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South Carolina

Nature Rules on Hilton Head Island

Nature Rules on Hilton Head Island 

Spotting dolphins is a favorite activity for kids of all ages visiting Hilton Head Island.*

By Mary Sue Lawrence

Fifty-one years after its debut as one of the nation’s first environmentally sensitive, “eco-developed” resorts, Hilton Head Island continues to use nature to its advantage.

Back in 1956, developers set the standard when they took care to minimize the disturbance to the island’s lush natural surroundings. They built the community around stands of palmettos and ancient oaks, setting aside nature preserves and sidestepping alligator habitats.

These days, the island’s bounty of protected flora and fauna are almost as big a draw as the wealth of golf and tennis activities that have long made it a premier resort.

Outdoor activities continue to grow in number and popularity as visitors look beyond the traditional resort options to immerse themselves in the island’s natural surroundings.

Times have definitely changed since my youth, though, when feeding marshmallows to resident alligators was a much anticipated “nature” activity during day camp.

Native Habitats

A natural dolphin habitat—and the only place I’ve ever seen dolphins mating—Hilton Head offers dozens of dolphin tours by boat or kayak through both resort and independent outfitters.

The island is also a loggerhead sea turtle nesting ground. Each summer the creatures nest in dunes along the island’s 12-mile-long shoreline. Islanders form watch groups to scan the beach for nests, set up protection areas and monitor hatching activities to ensure the creatures’ survival.

Along with turtle watches, there are crabbing expeditions, ocean cruises, nature trails through local nature preserves, and horseback riding. Many of these activities are free or low-cost, especially those offered by the Coastal Discovery Museum (843-689-6767 or www.coastaldiscovery.org), 100 William Hilton Pwy.

As shown in the photo at right, natural dunes are prolific on Hilton Head.*

The museum has exhibits on animal skulls and turtle eggs, and classes on the history and wildlife of the island. Visitors to the museum can also enjoy nature walks on Pinckney Island, summer evening turtle “talks and walks,” dolphin tours of Broad Creek, and live alligator demonstrations.

Elsewhere on the island, kids can enroll in nature-based day and overnight camps that focus on nature, horseback riding or boating.

Several local outfitters offer guided eco-tours via kayak, canoe and sailboat. You can paddle inky backwaters or sparkling waves, since the island is crisscrossed by waterways including creeks, marshes, lagoons, rivers and inlets.

Paddling and Touring

An outfitter, Outside Hilton Head (843-686-6996 or www.outsidehiltonhead.com), has two locations: Plaza at Shelter Cove and South Beach Marina. The company also now owns an undeveloped sea island. This provides paddlers with the option of overnight camping for an extended and up-close encounter with nature—an experience that teens especially love.

Self-guided tours are easy at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge (912- 652-4415 or pinckneyisland.fws.gov), Lands End Dr., and the Sea Pines Forest Preserve (843 363-1872), located within Sea Pines Resort (866-561-8802 or www.seapines.com), 32 Greenwood Dr.


At left, eco-enthusiasts head out by canoe to explore the island's natural environment.*

Once part of a plantation, Pinckney Island has salt marshes and tidal creeks that are home to wading bird rookeries.

You’re likely to spot white ibis, herons and egrets—and a nest or two—along with deer, alligator and bald eagles.

Fourteen miles of gravel trails are for perfect hiking and bicycling.

You can explore Sea Pines Forest Preserve on your own, or take one of the many nature tours offered by the resort; these include evening hayrides, alligator watches, rice field tours, horseback riding tours and discovery sessions with the resident naturalist.

Exploring Daufuskie Island 

Boat tours to nearby Daufuskie Island combine unique local history with nature. The island, accessible only by boat or plane, was made famous by novelist Pat Conroy in "The Water is Wide" and more recently by the TV reality show “The Bachelorette.” The latter program was filmed here at the Daufuskie Island Resort (800-648-6778 or www.daufuskieislandresort.com), 421 Squire Pope Rd.

Once a thriving Gullah community, Daufuskie Island is becoming somewhat of an artists’ haven. Traces of the past remain: Among the dense palm brush and moss-laden oaks are an historic church, schoolhouse and a praise house.

Praise houses were once common on local plantations.

Within these praise houses, spontaneous meetings and religiously inspired dances (combining African culture with religious and secular songs) held during the week supplemented Sunday services in larger churches.

 At left, historic churches such as this one pictured dot the area as do some praise houses.

Rent golf carts and explore the island. You’re likely to spot deer and other wildlife. During a midnight stroll on the beach I came face to face with a fully grown, slow-blinking sea turtle.

Fifty miles of public pathways and nature trails, many within private developments, await pedestrians and cyclists. Kiosks along the pathways display maps. The hallmark of Hilton Head is that just about every organized nature activity includes a lesson about the delicate balance of the island’s environment.

New Spas and Upgrades

Now that the island has entered “middle age," it’s also taking care to freshen up. All over the island, aging properties are being rebuilt, renovated and replaced.

Full service spas have opened at the Westin Resort (843-681-1087 or www.westin.com), Two Grasslawn Ave., and Marriott Hilton Head Beach & Golf Resort (843-686-8400 or www.hiltonheadmarriott.com), One Hotel Circle.

At right, sand, surf and sun characterize Hilton Head's attractive white sandy beach areas.*

With major property renovations completed a couple years ago, the Westin continues to upgrade with a new, 8,000-square-foot Heavenly Spa, the first in the continental United States, opened in 2007. 

Guests may extend the Heavenly Spa Signature Treatment beyond the spa to include healthful cuisine options, personal trainers at the health club and workout training equipment in their rooms.

As part of an overall $26 million renovation, the Marriott Hilton Head Beach & Golf Resort also added a new spa in 2007. It boasts 18 treatment rooms and signature island treatments.

The island's beaches also received a “lift” in 2007; they were replenished and expanded , a project that generally occurs about every 10 years. Returning visitors will notice wider, higher sand levels.

For More Information

Contact the Hilton Head Island Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-523-3373 or www.hiltonheadisland.org.

From her hometown of Charleston, S.C. freelance writer Mary Sue Lawrence covers the southeastern U.S. for North American publications as well as United Kingdom media.

*Photos on this page are owned, copyrighted and shown courtesy of the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau. All rights reserved. Please do not link to these photos nor copy.

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