Hilton Head Island was originally occupied by various Native America tribes. The first Europeans to arrive were the Spanish, in 1521. The Spanish mistreated the local Indians and were eventually driven off by them.
In 1663 an Englishman, Captain William Hilton, arrived looking for a place to plant sugar cane and indigo and claimed the island for the British crown. Hilton Head soon thrived as landowners established plantations of these crops and cotton. In 1861 Hilton Head Island was overrun by Union army troops and many of the residents fled, to be replaced by escaped slaves as well as the Union troops and their Confederate prisoners. After the civil war, the boll weevil destroyed the cotton crop and Hilton Head was all but abandoned. A few remaining blacks, former slaves and their descendants stayed and survived by farming and fishing. These residents were so isolated from the mainland they developed their own language and culture based on their African heritage. Today these people and their language are known as ”Gullah” and they are widely regarded as ”native” islanders.
In the 1940’s Hilton Head was rediscovered as a hunting ground for wealthy sportsmen, who later saw the commercial potential in the tall pine trees which covered the island. As the lumbering industry began to grow, electricity was brought to the island in 1950. This paved the way to development of the island as a tourist destination.
In 1956 a bridge was built connecting the island to the mainland. At that same time, a visionary young developer, son of a family who owned most of the land on the southern end of the island, conceived a resort community that would blend with the natural beauty and ecology of the island. Charles Fraser’s resulting Sea Pines Plantation resort has become a model for resorts world wide that focus on the preservation of nature and the blending of structures with the environment. Charles was killed in a boating accident in the Caribbean in December 2002.
Hilton Head Island is a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina and is located about 30 highway miles north of Savannah, GA. At seven miles in width and fourteen in length, it is the second largest Atlantic coast barrier island after Long Island, NY. It is shaped roughly like a tennis sneaker, with the ”toe” known as the south end, the ”ball” of the foot is Forest Beach, and the ”top” is the north end. Hilton Head Island is almost bisected by Broad Creek which is navigable for most of its length and is home to several marinas.
The island is separated from the mainland by the Calibogue sound and the Intercoastal Waterway. Between Hilton Head and the mainland are two islands. Daufuskie Island is accessible only by water and is partly wild and partly developed for tourism. Pinckney Island is accessible from the bridge linking Hilton Head to the mainland, and it is a National Wildlife Refuge popular among bird watchers.
On Hilton Head, there are several ”plantations” which are private, gated communities with restricted access. All beaches on Hilton Head are public, though access from the interior may be restricted. There are many miles of beach, making it easy to get away from crowded ”hot spots”. Dunes separate the beach from the interior, and provide protection against storm surges. The ecological balance of the dunes is very delicate, so crossing them is permitted only at boardwalk-like walkovers. The width of the beach is affected by tides, which commonly run eight feet. Keep this in mind when you leave a towel or shoes at low tide – eight feet of tide translates to many yards of beach. The beach slopes very gradually into the ocean which limits waves to less than surfing size. There are some areas of beach that can have treacherous currents during tidal changes. No motor vehicles are permitted on the beaches.
A four lane highway, Wm Hilton Pkwy (Hwy 278), runs the length of Hilton Head, from the bridge to the south end. The Cross Island Expressway is a toll road that provides a shortcut from the north end to the south end. The $1 toll is well worth the 12 traffic lights and four miles it cuts out (you’ll save that in gasoline). US 278 ends at Sea Pines circle, the same place you will end up if you use the expressway. From the circle Pope Avenue takes you to the beach at Coligny Circle and South Forest Beach Drive runs along the ocean from there. There is no ”downtown” on Hilton Head. Shopping and activities are spread throughout, although more heavily concentrated on the south end of the island. Sorry, teens, the only mall is small and not a place where teens ”hang”.
The population of Hilton Head is approximately 38,000 and the island hosts more than 2.5 million visitors each year.