The Next Stop Tour: Hilton Head Island, SC

For some reason, Hilton Head Island, just off the southern tip of South Carolina and just north of Savannah, Georgia, is a vacation nirvana among the people of Cincinnati. You see Salty Dog t-shirts all over the place in the Queen City. You see Ohio license plates all over HHI. It’s weird, considering the two are something like a 10-hour drive apart.

The reason the two places get along so well, though, is not that weird, really. It’s called marketing. Seems when the island was still largely brush and mosquitoes, some South Carolina real estate minds set out to target parts of the midwest, trying to intercept snowbirds on their way to Florida. It’s worked.

Today, Hilton Head is a  tourist haven and retirement spot filled with a ton of top-rate golf courses, a bunch of large, gated communities (many of which, unfortunately, are called “plantations”) and featuring a few wide, calm beaches. Hilton Head, unlike a lot of beach resorts up and down the coast, has a lot of things going for it, but one in particular stands out: Its building restrictions. The laws there do not allow crazy big billboards or excessive lights. The island has strict limitations on building height. Take a drive down the main drag on the island and you won’t be assaulted by ugly advertisements towering over the thick tropical foliage and palms. Most of the businesses are set back from the road, too. At night, it’s actually dark.

Take a walk on the beaches and you’ll see. No high-rise hotels. Even the condos are set well off the beach, behind the dunes. It’s a world away from a lot of beaches in, say, South Florida.

I first set foot on Hilton Head on a vacation with Mary Jo, sometime early in the 1990s. In the 20something years since, we’ve probably been back 10 times. We’ve always enjoyed it — thought about buying a condo there in about 2005, but thank God didn’t (bubble burst) — so we figured we should give it a look on the NST. So we did, a few months ago.

OK. It was early November. Yes, I’m just getting to the post now. We all should be used to this by now. Let’s move on.

To recap our criteria on the Next Stop Tour, check out this previous post.

Let’s go to the scorecard:

Weather: It’s hot in that part of South Carolina. We’ve been there in the summer, and the heat combined with the humidity can be spine-melting stuff. You gotta know what you’re getting into. In the offseason, though, it can get chilly. We spent a couple Thanksgivings down there when Luke was little. We had to bundle up when we hit the beach. Which is cool. I like the beach in the winter, as long as it’s not too wintry. Overall, the weather is what you’d expect from Coastal Carolina.

Beaches: The best beaches I’ve ever been on are in the Pacific. I lived a year in Hawaii and two years on Guam when I was just out of school. You can’t beat those beaches, even the ones crowded with tourists. Here on the mainland, I prefer the beaches on the Gulf Coast of Florida, including up into the Panhandle, all the way over to Pensacola. (The problem with the Panhandle beaches, one of the reasons the NST hasn’t headed there, is that those beaches are very accurately known as the Redneck Riviera. The white sand is beautiful. The cutoffs and Deere hats, not so much.)

The fact that the beaches on Hilton Head aren’t crowded with high-rise hotels is a huge plus. On some of the better beaches on the island, it’s a good couple of hundred yards between the meat of the beach to get across the dunes and into where people stay. That makes for nice strolls and plenty of room to get away from the crowds (except for the height of summer).

Here’s a public beach on the “heel” of the island (which is shaped like a shoe, if you didn’t know) that’s pretty typical (click on the photos to expand):

That’s beautiful. Remember, it’s November in this picture, which explains why there are only 10 people in this picture. But it’s sunny and, as I remember, warm enough. Certainly it was warm enough for a nice stroll.

Here’s one tucked away into a plantation (behind gates) that’s about as private as you can get on Hilton Head. It’s off a small park. Very nice.

All in all, for beaches on the Atlantic Coast, Hilton Head’s are pretty sweet. I need to point this out, though. Again. It’s hot in the summer. Really hot. Like you don’t want to be anywhere near a beach, or out in the middle of the day anywhere in the summer. Which is why anyone who heads to the beach between, say, 9 am and 4 p.m. from, say, March to October is a dope.

But that’s OK with me. Beaches are for strolling and a little introspection and taking in a breeze and getting some exercise. Daily, if you can. They’re great in the offseason in Hilton Head, as this shot from a Thanksgiving there a dozen years ago show (looks like way more than that).

Anyway, it’s hot in the summer. You have to know that going in. And don’t you know that too much sun is bad for you anyway?

Town: This is where Hilton Head falls short. Not much there there. The plantations — Sea Pine is the most well known; it hosts an annual stop on the PGA Tour — have little shopping centers, some inside, many just outside the gates. But they’re little more than strip malls with some restaurants and grocery stores.

Houses: Parts of Hilton Head are getting pretty long in the tooth, so the wood-sided houses with the soaring living rooms and the small kitchens look a little dated by now. But you can get something newer, especially if you want to live just off-island. Not cheap, though, and most places (especially on-island) won’t let you fence in the back yard, which is obviously nice to have if you have a canine or two bouncing around. The median listing price for a house, according to Zillow, is a little south of $500K, about what you should expect for a resort island in SC.

Pool: Neighborhood pools, of course, are all over the place. Private pools aren’t as plentiful as you might think, but you can find them. I still think it’d be awesome to jump into a backyard pool on a warm morning to get loose for the day.

Proximity to Cincinnati: That 10-hour drive doesn’t seem to bug the people of Cincinnati. The closest real airport is in Savannah. American, United and Delta all fly out of there to the QC.

Other thoughts: My golfing brothers and I often talk about golf in retirement. I’m not sure how much I would. A round a week sounds like a lot. That’s a lot of time that you could be doing something, you know, useful. Yet there are old guys who tee it up three, four, five times a week. If you’re going to do that, Hilton Head would be a good place to be.  One of the most enjoyable rounds I ever played was on an Arthur Hill course (Hill’s a pretty recognizable golf architect) at Palmetto Dunes on Hilton Head with my brother-in-law Jeff. Nobody in front, nobody in back. Perfect day. Beautiful course. (My score? Whatever.)

The island itself has 24 courses on it, and when you count neighboring Bluffton, there are 40 to choose from. Most are resort-style courses built by Robert Trent Jones, Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus … you know, famous golf guys. Again, I don’t know how much I’d want to play if I lived in a place like that. But having those choices would be awesome.

Hilton Head, in its 42 square miles, has 50 miles of trails, too. You can go anywhere on the island on a bike. Most trails are beautiful, winding through shaded areas and through quiet neighborhoods. They’re a big draw. And HHI has some 250 restaurants, according to the visitors bureau, though as much as I’ve been there, I can’t name a favorite. (The Salty Dog is basically a bar on a cove in Sea Pines.)

Final thoughts: If we lived in Hilton Head, we would not realize the dream of taking a short stroll out of our house to a lively downtown area. It’s just not there. Not to say there aren’t gathering places. But a decent-sized downtown (the population is only 39,000) just isn’t there.

We’d have to figure out how to keep dogs, too, if we couldn’t get a fenced yard. We could get one, probably, by moving just off-island, into Bluffton or someplace. But what’s the thinking of moving close to an island? If you’re going that far, go all the way, right?

We’d have to go into Savannah (or up to Charleston) for some higher-end concerts or shows (HHI brings in some little stuff). We might have to worry about a hurricane or two. A year.

But … we like Hilton Head. The weather, the beaches, the tropical vibe that makes you feel like you’re not just in a suburb of Atlanta … that’s all good.

As you can tell by the ellipses, though, we’re not making any commitments yet. The Tour rumbles on …

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