Reading Your Way to Hilton Head Island
Hilton Head Island is hands-down my favorite beach vacation spot to frequent. Don’t get me wrong; for most vacations, I do love exploring new places, but sometimes it’s relaxing to just put it on cruise control, literally and figuratively, and go to a place I am familiar with that I know I am going to love and enjoy. Living in Kentucky, Hilton Head Island (HHI) is an easy day drive: just leave in the morning, and by late afternoon (even with a few pit stops), you’re on the island. While I love the changing of the seasons and everything that comes along with cooler weather and the holidays, some particularly cold and rainy October mornings have me daydreaming about the island life. This is definitely one of those times when I am reminiscing on warmer times on the island.
One of the best aspects of vacationing in Hilton Head is the close proximity to other AMAZING locations and cities to visit. From the island, you can take a day trip to any of these beautiful cities: Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Tybee Island Georgia; and Beaufort, South Carolina. Having been to HHI numerous times over the years (the first time being a family vacation in 2006!), I have also visited all of the lovely towns I just mentioned.
On top of these cities being utterly breathtaking with their classic, Southern history & charm, they have also been the locations for some of my absolute favorite books. And being the travel & book lover I am, I’ve compiled a list of book suggestions that coincide with these Southern cities, if ever you find yourself in the South Carolina/Georgia area. Or, if you are simply sitting under a blanket on a crisp fall evening, anxiously awaiting warmer weather and an escape to the beach.
1. The Town: Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is one of the most magical cities to visit. The streets are brimming with charm from the colorful houses on Rainbow Row to the Battery Row Mansions to the Joe Riley Waterfront Park. This city can be enjoyed by guided tour via horse-drawn carriage or aimlessly walking and getting lost on the cobblestone streets (And I would recommend both). With the drive from HHI being only a little over two hours, this city is definitely worth the day-trip away from the beach! If you are in the mood for some good eats while in the city, stop by Hyman’s Seafood. Hyman’s is a staple in Charleston, has rave reviews on their food and service, AND has some of the most out-of-this-world Cajun mayonnaise you will ever have. If for no other reason, at least stop by for the Cajun mayo…trust me on that.
1. The Book: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
If you are a fan of historical fiction AND Charleston, then you MUST read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. The plot begins in Charleston in 1803, and the story follows the lives of two girls throughout childhood into their adult years. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a prominent Charleston couple, is gifted Hetty (Handful), a young African American girl whose mother is a slave for the Grimke household. Sarah, who doesn’t agree with her family’s practice of owning slaves, is resistant to having Handful as a human present. What follows their initial, rocky first interaction with one another is the development of a complex relationship between two very different women. With each chapter alternating narrators between Sarah and Handful, you find yourself becoming immersed in their worlds, the one they share together and the two they live apart from one another. The novel is partly inspired by Sarah Grimke, an historic abolitionist and suffragette, whose family house is still standing in Charleston today.
2. The Town: Savannah, Georgia
Even though it’s in the neighboring state of Georgia, Savannah is an easy 45-minute drive from Hilton Head, making it an ideal spot to visit for a day away from the beach. Savannah and Charleston are so similar; they are even referred to as sister cities. Both are full of history and quintessential Southern sights such as trees dripping with Spanish moss lining the streets. Savannah, however, is unique from Charleston in it’s layout; the city is laid out in squares with historic statues and green, grassy areas peppering the town. You can also amble idly down River Street, the cobblestone road lined with restaurants and shops with a view of the Savannah River right at your side. Savannah is such a fun place to get lost in for a day: beautiful sights, coffee shops to relax in, and plenty of stores and restaurants to keep you busy!
If you are looking particularly for some eclectic, artsy, unique items that are specific to Savannah, I would suggest shopSCAD on Bull Street, a retail store featuring original work from the Savannah College of Art and Design community. After a full morning of shopping and touring, if you are ready for a rest from all of the walking, I would highly recommend finding your way to Savannah Coffee Roasters on W Liberty Street. Complete with over-sized, comfy chairs to relax in and the intoxicating aroma of fresh coffee and baked goods, this quaint coffee shop is an AWESOME place to stop and rest for a while before getting back out to discover all that Savannah has to offer.
2. The Book: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
This book is a nonfiction novel, following the events of a murder that takes place in Savannah, specifically in one of Savannah’s beautiful homes: the Mercer House. You would be hard-pressed to visit Savannah and not see some sign, store, or product referencing this novel. On trolley tours of the city, the Mercer House is even one of the stops on the path. And be sure before you leave the city to try and spot a replica “bird girl” statue, which is the focal point of the cover art of the novel. The statue can be found around town in various spots! Even though the novel focuses on a murder trial, it features an interesting mix of somber moments and hilarious high-points from some of Savannah’s more unique individuals…characters you will just have to read about when you pick up this book.
3. The Town: Tybee Island, Georgia
Located just down the road from Savannah, this eclectic, quaint beach getaway is another Southern specialty in driving range from HHI. While you probably wouldn’t leave one beach on HHI to go to another on Tybee, this is a fun place to visit, especially if you are already spending time in Savannah.
3. The Book: The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks
This recommendation is a little off-kilter as the book doesn’t technically take place on the island…the movie does. The Last Song is actually set in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, but the film adaptation was filmed on Tybee Island. The book follows Veronica (Ronnie) Miller, a seventeen-year-old full of angst, who is in town visiting her father for the summer. Even though Ronnie is hesitant to open up at first, the reader goes on a journey with her as she draws closer to her father as well as to a local guy who helps her let go of her anger at her parents’ divorce and her own unhappiness with life. If you make the trip to Tybee, it is worth it to bring this book along so you can imagine the scenes playing out before you as you wander around the island.
4. The Town: Beaufort, South Carolina
Beaufort was actually an accidental stop, but one I was so happy happened. Beaufort is the quintessential, picturesque, sea-side hamlet that you could peacefully stroll through for an entire day. We made the drive to Beaufort thinking it was the setting for another Spark’s novel, A Walk to Remember. It wasn’t until we were already on the road that someone in the car had the brilliant idea to look it up to make sure we were right. Turns out, there is also a Beaufort, NORTH CAROLINA, as well, which is where the novel and movie adaptation actually took place!! Alas, when we made this revelation, we were already on the road and decided to keep trucking, and were we ever so glad we did! After we parked and began walking around, we were taken in by the swings lining the river side, gorgeous waterfront homes, and small side roads with shops and restaurants to explore (not to mention a great indie bookstore or two)! With just a 45 minute commute from HHI, I was pleasantly surprised by how charming this town turned out to be!
4. The Book: A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks
As far as the book, I would still strongly recommend it, even if it is set in the OTHER Carolina (ha)! Focused on the unlikely pair of high schoolers: popular Landon and reserved Jamie, the plot takes you through the progression of their relationship from acquaintances to friends to even more, all while they are faced with trials many teens do not have to withstand. I also can never get enough of the film adaptation starring Shane West and Mandy Moore. Check both versions out, then visit Beaufort, SC (just imagine you’re in the correct state)! 🙂
5. The Destination: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
While all of these cities and towns are wonderful, they all revolve around the focal point of many of my trips to South Carolina: HHI. Like I’ve already mentioned, Hilton Head is my all-time favorite beach to visit. It feels more residential than commercial. It has strict restrictions for advertisements to keep the “touristy” feel at bay. And it does an excellent job of blending in with the natural habitat of the island’s landscape. People who have been to HHI joke that if you don’t already know where a store or restaurant is, you’re going to miss it from the road because the buildings are so intentionally incorporated within nature. For goodness sake, the island doesn’t even allow street lights at night so that the baby sea turtles won’t confuse the lights with the moon and walk away from the ocean instead of toward it! As far as what to do on the island, there is so much. You can use the public beach access at Coligny Park, rent bikes and go for a ride along the many paths on the island, eat some great pizza at the Frosty Frog, grab dessert at Frozen Moo Ice Cream, check out the boats at Harbor Town, and so much more. With such a stunning island and gorgeous beaches, this island keeps calling me back year after year!
5. The Books: Too many to count!
I cannot even begin to remember all of the books I have read on the beach during my various trips to HHI. The first time I visited, I read a Mary Higgins Clark novel, although the precise one escapes me. Then a few years later, I remember reading Water for Elephants by Sara Green. And just a few short years ago, I was reading novels off of my grad class book lists for Dystopian & Gothic Literature. While I cannot remember ALL of the books I have read while on the island, I will give you three recommendations of books I read on my most recent trip to HHI this past summer. While they cover a wide range of both genre and content, they were all perfect “beach reads” to me.
- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: It’s written by Jane Austen. Need I say more?
- The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell: A suspenseful read of a utopia-like neighborhood, community garden that becomes the scene of a wicked deed.
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: A tale of one of the most unique characters I have read in a while with a plot line that moves seamlessly from laugh-out-loud humorous to incredibly dark to crying-happy-tears uplifting.
So, whether you can take some time to visit each of these gorgeous getaway spots, or if you have to daydream about them in your house this winter, I hope you at least find some joy reading the books that always keep South Carolina (and sometimes Georgia, too) on my mind.