Beach Life: Pristine shoreline still the star of Hilton Head’s show

beachlife01It’s no coincidence that Hilton Head Island is 12 miles long (it’s 5 miles wide) and has 12 miles of accessible beaches.

But these aren’t any beaches. They are pristine, clean and quiet, despite decades of development and millions of visitors.

How can that be?

Through excellent planning and continued vigilance.

When the south end of Hilton Head transitioned to a resort from a lumber camp on a largely undeveloped barrier island in the 1960s, a lot of careful planning went into the process. Developers led by Charles Fraser wanted to keep Hilton Head’s forests and beaches the star of the show, not the development itself.

So they imposed some rules.

You won’t see any 20-story hotels right at the high tide line, nor any grass-covered huts right on the beach with music blaring from them. There aren’t any seaside mansions jutting out from the dunes, ruining your view. You won’t be bothered by vendors peddling wares on the beach.

To set that peaceful, natural stage, developers didn’t encroach on those miles of sand nor the dunes lining it. They respectfully kept their distance, building behind the sand dunes and ensuring all their buildings kept a low profile. Not a single building towers over the tree line.

It was a radical idea, especially since scientists were just beginning to sound the alarm that harming those dunes also harms the teeming wildlife that lives, rests or eats there. Most developers were old school (and greedy?) and plopped massive hotels and homes right at the water’s edge.

But once again, Hilton Head was way ahead of the rest of the country. For example, its development long preceded the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, which was formed in 1978 to protect the state’s shoreline by scientifically studying it and noting changes.

What that means for residents and visitors are beautiful, natural beaches accessible to residents and visitors alike. There are easy access points to the beach from Hilton Head’s heel to toe. Beaches such as Islander, Folly Field, Driessen, Burkes, Coligny and Forest line the shore.

Just in case that’s not enough, you can also access the beach at several other locations:

  • Alder Lane beach access off South Forest Beach Drive
  • Burkes Beach access at the end of Burkes Beach RoadChaplin Community Park off of William Hilton Parkway
  • Fish Haul Park at the end of Beach City Road
  • Mitchelville Beach Park off Beach City Road

Not only does Hilton Head provide so many access points you nearly trip over them, we also set high standards for those privileged to visit them.

We expect “Southern hospitality" from all of our visitors. But don’t let the long lists of “don’ts" that greet beachgoers bum you out. Really, they’re just codified common sense.

Essentially, they fall into a few categories: Leave the beach as you found it, don’t hurt yourself or others and keep the vibe low-key. This is not party central. There are other places for that.

We strive for a calm, clean and peaceful beach for all.

(That warm Southern hospitality extends to the water, too. Shoreline water temperatures average above 70 degrees from May through October.)

Put all that together — the careful stewardship of the island itself, the civilized atmosphere, warm temperatures and undisturbed seaside wildlife — and you’ll understand why Hilton Head lands at the top of “best beaches” lists year after year according to TripAdvisor, Fodor, Conde Nast and others.

The secret is to stay out of the way and let Mother Nature do all of the talking. When given the chance to shine, she has a lot to say and even more to show us.