Planning a golf vacation? No need for luck on Hilton Head Island

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC - Travelers are lucky. Luck comes with its own connotations-after all, it can be bad just as well as good-but when you're talking about a place like Hilton Head Island, the luck's most definitely all the positive kind.

The reason being a destination like Hilton Head Island offers so many different kinds of entertainments, it'd be hard not to have a good time. Golfers will certainly appreciate any trip to the island - because Hilton Head offers access to world-renowned golf courses 365 days a year, highlighted by Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort, safely anchored in most every magazine's world top 100 list.

But to limit your Hilton Head thinking to just one activity is plain foolish - I guess you'd call it narrow-minded. The fact is, the Island is a lot more than golf, which is good for me, because my wife's a golf widow. I also have a couple little ones, and they certainly don't appreciate Harbour Town for more than its colorful lighthouse.

Because the island and surrounding area is so vast, I'll highlight a few of the non-golf activities readily available on island, and in the surrounding geography.

Hilton Head lodging

First, however, I'd like to suggest some places to stay.

I've found in the past that Hilton Head Island, as you would expect, is just teeming with timeshares. Attractive weekly packages can be found at any number of timeshare resorts-and most of the planned 'Plantation' communities on-island offer some sort of timesharing operation. We've stayed at two different Marriott resorts (there are seven or eight) on the island, and the accommodations are nothing short of outstanding. Almost all timeshare plans include a golf package, so I'd recommend researching the details before you trade or book your reservations-depending on how much golf you'd like to play.

If you'd prefer a little more flexibility with your travel plans (or perhaps a higher level of service and convenience), there are numerous hotels available on island, more than capable of accommodating business groups or limited time stays. We stayed at the Westin Resort, which specializes in Southern hospitality and offers newly renovated rooms. More importantly, it's right on the beach, and many rooms feature ocean views. In addition to the luxurious sleeping accommodations, the Westin features elegant dining, upscale shopping and a state-of-the-art fitness center to work off those calories from your surf & turf dinner the night before. The Westin, like most hotels, also offers golf packages.

For a more casual, family-oriented atmosphere, try the Holiday Inn Oceanfront. This hotel gives more of a Myrtle-Beach flavor (in my opinion), with a younger crowd enjoying the nightlife at the Tiki Hut (right on the beach) and a shopping center across the street featuring over 100 specialty shops. Golf packages are also available at the Holiday Inn Oceanfront.

After a long day on the links, or enjoying some of the other Hilton Head delights, you'll want to eat, naturally-and the choices are many. In the 21st century, Hilton Head Island offers over 200 restaurants to choose from, serving up just about every kind of cuisine conceivable. Naturally, with its seaside location, seafood's a big hit, and you won't have to go far to find some of the best fish, oysters and crab you'll ever eat-because they haul it out of the waters just a cast line away.

When I travel, I like to eat where the locals eat, and I'll highlight one of my favorite establishments. After sampling some low-country fare the previous several nights, I wanted something more down-home, and what better to try than Italian food? Somewhat by chance, I found Giuseppi's Pizza and Pasta, located in the Shelter Cove shopping center. Giuseppi's is a family run operation with its proprietor being Jim Loniero. Too many times you're at a destination and settle for the 'chain-food' if you desire a quick bite. At least on Hilton Head Island you'll have a place serving better food with local atmosphere-and probably more reasonably priced. At least that's what I found at Giuseppi's. Nice folks, too.

Hilton Head off course

Now that you've got places to sleep and eat, I'll suggest some non-golf activities for your 'free' time. As alluded to above, there are simply too many to cover thoroughly, so I'll highlight the things I'd recommend personally.

First, being a history buff, no Hilton Head Island golf vacation is complete without soaking in some low-country history. Hilton Head Island may now be one of the country's top tourist draws, but the island's history (European settlement-wise) dates back to the early eighteenth century. You won't find quaint antebellum mansions and outbuildings on-island, but there are opportunities to discover the island's Gullah past-referring to the unique African-American culture that dominated the island after the planters were forced out during the Civil War. The Gullah story is interesting-because the freed slaves used a unique dialect, which is a combination of English and their native African languages-often intelligible only to native speakers. Fascinating culture, too.

Off-island day-trips are also highly recommended, two in particular. First, no trip to Hilton Head should be without making the 45-minute drive to Savannah, Georgia. Savannah's probably only a few miles 'as the crow flies' from Hilton Head, though you'll need to drive through Bluffton, then head south to reach it by car. Savannah's a beautiful, historic city, known for its unique architecture and slow pace. Often compared to New Orleans (in appearance only!), I particularly like that the city's built around a series of squares (city parks) dedicated to famous citizens of Savannah (or Georgia). You can even see the park where Forrest Gump waited for the bus and told his life's story! Savannah's also notorious as being a center for art and culture.

If you don't go south, go north to Beaufort - again, about a 45 minute drive from Hilton Head Island. Beaufort's another historic city with more a Southern Plantation type feel, a delightful waterfront and plenty of historic buildings to walk through. Beaufort's also on the way to Fripp Island (whose golf courses I reviewed), so a day trip to Beaufort and Fripp Island is certainly workable.

Farther north (and east), of course, is the city of Charleston. It'd be a stretch to make a day trip there-since it's a good two-hour plus drive, but Charleston shouldn't be missed if you're in this region of the country. Like Savannah, Charleston's got a very unique style of architecture-with two and three level historic houses, all facing towards the ocean (to catch the afternoon breezes during what can be stifling summer heat). In addition to a 'doable' and very enjoyable walking tour, there's Fort Sumter (site of the first shots of the Civil War) and Charleston's own artistic offerings.

One thing I'd highly recommend, though I haven't personally seen, is making a trip to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center to check out the CSS Hunley-history's first 'successful' submarine. The Hunley was the first submersible craft ever to sink an enemy warship-in February of 1864--and never returned from the mission. Why it sank remains a mystery, though the sub itself was finally found in 1995 by best-selling author Clive Cussler, and raised in 1999. Archeologists continue to excavate the sub (which included the remains of eight crewmembers), and the vessel surrenders new secrets on a regular basis. For Civil War buffs, it's a must-and I'll definitely see it the next time I'm through.

Back on the island, one of the best ways to 'experience' Hilton Head is from a bicycle. Bicycle rental establishments aren't hard to find, and there're more than reasonable weekly rental rates. You can take those things anywhere-including on the beach. Nothing quite like a bike ride on the beach-and you can explore virtually the entire island.

Finally, if you want a day off from golf, I'd recommend chartering a boat for a little fishin'. In just the waters around the island, you'll find sea trout, red drum, ladyfish, flounder and channel bass. If you'd like to challenge the deep (depending on the season), you'll find some 'big game' fish-wahoo, mackerel, crevalle jack, cobia, white marlin and sailfish. If you're not handy with the hook and line, there're also charters for dolphin-watching, sightseeing or dinner cruises.

In other words, there're quite a lot of water-based activities. Golf courses with lots of water, beaches with sand and the ocean, fishing, boating, you name it. Add in the history, and Hilton Head Island offers a complete vacation destination. For myself, that's perfect, because there's more to life than golf (though in the Hilton Head area, that's hard to remember)!

So next time you're planning a vacation, don't depend on luck - Hilton Head Island's a sure thing.

Jeffrey A. RendallJeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

Jeffrey Rendall is an avid golfer and freelance writer. After passing the California Bar in 1994, he moved to Virginia to pursue his interests in history and politics, where he's worked since 1995.

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