Many places claim to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future. But there aren’t many places that can make this claim earnestly.

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is a sixty-nine-mile barrier island located just twenty miles north of Savannah, Georgia, and roughly ninety-five miles south of Charleston. Due to its location in the Atlantic, it has been a hub of activity for centuries and a home base for a whole host of cultures and influences.

In recent times, it has become the ultimate resort destination, beloved for its impeccably preserved natural spaces, beautiful beaches, and plethora of outdoor activities. It truly is a nature lover’s paradise. But it’s also so much more than that.

The island’s roughly 40,000 year-round residents and many repeat visitors know that, just under the surface, Hilton Head is a place with one of the most interesting histories in all of America and even the world.

Breaking New Ground

Hilton Head has been inhabited by a variety of different people, beginning with the native Yemassee and Escamacus tribes. Evidence of these tribes’ lifestyle is still apparent on the island, and visitors can experience it firsthand by visiting Sea Pines Forest Preserve and Green Shell Park, preserved sites that are home to famous shell rings that span over two hundred feet wide and nine feet high.

More than two hundred years after European settlers colonized Hilton Head, it became the site of some of the most important historical moments of the Civil War. After securing the island, Union troops, led by General Ormsby Mitchel, confiscated a portion of land from one of the twenty-four plantations and reserved the land for the newly freed slaves to build homes and establish the first self-governing freedmen’s town in America, eventually naming the town Mitchelville. “It’s a great piece of American history, not just Southern history or Hilton Head Island history,” says Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island Visitor and Convention Bureau. “The Gullah islanders, because of their isolation from the mainland, were able to retain their culture and their language, which you can still hear in the dialect today.”

Descendants of this town make up the current Gullah population who still live on Hilton Head Island, and they have worked to preserve the memory and significance of Mitchelville by transforming it into Mitchelville Freedom Park. Visitors can now explore the park grounds and seven exhibits, including a homestead house, a bateau boat, a tool shed, and a praise house. Guided tours, such as the ‘Roots of Reconstruction’ tour, are also available, which can give visitors a better look at the day-to-day lives of Mitchelville’s former residents and the role they played in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

Two If By Sea

In addition to the preservation of historical places, preserving natural spaces has always been at the forefront of Hilton Head, which is why it has remained one of the most immaculate areas of land anywhere on the East Coast. Planning for the island as a resort began in the 1980s, and, from the start, it was designed to be an eco-tourism destination—America’s first. “There’s a lushness here you won’t find with many other East Coast destinations,” says Clark. “[The planners] were kind of green before green was cool.” Nature rules here, and it’s evident in everything from the natural color of the buildings to the height restrictions on structures to the lack of streetlights, the latter of which is intentional to preserve the visibility of the night sky. You won’t even find a single neon light anywhere on the island.

Of the island’s sixty-nine miles, twelve miles are beachfront, so water is at the center of life here. In spring and early summer, the average temperature on Hilton Head is in the mid-70s to low 80s, making for some truly beautiful days on the water. For those who prefer sightseeing activities, over four hundred dolphins call the island home year round, and hopping aboard a dolphin tour is one of the best ways to catch a glimpse of these animals playing and diving through the water. You can charter your own boat for the day for fishing and crabbing and dock at one of the many nearby islands for some beach exploration.

When you’re ready for something more active, watersports are king, with plenty of opportunities for Jet Skiing, parasailing, and surfing, although kayaking is one of the most popular ways to get around. “The kayak is like a nature walk on water,” says Clark. The island’s high tides make it possible to kayak not only in the ocean but also in the many miles of marshes and estuaries that run through its center, which is a great way to see wildlife, such as oyster beds, rays, manatees, and even rare birds like bald eagles.

Of course, no Hilton Head vacation is complete without a relaxing day on the beach, and, according to Clark, one of the most unique aspects of the coastline on the island is just how undeveloped it is. There are no high-rises on the beach; in fact, buildings over five stories tall are not permitted on the island. Resorts are also set far back from the dunes, and they are spaced far apart from one another to preserve the natural view of the coastline. For all these reasons and
more, Hilton Head has consistently been voted one of the top ten family beaches in the country and is among the most highly rated island destinations in the world.

Beyond the Beach

There’s a reason why 70 percent of Hilton Head visitors make a second trip—it’s a truly exceptional destination, and not just by East Coast standards. There are so many gorgeous sites to see and activities to enjoy, and spring and early summer are arguably the best times to make the most of them.

Golf is one of the most popular activities, particularly this time of year, and the area is home to thirty-three championship courses across Hilton Head, Bluffton, and nearby Daufuskie Island. Spring also brings the return of the RBC Heritage golf tournament, which is scheduled for April 11–17 in 2022. The event is one of the most prestigious in the golf world, and it brings approximately 135,000 visitors to the island. Keeping true to Hilton Head’s vision, it is also one of the most sustainability focused events on the PGA Tour.

If you’re more of an arts and culture aficionado than a sports fan, April and May are still fantastic times to visit. The Art Market at historic Honey Horn, scheduled for April 23–24 in 2022, is an opportunity for artisans to showcase their fine art and other wares, and the annual Hilton Head Art Festival during Memorial Day weekend offers live music, a wide selection of arts and crafts for purchase, and delicious food from local vendors.

Without seeing it firsthand, Hilton Head can easily be mistaken for just another island in the South. It has beautiful stretches of beaches and fantastic natural wonders, but its rich history paired with an eye toward the future has made it a standout destination unlike any other you might find in America.

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