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Southern Hospitality:
Savannah & Hilton Head
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

Savannah & Hilton Head Map
New York, NY - Over the years I have written about many southern cities in the past few years including Oklahoma City, Knoxville, Birmingham, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, New Orleans, Myrtle Beach, Raleigh, Charlotte, Houston and Jacksonville allowing a born and bred frenetic New Yorker the opportunity to discover many things to enjoy in the "laid-back" South.

Could I really relax on a "free to do what you like" excursion? It is the best kind if you take the time to organize, somewhat, the unorganized. The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa proposed just such a three-night restful long weekend recently and it all began with a two hour Continental Express flight to Savannah followed by a less than an hour drive to Hilton Head Island. Once there, why not begin by spending a day visiting one of the Revolutionary and Civil War's most important cities - remember Sherman's march to the sea and the British defeat of the American forces?

The Westin has 403 rooms, a PGA Championship golf course and a Greenbrier Spa - my kind of place. After arriving and depositing my car with the front entrance staff, I took the free water shuttle (Savannah Belles Ferry) from the Westin/Convention Center side of the Savannah River to the historic downtown side and then the free DOT Express shuttle bus that runs from the River Street dock area through ten stops along the Historic District. Note the use of "free." Nice. Not many people knew about this free service and, happily, by the time you read this another free city transportation system should be up and running- a vintage 1930 streetcar that will operate along River Street. With very limited parking the city of Savannah is to be congratulated for offering all these free alternative modes of transportation. It is a service not uncommon in many southern locales.

Time for an intro to our destination. Savannah has a population of 325,000 with 6 1/2 million annual visitors. The average year-round temperature is 51 degrees and it has the largest National Historic Landmark District in the United States. The city was founded in 1733. I would suggest and urge that your introduction include the Old Town Savannah Tours and its entire 1 1/4 hour circle tour. Once you know your way around and have made mental notes of what you would like to see and what you determine not to be tht important, time to return and use the "get on/get off" feature to visit those sights that piqued your interest..

Take note that the Savannah Visitors Information Center has car parking available for people on the different trolley tours and the Savannah History Museum is a good starting point with its 18-minute film showing the history of the city.

Ron's Choices for The Best of Savannah: Mikvah Israel Temple built in the Gothic style and the third oldest in the US; Savannah's remaining 21 squares, containing statues and small parks; the home of the founder of the Girl Scouts. Juliette Gordon Low; the read-worthy tombstones at the Colonial Park Cemetery; Fort Pulaski National Monument (outside town); Telfair Museum of Art; Fort Jackson where General Sherman captured the city; First African Baptist Church, the nation's oldest historically black Baptist Church; City Market with its shops and restaurants; Savannah College of Art & Design; and, last but not least, River Street with its shops and restaurants. On the way out of, or into, the Savannah airport be sure to stop at the Mighty Eight Air Force Heritage Museum.

Whew!!! That should do for openers.

Once done, I was on my way to Hilton Head, which is the largest barrier island between New Jersey and Florida. If you have the time you can stop at Beaufort, whose downtown area is a historic district; Bluffton, which is part of greater Hilton Head; and, for shopaholics there is the Tanger Outlet Center. Once over the bridge on the 12-mile long by 5-mile wide island read the signs carefully - there are no large billboards allowed, no McDonald Arches. Everything is small and discrete.

A bit of history - in 1663 English sea captain William Hilton claimed the island for the British Crown (doubt he stay at a Hilton Hotel that he quickly constructed and named). In 1790 the first Sea Island cotton crop was harvested and, by 1860, twenty-four plantations were in operation. In 1861, during the Civil War, the largest naval battle fought in American waters took place and Federal troops occupied Hilton Head. After the abolition of slavery the island suffered an economic downturn due to a lack of available workers and, in the 1940s the island experienced a rebirth with a lumber industry using sea pine trees. In 1956 Charles Fraser, whose family was one of the island's owners, created a master plan for a resort community and that was the same year in which the bridge to the mainland was constructed.

For More information

  • Hilton Head is golf, sand, fishing, water sports, wetlands, wild animals, bike riding, jogging, eating and drinking. Make certain you are in shape to enjoy it. There are 2.3 million visitors every year and most come for the ocean and beach despite the allure of the 23 golf courses (4 are private), 350 tennis courts and eight marinas. You can ride a bike, as I did, on the 12 miles of sandy beaches or the 50 miles of paved pathways and nature trails. If you insist on seeing more sights, and your digital is handy, try the Harbour Town Lighthouse Museum, which was built as an attraction, rather than a working lighthouse. The Coastal Discovery Museum, Audubon Newhall Preserve and Sea Pines Forest Preserve are also there awaiting your presence. The Sandbox is a hands-on interactive children's museum so, if the youngsters have come with, you have a "must visit" at hand..

    The Port Royal Plantation is a mixed-use area with three 18-hole championship golf courses, 14 tennis courts, bike and jogging paths, private residences, vacation clubs and the location of the AAA 4 Diamond Westin Hilton Head Island Spa & Resort where I happily and comfortably spent three nights. The 412 rooms are set in oceanfront five story wrap-around buildings in an effort to accommodate every guest with the finest view available. It is, however, a long walk to either of the side elevators but is a perfect distance to help you digest the outstanding seafood dinner and breakfast buffets. The hotel has a seasonal Westin Kids Club and children's pool and is very pet friendly. With a workout room, yoga studio, Heavenly Spa by Westin, one indoor and two outdoor pools you are set for every season. I am told there are only a few months (December-February) where you can't walk around in shorts. OK, we can live with that.

    Southern hospitality is, when savored in this fashion, all it is cracked up to be.

    Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to or email him at