South Carolina lowcountry abounds with pristine beaches, rich cultural and culinary history, and fine weather for much of the year. An easy 45-minute drive from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport — where there are more flights arriving than ever — this breezy seaside destination, which includes the resort island of Hilton Head and the growing hamlet of Bluffton, is a place to savor at any budget. Here’s how to do it.
The novelty of Hilton Head, a foot-shaped barrier island, is that it was purpose-built as a resort in the 1950s after the first bridge connected it to South Carolina’s mainland. With relaxation in its DNA, this is not a destination for those who want to cram their days with sightseeing.
The beach is the central attraction here, which makes an affordable vacation easy to accomplish. This is especially true if you’re traveling with a group. The island offers an enormous selection of vacation rental properties, from inland cottages, to pool-facing resort condos, to enormous seaside mansions. Split one with another family or between a group of friends and you could stay for as little as $50 per person, per night. This home in Sea Pines Plantation, for example, is one such rental. It sleeps eight, has an in-ground pool of its own, and a screened-in porch perfect for an afternoon snooze or an evening playing board games. Stay outside of prime summer weeks and you’ll pay $2,600 per week — about $47 per person, per night. Expect that to go up to about $85 per person, per night in summer. Sea Pines, like many other gated resort communities on Hilton Head, has its own golf and tennis courts. Others grant guests access to swimming pools, spas, jogging trails, lagoons for kayaking, and private beaches. The sense that you’re staying at an amenity-filled private club, and not just renting a house, is typical on Hilton Head. Many vacationers hit the local grocery store, divvy up the cooking and dish-doing for the week, and stay put at the resort.
Other unique rentals we love include this "tree loft" near Harbor Town — the location of Hilton Head’s iconic light house — and this oceanfront condo that sleeps eight.
If you’re craving a night off the resort, we recommend The Lodge, a longstanding local watering hole that features sandwiches, salads, and bites by local chef Orchid Paulmeier, a Food Network star and southern barbecue specialist. The wings menu (six for $7; 12 for $12) includes such choices as devil (with smoked pureed habanero), Sriracha honey, and Italian stallion with garlic parmesan. Wash it down with the craft brews on tap.
If you need the amenities of a hotel but still crave the secluded feel of Hilton Head’s gated resort communities, the Sonesta Hilton Head Island Resort hits all the right notes. With a prime location on the beach and ocean-inspired decor done in corals and blues, you can relax without the pressure of having to make your own bed. Look for rooms for less than $200 per night in low season, and for $375-$400 per night in spring and summer high season, including weekends. Rent bikes at the resort and head down to the hard-packed sand along the shoreline for a picture-perfect morning or early evening ride. Or, simply spread out a beach towel and wile away the hours on the sand. If it gets too hot, the resort’s pools offer plenty of shaded spots, plus waiter service. From there, spend an afternoon in the resort’s intimate spa, where 50-minute massages start at $100.
For a morning with less-than-perfect weather or for a dose of history and culture, head to Bluffton, a town just off Hilton Head on South Carolina’s mainland. It’s about a 10-30-minute drive, depending on where you're staying on the island. Start at historic Heyward House in the center of town, which acts as Bluffton's welcome center. The guides here can share recommendations, help you plan an itinerary, and give you a map of the town. They also give tours of the home and grounds. A small village on the May River, Bluffton was burned by Union troops during the Civil War. Seven of its buildings were spared for unknown reasons, including its pretty riverside church and Heyward House. Today, Bluffton is the fastest growing town in South Carolina and its central drag along Calhoun Street is crammed with restaurants, art galleries, and shops. You won’t need a car to get around, and you can spend a few hours wandering here. One of our favorite shops is Jacob Preston Pottery. You’re likely to run into Jacob himself when you visit, and his elegant stoneware is great to take home as souvenirs. We also like The Storybook Shoppe for its wide selection of children’s books, Calhoun Street Gallery for quirky antiques and work by local artists, and The Cottage Bakery for lunch or a snack. If you’re stopping by the latter, don’t skip dessert. The long menu of cakes, cookies, pies, and tarts make The Cottage worth visiting all by itself. We recommend the lemon-peach cake and the peanut butter toffee cookie.
If you’re in town for dinner, stop by the Bluffton outpost of Red Fish, a local favorite by chef Chaun Bescos that also has a Hilton Head location, for its house-made pimento cheese, maple brined dry-aged pork chop, lowcountry shrimp and grits, and lobster mac and cheese. Expect to pay $7-$14 for appetizers, and about $20-$30 for entrees.
The town of Bluffton, beyond its buzz-y downtown district, is known for something else: It’s home to a luxury resort that occupies a sprawling track of land along the May River. Montage Palmetto Bluff is a stunner at the very outset, with its long entry drive fringed by towering trees. Beyond the resort’s gates, you’ll see the large central inn with cottages and standalone residences situated throughout the surrounding area. The whole resort feels residential — albeit a particularly luxurious and impeccably manicured kind of residential — because it is; hotel guests mingle with permanent residents who use the resort’s high-end amenities. Rooms at the inn offer all that you’d expect in a luxury resort — high-thread-count linens, soaking tubs and walk-in showers, shaded balconies where you can enjoy a glass of wine or read a book, and sweet treats left on your pillow. Rooms at the inn typically start at around $400 per night, while standalone cottages — which have gas fireplaces, screened-in porches, steam showers, and views over the resort and lagoons — start at around $500. In the spring and autumn and around the holidays, you can expect those rates to go up to $800 for the inn, and $1,000 for cottages. Multi-bedroom residences are also available, but cannot be priced or booked online.
The resort’s riverside location means that that a boat trip during your stay is a must. The resort’s concierge can organize wildlife and nature tours, trips to quiet sandbars and beaches, and excursions to nearby Daufuskie island to enjoy its rustic landscape and learn about its unique history. Pricing varies depending on the type of excursion, but you can expect to pay anywhere from $50 per person for a 90-minute scenic tour on the resort's vintage motor yacht, to $275 for a private dolphin-spotting tour that can accommodate up to six people.
Rounds of tennis, golf on the resort’s Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, or time on the water may take up much of your stay, but we recommend staying on site for dinner at least once in order to experience Canoe Club, which is known for its sophisticated takes on lowcountry specialties like oysters and shrimp. Appetizers cost about $20; entrees range from about $20-$40. We’re not sure you’ll want to leave the resort — and many guests don’t during their stay — but if you’re headed into Bluffton, FARM is a great place to have dinner. With an open kitchen so you can watch the action, and menu items like sweet potato empanadas with chili yogurt, wood-fired clams with saffron-tomato broth and fennel, and duck rillettes with strawberry jam, this chic restaurant embodies the new energy taking hold in the town.