7 Family-Friendly Things to Do at Hilton Head Island SC

We’d heard the name Hilton Head Island for years as a beach resort destination but only found time to head to Hilton Head Island (or HHI as it is also known) as part of our trip to Savannah, Georgia. It’s a southern vacation favorite for its wide, sandy beaches, range of resorts, dining, and outdoor activities like golfing and cycling. So, if you like sun, sand, and beach life, join us and enjoy our Travel Guide to Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Hilton Head Island is situated between Savannah and Charleston on the east coast of the United States. It boasts 12 miles of open Atlantic beachfront, and unlike some of the northern USA beaches, none are private or require a fee to enjoy. Instead, you can opt to upgrade your experience by hiring beach gear or a cabana for extra sun protection. The wide beaches offer plenty of space for everyone, and at low tide, the hard-packed, damp sand makes a natural highway for mountain bikes and leisure riding.

Local tip: A fascinating quirk of HHI is that there are strict restrictions on advertising, ensuring any garish neon signs are banished in favor of more tasteful out-of-home ads that blend into the natural setting.

Beyond the sand dunes, you’ll find a wealth of wildlife, stunted trees decorated with tinsel-like Spanish moss, and world-class golf courses. Accommodation options range from stylish Vrbo beach houses to acclaimed resorts, including The Westin Hilton Head Resort & Spa, Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort, Marriott Grande Ocean, and the Marriott Hilton Head Spa and Resort (the only time you’ll find the Marriott and Hilton names in one hotel location!)

Top things to do at Hilton Head Island

Shop up a storm.

Hilton Head Island isn’t renowned as a shopping mecca, but there are pockets of retail at Harbor Town, Coligny Plaza, and close to the major chain resorts and spas. The main shopping center is Coligny Plaza, just across the road from Coligny Beach. Additionally, there are a zillion places to shop on your way to the island, with Tanger Outlets minutes from the island turnoff at Bluffton and big box stores like TJ Maxx on the mainland nearby.

Ride the sandy shores.

You don’t need to bring a bike to Hilton Head to take part in the island’s favorite pastime, riding along the beaches. Mountain bikes and wide-tired bikes can be hired around most beach areas, and the sand is so wide you won’t have difficulty avoiding crowds and kids.

Play a round of golf.

America is a little golf-obsessed when it comes to vacation hobbies. To give you an idea, there are 24 golf courses on Hilton Head Island, which is quite a lot considering it’s only 12 miles long. It also hosts a PGA championship event too.

Climb the Harbor Town Lighthouse.

Harbor Town is the main shopping and dining precinct, towards the southwest end of the island. The iconic red and white lighthouse may only be 50 years old, but it has come to represent HHI in most tourist guides. You can climb its 105 steps for $7, free for kids 5 and under.

Go on a dolphin-watching cruise.

Departing daily from Harbor Town, take a boat ride out to see the playful sea life cavorting in the blue waters of the Atlantic. For a change of pace, you can cruise on an actual America’s Cup yacht or even a shrimp trawler. If you’re more into catching than watching, join a Hilton Head fishing charter.

Beach yourself.

Easily the number one on most peoples’ favorite things to do on Hilton Head Island is lazing on the beach. The premier beach is Coligny Beach. It’s well-appointed with modern, clean changing rooms, cabana rentals, beach markets, and even free beach wheelchairs. Our time was cut short by an incoming storm warning, but while we were there, we had a lovely time in the sand.

A hidden treasure worth finding.

While most travel guides focus on the upscale dining you’ll find around the major resorts, one of the best discoveries we found was on Palmetto Bay Road, which becomes Route 278. Nestled in a modest group of shops beside a smokehouse restaurant is A Low Country Backyard Restaurant.

It offers the best of southern, low-country dining at an equally modest price. Boasting the 3rd best shrimp and grits in the world *apparently, it has been recognized in Conde Naste, the Wall Street Journal, and the Travel Channel’s Food Paradise. And we stumbled upon it in search of a quick roadside snack. We tried the Lowcountry Crab Cake Sandwich and the Charleston Fried Green Tomato BLT, and they did not disappoint.

How to get to Hilton Head

Hilton Head is a popular vacation hot spot for Southerners, less than four hours from Atlanta, Georgia, four hours from Charlotte, two hours from Charleston, and under an hour from Savannah on a good day. The closest airport is the Savannah Hilton Head Airport, but it is poorly serviced by transit options. There is a tiny airport, Hilton Head Island Airport, servicing routes to and from Washington DC and Charlotte with American Airlines.

We investigated a few different options for getting to Hilton Head from Savannah. There’s no easy way on public transit, but there were a few interesting choices via airport transfers, taxis, and car rentals.  In the end, we chose the easiest option, hiring a car from Enterprise Car Rentals and driving the 45 minutes to an hour or so north of Savannah. The drive is relaxed and takes you through avenues of gnarled trees with curtains of Spanish moss.

One watch out at Hilton Head Island.

It’s an American quirk that we haven’t come across in other countries, but here, there is a major market for time-share accommodation. At Coligny Beach, the tourist information stand is a front for timeshare sales. We had a very pushy salesman who wouldn’t say no to an answer, offering everything from $200 to come to a sales presentation to a free dolphin-watching cruise. After repeatedly telling him that we weren’t interested, he became quite aggressive verbally and even swore and imposed himself to intimidate.

But this wasn’t the only instance. Returning from the beach, what seemed like a friendly local riding by on his bike turned into another hard sell to get us into a sales presentation. It soured our opinion of the place.

Looking for more vacation and road trip ideas across the United States? We have great ideas for trips in New York State, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine.
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