Hilton Head Island, South Carolina is one of the United States’ top island destinations. As host to the RBC Heritage golf tournament as well as home to many award-winning golf courses, it’s no wonder that many people associate Hilton Head with the sport. But if you’re not a golfer, there are still so many things to do in Hilton Head and the neighboring mainland town of Bluffton.
Located on the Intracoastal Waterway 45 miles north of Savannah and 90 miles south of Charleston, Hilton Head’s 42 square miles of semi-tropical terrain feature salt marshes, lagoons and creeks, moss-draped live oaks, and miles of sandy beaches. The first eco-planned community in the country, the island maintains a charming atmosphere partially due to strict rules on commercial signage.
We recently visited Hilton Head for the second time and spent another week on this beautiful island. Did you know that Hilton Head is a cruise port of call? Currently, the tiny harbor is served by American Cruise Lines. Several of their small-ship sailings from Charleston, Baltimore, and Jacksonville stop for the day at Hilton Head Island.
Whether you’re visiting for the day from the port at Harbour Town or if you’re staying for a bit longer, we found lots of fun things to do in Hilton Head for any type of vacationer.
Disclaimer: I may receive a small commission when you make a purchase from a link on this site, at no added charge to you. I was not sponsored by any companies I mention in this article. I paid for and personally used all products and services I recommend, and the opinions expressed are entirely my own.
Hilton Head Island beaches
One of my favorite things to do in Hilton Head is spending a day at the beach. With twelve miles of pristine shoreline, Hilton Head Island beaches offer plenty of space for an uncrowded day of relaxing on the sand. Lifeguards are on duty during the official beach season, April through September.
Town beaches are accessible for those with limited mobility, as there is beach matting installed at each of the beach park access points. Burke’s Main Street Pharmacy and Vacation Mobility Solutions also rent beach wheelchairs.
We were lucky enough to stay within walking distance of Coligny Beach, which was our favorite spot the last time we visited. Coligny is the largest and most popular beach on Hilton Head, and it’s also one of the best maintained public beaches I’ve ever been to.
In fact, Coligny Beach was once again named one of TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Beaches in the United States for 2019. (See? I have good taste!)
Coligny Beach, on the southeastern side of the island, is perfect for a leisurely walk, shell collecting, or just relaxing on the sand. Impressively, the beach has a large, clean public bathhouse area with outdoor showers, clean restrooms, and a water feature for the kids.
Located just a quick walk from dozens of restaurants and boutiques, Coligny Beach is in a fantastic location to add shopping and dining to your beach visit.
Coligny Beach, 1N Forest Beach, Hilton Head Island, SC. Open every day 6am-9pm. Winter Hours: Monday-Sunday 6am-6pm.
Folly Field Beach
As we were staying so close to Coligny Beach, we didn’t make it to our other favorite, Folly Field Beach, this time. But, if you’re looking for a beach that’s a bit less crowded, Folly Field is a great option.
Located on the northeastern shore of the island, Folly Field Beach has all of the amenities found at Coligny Beach, but its more out-of-the-way location makes it a less popular spot.
Folly Field Beach, 55 Starfish Drive, Hilton Head Island, SC. Open every day 6am-9pm. Winter Hours: 6am-6pm.
Visit Harbour Town
Located in Sea Pines Resort, Harbour Town is a collection of shops and restaurants centered around a small harbor. Home to the Harbour Town Lighthouse, this area is also cruise ship passengers’ introduction to the island.
Tip: It costs $8 per car per day to visit Sea Pines Resort. Unless you’re arriving by ship, organize your itinerary to visit all of your Sea Pines destinations in one day.
The Harbour Town Lighthouse
Constructed in 1970, Hilton Head’s iconic lighthouse was the first privately-financed lighthouse built since the early 19th century.
Nicknamed “Fraser’s Folly” after Charles Fraser, the developer of The Sea Pines Resort, the lighthouse is now a symbol of the island. Fraser believed that the lighthouse and a professional golf tournament would bring visitors to his new seaside community – he was right!
Climb the 114 steps to the top of the 90-foot lighthouse, and you can take in the museum information as you go. On each landing, there’s information and photos detailing the history and development of the island.
Harbour Town Lighthouse and Museum, 149 Lighthouse Road, Hilton Head Island, SC. Open every day, 10 am-sundown. Admission $4.50 per person, children 5 and under free. (866) 305-9814
Shopping in Harbour Town
Hilton Head’s Harbour Town is home to a cute collection of over twenty boutiques, galleries, and gift shops encircling the yacht basin. The shops tend to be upscale, with unique offerings for the entire family.
The Cinnamon Bear Country store is always a favorite, with 24 flavors of ice cream (including gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free) along with toys, books, gourmet foods and other souvenirs.
Dining in Harbour Town
Harbour Town offers several restaurants, with indoor and outdoor dining possibilities.
This trip, we enjoyed a meal at the Crazy Crab, as we were in the mood for seafood. Their Lowcountry Boil was fantastic, and I couldn’t come close to finishing it (I pride myself in being a member of the Clean Plate Club – but not this time!)
Other restaurants in the complex include CQ’s, whose upscale American menu is influenced by French, Italian, and Lowcountry traditions.
Harbourside Burgers & Brews is an open-air establishment, with seasonal nightly entertainment. Don’t let the name fool you; they offer more than just burgers and beers. Snow crab legs and seafood platters are also on offer, as well as cocktails and wine.
The Quarterdeck is right at the base of the lighthouse, and offers waterfront dining both indoors and outdoors (this is a great place to watch the sunset). The menu features fresh seafood, including local South Carolina shrimp, oysters, and crab cakes, along with steaks, sandwiches, and salads.
With so much fascinating history and culture on Hilton Head Island and in the surrounding area, a museum visit or two is a great way to learn more about the Lowcountry.
Coastal Discovery Museum
The Coastal Discovery Museum, located on the 68-acre Honey Horn Plantation, features walking trails, gardens, a butterfly enclosure, and rare marsh tacky horses in addition to the museum’s indoor exhibits. On-site tours and workshops focus on local art, culture, and the environment.
The main building, the Discovery House, houses the museum’s permanent and rotating exhibits on the South Carolina Lowcountry’s natural history and cultural heritage. This is the oldest structure on the property, and dates to 1859.
We didn’t get to spend as much time as we would have liked exploring the museum’s grounds, but we enjoyed walking through the natural and historical exhibits at Discovery House, as well as a room featuring paintings by local artists.
On the day we visited, local artisans had set up inside, making traditional Gullah sweetgrass baskets. I was able to chat with one of the artisans, and he gave me an up-close look at his technique. He described it more as “sewing” than “weaving”, as he used a spoon handle to help insert the strips of palmetto frond between the sweetgrass coils to hold the basket together.
The Coastal Discovery Museum is very kid-friendly, and is a popular field trip destination for schoolchildren. The Kids Zone room, though small, is packed with activities. Kids can dress up in Colonial costumes, put puzzles together, create a puppet show, or enjoy a book from the library.
The Kids Zone also has live horseshoe crabs, as well as a Diamondback terrapin named Myrtle.
The butterfly pavilion, which is in season from May to October, is filled with nectar and host plants to feed the butterflies and caterpillars, as well as providing a place to lay their eggs.
Although we visited in early April, we were pleased to see a few Swallowtail butterflies, including one that had just emerged from its pupa!
Coastal Discovery Museum, 70 Honey Horn Drive, Hilton Head Island, SC. Open Monday-Saturday 9 am–4:30 pm, Sunday 11 am–3 pm (property closes 30 min. after the museum). Admission (suggested donation) $5. (843) 689-6767
The Garvin-Garvey House
This small house museum was originally built around 1870 on the banks of the May River by Cyrus Garvin. Garvin, whose name was sometimes recorded as Garvey, was a freed slave who lived in the house with his family until his death around 1891.
Astonishingly, despite never having been allowed to learn to read or write during his enslavement, Garvin became so successful as a freedman that he was able to purchase 54 acres of the property on which he was originally enslaved.
History of the Garvin-Garvey House
The Garvin-Garvey House is one of the earliest homes in Bluffton to have been built by a formerly enslaved person.
The house remained in the Garvin family until 1961, although for many years it had been used as a storage building for the nearby Bluffton Oyster Factory. The building then fell into disuse and was often inhabited by squatters.
After acquiring the property in the early 2000s, Beaufort County Land Trust and the town of Bluffton took on the responsibility of maintaining the house, which was in a state of disrepair and in danger of falling over.
Reconstruction-era homes still standing in the area that were constructed and owned by African-Americans are extremely rare. After temporarily stabilizing the house in 2008, the county and town used funds from grants and private donations to have the building permanently stabilized and restored in 2016-17.
Tour of the Garvin-Garvey House
We began by watching a short video about the restoration of the house. The film showed how the builders painstakingly removed and catalogued each piece of siding and flooring before they repaired and stabilized the structure. The flooring and siding were then returned to their original locations.
Our guide then took us on a short tour of the tiny two-bedroom structure. This house museum is unfurnished, so our time touring the bare rooms was shorter than on most house tours. We enjoyed seeing the interior of the structure however, given its incredible history as well as the restoration project that saved it from collapse.
Garvin-Garvey House, Oyster Factory Park, Bluffton, SC. Open for guided tours Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am-4pm. Fridays by appointment only. Admission $5, children under 10 free. (843) 757-6293
Heyward House Museum
History of the Cole-Heyward House
Built around 1841, the Cole-Heyward House was originally a summer home for John J. Cole, a local plantation owner, and his wife Esther Caroline Corley. Cole designed the house, and it’s likely that the home was constructed by the people the family enslaved.
The house is one of only eight antebellum homes remaining in Bluffton, and is a beautiful example of the Carolina Farmhouse Style. In 1863, during the Civil War, Union troops burned the town and two-thirds of the homes were destroyed.
The Heyward House Museum is named for the Heyward family, descendants of Thomas Heyward, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence. The house was in the Heyward family from the early 1880s until 1998.
The house, with a few exceptions, has not been altered over the past 170 years. Due to its history and exceptional condition, it’s now an official project of the Save America’s Treasures Program.
The Bluffton Historical Preservation Society now operates the house as the official welcome center for the town.
Tour of the Heyward House and grounds
We entered the museum a few minutes after one of the tours had started, and the guide gave us the option to join them or wait until the next tour started. We opted to join the group, and we were given a short history of the former inhabitants of the home.
A room-by-room tour followed, beginning in the front parlor. The home is furnished, though not entirely with pieces owned by the family. Nor is it decorated to reflect what it may have looked like during a specific time period. Instead, vignettes of household items are grouped in the rooms that may once have held similar things over the years.
After touring the interior of the main house, we stepped outside to see the slave quarters. The entrance to the small building was roped off, but we were able to look in through the doorway, as well as through the open window frames.
The quarters, also dating to 1841, were sparsely furnished, containing not much more than a rustic bed, a table and chairs, a collection of tools and some basic household necessities. The tiny cottage would have housed several enslaved people during the construction of the main house, as well as the people who served the family during their summer residency.
Adjacent to the slave quarters is the summer kitchen, a necessity in the days before air conditioning. The small kitchen was designed to catch the breeze on sweltering summer days. Having an outdoor kitchen not only served to keep the main house cooler, but it also reduced the risk of a house fire.
Heyward House Museum, 70 Boundary Street, Bluffton, SC. Open for guided house tours Monday-Friday 10am-4pm, Saturdays 10am-3pm. Adults $10, students $5, children under 10 free. (843) 757-6293
Exploring the outdoors
We went on three nature adventures during our visit to Hilton Head Island. One was a hike, one was more like a stroll in the woods, and the third was a boating adventure to see dolphins! If you enjoy nature and wildlife, Hilton Head has several options for you.
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island is separated from Hilton Head by the Intracoastal Waterway, and is quick and easy to reach from the western coast of the island.
Part of a 4053-acre refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pinckney Island is open to the public every day during daylight hours. Visiting is free of charge.
What is there to do on Pinckney Island?
Pinckney Island features walking and biking trails through various types of animal habitats. Its saltmarsh and tidal creeks, forest, grasslands, and freshwater ponds are home to diverse wildlife species.
There are ten miles of trails on the island, with various routes ranging from the 90-minute trip to Ibis Pond and back, to the seven-hour roundtrip hike out to White Point on the northern tip of the island.
The trails are flat, so this isn’t a strenuous hike. The majority of the trails are wide and covered in hard-packed gravel, so bikers and walkers can easily share the way. We also saw several families with kids in strollers, or being pulled in carts behind bikes.
The main trails look to be mobility-device-friendly: they’re flat and pretty well-packed. Some offshoot trails were grassy with puddles and obstructions such as downed tree limbs when we visited, however. Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges has received a grant to run tours for those with limited mobility on their 15-seat shuttle. These tours are free, but reservations are required.
Tip: There are no restrooms, food, or water available on Pinckney Island. Be sure to pack water and snacks, and be prepared for the lack of toilets!
There isn’t much shade on many of the trails (the grassy trail going from Starr Pond to Shell Point was the shadiest that we found). Be sure to wear sunscreen, and take a hat and sunglasses…trust me, you’ll need them.
We were able to spot lots of wildlife, from gangs of tiny crabs on the saltmarsh, to a baby alligator, to an Anhinga (sometimes called a snake bird) hunting for food. Our favorite spot was the rookery created by ibis at Ibis Pond. It was fascinating to watch them bring back materials for their nests while chattering with one another. One species had the most amusing song – it sounded like Donald Duck loudly imitating a gobbling turkey!
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, Off Rt 278, between Hilton Head and Bluffton, SC. Open seven days a week, sunrise to sunset. No charge to visit. (843) 784-2468
The Stoney-Baynard Ruins is the site of a former plantation house, slave quarters, and outbuildings. Located off of Plantation Drive in Sea Pines, the ruins are free to visit. (However, if you’re driving in from another location it costs $8 per car per day to enter Sea Pines. The cruise port at Harbour Town is located within Sea Pines.)
The story of the Stoney-Baynard plantation
The plantation was built by Captain John “Jack” Stoney in the 1790s using tabby bricks. Tabby is a type of concrete made with sand, ash and broken oyster shells. Possibly of Moroccan origin, it was originally used in the New World by early Spanish settlers and then by English colonists in coastal South Carolina and Georgia.
Legend has it that Captain Stoney’s son John lost the plantation in a poker game to cotton planter William Baynard in 1840. However, the more likely story is a bit more mundane – John Stoney mortgaged the property that he had inherited, and William Baynard bought the house and land from the bank.
During the Civil War, the Baynard family fled when Union troops invaded the island. The property was used as Union headquarters, but was later burned.
It’s said that the ghost of William Baynard still haunts the ruins of his former home. Visitors have claimed to have seen paranormal activity, including Baynard and his entire funeral procession at the site after dark!
We visited during the day, and didn’t see or feel anything spooky. The area is very quiet and peaceful – I actually wished that we had packed a picnic lunch to enjoy on the grass!
How long should you plan to visit?
When I was deciding what activities I wanted to try on this visit to Hilton Head, I had read a few TripAdvisor reviews of this site. I was surprised that several reviewers mentioned that visiting would only take about 15 minutes. I doubted this – how can you explore a plantation’s ruins in such a short time?
Even with my need to read every historical plaque and marker, take pictures of everything, and explore every last bit, it only took us 30 minutes. So don’t plan to make an entire day of it!
The land itself has been reclaimed by trees and thick brush, and there are only a few short trails around what remains of the buildings.
What is left of the Stoney-Baynard plantation?
In addition to the wall remnants of the plantation house, there are also foundations remaining of the slave quarters, another small building, and the chimney to the outdoor kitchen.
Detailed signs at each area explain the significance of the spot, along with sketches of what the buildings may have looked like before the fire and the passage of time turned them into what they are today.
Stoney-Baynard Ruins, Plantation Dr near Marsh Dr, Sea Pines Plantation, Hilton Head Island, SC. No posted hours of admittance. Free of charge ($8 per vehicle per day to enter Sea Pines).
Dolphin and Nature Cruise
While looking at the website for the Coastal Discovery Museum, we noticed that they offered a 90 minute dolphin cruise. Don’t be confused (like us) and assume that the cruise departs from the museum!
After our confusion, the rush to the marina parking lot and then to the boat, the 45-foot Island Queen, we were happy to sit down and relax for a moment while our captain, first mate, and a volunteer docent from the museum checked us in and chatted with the passengers.
There are two boats that were touring at our assigned time, and the captain asked if anyone would prefer taking the smaller boat, the 26-foot S.S.Pelican. We preferred not to, but a family group chose to take the Pelican and looked quite pleased to have a more private tour.
We started out on a route around a marshland area, and then headed down Broad Creek toward Calibogue Sound.
Our captain pointed out various spots on the shore, including some beautiful shorefront properties, the Daufuskie Island ferry dock, and several oyster shell embankments that he told us were thousands of years old! Left by the Native American people who visited the island seasonally, the shells are bleached nearly white by the sun.
The dolphins were acting somewhat elusive during our tour, although our captain told us that he was going to visit the spots where they had been seen on the previous tour that day. We spotted some dolphins from afar a few times, but it seemed that every time we tried to get closer, they disappeared. They were on to us!
Near the end of our tour, we finally were able to see a pod of three dolphins up close.
Although we didn’t see a lot of dolphins or other wildlife this trip, it was nice to be out on the water, and to see the island from another perspective.
Dolphin & Nature Tour, 18 Simmons Road, Hilton Head Island, SC. Tour times vary by season, reservations recommended. Adults $20, Children 2-11 $10, under 2 free. (843) 681-2522
Have you visited Hilton Head Island or Bluffton, SC? What were your favorite things to do in Hilton Head and the surrounding area? Let me know in the comments below!
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