HILTON HEAD, S.C. — A few minutes past the Harbor Town lighthouse, a couple of hundred yards out in Calibogue Sound, our small motorboat idled down. We had seen a small group of excited kayakers closer to shore, and we had a pretty good idea of what generated the excitement.
We cut the engine to idle and cruised the area slowly. Sure enough, within minutes a fin appeared. Then another. Then a half dozen. One fin in particular tailed us for a few seconds. It disappeared briefly underwater, and then up popped the head of an adult dolphin, no more than a foot from the starboard bow. I could have reached out and patted it on the snout.
Like most dolphins, this one seemed to be smiling broadly, as if it wanted to take the steering wheel and join the cruise or - more likely - in anticipation of a free meal. They haven't yet learned that giving them handouts is now frowned on. Perhaps nowhere else in nature is the human-animal encounter so hilarious or good-willed than a meeting with a dolphin in its own house.
Hilton Head, of course, is mostly about golf. The island is home to more than 20 golf courses, with many more in nearby Bluffton and surrounding islands.
The vast numbers of vacationers who come here do so with their clubs in the trunk. But for those non-golfing spouses, children or guests, there is a ton of stuff to do on and near the island that doesn't involve the joys and frustrations of the game. Not surprisingly, most of them involve water and meeting one of nature's most genial creatures.
There are different ways to get close to the dolphins. We chose a small motorboat because we could cover more ground. Numerous outfits rent boats big and small around the island. Your best bet for successful spotting is Calibogue Sound south of the lighthouse, though dolphins can also be seen in the lower reaches of Broad Creek.
Another, slower and more relaxing way is with kayaks. There's no intrusive motor noise, although you won't be able to cover as much ground or explore multiple areas.
Kayaks aren't just for communing with Flipper, of course. They're also a great way to get out on the water and actually hear and see the sights and sounds of the Intracoastal Waterway and other bodies of water that surround the island.
There are kayaking expeditions of just about every kind here, including fishing, bird-watching, watching the full moon and taking in the fireworks at Shelter Cove. One outfit, Outside Hilton Head, runs kayakers to deserted Page Island for overnight camping trips.
Advanced Sail Inc. Catamarans, Cheers Charter Inc., H20 Sports and Schooner Welcome offer various sailing experiences, including romantic cruises, sunset sails and, of course, dolphin-watching. Charters range from 45-foot sloops to 53-foot catamarans to a 62-foot wooden schooner where you can take the wheel and help raise the sails. You can also parasail or rent jet skis.
If you'd rather catch a marine animal than smile at one, options abound. This is an island, remember, replete with tidal lagoons both saltwater and brackish, estuaries, the waterway, smaller creeks and, obviously, the Atlantic Ocean.
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There is serious saltwater fishing, both inshore on Calibogue Sound and offshore on the Atlantic. You can try for king and Spanish mackerel, cobia, barracuda, amberjack, tarpon and even sharks.
You can go it alone or try charters, ranging from the 58-foot Viking, docked at Harbor Town, or smaller craft from the Whipple Charter Boat Co., which specializes in bottom fishing for grouper, snapper, red drum, sheepshead, flounder and black sea bass.
Be advised, a full day of charter-boat fishing can cost close to $1,000. Saltwater fishing requires a license if you're over 16 and fishing from a boat. If you're staying at one of the plantations, like Sea Pines, Shipyard or Palmetto Dunes, however, you're on private property and need no license. But you do have to follow their rules; Palmetto Dunes, for example, has an 11-mile lagoon system.
Also, commercial fishing vessels have licenses and anglers don't need to buy additional ones. Charter boats run from small craft for six to vessels that can take dozens. Typically you'll be either drift fishing offshore or plying one of the artificial reefs. The Gulf Stream, about 70 miles offshore, takes a while to reach by boat; this is a full day of fishing.
Charter boats provide tackle, but if you strike out on your own you'll need to buy it yourself, from places like Blue Water Marine or the Shelter Cove Marina Ships Store.
You can also go after oysters, clams, shrimp and crabs. They are subject to many of the same rules that apply to fishing.
The island has 12 miles of beaches, all public from the ocean to the high-water mark. Access is often private, however, so you might need to use one of the seven locations the town of Hilton Head provides. Most have metered parking spaces, and there are designated swimming areas with lifeguards during the summer.
If you get tired of being out on the water, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge a half-mile west of the island has more than 4,000 acres and includes four other islands and many other hammocks, though Pinckney is the only one open for public use.
Mostly made up of salt marsh, tidal creeks and freshwater ponds, It's a quiet, peaceful alternative to crowded, heavily trafficked Hilton Head. There are more than 14 miles of trails for hiking or biking, and you can see large concentrations of white ibis, egrets, herons and ospreys. There is an active bald eagle nest on the island - don't mess with them.
There are also alligators, flatwoods salamanders and wood storks, all on the threatened or endangered species list of the Savannah Coastal Refuges.
Tennis is almost as big as golf on the island. Courts abound, and the island is home to the world's largest international organization of tennis teachers and coaches, the Professional Tennis Registry.
Hilton Head loves outdoor festivals and special events, hosting several every month. There's the David M. Carmines Water Festival, the Suntrust Triathlon, jazz concerts, lecture series, golf and tennis tournaments - and that's just for April. There always seems to be races, soccer tournaments, parades and free yoga on the beach. For a complete list, check the calendar of events at the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce Web site.
If you go:
Hilton Head Golf Travel
Outside Hilton Head
Advanced Sail Inc. Catamarans
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.
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