Reprinted by permission from Family Destinations, 77 North Street, Saratoga Springs, NY, 12866, (518) 587-8683.
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SUPER DESTINATION - HILTON HEAD, SOUTH CAROLINA
On our recent Thanksgiving visit, we found Hilton Head to be well-groomed vacation spot, catering to those who appreciate the good life and well suited for active families. Measuring only 12 by 7 miles and located at the southern tip of Southern Carolina's coastline, the island offers abundant recreational activities and premium resorts.
Lay of the Land -- Driving on Route 278 through the center of the island, you'll see carefully sculpted landscapes with stores and restaurants inconspicuously tucked away in the woods. Hilton Head has its share of outlet malls, fast food joints, and discount department stores, but you'll only catch glimpses of them from the main road. McDonalds' arches are small and discreet, even Wal-Mart is tastefully designed. To the credit of the island's developers, resort and residential development has been thoughtfully planned to preserve the integrity of the island's natural beauty.
The Plantations -- Other than Harbour Town, there really is no center of town to poke around in. Instead, following an unusual layout, Hilton Head is divided into "plantations" - private and semi-private residential and resort enclaves. Shipyard Plantation, Palmetto Dunes, Port Royal Plantation, and Sea Pines Plantation offer the most tourist activities. To enter a plantation, you must first pass through a gate with a security guard and indicate where you're headed. Inside these plantations, you'll usually find one or more deluxe resort hotels, such as the Hyatt or Hilton in Palmetto Dunes, and numerous "villas" (condos) and vacation homes. The resorts and villas share outstanding facilities, including legendary golf courses and tennis courts.
Impressions -- The plantations we visited weren't particularly different from one another in terms of scenery and ambiance. Meandering slowly through the grounds, you'll feel as if you're passing through upscale country clubs with manicured golf courses, tastefully appointed condominiums, tennis courts, and ponds. The groomed landscaping accents the tropical lushness of native palmettos, Spanish moss, and sea oats. Bicycle paths parallel the roads. For an island, Hilton Head has surprisingly few ocean views. Most of the 12 miles of beach is private, with restricted access from the plantations' resorts and private homes.
The Good and the Bad -- Some people may find Hilton Head too exclusive and uniformly glossy for their tastes. The architecture (nearly everything was built post 1960) is inarguably tasteful, yet lacks charm and surprise. The landscape might strike some as too picture-perfect and predictable. Of course, there are many (including 1.5 million tourists every year) who welcome such uniformity. It's hard to find fault with consistently comfortable and luxurious environs. With the resort's service and amenities nothing short of top-notch, vacationers are hard-pressed not to enjoy themselves. However, if you are one of those who gets more pleasure from quirky and casual beach life, Hilton Head may not be for you.
WHAT TO DO
The island is a mecca for golfers and tennis players, with more than 21 outstanding championship courses and 300 tennis courts. Tennis Magazine named Hilton Head the top tennis destination in the US. Every spring the famous Family Circle Magazine Tennis Cup takes place with legendary champions like Conchita Martinez and Gabriella Sabatini. Former players such and Dennis Van der Meer and Stan Smith have taken up full-time residence and offer instruction at week-long clinics.
At Thanksgiving, not surprisingly, the beaches were pretty empty (although there were a few brave souls in the surf). We were told that even in the high season, you won't find great crowds and the surf is calm most of the time.
Boardwalks you won't find. But there is an Amusement Center at which you pay one price and can play all day. Miniature golf courses are very popular.
The best way to tour the island is by bike. Bike paths run all over Hilton Head, even through the plantations.
Bird-Watching; Sea Pines Forest Preserve is a 400-acre site offering self-guided, 1/2-hour walking tours on raised boardwalks through the swamps. There are more extensive trails for serious birders. We spent an afternoon at the Pickney Island National Wildlife Refuge, just west of Hilton Head, and preferred this one over Sea Pines. With 14 miles of open trails, we were able to see plenty of birds (and enormous pine cones) even in November.
Boat Cruises: The Gypsy (803-363-2900) offers a 2-hour family cruise in which kids throw a cast net for shrimp, pull crab pots, and spot dolphins - real hands-on experience. Commander Zodiac (803-671-3344) offers the fun of rafting with the adventure of exploring marshlands to observe up close native marine wildlife.
WHERE TO STAY
The following 5 resorts are well suited for families and offer the best children's supervised programs on the island.
1. Formerly the Marriott, the CROWNE PLAZA RESORT in Shipyard Plantation opened March 1993 after extensive renovations. This oceanfront resort is set back slightly from the beach. Besides having lovely decor, delicious buffets, and a lush Caribbean-like pool and hot-tub area, the most outstanding quality of this resort was the friendly atmosphere. Everyone we met - from bell boys to managers - was casual, outgoing, and ready to help. This premium service really made our stay here memorable.
Camp Castaway is held Mon-Sat in the summer and on weekends and holidays throughout most of the off season. Children 3-12 are divided into 3 age groups. In season there are, on average, 20-30 kids per day. Activities in the Camp Castaway room next door to the indoor pool follow different daily themes and all activities are on property. Short one-time activities (such as tie dying t-shirts, or salt art projects) are held periodically throughout the day at a modest fee.
2. It's not hard to love a 5-star resort, and the WESTIN RESORT AT PORT ROYAL PLANTATION fits the bill perfectly. The 5-story, U-shaped hotel faces the Atlantic and features beautiful waterfalls, reflecting pools, landscaped gardens, decks and terraces, and two swimming pools. Inside, it is indisputably the most elegant resort on the island and bountiful flower arrangements and chandeliers gracing the halls. We were surprised that the rooms were on the small side, but, as you would expect, they were impeccably decorated. Despite such upscale surroundings, there was a decidedly casual and friendly atmosphere. Guests were informal in dress and there were many families enjoying themselves during our visit.
Camp Wackatoo in the summer (Mon-Sat) offers children 4-12 years a full agenda of fun, including sign language, karate, cooking, arts and crafts, discussions on other cultures, safety, swimming, and sand-castle building. An average of 15-20 children per day in season participate in camp.
3. The HYATT REGENCY IN PALMETTO DUNES is the largest hotel on the
island, with 505 rooms and a decidedly corporate atmosphere. Laura Harwood, recreation director, confirmed that 75% of their guests are there on business - many with children. They day we visited, 30 kids were involved in beach games and arts and crafts. The outside pool area looked more like a family vacation resort with a huge 25 meter pool, kiddie pool, diving well, and 2 hot tubs - just steps from the sand.
Camp Hyatt operates daily in the summer and holidays and weekends year round. Children 3-13 (average age is 7) keep busy with an array of recreation and fun. Hyatt has turned a guest room with a balcony that faces the beach into a colorful kids' room - a good respite from summer's mid-day sun. While parents are dining in The Cafe, kids can eat, play and be supervised in their own adjacent restaurant - Little Captain Quarters - with puppet theater, ice cream, chalk boards, and videos.
4. HILTON RESORT AT PALMETTO DUNES has the largest guestrooms on the island - 1-1/2 times larger than the average hotel room, each with a kitchenette and balcony. The 32 suites offer even more luxurious space for traveling families. The beautifully landscaped grounds surrounding the adult-only pool and family pool are reminiscent of a tropical lagoon. The beach is easily reached by a boardwalk.
The resort has its fair share of business travelers but families are very welcome here. At check-in, parents received a Family Fun Kit filled with info about family-oriented activities at Hilton and on the island. Kids receive a welcome gift (these uniquely designed water bottles were big hits with my kids). Other family amenities: Sega Genesis video rentals, bike rentals, a well stocked closet full of board games and books, playground, health club (for adults only), basketball, ping pong, volleyball, and paddle ball. The only drawback; no indoor pool (tough on rainy days and off season).
Vacation Station Camp operates Mon-Sat in the summer and on major holidays for children 4-11 (grouped together). Each day has a theme ("Sports Mania," "Jamaican Me Crazy," "Ocean Adventure"). Average number of kids in season attending camp is 12-14. Daily periodic activities, such as tie-dyeing, seashell arts and crafts, and beach twister, are also available. Activities for ages 12-16 yrs are offered in the summer. Children 5 and under eat free with Adult Entree. Special menu for kids under 12.
5. SEA PINES is the oldest and best known plantation, offering luxury homes and villas on the golf courses, marshes, and ocean, and in the woods.
The Fun for Kids recreation program was the most developed children's program we saw anywhere. Kids 3-12 meet Mon-Fri in the summer, and 3 days/week Sept-May for a full agenda of activities on and off the property, including pony rides, nature and wildlife lessons, beach nature hikes, crafts, and dolphin cruises. This is no daycare! The program attracts a large number of kids (average 60-65/day in season) from residents living in Sea Pines, other islanders, and vacationing guests. Kids are divided into 3 age groups. Evening activities Fri and Sat also available. Regularly scheduled family activities such as hayrides, guided nature walks, nature bike tours, canoe trips, fishing and crabbing are offered daily throughout the year at a modest fee per person. In the summer, family entertainers gather large audiences for free shows and concerts. Singer and guitarists Gregg Russell performs nightly at Sea Pines.
Budget Motels: You'll find your choice of national-chain motels; Fairfield Inn (803-842-4800/800-228-2800); Holiday Inn Express (843-785-5126/800-423-9897); Red Roof Inn (803-686-6808); Shoney's Inn (803-681-3655).
Vacation property rentals are big business on Hilton Head and a popular and economical choice for families. Villas and homes generally rent by the week. Off season the rates drop substantially. For rental info, call Adventure Inn Villa Rentals (800-845-9500); Vacation Villa Rentals of Hilton Head (803-750-2144); Hilton Head Holidays (800-442-2442).
For more information and to receive The Vacation Planner, contact the Hilton Head Island Visitor and Convention Bureau at 843-785-3673.|
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