Hilton Head Island is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the South Carolina Lowcountry — and for good reason!
The island has clean beaches, loads of incredible seafood restaurants, golf courses galore, and plenty of family-friendly outdoor activities.
It’s also a great place to take a multi-generational family vacation, since Hilton Head has a little something to suit every age group.
I’m going to attempt to cover all the main points you need to know if you’re planning your first trip to the island. Although I live in nearby Savannah, Georgia, my parents have owned a place on HHI since I was in my teens (and my grandfather did before them — in the old Lawton Beach area), so I guess you could say I’m pretty familiar with it!
Ready? Let’s get to it!
Note: This guide contains affiliate links to my trusted travel partners.
If you’re new around here, first of all … allow me to extend a warm welcome!
My name is Erin, and I authored the Savannah First-Timer’s Guide. It combines my top tips from this website into one handy downloadable guide.
Hilton Head, S.C.
The most popular time to visit Hilton Head Island is during the summertime, but spring and fall aren’t too far behind. In fact, the island reaches near capacity each year in April when the RBC Heritage event takes place!
Hilton Head is popular during the winter months, too, thanks to snowbirds who visit to escape cold and snowy climates.
In fact, I won’t be too surprised to see the island filled with people year round at some point in the near future! (It’s already getting that way.)
One thing to keep in mind when you’re planning a visit is that Atlantic hurricane season kicks into high gear late in August. Storm chances stay pretty high throughout September and into October.
The threat dies down as the storm season comes to an end in November.
Still, if you plan a visit anytime between mid-August to mid-October, I suggest purchasing travel insurance for hurricanes, just to be on the safe side.
Additional Important Considerations
There are a few important considerations to factor in when you’re planning a trip to Hilton Head. While none of these are necessarily deal-breakers, I still want to mention them.
- If you’re traveling by car, there is currently only one way on and off the island. Thankfully, the bridge is divided into four lanes (two in each direction), so your chances of getting stuck on the island for extended periods of time aren’t too bad.
- Most of the time-share rentals on the island use Saturday as their check-in/check-out day. That means traffic coming and going during peak tourism season can cause a bit of a gridlock on Saturdays — especially during the midday hours.
- Hilton Head’s beaches get really dark at night! This is by design, and it’s done to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles that nest on the island. That’s great because it means the island has very little light pollution and you can easily see the stars, but it’s not ideal for late-night walks on the beach.
Savannah to Hilton Head
The most common way to get to Hilton Head from Savannah is by car.
Depending on which route you take, the distance between Savannah and Hilton Head varies between 30 to 45 miles. The drive takes a little more than an hour, but it can be quicker if traffic is light.
You can drive along I-95, but I prefer taking the scenic route through Bluffton. To do so, you’ll leave Savannah heading west on Oglethorpe Avenue, cross over the Talmadge Bridge on HWY 17 into South Carolina, and then veer right onto Okatie HWY.
From there, you’ll cross through a roundabout to May River Road, which goes straight through the Old Town section of Bluffton. You’ll see lots of beautiful old oaks along that route!
Exit left on Burnt Church Road and then right on Bluffton Parkway. The parkway spills onto HWY 278, which leads straight to Hilton Head Island.
You could also opt for Uber or Lyft, but a quick glance at their fare estimators tells me it’ll cost you roughly $100 each way to do so.
Renting a car via Turo or Discover Cars is another option.
Hilton Head Parking
The parking in most (not all) of the public beach access areas on Hilton Head Island is free, so you don’t need to allot a large budget for parking.
(That’s just one of many reasons why I prefer Hilton Head to Tybee Island, Georgia.)
Map of Hilton Head
If you look at a map of Hilton Head, you’ll notice the island is shaped like a foot.
Think of the north end of the island (where the heel would be) as a quiet, residential area. Most of the homes in that area are large, higher-end homes, and the beaches are in more of a natural state.
The middle portion of the island (where the arch of the foot would be) is where the majority of the hotels and public beach access points are located.
The southern end of the island (where the ball of the foot and the toe section would be) is where Sea Pines Resort and Sea Pines Forest Preserve are located. That area is also home to Harbour Town Golf Club and the Harbour Town Marina and Lighthouse.
Although beaches in the Sea Pines area are public, the majority of the land along that southern tip of the island is reserved for Sea Pines members and guests. I’d say that area is more exclusive.
There are plenty of hotel options throughout the island, but I’ll split them up by section and will list a few of the most popular ones in each area.
Hotels on the north end of the island:
- The Westin Resort & Spa | Oceanfront (⭐ 8.1)
Popular hotels in the mid-beach area:
- Sonesta Resort (⭐ 8) | Oceanfront
- Omni Hilton Head (⭐ 8.4) | Oceanfront
Popular hotels in the Sea Pines area:
- The Inn & Club at Harbour Town (⭐ 9.4) | Luxurious, golf-front property
- Marriott’s Heritage Club (⭐ 8.8) |
- Marriott Monarch at Sea Pines (⭐ 8.9) | Oceanfront
Hilton Head Home Rentals
If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, then you probably know I’ve taken a firm stance against short-term rentals within Savannah’s city limits.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn I feel the same way about Hilton Head. Here’s a bit of the backstory to explain why…
- When the bridge to Hilton Head was built in the 1950s, it opened the floodgates for developers to come onto the island and begin buying up as much land as possible.
- During that process, those developers displaced thousands of Gullah families who had been living on land their ancestors bought or inherited at the end of the Civil War.
- In many instances, when developers obtained the land from the Gullah people, they did so through deceptive practices — which meant Gullah heirs rarely received a fair price for their land.
- Once the developers seized the land, they stripped it, constructed new accommodations, and then marketed those properties as luxury resorts.
- The newly-constructed resort properties attracted wealthy — and primarily white — families to purchase properties on Hilton Head, thus shifting the demographics of the island. The percentage of African Americans residing on the island was nearly 100% in the 1920 census and had shifted to less than 6% by the 2020 census.
Why I Don’t Support Home Rentals on HHI
I understand that many readers prefer renting an entire home on the island vs. staying in a hotel — and I totally get that! Sometimes it just makes more sense to rent a home when you’re traveling as a large group.
VRBO currently lists thousands of home rentals scattered throughout every section of the island, and those properties are offered in a variety of price points.
The primary reason I don’t recommend home rentals on HHI is because the short-term rental market is (one of many issues) causing property taxes to increase so exponentially that many of the few remaining Gullah homeowners on the island are being priced out of their homes.
These families are losing their ancestral land at an alarming rate — with only a few hundred estimated acres of Gullah-owned land remaining on Hilton Head Island (that number used to be in the thousands).
If you reserve your home rental through either of the VRBO links in this section, 100% of those commissions will be donated to the Historic Gullah Land Preservation Program. It provides educational and financial assistance to help Gullah families retain ownership rights to their properties.
I realize that’s only a short-term solution, but it’s the best I can think of at the moment.
Things To Do in Hilton Head
When it comes to things to do in Hilton Head, the list is a long one.
Of course, most families will want to spend their days on the beach, but that’s not the only option. Hilton Head is also known for its award-winning golf courses and 60+ miles of paved bike trails.
If you’re not into golfing, biking, or swimming, here are some other great options to keep you busy:
- Go on a sunset dolphin cruise
- Take a stroll through Sea Pines Forest Preserve
- Visit Coastal Discovery Museum
- Explore the Gullah Heritage Trail
- Visit Michelville Freedom Park
- Catch fireworks and live music at Shelter Cove
- Challenge yourself to a round of mini-golf at Adventure Cove
- Visit Harbour Town Marina and climb the Harbour Town Lighthouse
- Go shopping at Coligny Plaza
- Catch a sunset at Shelter Cove Community Park
Finally, if you want to spot some alligators in the wild, you can do just that during gator mating season (late spring) in many of Hilton Head’s parks — Jarvis Creek Park is a good one — or you can head off the island to visit nearby Pinkney Island National Wildlife Rescue.
Hilton Head Restaurants
There are a couple conglomerates that have a monopoly on the top restaurants in Hilton Head. The SERG Group is probably the biggest one. They own quite a few restaurants that are very popular amongst tourists.
Here are a few of their most popular spots:
- Skull Creek Boathouse
- Skull Creek Dockside
- Frankie Bones (my personal fave)
- Black Marlin
- Wise Guys
A few additional hotspots on the island (that SERG doesn’t own) include Bullies Barbecue, Old Oyster Factory, Fish Camp, Ela’s on the Water, Hudson’s Seafood, Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte (aka: Charlie’s Coastal Bistro), and Coast.
If you like Jamaican food, I suggest visiting Red Stripes Caribbean Cuisine, which is located at 840 William Hilton Parkway. It’s a Gullah-owned establishment.
In short, there are plenty of places to eat on the island! You can also drive off island to try some of the restaurants lining US 278. Bluffton has excellent restaurants, too.
Hilton Head Beaches
Hilton Head Island has approximately 12 miles of beaches. Roughly half are ocean facing and the rest look out over the back rivers and inlets.
There’s no such thing as a “private beach” on Hilton Head.
All of Hilton Head Island’s beaches are public from the point where the ocean meets the sand to the high-water mark.
You can be asked to leave if you step off the beach onto a resort or a homeowner’s private property, or if you are breaking beach rules (littering, damaging the dunes, drinking alcohol, etc), but otherwise, the beaches are meant to be enjoyed by all.
From north to south, these are a few of the most well known public beaches and/or access points:
- Mitchelville Beach | Quiet, better for walking than swimming
- Folly Field Beach | Ideal for families
- Bradley Beach | Ideal for families
- Burke’s Beach | Ideal for families
- Coligny Beach | Most popular, lots of amenities nearby
The beach area around the Alder Lane Access area and Coligny Park is typically referred to as “Coligny Beach,” and it’s generally the most populated beach on the island. Mitchelville Beach (aka: Fish Haul Beach) is the most remote and quietest of the popular beaches.
Hilton Head Island Travel Guide
I hope my overview to the island was helpful! If I left anything out or if you have any questions, just let me know in the comments below!
If you’re not sure if HH is the right beach for you, my guide to beaches near Savannah GA might help. It takes an in-depth look at the best beaches within a 2-hour drive of the city.