HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - All I wanted was everything. A getaway from work and housework and kid tantrums. A restorative weekend of beach walking and boutiquing and boating with my best friend. Fruity drinks. Fried seafood. Sunshine.
High expectations, warned my sister. I'd been building up the island for more than two decades, as friends -- like many Ohioans -- flocked there on summer vacation.
Yet the South Carolina sea island exceeded even my daydreams -- in November.
In the fall, the island's roads are clear, the 12 miles of beach are merely polka-dotted with people, and the restaurants have plenty of openings on the patio. Even better, hotel prices drop, and the air is sweet, rather than sultry, with highs in the 60s or 70s.
"I'd come back every November," I yelled during a cruise on the Calibogue Sound, where we saw a trio of dolphins diving and a mother frolicking with her baby.
It was gorgeous. Bright water reflecting cobalt sky and brilliant sun. Sailboats bobbing, mansions preening.
About 39,000 people live on the island year-round. Off-season, roughly October through March, it's like you're crashing their exclusive party.
Though locals said there is an influx of guests during the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas, when families gather at their beach condos.
So what can you do on an off-season vacation?
Plenty, I found, on my trip this month. My best friend and I have traveled together plenty, to Beaufort, Charleston and Seabrook Island in South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Hilton Head is my favorite spot thus far, because of its fusion of resort and reality.
For three days, we marveled at the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, the beauty of the lagoons, the proliferation of big gnarled oak trees, decked with Spanish moss. We shopped and drank and ate seafood for every meal, talked and ran and played and swam.
Leaving, I felt enlightened and invigorated. Re-energized to resume my packed working-mom life with two small, demanding children.
Want your own fall or winter getaway? Here are seven activities I'd recommend.
(And no, golf is not included. While the island boasts more 20 courses - including an annual PGA stop at Harbour Town Golf Links, I do not golf. Learning to play is on my retirement bucket list.)
1. Play tennis.
Here's the thing with tennis: I like it. But when it's hot, I'd much rather be in a pool than on the court. A crisp fall morning is perfect for a match on clay at one of Hilton Head's many private tennis clubs, including the Van Der Meer Shipyard Tennis Resort, or a public hard court. We found several public courts on Cordillo Parkway, a block from our Beach House hotel at Coligny Circle, and played without breaking a sweat. Sweet!
2. Day drink.
Take this chance to be ladies (or gents) who lunch, if only for a weekend.
Grab a spot on the stone patio at Skull Creek Boathouse, or on the dock at Hudson's, or at the tony newBeach Club in the private Sea Pines plantation. Order a drink, lap up the sun and luxuriate in the fact that you have nothing else to do and nowhere else to be. Bonus points if your drink tastes like an alcohol-infused milkshake, as my amaretto-pina colada Skull Creek Sunset ($8.50 at Hudson's) did.
Hilton head has 60 miles of public pathways, plus 12 miles of hard-packed beach, at least at low tide. You can rent a cruiser - with a comfy seat, no gears and basic brakes - from many hotels and lots of bike shops for about $8 an hour or $20 a day.
Since laws of the town (founded in 1983) outlaw neon and buildings taller than treetops, the entire island is a pretty backdrop for a ride.
4. Stay at a nice(r) hotel.
The best part of the off-season? The discounts on accommodations.
We chose the Beach House Holiday Inn, right on Coligny Beach and in the middle of everything, with a tiki bar and outdoor pool. You could get a room for as low as $93 on a weeknight, if you wanted to face the parking lot. We chose oceanfront and paid $122 for a Thursday night, a little more for a Friday. The view, and the sound of the waves, was worth the upgrade.
You can find rooms as cheap as $50 at discount chains without water access, or you could opt for a swanky resort, like the Inn at Harbour Town ($249) or Marriott Grand Ocean ($260).
5. Explore the island, and its history.
I dig into history wherever I travel. And in the cooler weather of the off-season, you can explore without sweat dripping down your back.
Wander the grounds of the Coastal Discovery Center at Honey Horn, where you can learn about the island's former indigo, sea island and rice fields, hunting grounds and timber areas. Because until the bridge to the mainland opened in 1956, only 300 people lived on Hilton Head.
Or journey to Sea Pines, the gated community that encompasses the southern third of the island, to view the ruins of the Stoney-Baynard mansion, built by a captain named Saucy Jack. The foundation, made of an oyster-lime compound called tabby, still exists. Also in Sea Pines is the Forest Preserve, a 600-acre swath of lakes, swamps and woods, where you can see a 4,000-year-old shell ring or walk on a dike built by slaves to create a rice paddy. (That's where we walked, on a trail named, no joke, Boggy Gut.)
6. Get out on (or even in) the water.
High temperatures in November average about 70 degrees. When we were there, it was 77 degrees the first day, 70 the second and 61 the third, with lows in the 50s. That's mostly too cold to spend the day sunning on the beach, especially when the wind is blowing, but you can still enjoy the salt water.
The waters surrounding Hilton Head are home to 400 bottlenose dolphins.
I got to see a handful while running on the beach and taking a delightful dolphin cruise withIsland Explorer ($45 for two hours) on the Calibogue Sound. I even got to drive the boat! You can also take a guided kayak tour or rent a stand-up paddleboard.
And because I hadn't been in the ocean for seven years, I braved the 68-degree temperature to play in the waves and float in the surprisingly shallow surf. Then I jumped in the heated pool and wrapped myself in a warm towel.
Most beachgoers, however, settled for walking, building castles and combing the sand for shells.
While Hilton Head has its share of ticky-tacky souvenir shops, it also offers adorable boutiques proffering gifts, designer clothes, jewelry, paper and just about anything else.
Check out a plethora of shops, including girly-cute Fresh Produce, at Coligny Plaza, or head for high-end at the Shops at Wexford, where on a recent Saturday, Santa was posing for pictures and a women's acapella group was singing carols.Shelter Cove Towne Centre gets bright with a Festival of Lights every night through Jan. 2. And at Harbour Town, you can browse shops then climb the famous red-and-white-striped lighthouse.
Or, hit the outlets just outside of town.
I couldn't resist a tote bag from Spartina 449, a pervasive and adorable women's accessory company dreamed up four years on neighboring Daufuskie Island. And I practically finished my Christmas shopping.
Off-season has a few drawbacks, of course.
The sun sets early, so you won't get much of a view during dinner at those waterfront restaurants.
Stores close earlier.
And it can be tough to navigate the island roads in the dark. (Town law outlaws lights visible from the beach after 10 p.m. for much of the year, since the light could discombobulate sea turtles.)
But I'm already looking forward to my next off-season trip to Hilton Head, maybe at a condo, during a March break with my husband and our kids.
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