On Saturday morning my cell phone alarm went off at 4:36 a.m. I despise early-morning departures like everyone else, and this time it was even worse because three-quarters of the way to Toronto’s YYZ airport I realized I had left my BlackBerry on Natalie’s bed. There was no time to turn around so I just bit the bullet, realizing I would be without my safety blanket for the weekend. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I paid more attention to the destination and my conversations instead of what my immediate email reply should be. Sometimes I forget that I made it through half my life without a cell phone and three-quarters of my life without email.
My hosts booked me on a US Airways flight (operated by Republic Airlines) from Toronto to Charlotte (90 minutes) and then on to Hilton Head (55 minutes). I checked in at one of US Airways’ self-service kiosks at YYZ and quickly filled out a U.S. Customs form that their roving agent handed me so I could go through the United States Pre-Clearance immigration line. Even at 5:20 a.m. on Saturday it took over 30 minutes and I was kicking myself for not having a NEXUS pass. Hopefully, mine will be approved before the next time I visit Canada.
There was no line at security and I made it to gate 193 just as they were about to board. I quickly logged on to the airport’s free Internet (powered by Boingo) with my laptop to update my Facebook and Twitter status with clues on where I was headed and then boarded the plane.
I was the second person on the plane, so I was able to store my carry-on in the overhead near me. I was in 1D (all coach on this regional jet). It turned out to be the best seat not only because it had the most legroom but because the A/C wasn’t working and the plane was Africa hot and I got some relief from the door being open during boarding. To make matters worse, after we pushed back we had to return to the gate since the engines wouldn’t start. Total delay was about 40 minutes, but Pittsburgh-based flight attendant Dena was awesome. She fanned me and my cool seatmate with the safety card (I fanned her back). When we landed, all the passengers deplaned faster than I’ve ever seen. Thanks to the delay almost everyone had a very tight connection so they ran off like the plane was on fire. Maybe they should do this all the time?
Charlotte to Hilton Head
I didn’t have a tight connection, and I didn’t mind hanging around because I really like the Charlotte airport. It has strategically placed rocking chairs, a good variety of food choices, and free Wi-Fi. I walked to the E gates for my next US Airways flight, which was really operated by Piedmont Airlines (don’t you love misleading airline partnerships?). If you don’t like small planes you should probably try and avoid flying into the Hilton Head airport–I think it is only serviced by Dash 8s. They’ve been nicknamed vomit comets by locals, but they are workhorses. They are just small, loud, and bumpy. Our flight was relatively smooth, though, and no one got sick. I enjoyed the views and of course the proximity of the HHH airport. It was just a 10-minute drive to where I was staying rather than a 45-minute ride if I had flown into Savannah/Hilton Head airport. Did you know half the people who fly into Savannah actually go to Hilton Head Island? That’s because SAV is usually cheaper and is serviced by somewhat bigger planes.
Hilton Head Island
I knew nothing about Hilton Head Island except that my neighbor would go every summer and rave about it. To be honest I thought it was in North Carolina, not South Carolina. Now that I’ve looked at the map I know it’s in Beaufort County, SC. It’s just a two-hour drive from Charleston, three hours from Jacksonville, four hours from Charlotte, four and a half hours from Atlanta, and 45 minutes from Savannah. The island is 12 miles (19 km) long and shaped like a shoe. Captain William Hilton named the island after himself when he landed there in 1663. The year-round population is only around 37,000, but during peak season (summer) the population can swell to up to 275,000 (many of the visitors are from Ohio, New York, and Canada). The Town of Hilton Head Island was incorporated as an “eco-friendly” development so there’s quite a lot of tree cover–they have a ton of live oaks with Spanish moss hanging from them, which really gives the place character and southern charm. About 70 percent of the island is located inside gated communities, and my group spent most of our time in two different ones–Sea Pines Resort and Palmetto Dunes.
Where to Stay on Hilton Head?
Hilton Head has more vacation rental rooms (6,000) than it does hotel rooms (2,500). About 20 percent of the homes on the island are available for rent, usually as weekly rentals (Saturday to Saturday), but some will rent for shorter periods especially in the off-peak times. Summer is peak season, but around mid-August, it starts to slow down because schools open early in the south.
I was hosted by ResortQuest, which is now owned by Wyndham Vacation Rentals and manages approximately 360 homes and condos (or “villas,” which is HHI speak) across Hilton Head that range in price from $1,100 to $14,000/week in peak season and from $750 to $7,700 per week in the off-season.
They put me up in a two-bedroom condo (Villamare #3530) that has everything you have at home, including a fully stocked kitchen with a dishwasher and washer and dryer. I immediately thought this place would be perfect for those with families or wanting to share with another couple. FYI: The peak-season base rate for Villamare #3530 is about $2,500/week and off-season rates start around $1,600/week or $260 per night. That’s a deal because it’s first-rate and right on the beach.
Notes from Villamare #3530:
-The sheets and towels were all nice and soft.
-My bathroom showers didn’t smell too good–like ammonia and mold–but they were clean.
-I met a bunch of people in the elevator and they were all happy and repeat guests. They all said they highly recommend it to their friends and family.
-There are no keys to the rooms, just key codes.
-There’s free Wi-Fi. Each unit has Wi-Fi; some are locked but most weren’t.
-Not all units in the Villamare building are managed by ResortQuest–in fact, I heard that 10-12 different management companies have units in the building. What’s nice about going through ResortQuest is they have 24-hour service, so if something goes wrong you have someone to call. I saw one bummed-out man complaining to a friend that his management company gave him the wrong code so he couldn’t get in and no one was answering the phone since it was Sunday.
-I had access to a gym, pool, and hot tub.
-I could hear lots of tree frogs at night, and I actually found one in the elevator early one morning.
Rent a Hilton Head House
If you are looking for a bit more privacy and something really high-end, ResortQuest also rents private homes. I spent time with my group at their Sandhill Crane (#24) house, which is three stories high with five bedrooms and baths, a huge kitchen, outdoor patio with a grill, heated pool, and pathway directly to the beach. The houses come stocked with everything you need including kids’ toys and boogie boards. The peak-season rate for this place is $13,000/week and off-season it starts around $7,000/week or $1,100 per night. If you split that with five people or couples, it’s the way to go. Note: None of the houses or buildings along the beach are allowed to have outdoor lights on after 10 p.m. because it messes with the sea turtles (they will think it’s the moon and head toward your house). Also there are no street lights on the island so people can see the stars.
Hilton Head Beach
When I first got to the beach house they said there were bikes out back that were just dropped off by a rental company for us to use. I thought it was weird they were recommending we ride on the beach since there’s no pathway, but it turns out the sand below the tide line is packed so finely that it’s basically like a paved road and everyone does it, especially between mid and low tide. Bike rentals are a big business in Hilton Head, and since it’s so competitive they are really cheap. I heard a bike costs just $30 to rent for a week and the island has 80 miles of bike trails.
Riding up and down the beach I saw a variety of characters. It’s obviously the perfect family vacation spot since no radios or alcohol are allowed on the beach.
Beware of Jellyfish
The only bummer on the beach is that in July and August when it’s really hot there are a lot of jellyfish. You can’t really see them since they are clear. They won’t kill you or make you sick like they do in Australia, but they will give you a good sting that will hurt for about 20 minutes and leave a mark for about a week. The latter is probably because you will scratch the hell out of it after the sting wears off (so I hear). But all lifeguard stands have a jellyfish-stinger concoction (I think it’s made mostly of vinegar) that I saw multiple kids applying to their feet. I took a dip in the warm waters (water temp ranged from 82 to 88 degrees) and I didn’t get stung.
Hilton Head Morning Walks
I only spent a couple of days on Hilton Head, but one of the best things I did was take an early-morning walk on the beach. I didn’t wake up early enough to catch the sunrise above the horizon, but I did catch it shortly thereafter (it was around 7:30 a.m. when I took these pictures in mid-August). There was a bunch of men fishing–one went all the way out until the water was at his chest, but most just stayed along the shore. There were also joggers, yoga classes, and I even saw a dude making a rap video by himself.
Hilton Head Weather
I monitored the Hilton Head weather forecast mostly from Weather.com, and the one thing I learned is that it’s unpredictable. It’s pretty much guaranteed that you will have some epic thunderstorms in the summer and it will be hot and humid. What’s nice is Hilton Head Island is very casual, so you won’t be too hot.
Harbour Town Golf Links
Speaking of golf, I got to play an impromptu round with my friend Jessica on the island’s most prestigious course, the Harbour Town Golf Links in Sea Pines Resort. According to Jessica, it’s on every golfer’s bucket list because they host the PGA Tour’s Heritage Golf Classic (the week after the Masters) and it’s been named one of the top 20 courses in the country by Golf Digest and Golf Weekly.
Just like the rest of the people and workers I encountered on Hilton Head Island, their staff was very friendly and hospitable. The course is beautiful and we played the back nine. My favorite holes were 13 and 17, but 18 is their signature hole since the Harbour Town Lighthouse is visible from the tee. The candy-cane-striped lighthouse is Hilton Head’s iconic symbol. Here are some of my observations from the morning:
-It wasn’t busy because it was during August’s high heat, but it wasn’t that hot–especially if you play in the morning.
-If you rent a golf cart you can only drive it on the golf path, not on the course.
-The trees in Hilton Head are called Palmetto trees, not Palm trees like I thought.
-There are alligators not only in all the ponds on the golf course but all over the island. The only ones that might not have gators in them are the ones with water fountains since that bugs them, so don’t go fishing for your ball. I lost a few. Note: I didn’t see any gators and I hear the island only has an incident about every couple of years.
-Here are the golf rates.
The other sport I participated in this past weekend was Paddle Boarding. It’s been made hugely popular by surfing legend Laird Hamilton and is now a growing trend in the sports world. Even though I have seen people paddleboarding practically everywhere I go, I had never done it until Monday. That’s when I met with Glen Barroncini from H2O Sports, who took me out for an hour lesson. My group met the sun-bleached blond, tan, in-shape instructor at the Harbour Town Yacht Basin in the Sea Pines Resort. He gave us a quick five-minute tutorial and helped us on our boards. It was a bit windy on the bay, but once we got to the Marshes of Deer Island it was easy as can be. Almost too easy. I felt like I was on a Disneyland ride because the tide was taking us, so all we had to do was steer. The scenery was surreal. The lush green marsh reeds, with the live oaks with the Spanish moss hanging down and the deep-blue Carolina sky–it was magical. I was kicking myself for not having brought my waterproof camera.
The hour lesson costs just $35. If you want to rent a board without Glen, it’s $30 an hour or $40 for the day. FYI: The way back upstream was more of a workout, and if you want more they offer yoga classes on paddleboards. Yes, yoga on a paddle board–what will they think of next? H20 Sports also offers parasailing, waterskiing, wave runners, enviro-tours, sailing, and kayaking.
One of the nice things about being on a press trip is that they show off all of their available services. One afternoon they hired FACES DaySpa to come over to the beach house to give us each 50-minute massages. They normally cost around $75 an hour at their spa, but it’s $150 an hour to have a massage at your rental home or condo. They can even set up a portable cabana on the beach, but they only recommend that in cooler weather. I got a massage from their female therapist, who was good, but my friend Judy, who has traveled all over the world doing spa stories, said her massage from the spa manager, Josh, was one of the best she has ever had. Now that’s something.
Lunch at the Dunes House
Immediately after I dropped my bags off we went for lunch at the Dunes House at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. It has a really nice, relaxing casual outdoor atmosphere overlooking the beach. They serve local seafood, burgers, grilled chicken, salads, and other tasty treats. Their specialty is fish tacos ($9.95) and everyone loves their signature frozen drinks. The waitress was really lovely and she challenged me to a game of throwing a tennis ball into one of the three garbage cans about 40 yards away. Normally I’m pretty good at this, but I failed my first two tries and I was too hot and sweaty to keep retrieving the ball like her puppy dog.
The first night we were supposed to take a boat from Harbour Town to the Skull Creek Boathouse for dinner. It would’ve been a 40-minute boat ride. But instead, it was a 20-minute drive because an inevitable wicked storm was on the horizon and canceled our plans (it was also 20 minutes away from our Villa). Harbour Town is Hilton Head’s iconic marina basin, known for its lighthouse, picturesque shops, beautiful yachts, watersports activities, and live entertainment for kids during the summer.
The Skull Creek Boathouse
The Skull Creek Boathouse has an awesome atmosphere, and the owner really knows how to run a place. The service was spot on and the menu was as big as a newspaper so they have something for everyone. With the view of Skull Creek Harbor, the green fauna, and the dark-blue sky just waiting to burst, it felt like the Deep South. We had drinks and apps–fried green tomatoes with goat cheese, rock shrimp and five pepper jelly on top ($9.50), hush puppies ($4), salt & vinegar crab cakes ($10)–on the patio but had to dart inside on the waiter’s perfect command to dodge the storm, so we ate our entrées inside. Most order fish because that’s their specialty, but I had the slow-roasted red-lacquered BBQ half chicken served with macaroni and cheese and creamy slaw ($14). As you can see the prices are reasonable, and the food is great. When we were inside I almost spit my teeth out when I spotted a Westport, CT, sign. That’s the town next to where I’m from and I was just there. It turns out the owner used to live there too.
Black Marlin Bayside Grill
Wyndham Vacation Rentals provided us with some breakfast fixings in our refrigerators so we could make our own breakfast if we wanted to. I had some fruit and yogurt before we went to lunch at Black Marlin Bayside Grill. They too have a large outdoor patio, and I was excited to see they serve breakfast until 3 p.m. on weekends. I ordered the blueberry pancakes ($8), which were good, but the fresh lemonade with cane sugar is amazing (make sure they use cane sugar because for the second batch they ran out and it wasn’t nearly as tasty). I also recommend the chicken lettuce wraps ($7.50), sweet potato fries ($5), and a side of white cheddar cheese hash browns ($2.50). BTW: Our excellent waitress was Moroccan and had lived in NY for 10 years. She likes Hilton Head because it’s cheaper and a slower pace.
One Hot Mama’s
We didn’t get to eat at One Hot Mama’s restaurant, but our hosts brought chef-owner Orchid Paulmeier over to our beach house to cook for us. If Orchid’s name sounds familiar it’s because she was just a contestant for the Next Food Network Star. For dinner, she made delicious coffee-encrusted rib-eye kebabs, “Perfect 10” baby-back ribs (with Orchid’s secret sauce), veggie sushi, sashimi tuna with red caviar, eggplant rotini, citrus salad… And banana pudding for dessert!
Hilton Head Island Tip
On the way to the Savannah airport my local friend Jessica said the best way to beat traffic on Saturdays–which is when most visitor check-in (4 p.m.) and out (10 a.m.) of their rental units–is to arrive on the island after 6 p.m. or depart after 12 p.m. Contact the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau and Chamber of Commerce at 800-523-3373 or visit HiltonHeadIsland.org,
Facebook: Visit Hilton Head
YouTube: Visit Hilton Head Island.
Quick Tour of Savannah, Georgia
I had never been to Savannah, Georgia, before, and since we were going to be so close I asked if we could leave a little earlier so we’d have time to walk through the city. The drive from Hilton Head Island takes about 45 minutes and we parked near River Street. My friend Jessica and I popped our heads into a few shops and bars. Our favorite was Savannah’s Candy Kitchen (website). I got so excited I felt like a kid and ended up buying pecan pralines, gophers turtles, chocolate-covered pretzels, salt-water taffy, and a candy apple.
Paula Deen’s Restaurant
Luckily I didn’t eat all of it, because shortly after we walked to Paula Deen’s restaurant called The Lady and Sons. It was only 4:30 p.m. so there was no line to get in, but there was one when we left at 5 p.m. I was in a hurry so we had the all-you-can-eat buffet ($15.99). The buffet had practically everything I like: fried chicken, creamed corn, mac and cheese, candied yams, collard greens, green beans, beef stew, spicy pork loin (special), black-eyed peas… I had to try everything and it was all flavorful including the cheese biscuit and a Hoecakes (recipe) that was just like the others soaked in butter, salt, and grease that they serve you right when you sit down. The buffet also includes a salad bar and a small dessert (banana puddin’, peach cobbler, gooey butter cakes).