If you prefer your islands balmy and remote with names like Bora Bora and Rarotonga, then maybe you can't appreciate what enchants me about Hilton Head, St. Simons, Jekyll, Cumberland, and Amelia.
All are barrier islands along the Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts, and most are reachable by bridge or causeway, yet each one exudes that splendid feeling of isolation and mystery common to far-flung isles.
Surely their finest hour is in the spring -- March and April and well on toward June -- when the remarkable long, well-packed beaches warm to the Low Country sun. Midwinter, however, is also a fetching time, and peaceful too, as I learned on a recent island swing.
Hilton Head, the largest and most thoroughly developed of the barrier islands, is reached after a 45-minute drive across the Low Country flatlands from Savannah. It is an island that owes its name not to the hotel-building baron but to a long-ago seafarer named William Hilton. Second only in size to Long Island among offshore East Coast islands, Hilton Head is a slowly vanishing wilderness of mosshung oaks, palmetto clusters, wind-swept dunes, and vast tidal marshes.
There are just two resort-style hotels on the island -- the 200-room Hilton Head Inn and the 10-story Hyatt at Palmetto Dunes -- but there are lots of neatly landscaped condominium settlements offering all the sport that tourists and residents can handle: golf (nine courses), tennis (including the 30-court Sea Pines racquet club), horse-back riding, biking on the beach, nature walks, kite flying.
Almost 20 years old as a resort and on the verge of outgrowing itself, the once-sedate Hilton Head now has a discotheque or two and a few franchise food parlors. There was nothing of the kind a decade ago when I first saw the island. Charles Fraser, president of the Sea Pines Company, the main developer on Hilton Head, was then overseeing an expensive, exclusive retreat of almost antebellum propriety.
Fraser, a Yale-educated Georgian, the laird of Hilton Head, has since seen Sea Pines enterprises fail at Amelia Island, Fla., and Palmas del Mar on Puerto Rico; on Hilton Head he has sold 2,000 of his 5,000 acres. And though some residents complain that he is permitting too much building among the oaks and palmettos, Fraser is still insistent that all new structures meld quietly into the landscape.
While the retired admirals and financiers of Hilton Head sometimes question Fraser's motives, another faction happily approves of the changes that time and expansion have wrought. Bill Douglas, a 35-year-old artist and photographer who has lived in Aspen and on North Carolina's Outer Banks, finds in the island a perfect blend of natural beauty and cultural ferment.
Douglas ticked off for me a list of newcomers -- writers, illustrators, art dealers, and the like -- topped by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the second-generation underwater explorer who has set up a research institute at Hilton Head.* In time, Douglas hopes the island will become "another Bridgehampton," a reference to the Long Island artist-writer colony.
Whether or not admirals and financiers can co-exist with illustrators and writers, I do know that Charles Fraser still has a beautiful piece of real estate in his grasp. On these crisp, clear midwinter days the miles of vanilla beach are reserved for you and the gulls, pelicans and bevies of shore birds, not to mention a handful of kite flyers and bikers. The crowded golf tees and tennis shops of later weeks are yet a dream.
While Fraser, as always a delightful bag of conflicts, says midwinter is a time to discourage visitors and to give the residents a chance for peace and quiet, his Hilton Head Inn has been offering a Winter Weather Bonus whereby guests receive discounts on their bills if the temperature drops below certain levels. In December, for instance, the calendar behind the front desk showed that the high temperature had been above 70 degrees F. twice, over 60 degrees F.12 times, and never below 43 degrees F.
It was odd to see the swimming pools vacant and to behold guests retreating from the beach in late afternoon wearing furs and down jackets, but there was a daily reward in the red sunsets that splashed across the impossibly clear shelf of blue-gray water. And the night before I set off by car down the coast toward other barrier islands, a Carolina moon and accompanying stars seemed to clang with their cold clarity.