Hilton Head & Bluffton: 2015 City Guide

Americans are a mobile people. Families are far-flung, turning “over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go” into “let’s use our frequent flyer miles.”

We are no longer tied to the family homestead. We can live anywhere we want, and we do. Most of us limit that wanderlust to our countries of birth, but not always. (Just listen to the accents at the Pineland Station Starbucks.)

Given our many choices, one thing to consider when deciding where to live is whether you want your family to come to you for holidays and visits or vice versa. For example, where would you rather spend Easter weekend? Your sister’s house in Cleveland or at Aunt Pat’s on Hilton Head Island? Yeah, we thought so. You can follow brunch with a family golf round.

Try THAT in Cleveland in March or April.


OK, we live here because of the beauty and the weather, we get that. But why here? Why this particular county in southeast South Carolina? Why not Florida or California or Texas? They’re warm. We can assume there are pretty spots there, too, right?

What is so special about Hilton Head Island and Bluffton?

Here is where the list gets pretty darned long.

Let’s start with the trees. They are everywhere. Why? Because this area was pretty much left alone for about 100 years after the Civil War. There wasn’t any industry and only small sustenance farms. The original islanders made their living from the area’s riches, pulling vegetables from the soil and fish and seafood from the surrounding waters.

In the 1950s, when Charles Fraser began planning the community that would become the Hilton Head and ensuing Bluffton of today, he didn’t cut corners and he never strayed from his vision. The focal point would remain the local beauty and gorgeous beaches, not man’s architectural efforts. Development was brilliantly designed to fit into the landscape, creating a breathtaking synergy. The best of nature, meet the best of the building arts.

2015cityguide03But that wasn’t all. Fraser and company also wove the threads together that made Hilton Head and Bluffton not only irresistible places to visit, but coveted places to live and raise a family or enjoy retirement. That pull came about because Fraser and the Sea Pines Company recruited the country’s smartest people to help develop the area and then enticed them to stay by making sure his employees became like family to each other. It was the start of a brand-new community, not just a resort.

Through masterful marketing and wining and dining leaders from dozens of communities in the Northeast and Midwest, family after family moved to Hilton Head. Churches formed, clubs met and schools and small businesses opened.

Without shame (and likely encouragement from Fraser), other developers mimicked Sea Pines’ efforts elsewhere on the island and after a while, just over the bridges in Bluffton.

As gated communities arose, so did areas outside the gates, which added to the diversity that makes an area vibrant. Like nested Russian dolls, the island became an overall community, then within developments and again among clubs and social groups. 

As the community grew, so did the caliber of the essentials to a life well lived: food, culture, intellectual pursuits and health care.

Today, Hilton Head and Bluffton have perfected the formula for the good life, no matter your age, interests or income.

The local economy

2015cityguide04Although many of the first residents of the new developments earned much of their wealth elsewhere, as the island’s economy grew, more and more local job opportunities arose. Tourism continues to be king, but with it came real estate, education, retail, law, health care and finance. The area also spurred a strong entertainment and artist economy, allowing people to make a living from their passions.


As more people called Hilton Head and Bluffton home, the educational infrastructure grew, too. New public schools continue to arise, from elementary schools to a new campus for the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Scores of private schools and academies opened, ranging from the brand-new John Paul II Catholic School to the world-famous International Junior Golf Academy, the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy and Van Der Meer Tennis Academy.

Outside the classroom, the area’s historical sites and natural surroundings provide educational opportunities not found anywhere else, from shrimping excursions through the Coastal Discovery Museum to naturalist classes at Outdoor Hilton Head and first-hand fisheries studies at Waddell Mariculture Center.

Unique to the area is Hilton Head Institute, known for its annual three-day forum that fosters deep conversations about global issues and features internationally known speakers, often former Cabinet members.

Life in retirement

One thing stands out about the thousands of people who moved to Hilton Head and Bluffton for retirement: They do not sit still. They join golf clubs, tennis groups, biking tours, sailing regattas and paddling clubs. They travel, they paint, they socialize. And they volunteer for everything. To manage the volume, the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry has a sophisticated system that aligns a volunteer’s skills and interests with the local nonprofit groups that need help.

Other noteworthy nonprofit entities founded on Hilton Head and dependent on retirees include Volunteers in Medicine Clinic, which has provided medical and dental care to tens of thousands of residents over its 20-year history, and the community’s flagship event, the annual RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, the PGA Tour event that has contributed millions to the community through the Heritage Classic Foundation.

No matter what your background or interest, it’s likely your peers already formed a club around it. 


The outdoors

Irrefutably, the best part of living on Hilton Head and in Bluffton is the environment. No matter where you are, you will see wildlife, from the ibis flying overhead when traveling along U.S. 278 in Bluffton to the stillness of the surrounding marshes from the vantage of a kayak.

Walk the beach and you’ll see only sand and dunes. Buildings are set back, deferential to the reason we’re here: a true beach experience, not man’s take on the beach with vendors’ booths and overpowering development. Trees are the skyscrapers here, not hotels.


The best part of living here is that no matter where you live, you can be overlooking water in 20 minutes, tops. There are no hour-long drives to the beach, the marina or the marsh. You can be waterside every day after work in minutes. Beautiful views are all around us, and we get to see them every day. That’s why we live here. You want to launch a kayak or a fishing boat or just put your toes in the water? There are a dozen public parks on 12-mile-long Hilton Head Island where you can fish, hike, swim, boat and explore. Bluffton also has half a dozen parks with walking trails, a skate park and soccer fields and access to the beautiful May River.


Our great natural environment inspires the artists in us all, whether we want to create it or enjoy the work of others. Visual arts are everywhere, from an abundance of galleries to the Public Art Exhibition sponsored by the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry that runs from October to December.

For performing arts, there is the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, dance studios, singing groups and community theater productions.

To learn about our fascinating history, check out the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, the Heyward House Historic Center in Bluffton and the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn, to name a few resources.

You can’t overlook the local music scene either, from the entertainment institutions of Gregg Russell under the Live Oak in Harbour Town to Shannon Tanner at Shelter Cove and the nationally known Jazz Corner. Every night of the week, someone is performing live at one of the many restaurants, taverns and nightclubs in the area.

Culinary arts

Hilton Head and Bluffton have long been known for their beauty, beaches, waterways, golf and tennis, but food is quickly moving up the list of attractions for visitors and residents. Talented, inspired chefs have created a local culinary landscape that earns regular mention in national food, wine and travel media. There are literally hundreds of restaurants to choose from within 30 miles, and bad restaurants simply don’t survive.

Each year, local food- and beverage-themed festivals grow larger and draw the best local and national talent. Local farmers and fish markets supply fresh, local ingredients for delicious fare at home, too. Rest assured, one eats very well here.

The necessities for the good life

Central to a life well lived is physical, intellectual and emotional well-being. Hilton Head and Bluffton had the natural beauty to start, but they didn’t squander it. They built communities that revel in that natural environment rather than overpowering it. They also created communities that meet human needs in grand fashion, from education, recreational pursuits and world-class health care.


That’s why tens of thousands of people have moved here in the past 15 years, and more arrive every day.

We know there is no better place to call “home.”