Hurricane didn't blow away Hilton Head's perfection

Lexington Herald-Leader
February 10. 2017 9:01PM
The red and white candy-cane striped lighthouse looms over the Harbour Front Marina at Sea Pines Plantation. (Hilton Head Island Tourism)

HILTON HEAD, S.C. - This lovely island just off the South Carolina mainland is as renowned for its hospitality toward visitors as it is for its Low Country cuisine and distinctive Gullah culture, the latter originating from the descendants of former slaves who migrated here after the Civil War.

One visitor, however, got a less than warm welcome when he arrived last fall.

On Oct. 8,, 2016, Hurricane Matthew blew onto the island bringing torrential rain and winds of nearly 100 miles per hour. When he skipped town a day later, he left behind damages still being assessed but projected to be in the millions, and one paradise that in a nod to poet John Milton, needed to be regained.

The good news is that it definitely has.

Today, a little more than four months since Matthew's departure, the island, only 12 miles long and five miles wide, despite losing some of its lush tree cover, is once again its sun-dappled, palmetto-fringed, ocean breeze-kissed self.

"Matthew was the first hurricane we've had in 126 years, and thanks to amazing planning and rapid clean-up efforts, everything was pretty much back to normal very quickly," says Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

"Many of our hotels opened the weekend after the storm with weddings and groups," she continues. "Restaurants also opened the week following the storm, and we hosted one of the island's largest outdoor events (the classic car show Concours d'Elegance) just three weeks later.

"In fact, we showed record-breaking visitor numbers last November and December over those of the previous year," Clark says.

Upon first arriving in Hilton Head, visitors are pleasantly surprised to discover an orderly, well-laid out community conspicuously lacking in chain motels, fast food outlets and convenience stores. Bike paths crisscross the island, through lush manicured grounds shaded by towering pines, and 12 miles of Atlantic waters wash up on blindingly white sand dunes.

All of this perfection is no accident. Hilton Head's beginning as a world-class resort dates to 1956, when Charles Fraser, a real estate developer and visionary began sculpting Sea Pines Plantation from a swampy tract on the island's southern tip. Fraser was also something not usually associated with developers, however visionary - a committed environmentalist.

When he discovered that original plans for his Harbour Town Marina meant displacing an ancient oak, he altered the configuration of the marina to preserve the 1,000-year-old tree. Today, the Liberty Oak is as symbolic of Harbour Town as the much-photographed red and white candy-cane striped lighthouse overlooking Calibogue Sound.

Once Fraser put Hilton Head on travelers' maps, others quickly followed, and today Marriott, Hilton, Westin, Disney and other industry heavy-hitters all have a presence here. Seventy percent of the island's homes and accommodations are in gated communities with charming names such as Palmetto Hall Plantation and Port Royal Plantation.

A helpful hint: the strict preservation code that prevents the encroachment of hotel and restaurant chains also has restrictions on the type of signage on the island (i.e. no billboards or even large direction signs), which can make finding a location challenging. If you're not an island regular and are going somewhere after dark, better make a practice drive during daylight hours to scout out your destination.

Whether your idea of a perfect vacation involves golfing, beachcombing, biking, horseback riding, gallery-hopping, spa treatments or adventurous dining, Hilton Head will more than fill the bill.

My favorite memory might just be that of evenings spent watching the sunset from the terrace of the Ocean Club at Sea Pines. Kicking back with a pina colada and watching a kaleidoscope of colors paint the sky, I reflected on the fact that post-Matthew, Hilton Head is one paradise that, thankfully, has not been lost.

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