As Southern exposure goes, it doesn’t get more picturesque than Savannah, Ga.: Each historic, oak-shaded city square and iconic church — not to mention every delicious piece of fried chicken — validates why this city charms some 14 million visitors a year. But it's worth including time in your itinerary for a daylong getaway to one (or both) of these wonderful destinations along the nearby South Carolina coast.
Hilton Head Island
From Savannah, you’re just an hour’s drive (about 45 miles) from Hilton Head Island. It'd be a shame not to visit this special place (a barrier island connected to the mainland by bridges, so you can reach it by car).
There’s a lot you can pack into one day here, depending on your interests. Hilton Head has at least 10 bike rental shops and more than 60 miles of leisure trails, including paths that wind through Harbour Town, a waterfront village full of boutique shops and restaurants, and to the Sea Pines Forest Preserve — both part of the massive Sea Pines Resort. Wander through the protected wildlife habitat (you’ll need to park your bikes to use the walking trails), home to countless birds and alligators. You can also access the beach at Coligny Beach Park by bike, and choose your towel spot from more than 12 miles of sandy coastline.
Next you’ll want to check out the 90-foot red-and-white-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse at the marina. If you’re up for it, you can climb its 114 steps to catch a panoramic view of Calibogue Sound and neighboring Daufuskie Island. At ground level, grab an ice cream next door at Cinnamon Bear Country Store, and crowd-watch in one of the red rocking chairs that line the shopping village. Break for lunch at the Crazy Crab (shrimp salads, oysters, fish sandwiches) overlooking the water.
If you're not big on beach lounging, take the ferry to Daufuskie Island, an hour’s ride each way ($35 round trip). Daufuskie’s haunting history includes First African Baptist Church, Bloody Point Lighthouse and the Mary Fields School, made famous by Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy. Guided tours are available as well as golf cart rentals for exploring on your own. (But note that the last ferry for Hilton Head leaves the island at 6 p.m.)
Wind down the day at Old Oyster Factory, a popular family restaurant serving goodies such as fresh crab cakes, hush puppies and tuna nachos. It's perched along the inland bank of Broad Creek and sits on the foundation of the island’s old oyster cannery.
There’s a different feel to this lovely small town farther north along the Intracoastal Waterway on Port Royal Island, an hour’s drive northeast of Savannah. Even the sound of its name — Byoo-furd, as in beautiful — hints at its old world grace and history dating back centuries. You'll find antebellum homes, moss-draped live oaks, the beguiling salty smell of the marsh, and genuine Southern hospitality wherever you go here.
Pick up a map at the visitors center and set off on foot along the town’s canopied streets or spend the morning with guides from Sunshine Walking Tours as they fill in the historical blanks of the city. (There will be name-dropping: Beaufort was the setting for scenes from Forrest Gump, and famously home to author Conroy, who died in 2016.) End the tour at Chambers Waterfront Park and enjoy the view at Plums restaurant, along with a lunch of classic shrimp and grits — no visit to the coast is complete without tasting a local chef’s interpretation of this dish.
A 15-minute drive east is St. Helena Island, home to the gorgeous Hunting Island State Park, where you can climb the lighthouse and view the coastline from its 130-foot gallery. And stop at Penn Center, one of the nation’s most significant African American historical sites, the country’s first school for freed slaves. Dedicated to preserving history and the Gullah Geechee community, the 50-acre campus lets you walk through history; you can even visit the cabin where Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have begun his "I Have a Dream" speech.
To punctuate your history lesson about the Gullah people, about a half mile from Penn Center is Gullah Grub (closed Saturdays), a must-stop for dinner. Chef Bill Green has two rules: Eat seasonally and locally. For more than 15 years, he and his family have been serving authentic Gullah grub with French, Spanish and West African influences. Frogmore stew or shrimp gumbo? No matter which you choose, don’t forget the cornbread.