At first glance, South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island may seem to be the place where all the wealthy cool kids and their parents go to play. One could hardly be blamed for thinking so, with its beautiful warm weather, golf courses, a luxury resort and well-dressed society all around. However, if you go to see for yourself what the place is all about – as I did – you may change your mind.
Eco Green Hilton Head Island
I have a keen interest in ecotourism and sustainable travel. I heard about Hilton Head and the eco-green efforts being pursued on the island when I attended the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) run by the International Ecotourism Association (TIES) some years ago. Conference-goers seemed impressed with the island and encouraged me to discover what that community had to offer. I spoke with some lovely folks at the South Carolina Tourism Board and arranged a short visit to this beautiful island.
The residents and business people have developed a unique vision for the island. To cut down on light pollution, no large, bright signs or street lamps are allowed, and special permission by an appointed conservation official is required before any trees can be felled. The occasional annoyance these limitations and others like them causes for the local population is far outweighed by the benefits bestowed on the island’s ecosystem.
Hilton Head is considered to be the second-largest barrier island on the eastern US seaboard (Long Island is the other one). What that means for residents and tourists is that it has its own unique ecosystem that promotes growth of the marshlands and beaches while being mostly sheltered from the intense storms that usually batter the region.
If you fancy a boat trip in the area, you could check out the neighbouring islands, including Daufuskie and Bull Islands. Keep a sharp lookout for aquatic and bird life – perhaps you’ll be able to pick out an alligator, otter, or dolphin somewhere in the distance.
On Hilton Head Island Sea Turtles, Nature, Gullah Culture and History are all Waiting to be Explored
Although the island has PGA golf courses and stellar resorts such as the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa that I reviewed in a previous article, one of its biggest draws is the sea turtle population. In the summer, female loggerhead sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches and here again locals may be inconvenienced: seafront property owners must turn off their lights by 10:00 pm. The Coastal Discovery Museum runs some turtle information and conservation sessions during this time – great for kids and adults alike.
Many of the activities available on the island showcase the abundant natural diversity in some way. I had a wonderful kayaking experience at the Sea Pines Plantation, paddling through marshes and looking for dolphins. On the Sea Pines Forest Preserve nature trail, I saw a blue heron and alligators, discovered an ancient Indian shell ring, and found a centuries-old rice paddy. If you are luckier than I am, perhaps you’ll see some deer going for a swim in the lake.
A four-hour boat tour with Outside Hilton Head took me around to see the island’s ecosystem and down Broad Creek. This tour allowed me to see a lot of the island and the guide’s commentary was fantastic. I even got to see some dolphins!
If you are a fan of molluscs, then you must find your way over to the heritage oyster farms in Broad Creek to see how they are cultivated. Oysters are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem because they clean the wetland marshes. Not surprisingly, oysters are a dominant feature on the island’s culinary heritage and can be found in local restaurant menus.
One aspect of Hilton Head that I did not get a chance to explore was the Gullah culture. As I understand it, the Gullah are descendants of African slaves, brought to the island to work for wealthy landowners. This has resulted in the development of a culture unique to Hilton Head and the neighbouring areas, with foods and traditions that evolved from the civil war are still evolving today. I took the Coastal Discovery Museum’s two-hour Gullah Heritage Travel Tour which was complemented by a fantastic guided commentary. Unfortunately, my knowledge of American history is weak so I did not understand it all, yet I still found the tour interesting. Although I did not partake in the bonus of a discount offered by Chef David’s Roastfish & Cornbread restaurant, it is something I will do the next time I visit.
Another place I want to explore when I come back is Daufuskie Island, to learn about Indian revolts, indigo and cotton traditions, and maybe check out an exclusive golf course. A Gullah community developed after the American Civil War and they supported themselves with the cultivation of oysters. The tour company Outside Hilton Head offers a four-hour Daufuskie Island tour where they explain more about the buildings, cemeteries and culture.
I would have to say that my overall experience in Hilton Head was fantastic but way too short. The depth of ecology and culture meant that I was unable to see and do everything I wanted to in the short amount of time that I had. I highly recommend that if short on time, that you seek out a history and culture tour.
I would not recommend Hilton Head for the frugal backpacker, but it is a great destination for families or people who want a touch of class and guilt-free comfort on their next trip. My stay was short, but it left me with a hunger to return – the mark of any good travel destination!