The main rule is to have fun



Face masks hide the smiles, but cannot conceal the happy vibe at Latitude Margaritaville. 

Tanned, rested and ready for fun, the laid-back residents of the Jimmy Buffett-influenced community in Hardeeville are embracing their social lifestyle as a mental health antidote to the coronavirus pandemic. 

After all, they settled in this resort-style retreat as much for a way to live as a place to live – a 55-plus destination committed to a sunny attitude as much as a sunny setting. 

In the months since the virus disrupted normal life in the Lowcountry and around the globe, Latitude Margaritaville Hilton Head adopted an array of health protocols – from taking temperatures of visitors at the sales center inside the U.S. 278 entrance to temporarily suspending operations at the fitness and town center at the heart of the 3,000-acre facility. 

All the while, homeowners and Margaritaville staffers put a priority on being sociable while respecting guidelines for social distancing. Their strategy: Deploy creative ways to stay connected while minimizing risk. 

“We’ve found ways to play, but play safe,” said Ramona Ward, the community’s social director whose official title – “Ambassador of Fun” – adds emphasis. 

Tactics for coping and cultivating a sense of community have included new technology and old-fashioned throwbacks, from Facebook bingo and a virtual DJ, to keep-your-distance line dancing and golf cart parades. 

With the start of the baseball season, Ward organized whiffle ball games with batters hitting into “safe” areas to reduce the need for fielders and contact. Neighbors also got busy with “Driveway Dive Bars” by stocking and decorating their driveways for thematic Happy Hours suited to their tavern tastes: A bistro, a cantina, a jazz bar. 

Dealing with the pandemic, Ward said, “has only made us stronger as a community.” 

Retirees Patti and Jim Buhlinger, who moved to Latitude Margaritaville from Michigan last year, remain committed to the island lifestyle announced on their front-door decoration: “Living My Life in Flip Flops.” 

Jim Buhlinger, a city finance specialist for three decades in suburban Detroit, said coping with the coronavirus has created camaraderie while encouraging residents to chill and chat. The lifestyle promoted in Buffett’s music and Margaritaville brand – fun, food, friendship, music and “no worries” – has endured. 

“We’ve all come together,” said Patti Buhlinger. “It’s been like a family, with people looking out for each other.” 

In the midst of lockdowns and stay-at-home advisories, residents reached out by filling neighbors’ shopping lists on runs to Sam’s Club. Separately, card-playing neighbors came together to form a euchre group, taking care to practice social distancing. 

“Like-minded people have come here and to a point in their life where they just want to kick back and enjoy,” said Karen Reynolds, who moved to Latitude Margaritaville last August. 

The pandemic, she said, has encouraged the community to “make lemonade out of lemons.” 

“I haven’t had an experience like this before,” she said. 

Latitude Margaritaville officials said they are seeing intensified interest among prospective home buyers hoping to escape the nation’s coronavirus hotspots. To be sure, the sales center off U.S 278 was bustling at the end of July with cars bearing out-of-state license plates: New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, Texas, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Connecticut. 

The two-year-old development – a collaboration of Buffett’s Margaritaville Holdings and developer Minto Communities, a leading home developer in Florida – offers 13 models, including single-family homes with pricing that starts at $299,900. Sales director John Strother said more than 450 properties had been sold by the end of July, with 275 occupied and 160 under construction. Plans call for a more than 3,000 homes. 

Hardeeville Mayor Harry Williams called Latitude Margaritaville a “boon” for the city. 

“It brings a lot of retirees and it brings a lot of experience, energy and volunteerism,” Williams said.  

Like others in Jasper County responding to the pandemic, Latitude Margaritaville residents provided food and masks to first responders and frontline workers. 

Williams said he expects Latitude Margaritaville to generate significant, related commercial development. When the community’s town center was dedicated in March, Minto Division President William Bullock said retail and retail services are planned. 

Strother, a Lowcountry real estate veteran of more than 35 years – with experience stretching from Hilton Head to Spring Island – said rules for buying in Latitude Margaritaville are few: “Older than 55, no children under 19 living in the house and a limit of three mammals.” 

Added Minto Sales Vice President Paul Bobick, a Hilton Head native now based at Minto’s offices in Florida: “There’s one additional rule: Have fun.”