There’s one word that comes to mind when travelers think of Hilton Head Island: golf. Home to more than a dozen courses designed by luminaries like Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones Sr., the island has been deemed one of the world’s top golf resorts by readers of Golf Digest. And at a mere 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, it would be easy to pigeonhole Hilton Head as just another golfer’s paradise. But this shoe-shaped island off South Carolina offers so much to do that visitors can be entertained for far more than 36 hours without ever swinging a golf club. With Hilton Head’s renewed emphasis on environmental tourism (like new bike paths and the new ZipLine Hilton Head canopy tour) as well as an influx of increasingly sophisticated restaurants, including one from the chef Robert Irvine of “Restaurant: Impossible,” there’s something for every member of the family. That’s in addition to activities that have long attracted residents and regulars: indulging in the local Gullah cuisine, exploring miles of nature trails, boating, tennis and swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Plus, it’s a breeze to take a day trip to cities like Savannah and Beaufort (where much of “The Prince of Tides” was filmed), less than an hour away. Don’t know a double bogey from an eagle? No matter.
1. Beachside Pleasures
Coligny Plaza — a cluster of beachside hotels, bike paths, shops and restaurants — is a good place to get your bearings. Unwind with ice cream from the Frozen Moo, which lures sunburned tourists with inventive flavors like Play Dough and Pralines ’n Cream. Finish off a cone while swinging on a bench by the beach, eyeing the parade of sandy revelers as they go by on foot and bike. This is the place to pick up kitschy souvenirs and anything you might have inadvertently left at home (beach bags, sarongs, knockoff designer sunglasses). You’ll also find cabanas where you can obtain those other summer vacation essentials: fake tattoos and hair braids. On warm nights, people gather on benches for live music in the “center stage” area, where dancing is often encouraged. If this sounds like a scene out of “Grease,” you’ve got the right idea. Should it rain, there’s the cozy Coligny Theater (colignytheatre.com) where you can catch an independent movie. (Alternatively, you can take a short drive to the two nearby Tanger Outlets.) Cyclists take note: you may want to return here at some point to rent a bike (the island is known for beach biking). Either way, don’t leave without picking up the free magazines that list coming activities around the island. (Coligny Plaza Shopping Center, 1 North Forest Beach Drive; colignyplaza.com)
2. Sunset at the Boathouse
The waterfront restaurant and bar Skull Creek Boathouse (397 Squire Pope Road; skullcreekboathouse.com), set on a sprawling terrace beneath live oaks and industrial outdoor fans, typifies Hilton Head’s casual vibe. There is indoor seating with air-conditioning, but why bother with that when you can have a table (or a lounge chair) by the creek for live music and the best show on the island — the sunset. On the menu: practically everything. Naturally there’s seafood (lobster and crab at market price) but land-lovers will find steak (from about $20 to $30), chicken (about $15) and pasta with seafood or chicken (from about $17 to $24), too. The restaurant does one of the best jobs at keeping children and adults happy in the same space at the same time. Alongside the outdoor dining area, kids play games and draw on the asphalt with chalk while the food cooks and the parents sip aperitifs. On the other side of the terrace is the Buoy Bar, tucked away from the tables, which creates a grown-up oasis. Two caveats if you want eat outdoors: come early to avoid waiting and wear mosquito repellent.
3. To the Lighthouse
Begin the day with a drive to the southern end of the island, where you can wind your way up 114 steps to the top of the candy-cane-colored Harbour Town Lighthouse Museum (149 Lighthouse Road; harbourtownlighthouse.com; $3.75 a person; free for children 5 and under). Each landing has information about the history of the lighthouse and the island. Once on top, step outside for a dizzying view of Calibogue Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the 18th green of Harbour Town Golf Links, home of the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage tournament. If you can bear to let go of the wall, wave to your friends from the lighthouse’s live webcam. In the shadow of the lighthouse are boutiques, a playground, a forest preserve and water sports for all ages. It’s a popular place to rent kayaks, boats, paddle boards, WaveRunners and parasails. Prefer to watch from dry land? Grab a seat on one of the red rocking chairs at the base of the lighthouse.
4. Treehouse Gander
Harbour Town is part of the Sea Pines Resort (32 Greenwood Drive; seapines.com), which is within a 5,000-acre residential community (one of the first developments on Hilton Head Island, dating from the 1950s). Stroll beyond the shops and playground to an area known as Deer Island, though, and you’ll find the area’s most unusual architecture: octagonal villas perched amid the trees. Some of the homes are for rent, yet even if you don’t stay, it’s worth a gander if only to imagine a different way of living.
5. Lunchtime Boat-Watching
Break for lunch at the Quarterdeck (149 Lighthouse Road; 843-842-1999), a dockside restaurant at the foot of the lighthouse serving burgers (about $11 to $13), wraps ($12 for the blackened fish wrap), salads ($6 to $13) and other everyday fare. You’re not here for innovative cuisine. You’re here to sit under an umbrella and watch the boats come and go from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin.
6. Into the Woods
Check out the Sea Pines Forest Preserve, more than 600 acres, where you can walk off lunch. Be sure to visit the Shell Ring Trail, which leads you through a pine flatwood forest to a 4,000-year-old shell ring. This vast mound of broken shells is evidence of the area’s early inhabitants: American Indians. Emerge from the woods and you’ll discover that a lakeside picnic area is nearby. So is a sign about not swimming or feeding the alligators. Mind the reptiles and the warning: “Survivors will be ticketed.”
7. Small Plates, Big Steaks
For small plates (seared sashimi tuna for $12, flat pizzettas about $9 to $12, shrimp and lobster won tons for $11) and a big wine list (more than 150 wines), island regulars head to WiseGuys (1513 Main Street; wiseguyshhi.com). Steaks are a new addition to the menu.
8. Late-Night Diversions
Daniel’s Restaurant and Lounge (2 North Forest Beach Drive No. 108; danielshhi.com) is one of the few spots on the island that seems as if it could survive in a big city. Dark and slick with an aptly named illuminated bar called Blue Lounge, it feels like a place where you can almost forget you’re in Hilton Head. Live music and tapas inspired by countries around the world — tandoori chicken skewers ($9.50), bacon-wrapped Medjool dates ($12), blue crab stuffed Atlantic salmon sliders ($12) — make it a playful yet adult affair. Later, it becomes a nightclub.
9. Flora, Fauna and History
If you want to learn about Hilton Head’s history, its flora and fauna — including the loggerhead sea turtles that nest on its beaches (ask about the evening turtle talks and walks) — and the Gullah people (descendants of enslaved Africans), the Coastal Discovery Museum (70 Honey Horn Drive; coastaldiscovery.org; free) has 68 acres of fields, gardens and displays to help you do just that. Indoors, interactive exhibits bring history to life. Outdoors, you can spend hours wandering by or through salt marshes, a butterfly habitat and some of the oldest buildings on Hilton Head. (Parents: be sure to check out the schedule of events for children.)
10. Lowcountry Lunch
No visit to Hilton Head is complete without indulging in some Lowcountry cooking. For some of the best, head to Chef David’s Roastfish and Cornbread (70 Marshland Road; roastfishandcornbread.com), an unassuming roadside restaurant owned by David V. Young. Here, appetizers like fried okra ($3.95), hush puppies ($3.25) and sweet potato corn bread ($2.50) are the best part of the menu. It’s rare that such a place would also offer extensive vegetarian options but, happily, this one does. Should you truly want to indulge, look up Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s (840 William Hilton Parkway; dyesgullahfixins.com) for mouthwatering (possibly heart-stopping?) homemade food.
11. Beach Bumming
While Hilton Head’s beaches are public, access to them is limited to fewer than a dozen locations. Coligny Beach Park (1 Coligny Circle) is one of the most popular because it has so many nearby amenities (see Coligny Plaza above). Those who want a more subdued experience can head to Driessen Beach Park (64 Bradley Beach Road) if they’re willing to take a long, woodsy walk to the sand from the parking lot. The payoff comes in the form of a flat, wide beach — and enough space to occasionally forget that you’re sharing the view.
Fans of Robert Irvine, of Food Network fame, might enjoy the twist on classic American fare at his nascent restaurant, Robert Irvine’s Eat! (1000 William Hilton Parkway; chefirvineseat.com), where the menu includes appetizers like fried green tomatoes with brown butter ($8) and entrees like blackened snapper and grits ($26). Fill up before flying home and you’ll have no need for the peanuts on the plane.