High-end Hilton Head: The best of the Lowcountry when budget is no concern

By Lisa Allen, Contributor

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- When Charles Fraser envisioned Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island in the 1960s, he never imagined anything ordinary.

Inn at Harbour Town
The European-flavored Inn at Harbour Town has earned the AAA Four-Diamond Award for seven straight years.
Inn at Harbour TownWestin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa - lobbyHilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa - Presidential SuiteXO LoungeLe Bistro Mediterranean in Hilton Head Island

His dream for a resort on the tip of this South Carolina island, that had been only recently connected to the mainland by a swing bridge, was to make it world class.

A half-century later, his slogan embodies the entire 12-mile island, internationally known for its golf, tennis, resorts, beaches and restaurants. It lures the rich and famous from around the world. You know the type. They travel only by limo service, private jets or yachts. That's the beauty of Hilton Head Island. They can arrive by any of those means and enjoy the caliber of resorts, restaurants, spas and golf courses of which they are accustomed.

High-end Hilton Head Island: How to get there

Modes of arrival can include a private plane to the Hilton Head Island Airport, a yacht down the coast, or a roadster from I-95.

Hilton Head Island Airport, situated on the north end of the island, can accommodate virtually any private aircraft. It is served year-round by USAir and in season by Delta.

The Intracoastal Waterway meanders around the island so visitors can dock at either the Harbour Town Yacht Basin or Shelter Cove Marina. The biggest yacht Harbour Town has accommodated is 156 feet with an 8-foot draft, according to assistant harbormaster Leslie Whitener.

From I-95, the island is about 30 minutes seaward.

High-end Hilton Head Island: Where to stay

• The Hilton Oceanfront Resort Hilton Head Island features the most tropical island feel of the resorts, with tree-canopied paths that lead from several pools -- including one for adults only – to restaurants, the spa, a night club, fitness center, fire pit and private cabanas for oceanfront massages from the spa.

Recommended are the top-end oceanfront suites, each covering 1,000 square feet with double balconies, two bathrooms, a separate bedroom, a sitting room and a kitchenette. Every guest is treated to turn-down service each evening and room service runs around the clock, said Tracy Fitzgerald, national sales manager.

The resort just opened HH Prime for delectable dining and the XO Lounge has elbowed itself into the top tier of premier nightclubs, with live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday evenings.

• The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa appears more traditional, with a large lobby and access to one of the largest spas on the island, the Heavenly Spa by Westin. Its top-end Port Royal suite is huge, said Ellen Lam, marketing manager of fun. It's 2,000 square feet and has a 850-square-foot private veranda with a gazebo. It has three bathrooms, a master bedroom, a large dining room and living room. If you're one to entertain, it can fit 100 people, Lam said. Room service is available 24/7.

• Once you enter the lobby of the Hilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa, you have a great view of its pool, with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop. Marriott recently spent several million dollars, in the name of freshness, to renovate everything from the lobby to the rooms.

It has an array of suites to offer, including its largest, the Presidential. The parlor is approximately the size of three regular guestrooms. The suite has a Jacuzzi, a private sauna, a full-size refrigerator, wet bar and microwave. The suite comes with a king bedroom and a double-bed room can be added as a connector. Private balconies overlooking the ocean are accessible from both the bedrooms and the parlor.

Sea Pines Resort's European-flavored, 60-room Inn at Harbour Town is intimate and accommodating. A butler assigned to each guest ensures outstanding service, night or day. The inn has racked up impressive credentials, including the AAA Four-Diamond Award for seven straight years, a Four-Star Award by Mobil Travel Guide, 2009 Travel and Leisure's "500 World's Best Hotels," Condé Nast Traveler's "The World's Best Places to Stay, Gold List" and "Best in the World -- TOP 100 -- Reader's Choice Award."

Stay in the Highlander Suite, which has two bedrooms, a kitchenette and a living room salon. Each bedroom has a king-sized bed, flat screen TVs and a private bath. Through French doors, the living area opens to a private covered terrace overlooking the famed Harbour Town Golf Links. The inn also sits within walking distance of Harbour Town, which features shops, a great spot for breakfast, the Yacht Basin and the starting point for fishing, sailing or touring excursions on the ocean.

Hilton Head Rentals and Golf and ResortQuest Hilton Head Island can line up everything from well appointed villas to mansions that overlook golf courses, marshes, tree tops or the Atlantic Ocean. There are 1,000 accommodations from which to choose -- all furnished, with Internet access and flat-screen TVs. Many homes include oceanside pools and spas and wonderful areas to cook, entertain and relax.

Robert Stenhammer, general manager of ResortQuest Hilton Head Island, has several rental mansions from which to choose. One of his favorites is 40 Knots Way on South Forest Beach. It's on the Atlantic Ocean, sprawls over 7,500 square feet, has six bedrooms, 7.5 bathrooms, a private pool and whirlpool. "It has impeccable views of the ocean, Stenhammer said.

If you wish, he can arrange a private chef, daily maid service, or drop off a couple of golf carts ready for transportation to the nearby Coligny Plaza, or a couple of beach-cruising bicycles. A day spa can bring over cabanas and set up an oceanside massage, manicure and pedicure.

High-end Hilton Head Island: An array of spas

Speaking of spas, two of the best are The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa's Heavenly Spa by Westin, and Spa Soleil at Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa.

The Heavenly Spa by Westin offers a five-hour package that includes any three treatments, plus a manicure and pedicure. It has its own menu to keep with the mood you're after, either to energize or relax. Of note is the diamond radiance facial that uses diamond particles to add shimmer to your skin and minimize fine lines and wrinkles.

Spa Soleil at Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa offers seasonal full-body scrubs. For example it uses sugar cane crystals, crystallized kelp or organic Hawaiian Kona coffee mixed with organic and all natural fruits help to brighten your complexion, gentle fruit acids to erase dullness and organic oils to nourish and moisturize.

High-end Hilton Head Island: Where to golf

Imagine a Rodeo Drive for designer golf courses: Dye, Fazio, Jones (Rees and Robert Trent), Hills, Cobb, Cupp, Nicklaus. That's Hilton Head. Service starts when you pull up to the bag drop and it follows you around the course, into the clubhouse and back to the parking lot. What sets Hilton Head apart is the sophistication of its service. It's efficient and friendly, but understated. The goal is to provide whatever you need without you having to ask. They're way ahead of you. They know what you need, what you want before you do and it just appears. Very cool.

The following golf courses offer prime conditions and each has taken up residence on annual "must play" lists.

Starting with the island's anchor, Sea Pines Resort, the highly recommended venues also include Heron Point and Harbour Town Golf Links, both designed by Pete Dye. Heron Point opened in 2007, and it's got that Dye edge. It's a tough golf course that, yes, might punish a good shot, but could reward a bad one, too -- a brainfood course.

Harbour Town Golf Links, the acclaimed site of the annual PGA Tour's Heritage tournament, ranks as a favorite among the pros because it's challenging and fair while encouraging creative golf. Hands down, it's among the top three courses in South Carolina, a state known for golf. Your game likely will get a boost, too, from the forecaddy who will accompany you on your round. Most are PGA Professionals.

If you're a traditionalist, play the Ocean Course at Sea Pines, designed by George Cobb and updated by Mark McCumber. Few courses wander so close to the ocean.

Mid-island, Palmetto Dunes offers three layouts that are nothing alike: The oceanside Robert Trent Jones Jr. Golf Course, which skips to and fro over the island's lagoon system, the rolling Arthur Hills Golf Course and the bunker-laden George Fazio Golf Course. For variety, play all three.

Port Royal Golf Club has a collection of three classic golf courses. Planter's Row, designed by Willard C. Byrd, was built in 1984. It supposedly ranks as one of the most narrow golf courses on the island. You could put that to the test by counting the bark scuffs on your ball at the end of a round. There will be plenty.

Robber's Row at Port Royal Golf Club was designed by Pete Dye in 1994 and features Spanish-moss dripping oaks, doglegs and a lot of water hazards.

Port Royal's Barony Course was designed by George W. Cobb in 1963 and remains a classic. The key to this golf course? Hit the small greens.

High-end Hilton Head Island: Fine dining

There are more than 200 restaurants on Hilton Head Island. Let's cut through the clutter like a warm knife through herb butter. These five restaurants, all locally owned and uniquely Hilton Head, could compete with any big-city restaurant in creativity, caliber of ingredients and presentation. Their wine lists are extensive and exquisite. Most offer private areas if you prefer.

Aqua Grille & Lounge: The restaurant claims "the only thing we overlook is the ocean." It has ocean views, indoor waterfalls and fish tanks populated with tropical fish. But it's more than just a pretty face. You're encouraged to create your perfect meal, with a surf and turf mix in which you choose from a half-dozen seafoods and fish and several meats, from lamb to beef. Or opt for something like the veal wrapped with sage and prosciutto.

Aqua Grille & Lounge serves only certified angus beef and sits right on the North Forest Beach. Great food in a one-of-a-kind location. 10 North Forest Beach Dr., Hilton Head Island. Tel. (843) 341-3331.

Charlie's L'etoile Verte: The name is French, but the food is more than that -- sort of French with a Southern twist. The menu ranges from Pate Maison as an appetizer to Carolina Red Trout with a horseradish beurre blanc sauce, grilled tuna or swordfish with caper-anchovy butter. The creativity of the cuisine is stunning. 8 New Orleans Rd., Hilton Head Island. Tel. (843) 785-9277.

Le Bistro Mediterranean in Pineland Station: It's a staple, claiming its place at the top of the local food chain since 1988. It highlights cuisine from France, Spain, Morocco, Greece and Italy. A sampling of the fare: cod with a Marrakech sauce, three veal dishes and a nice vegetarian selection. You'll find meals here not found elsewhere. 301 Pineland Station, Hilton Head Island. Tel. (843) 681-8425.

Michael Anthony's Cucina Italiana: At this Italian restaurant, even the salads catch your eye. Try watermelon and arugula salad with toasted pine nuts and ricotta salata, dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. For your meal, sample the homemade lobster ravioli in a lobster, basil and cognac sauce or sautéed breast of duck with dried figs, pancetta and mushrooms in an amarone reduction.

The sophistication of the menu will amaze you. For islanders, this is the special-event restaurant because of its excellent food and ambiance. 37 New Orleans Rd., Hilton Head Island. Tel. (843) 785-6272.

Robert Irvine's eat!: In the Village at Wexford, this is the new place on the island, featuring celebrity chef Robert Irvine, who has a cookbook and a presence on the Food Channel. The menu starts with a wide selection of tapas, including cornmeal crusted oysters, tabasco butter, blue cheese, asian slaw or eggplant canelloni. Entrees range from a fennel-brined pork chop to coriander fennel crusted fillet of salmon with black bean compote, cilantro goat cheese crème fraiche and pistachio avocado relish. It finishes with over-the-top desserts. This restaurant has flare and makes theater of dining. The Village at Wexford, 1000 William Hilton Parkway, Suite B6, Hilton Head Island. Tel. (843) 785-4850.

High-end Hilton Head Island: Nightlife

Want some nightlife? There's plenty. The XO Lounge at Hilton Oceanfront Resort Hilton Head Island offers live entertainment several nights a week, depending on the season. It was recently redone and features cozy spots for couples or gathering places for large groups. The area has a great flow, indoors and outdoors and between the lounge and HH Prime restaurant.

According to Frommer's review in the New York Times, The Jazz Corner (1000 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island. Tel. (843) 842-8620) is the "closest thing to a shadowy, romantic, and permissive jazz bar on Hilton Head. No other nightclub here attracts such a diverse and noteworthy collection of jazz artists."

The Jazz Corner has a "copious" drink menu where many of the martinis are over-sized and designed for two. Just another romantic touch in a club that draws headliner talent from all along the East Coast.

In summary, high-end Hilton Head Island matches the sophistication and service that one would expect in a major city, but adds Southern charm and gorgeous scenery found only in the Lowcountry. You won't be disappointed.

Lisa AllenLisa Allen, Contributor

Lisa Allen is a golf, travel and business writer based in Beaufort, S.C. She has edited newspapers, magazines and books in Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @LAllenSC.

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