing.
- Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort: Offering beautiful ocean views, the Omni resort has access to championship golf and more. You will even find a spa.
- Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island: Located within Shipyard Plantation, the Sonesta Resort provides direct beach access. There are on-site dining options for convenience.
- The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa: This resort features an oceanfront location. The resort also has multiple outdoor pools, a full-service spa, and easy access to golf and tennis facilities.
- Marriott’s Grande Ocean: A beachfront resort offering spacious villas with full kitchens, plus indoor and outdoor pools, a fitness center, and activities for kids. Plus, Marriot’s Grande Ocean sits just up the street from Coligny Plaza, where there are plenty of options for dining.
- Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort: This Disney resort offers family-friendly accommodations with various recreational activities. The resort looks like a 1940’s hunting and fishing lodge. But Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort doesn’t sit oceanside. Instead, it is located along the calm waters of Broad Creek.
Each resort provides a unique experience, catering to a wide range of preferences and needs. This makes Hilton Head Island an ideal destination for luxury and relaxation.
Great Shopping and Dining Options
When you are ready to take a break from the beach and long rounds of golf, there are plenty of fantastic shopping and dining options on and near the island. Here is a brief overview of the best spots:
- Coligny Plaza has been a Hilton Head staple for decades. While it looks like any other shopping center, you will realize it is very different once you start to walk around. The walkable plaza is within walking distance of the beach and kids’ adventure center. You will find everything from beachwear and souvenirs to ice cream, and multiple dining options, including a few nice sit-down restaurants.
- Just across the bridge, you will find the Tanger Outlets in nearby Bluffton. The Tanger Outlets feature a vast selection of brand-name stores, which are nearby to several dining options.
- Lastly, the Sea Pines community near the iconic Harbour Town Lighthouse features some of the island’s best dining spots. Places like the Crazy Crab highlight local seafood favorites, while the Quarterdeck showcases steaks and even a Lowcountry boil.
While some coastal vacation destinations are gimmicky, Hilton Head offers an authentic experience with high-quality dining and shopping options.
Visiting Hilton Head Island
So, what is Hilton Head known for? Hilton Head is a beautiful island off the coast of South Carolina. It is known for its beautifully preserved landscapes, which is one reason the island is now home to world-class golf and tennis resorts. Hilton Head has more of a family-friendly, laid-back vibe than many other beach communities.
It might be the perfect place to visit if you enjoy kayaking, boating, or fishing. You will also find plenty of dining and shopping.
Of course, there are other potential coastal getaways to consider along the Southeastern coastline. How do those destinations compare to Hilton Head? Let’s explore.
Hilton Head Alternatives
While Hilton Head is one of my favorite destinations with my family, we understand you might want to consider other options. These are some of the other popular destinations in the Carolinas.
- Savannah: People often compare Hilton Head vs. Savannah because they are about an hour’s drive apart. Savannah is on the river rather than the ocean, and much more colonial and historic. Savannah also has more museums and art galleries.
- Tybee Island: Tybee Island sits about 20 minutes from Savannah, and locals call it Savannah’s Beach. In comparing Hilton Head vs. Tybee Island, Hilton Head is bigger and has more shopping and dining options near the beach. At Tybee Island, you will likely want to drive to Savannah after eating at the local places.
- Charleston: Hilton Head sits between Charleston and Savannah, with Charleston sitting to the north. In comparing Charleston vs. Hilton Head, you will find that Charleston is historic, like Savannah. Charleston is also the largest city in South Carolina, so it is much more developed and urban.
- Kiawah Island: Kiawah Island is much more exclusive than Hilton Head. In considering Hilton Head vs. Kiawah Island, Hilton Head offers more public beaches.
- Myrtle Beach: In comparing Hilton Head vs. Myrtle Beach, you will find that Myrtle Beach is much busier and much more lively. You will find a busy boardwalk, SkyWheel, and roller coasters at Myrtle Beach.
- Outer Banks: Lastly, aspiring tourists often compare the Outer Banks vs. Hilton Head. The Outer Banks represent a long chain of barrier islands with a much more natural feel. The Outer Banks are a popular destination north of the state line in North Carolina.
What Is Unique About Hilton Head?
Hilton Head is unique because of the deep concentration of world-class golf and tennis resorts, many with views of the ocean. Hilton Head looks and feels different because of the strict land management. Visitors will enjoy the tree canopy, marshlands, and pristine beaches. They will also appreciate the plethora of dining and shopping options, despite the beach exhibiting restrained development.
So, What Is Hilton Head Known For? Let’s Recap.
Hilton Head is known for its laid-back vibe and expansive beaches. The island features beautiful golf courses, a wide variety of resorts and accommodations, and plenty of dining and shopping options.
Hilton Head is popular with families and those that appreciate a relaxed environment. The island is one of my favorite coastal destinations in the Carolinas, and my family has vacationed here multiple times. We hope you book a trip and discover the island for yourself soon!