Hilton Head Island, SC: The South's Best Little Beach Town

This coastal town has become a grown-up beach village.

1. Hilton Head, South Carolina
Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

One might argue that it's the quality of the beach that makes a place the best beach town of them all, but Hilton Head Island proves something even more true: It's the richness of the town that wins the day, and in this case, the hearts of its 40,000 locals.

Let's not dismiss Hilton Head's superb beach bona fides, however: Tucked snugly against the water-riven coast of South Carolina, the foot-shaped island exposes 12 miles of broad, tawny sands to the Atlantic Ocean's rolling swells. All 12 miles of it are public beaches that feel both expansive and inclusive (several access points include mats for wheelchairs). And with an average air and water temperature of around 70 degrees, that's about as pitch perfect as beach life gets.

The beach at Coligny Beach Park in Hilton Head Island, SC
Peter Frank Edwards

But Hilton Head is far more than sun-loving fun. First, it is home to one of the great American cultures, Gullah, which evolved from the beliefs and practices of Africans enslaved on (and later liberated from) Hilton Head's indigo and Sea Island cotton plantations. In fact, the island is home to Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, site of the first self-governing village of liberated enslaved people—then called "freedmen"—in the nation. Set beneath arching oaks on Port Royal Sound, Mitchelville is now a center for touring and education and is emblematic of a welcome surge in Gullah-focused tours, festivals, and cuisine as well as an increased awareness for the 2.67 million visitors who cross the bridge onto Hilton Head Island every year.

Coligny Beach Park in Hitlon Head Island, SC
Hilton Head feels like a grown-up beach town, which isn't to say it doesn't still embrace what made it so beloved in the first place: tranquil beaches, real-deal seafood joints, good golfing, and Carolina marshes. You might even recognize it as the South's Best Beach Town 2019, which touted many of Hilton Head's best attributes, like how HHI has "matured into a collection of gated neighborhoods surrounded by live oaks, magnolias, and palmettos; linked by neon-free boulevards bordered by bike paths; and boasting clusters of markets, bars, boutiques, and more than 250 restaurants." Doesn't sound half-bad, huh?. Peter Frank Edwards

Secondly, Hilton Head feels all grown up. The sparkling eco-community (with a serious nod to golf) that real estate developer Charles Fraser carved out amid the island's dense pine stands in 1956 has matured into a collection of gated neighborhoods surrounded by live oaks, magnolias, and palmettos; linked by neon-free boulevards bordered by bike paths; and boasting clusters of markets, bars, boutiques, and more than 250 restaurants.

In town and along the beach, there are enough outdoor activities on offer to keep you staying and playing all day long and into the night. They'll certainly tempt you to put off turning in until way past sunset. Stroll the sidewalks to catch glimpses of blue skies and bluer waters, and bike along the sands to see the sights. The fishing enthusiasts in your party can cast a line from the beach or book a chartered boat to take the fun to the high seas. There is, of course, golfing aplenty, as well as kayaking, jet skiing, zip lining, and parasailing for the most adventurous vacationers in the bunch.

Tony Bagnulo, Clayton Rollison, and Andrew Carmines of Hilton Head Island, SC
Andrew Carmines, Tony Bagnulo, and Clayton Rollison. Peter Frank Edwards

First-time visitors are sure to fall in love with Andrew Carmines' local oysters at Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks and with sophisticated (and often Gullah-inspired) culinary takes at Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar. Hilton Head is home to one of the coolest jazz clubs on the East Coast (keep an eye out for The Jazz Corner) and the best croissants this side of the Atlantic (at transplanted Parisian Philippe Feret's Hilton Head Social Bakery).

Lucky Rooster Kitchen & Bar in Hilton Head Island, SC
Peter Frank Edwards

"It's amazing," Rollison says about his home island. He grew up running around the place barefoot, riding bikes, and messing around with boats. "There's so much here that's sophisticated now," he says, lingering among the rare imports at Rollers Wine & Spirits, an urbane bottle shop, with his friend Tony Bagnulo, who's adding to Hilton Head's spirits game with his own top-shelf Bulrush Gin.

And that magical mix of mild climate, small-town charms, and cosmopolitan pleasures has built a varied community of young families looking for a different quality of life; digital nomads who want to paddleboard before work; and creatives like potter Tayloe Cook, whose rustic stoneware is decorating upmarket restaurant tables throughout the area. Despite all of Hilton Head's creature comforts, Rollison says, "You can still feel the wildness here, especially when you get out on the water."

The South’s Best Beach Town: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Peter Frank Edwards

He has a point. The salt marsh back side of the island bristles with private docks and skinny piers, and public marinas shelter watercraft from luxury yachts to skiffs, most of which have shallow drafts to navigate the tide-ruled labyrinth of waterways ideal for fishing, cruising, and hiding away.

Those waters often lure bottlenose dolphins to breach and play, great blue herons to stalk fish, and The Sea Pines Resort president Steve Birdwell to take his boat out with his wife, Beth, every evening. "We head out and just roam," Birdwell says. "We watch the sun go down and sometimes have a glass of wine." They do this every night? "Every night," he says. "It's just that beautiful."

There's much to explore and enjoy on Hilton Head Island, all of which keeps visitors coming back season after season, year after year. And those visitors can't help but spread the word: It's one of the best beach towns in the South. Want to see for yourself? Visit hiltonheadisland.org to start planning your visit, or take a look at one of the area's many live webcams (like the ones at Palmetto Dunes and Shelter Cove Marina) for glimpses of the waterways, docks, and beaches from afar.

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