This island off the coast of South Carolina offers 12 miles of white sand barrier beach, plus twenty-two golf courses, more than 300 tennis courts and numerous resorts. This classy resort island, divided into public areas and plantations (resort and lodging sections) bars neon signs and protects trees.
Despite the hearty development, the island sports an underlying tastefulness. The blue beach umbrellas, available for rental, are lined up in orderly rows. The resorts are set back from the sands so the buildings don't seem to be devouring the shore. If you know where to look, you can find wildlife and nature preserves too. It's no surprise that six of the seven South Carolina resorts that made the prestigious Conde Nast Traveler 1998 Gold List were located at Hilton Head.
The beach is alluring, dune bordered and wide. As a resort guest or lodging renter, you have access to the beach through the paths nearest your property. At the gates to most plantations guards ask about your destination. Mention a resort and some guards simply wave you in; at other gates the guards check for car passes issued by rental companies or hotels. To many visitors this system is an annoying waste of time. If you are not a renter or a resort guest, then technically you are supposed to enter the beach through the public access areas. There are several of these, but the two with the largest parking areas are at Coligny Circle and Folly Field Road. Once you are on the beach, feel free to walk anywhere.
As a family, we like Sea Pines Resort and Harbour Town best. Both have great beaches and accommodations. Sea Pines has its own nature preserve, plus tennis, golf, and sailing clinics for kids and a full-day children's program for ages 3- 11 in summer. Harbour Town with its shops and restaurants, serves as the unofficial "gathering place" for Hilton Head, especially since in summer Gregg Russell, Hilton Head's Pied Piper, sings and entertains kids in the evening under the 100-year-old live oak tree.
The tried and true standard for luxury is the Westin Resort,Port Royal Resort, (843-681-4000 or 800-228-3000), the island's only 5-Diamond property. Camp Wackatoo, organized activities for ages 4-11, is available from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Awesome Jim's Adventures, available summer afternoon, is a sports-oriented fun camp for ages 12-16. Teens windsurf, kayak, raft and have lots of outdoors and with each other. The Westin Kids Club, an amenities program, makes family stays easier by providing upon request items such as a crib, bed rails, and potty seats. This beachfront hotel has indoor and outdoor pools and the adjacent Van de Meer Tennis center is first-rate. Villas are also available. ( 800-WESTIN-1; 843-681-4000.)
Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort, a time share resort offers families the convenience of studio, one, two and three-bedroom villas, each complete with kitchen facilities. The lodgings, which are not beachfront are located on a private islet, Longview Island, within Shelter Cove. The resort's beach club with outdoor pool and snack bar is 1 ½ miles away. Free shuttles take you there. In summer the Disney Discovery Club, the children's program for ages 3-12, operates Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat. In winter the program operates on weekends. Call 800-453-4911.
The Hyatt Hilton Head has children's programs for ages 3-12 in summer and during spring break. The beachfront property has an indoor and an outdoor pool, bike rentals and a convenience shop that sells take out sandwiches and snacks (800-233-1234; 843-785-1234). www.hyatt.com .
The Hilton Head Island Hilton Resort offers the Vacation Station children's program for ages 4-11 in summer and during Easter. The beachfront property has an outdoor pool. These guest rooms, which are larger than typical rooms, come with a refrigerator, coffee pot and microwave. (800-221-2424; 843/842-8000.) www.hiltonheadhilton.com
Commander Zodiac Raft Outings: Zodiac raft outings take you and your kids into Calibogue Sound to get close to frolicking dolphins and maybe motor up to a shrimp boat. The trips leave from South Beach Marina, Sea Pines Plantation. Call 843- 671-3344.
Sea Pines Forest Preserve: The forest preserve offers a taste of South Carolina wilderness. Pick a cool day to explore. The preserve's two trails, the Indian Shell Ring Loop and the Waterfowl Pond Loop, are both self-guided nature trails. In summer the easiest way to explore is to take a naturalist-led haywagon ride. You ride through stands of oak, pine, bay and sassafras trees, past a wildflower meadow and along the shores of two small lakes. Sometimes white herons, who nest here, dot the nearby trees. If you bring a permit and a pole, you can fish for crappie and bream.
But whatever you do, don't wade in the water as the alligators rule here. In fall the preserve is also an especially good spot to admire the thousands of migratory birds, flying in "V" formations, that head south along the Atlantic flyway. Horse back rides are also available. Contact: Sea Pines Resort, 843-785-3333.
BEST FAMILY AND KID FUN
**Greg Russell. The Pied Piper of Hilton Head, Gregg Russell sings under the 100-year-old live oak, Harbour Town. He enchants children and adults with his presence, sixties lyrics and good-spirited fun. Don't miss this old-fashioned, small town gathering. Your kids will be converts, chanting the "Gregg Russell Bubble Gum Kid Song," a light-hearted ditty with a refrain about "bugger in the sugar." Gradeschoolers love this stuff. The performances are free, Monday through Saturday from 8-9pm in summer.
**Gregg Russell's Fun For Kids. Based in Harbour Town at the town pool, the day camp has full and half-day programs for ages 4-12 from 9am-4pm. Each morning kids go on a daily outing; trips include crabbing, playing mini-golf, shrimp trawling and searching for dolphins. Register in advance. (843-671-3590).
** Ages 6-16 can sign up for the 3-day Commander Zodiac Junior Sailing School. Kids can also take outings with Captain Zodiac's/ Kids Waterfun, a day adventure of dolphin spotting, crabbing, water balloon tossing and face painting. (843-671-3344).
**Awesome Adventures Kids Camp. Older kids, ages 9-16, kayak, sail, waterski, parasail, surf and mountain bike. Check in at Shelter Cove Marina, but call ahead (843-842-7024).
**Kayak. Learn kayaking with Outside Hilton Head. Make it a family outing or sign your kids up for their Kids Kayak Camp for ages 5-9 and 10-14. (843-686-6996).
**Museum Camp. At the Coastal Discovery Museum's ecological oriented camps Kids learn about fish, dolphins, beach habitats and Hilton Head's early Native Americans. The 4-day sessions are available for children entering grades one through eight. (843-689-6767).
**Eco-Adventures. The Coastal Discovery Museum also offers nature oriented outings for families and adults. Take a birding cruise, a photography class or a beach walk. (843-689-6767).
**Sea Pines EcoTours. Among the nine ecological outings for families and adults offered by naturalist guides are bike tours, stargazing nights, crabbing, fishing and beach explorations. (843-363-4530).
--Candyce H. Stapen, author of Great Family Vacations South, second edition (Globe Pequot Press)