7 In North America/ Travel

Hilton Head Island is “Meltingly Beautiful,” but can be Better

I knew next to nothing about Hilton Head, South Carolina when I was told some months back by Melanie that I would be joining her family for a vacation on the Lowcountry island. Is a tourist trap? Is it anything like I’ve heard of historic Charleston? Will their be barbecue? All these questions and more were answered over the past week.

(It’s worth noting that I had been battling a cold since leaving Cleveland for Buffalo. Though the symptoms of feeling generally crappy went away, I was able to maintain a runny nose throughout the entirety of the trip and even gained a cough toward the end. I note this so you can properly envision how truly disgusting it was to be around me. Just imagine sniffles, coughs, and “blowing my nose” sound effects throughout the rest of this reading to get an intimately grotesque picture of the trip through my eyes.)

Road Trip

We began the 15-hour excursion from Buffalo to Hilton Head on a comfortable enough Saturday morning, leaving sharply at 6 a.m. We had been in the Rust Belt town I affectionately refer to as “B-Lo” for a graduation ceremony. This would be the longest stretch of driving I would ever embark on. I do not recommend losing a day of your life to driving if it can at all be avoided.

It was smooth sailing through New York and Pennsylvania. We played the usual round of “I’m bored to tears” car games and occasionally remarked on the ugliness of those towering fast food restaurant, lodging, and gas station signs that inevitably surround exits for every American small town.

Further through West Virginia, we began noticing signs for “historic” Fayetteville, a town I was recommended to visit after writing about my impressions of the Mountaineer state. It was hardly off our route and we needed a quick caffeine fix. So we followed the signs to what was advertised as their downtown.

Driving in on Court Street, it quickly became clear this town had seen better days. But I don’t mean that as a criticism. The grit and slightly dilapidated buildings reminded me of my affections for Rust Belt neighborhoods. A nearby abandoned gas station hoisted a sign for $1.19 gas, offering an obvious reminder that time had stood still here for a couple of decades. Sure things could be better, but people were making do and not giving up.

We stopped at the first coffee joint we could find — Cathedral Café. As the name implies, it was a church converted into a coffee shop equipped with the stain glass windows you’d typically find in a house of worship. Except instead of serving guilt-ridden sermons, we were treated to warm smiles and lattes.


Back on the road, it was again smooth sailing until Charlotte, North Carolina when traffic came to a halt thanks to an accident. To make matters worse, a hard-hitting storm greeted us. This torrential downpour would follow us for the remaining four hours until we crossed into Hilton Head — an island I later learned seems to evade rain like someone who never falls ill, even with the common cold.

Most drivers might shrug off any amount of pounding rain. Unfortunately, we had been in a highway car accident just a week before driving in similar weather that seemingly came out of nowhere. Things were a bit tense for a while, enough that I would need to take over the wheel. How ironic that Mr. anti-car (me) would save the day’s driving.

We arrived into Hilton Head about an hour after sundown. The town was pitch black. I suspect this would not be a problem in most cities, but apparently Hilton Head adheres to a strict military-esque policy of “lights out” by 10 p.m. from May 1 to October 31 in order to protect the area’s loggerhead sea turtle population. Evidently, these little guys follow bright lights after hatching on the beach. If those bright lights are coming from an artificial source inland, they are likely to wander aimlessly away from the ocean where they will most likely die by dehydration or predator. This makes for some tense driving along the fast and winding roads of Hilton Head, but I’m happy to endure an elevated heart rate to ensure we humans don’t fuck up nature any more than we already have.

Hilton Head

Hilton Head Island gets its name from William Hilton, a 17th Century captain who sailed on the Adventure to explore lands granted by King Charles II of England. It was during his travels that he came to a headland near the entrance of the Port Royal Sound. Like most explorers of any era, he named the island after himself. Also like most explorers of any era, he and those who followed him ignored the Native Americans who had been seasonally inhabiting the island for thousands of years — a motif in American history.

Fast-forward a couple hundred years, and the island would prove to be an important base of operations for the Union throughout the Civil War. Hundreds of ex-slaves known as the Gullah fled to the island. Many of their descendants continue to live here, though sadly it seems the resort culture has largely overtaken that of the natives and Gullah.

It wasn’t until the morning after our arrival that I could truly take in my new, Lowcountry surroundings.  We stayed at Marriott’s Harbour Point and Sunset Pointe at Shelter Cove. (I never did figure out why one “point” gets an “e” and the other does not.)

In an overused word, the Lowcountry is beautiful. Spanish moss, abundant in these parts, is to me as I’ve heard green Northeast Ohio is for folks from Mars-like Utah. I later read that the town is known for its eco-friendly development. That’s not surprising considering the swath of towering trees largely left in place. A local told us, “It takes an act of Congress just to remove one tree.” Good.

On the other hand, I have never been to a town with such disdain for pedestrians as Hilton Head. Granted I’ve been to plenty of places that treat pedestrians like ants who need a good stomping. This is the United Auto States of America, after all. But Hilton Head clearly has the money to develop otherwise.

Government officials and local boosters might point to the island’s extensive pedestrian/bike paths as proof I’m just a cranky urban snob. Unfortunately for the boosters, the bike paths are unwelcoming to cyclists with the less than smooth transition off the curb. Enough so that we decided to take our chance riding on the street for a majority of our 2.5-mile ride to the beach, passing by comical signs outlawing bikes from the street. Even a young family with a baby strapped to the back saddle determined the streets were better than the paths. I came to the determination after one ride left me worried I’d become sterile at best, “ascended” at worst.

But again, you can’t even get to any of these paths if you don’t have a car to get onto the island in the first place.

Death Trap Parkway

William Hilton Parkway, the island’s main thoroughfare, is a death trap built for high speeds, sudden stops, and close calls. Even my suburban co-travelers agreed the street would make for a perfect set should Hollywood ever opt to develop a movie based on the game Frogger.

“How many car accidents you think they get around here?” wondered Melanie’s mother on our way to dinner one night.

“A lot,” surmised her father as a handful of metal death boxes zoomed by as we waited in the turning lane.

Everything is developed off William Hilton Parkway, set back from the street. It’s impossible to walk on William Hilton. In fact, many signs indicate that it’s illegal for bikes and pedestrians to traverse certain corners of the town. Cars have the right-of-way in nearly every situation. Even areas that offer sidewalks, like Shelter Cove near our hotel, are disconnected from surrounding developments. Although pedestrians seem to have largely given up the fight, it wasn’t uncommon to find one trying to get by, walking on the grass or taking their chances on the road, hoping against hope motorists would obey the 25mph speed limit.

One night while walking to Frosty’s Italian Ice for an evening snack, a passerby who had also taken to the street greeted us.

“Been a long time since I’ve seen anyone walking around here,” the older gentleman commented with a smile.

“It’ll be a long time until you see the next pedestrian,” I thought to myself.

I’m not much of a resort traveler, so I suspect Hilton Head is hardly alone in its anti-pedestrian guilt. But I’ve never heard of such an auto-oriented town heralded for its supposed eco-friendly development. This on top of the endless parade of sprinklers growing fresh green lawns in parts of the Lowcountry that shouldn’t have fresh green lawns. Point is, a little Jeff Speck wouldn’t hurt Hilton Head.

The Beach

Nothing more zen than yoga on the beach.

Now before I seem like an ungrateful wretch dropping a hefty deuce on Hilton Head, let me change course to discuss some of the island’s positive attributes.

True to the advertisements, the island is home to 12 miles of pristine beachfront. There wasn’t an angle of the beach that didn’t leave me in a relaxed state of being. I imagine there would be less political and military conflict in the world if we had debates on Hilton Head’s beaches.

It was fun noticing after hours on the beach how high the tide had risen. Walks along the shore were enjoyable with the waves stretching up to our feet. In fact, it was during one such walk that Melanie and myself discovered a beautiful conch shell.

After a thorough examination, we determined the shell to be unoccupied. Satisfied with our find, we took it back to present it to our friends and family. They came to a different result upon examination.

“There’s definitely something alive in there,” said Melanie’s sister.

“No there’s not,” we insisted.

“Melanie, you killed a sea creature.”

We shrugged off their demands to return the shell to the sea, sure there was nothing inside to save. As Melanie and her sister continued to debate the issue, I hid the shell in my backpack for safekeeping. Once we returned to our room, I went in to reach for the shell, startling myself when something stuck out.

“Uh, Melanie,” I said while she was cooking dinner. “Come take a look.”

“Oh my God, is there something in there!?” she squealed after peeking inside.

Melanie handed me a scooping utensil for me to retrieve the creature without having to actually touch something that might feel gross and squishy. I removed the shell (and whatever was inside), using another utensil to lightly brush off the sand on whatever was starting to come out of the shell. Sure enough, it was moving ever so slightly.

“We killed a sea creature!” Melanie cried.

“No, it’s just dying painfully because of us,” I thought.

Unsure of what to do — we were too far to quickly walk to the beach without raising suspicion from those who had predicted our folly — I placed the shell on the back patio. The next morning, it had moved just enough to flip the shell on its side. We felt horrible and decided we would best save face if I launched the shell into Broad Creek outside our back patio. Despite what any person with good sense might determine, we like to believe all is well with our friend the conch.

Stand Up Paddleboarding With Outside Hilton Head

Without a doubt, Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) with Outside Hilton Head was the highlight of the trip. I have seen, read, and even written about SUP, but this would be my first time out on the board myself.

I knew my puppy sensibilities could only take so much inactivity on the beach, so I looked up some activities we could partake in. Luckily, Outside Hilton Head offered a 90-minute introduction to SUP. Historically speaking, the sport is of Hawaiian heritage and has gained in popularity over the past five or so years. You stand on a board and paddle. Seems simple enough, yes?

We met at Outside Hilton Head headquarters on Shelter Cove at the instructed 9:45 a.m. arrival. The young Justin Wooten walked us through a brief instruction with his slight southern drawl on how to get on the board, how to paddle, what to do if you fall in, how to get back on the board when you inevitably fall in, etcetera.

As we followed Justin to the dock, Melanie’s mother noticed our comrades’ less than athletic frames.

“None of these people look like they’re in great shape,” she chuckled. “We’ll be fine.”

You could feel the “jinx” placed upon us.

Sure enough, Melanie’s mother (also a yoga instructor) was the first to fall into Broad Creek. Not only was she the first to fall in, but she did so as ungracefully as imaginable. I saw her begin to teeter, her backside dipping perilously close to the back of the board before gravity overwhelmed and she landed ass-first into the creek, her legs flailing ahead of her like a frightened deer.

I struggled not to laugh. Justin had warned us that one of the main reasons people fall in is watching their friend fall in. I regained composure, but it wouldn’t be long before I joined the club.

At this point in the lesson, we were spread widely along the flat waters of Broad Creek. I remember thinking I was getting the hang of this Stand Up Paddleboarding thing.

“The trick for a nice stroke,” I thought to myself, “is to keep your bottom arm straight and push with your top hand as you pull with the bottom.” I have no idea if this is actually correct, but it seemed to be working well.

As I picked up speed, I started imagining how cool it would be to have my own SUP board hanging up in our apartment. I wondered how long before we would venture out to Rocky River back home for more of this adventure. I even narcissistically wondered how badass I must look gliding along on my paddleboard.

This, as you can imagine, is all it took for me to lose focus on the task at hand. SUP takes immense focus, especially for any beginner. It’s like the game where you pat your head and rub your stomach to test your coordination. Eventually, you’re going to smack your gut and rub your face.

And before I could drag myself out of my daydreaming lull, something went wrong.

“Oh, boy!” I shuddered as I began to lose balance. “Wait… Got it.”

A moment more.


And splash.

Justin was right when he told us you just need to fall in once to get over it. After that, I was more than willing to try some of the advanced moves without a care if I’d fall in or not. Not coincidentally, I feel in at least three more times, uncomfortably filling my nostrils with shooting streams of salt water in an un-athletic attempt to look like a real SUPer.

I can’t wait to do it again.

Back on the board post-splash.

After our session, I chatted briefly with Justin about how long he had been paddleboarding and instructing. He then handed me a business card revealing he is, in fact, a United States Coast Guard captain. I decided this is probably the coolest designation one can possibly have on their business card. Certainly better than “writer.”

Douchey Pop-Collared Drunkards

My main problem with resort towns is the type of people they draw — douchey pop-collard drunkards. They’re like a wild animal that deserve their own episodic treatment on National Geographic.

After some delicious sushi at Hinoki Japanese Restaurant, we went next door to Casey’s Sports Bar & Grille where we had been earlier for a beer and to watch the Indians game before dinner. Our waiter had earlier promised karaoke, which was enough to get at least one of the women in our group anxious to return.

Not much for embarrassing myself for the amusement of strangers, I hung at the back of the bar more excited to play a game of Golden Tee golf on the arcade than hear bad versions of bad songs. Nonetheless, somehow I ended up on stage with Melanie and one of her sisters to sing “Ain’t No Mountain High.”

Only into the first verse, one of the aforementioned douchey pop-collared drunkards took to putting their arm around my waist, joining in on the song as if we had all been best bros since pledging Alpha Omega Whatever.

“Not cool,” I thought as I removed his hand from my waist.

This action seemed to deeply offend him, his half-open eyes, and beet-red face staring at me in immense confusion.

“Did Mr. Fratistic really want to keep his arm around my hip or something?” I wondered to myself.

He then grabbed my hat and proceeded to do every obnoxious thing you can imagine a douchey pop-collared drunkard doing.

There’s something oddly insulting about this. When a girl grabs your hat, it’s playful. Even flirty. When a man does it, it implies, “I want to throw fists.” Now I’m not a bar bruiser, but this did set me off a bit. Still, Melanie and her family were all beside me. This proved enough of a barrier to prevent me from throwing down.

His friends finally pulled him away after I took my hat back. Following the song, I was applauded by at least two individuals for my control. We then took our leave for the night, and the incident, unfortunately, had me wary of what other douchebaggery lie elsewhere in the Hilton head night.

“I’ll stick to the food,” I decided.

Final Days

Our final days on Hilton Head, as you can imagine, involved spending as much time as possible on the beach. The beach was overwhelmingly populated with retirees laying about in rented chairs with the kind of deathly, open-mouth look that would have any stranger to the island wondering why nobody is checking for a pulse.

I don’t say this as a negative. I’m fine hanging with old folks. They tend to be quieter than crying, bratty children or those of the aforementioned douchey pop-collard drunkard variety. In fact, we all determined that we came to Hilton Head at just the right time in mid to late May. It wasn’t too hot or humid. There weren’t too many people. Everything, other than my city-planning concerns, was perfect.

We left Hilton Head early on Saturday, stopping only in Charleston, West Virginia for gas and dinner at the Bluegrass Kitchen, a place recommended to me after the same article that led to our pit stop in Fayetteville. I had a chicken burrito and a little blueberry pie that left me wishing Charleston, or at the very least Bluegrass Kitchen, wasn’t four hours away from home in Cleveland.

“Meltingly Beautiful”

Hilton Head is “meltingly beautiful,” to borrow a sappy phrase I heard on a local classical music station. It would just be nice if they got rid of the old bunker mentality that keeps destinations disconnected and people trapped in cars.

Shelter Cove at night was lovely. Couples walked hand in hand under a moonlit sky with live music playing in the surrounding restaurants. Bring that mentality to William Hilton Parkway, bring businesses to the street front, slow the street down so people can feel moderately safe walking on it, throw down some sidewalks, and you’ll have yourself a one-of-a-kind Lowcountry destination.

Meantime, I’ll be working on that professional SUP career.

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  • Shawn
    May 28, 2013 at 10:45 am

    OK, Joe, you are really going to have to learn to time your visits to towns in West Virginia better. Fayetteville is afternoon/evening town because most of its population is kayaking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking or engaged in some other extreme outdoor activity in the morning. See what happened when you came back to Charleston and Bluegrass at a reasonable hour? For lunch or dinner you will find amazing food and atmosphere at Diogi’s (South American cuisine), The Secret Sandwich Society, Gumbo’s and the original location of Pies and Pints – all in the downtown area. A short drive will get you to other great places like Smokie’s on the Gorge, Chetty’s Pub, Dirty Ernies Rib Pit. You should come back and spend a couple of days and you’ll see why Fayetteville was named as one of America’s Coolest Small Towns by Budget Travel Magazine.

    • Joe
      May 28, 2013 at 10:58 am

      Thanks for reading, Shawn.

      I hope I didn’t sound like I was laying a steaming pile on top of Fayetteville. I enjoyed the grit, and certainly walked away with an impression that it’s an outdoorsy town. I noticed the cars pulled over on the side of the road coming in with kayaks strapped to the stop. I saw the rock climbing store across the street from the café we visited.

      What I don’t understand is your definition of a “reasonable hour.” We came into town in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, yet there was hardly a soul to be seen in Fayetteville. I don’t doubt that there isn’t plenty to do or see in Fayetteville. But as I said in my original piece on West Virginia, I feel these towns should have more life to them. Asheville, North Carolina and Boulder, Colorado are perfect examples of outdoorsy towns that have life all around them. I want to see that in the towns across one of the most beautiful states in the country — West Virginia.

      And while Bluegrass Kitchen was incredible, I still maintain we came at a reasonable hour the first time. Plus this corner of Charleston seemed to suffer from the same inactivity I unfortunately saw in Fayetteville. And it’s great there are other options a short drive away, but I hate driving. I like walking around. I want to see a critical mass of activity in West Virginian towns without having to get in a car for any length of drive.

      Again, I sincerely hope I don’t come of as being overly critical of West Virginia. It’s one of my favorite states to visit, and I know it can some day be as lively as Boulder and Asheville are at all hours of the day.

  • Liz
    July 15, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Just read your article about HHI, and after vacationing there for the last 25 years, I’m sorry to hear that your first experience on the island wasn’t the best. Being an avid runner and rollerblader I love the island for the fact that it does have paved sidewalks/trails accessible pretty much everywhere..though I don’t frequent Shelter Cove or the Parkway much if I can avoid it. Perhaps your next visit, try staying in the Sea Pines area, away from all the commercial and riff raff. I’ve noticed HHI become more commercial over the years but still find I can escape all of that if in the right location.

    • Joe
      July 15, 2013 at 10:36 am

      Thanks for reading, Liz.

      I hope I didn’t make it seem as if I had a bad time! The beaches were some of the most serene I have ever seen. I only wish it all would be more accessible to people who don’t have cars. The way the island is developed seems to be only accessible to a certain class of people. The main street itself is devoid of people. I would love to see the businesses pushed to the street front rather than hidden. I’ve yet to check it out, but I imagine Charleston, South Carolina has the mixture of beautiful beachfront with walkability I’m looking for. But again, I had a wonderful time and am eternally grateful for the opportunity to visit HHI!

  • Coby Turner
    August 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    You are spot on. I had to move here (HH) from California to be near my aging mother. The things you point out should be heard by the various groups that get together to figure out how to improve Hilton Head’s image (cause tourism has had a long slump, I believe). So I’m going to save your article. And should I attend one of these aforementioned gatherings, I’ll stand up and read it OK? Plus I love the way you write.

    • Joe
      August 16, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks for the kind words. Please let me know if you do read it to them. I’d be curious to hear their reaction. Hilton Head deserves a world-class town to go along their world-class beaches. Cheers!

  • Jason Hall
    August 4, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    I enjoyed reading about the endless ride through WV and VA, which I find daunting even as a NC native. Fayetteville, being an outdoor town, does keep hours similar to any Southwest Virginia, Western North Carolina or Northern Appalachia enclave. If the sun’s up it’s all hiking-biking and whitewater or float trip bound. These are not typical resort towns, and a beer to celebrate sundown is often well earned. Hilton Head saw a major development push in the nineties when other SC islands like Isle of Palms narrowly escaped the development push of groups such as built Tyson’s Corner to be the most unwalkable town in the US. If all towns had the vibe of Harper’s Ferry or Asheville we’d have less diversity of opinion in our human population, though the wildlife would likely be healthier. Would that every person had the opportunity to travel and meet new people. Our greatest natural resource is the citizens and residents of earth. Give them understanding and nature too will thrive.