It seems that just about everyone has a favorite beach town and they are rarely the same. Two of the most popular for travelers to the South, especially families, are Amelia Island, Florida, and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Both are a short drive from places like Savannah and Charleston and have popular resorts. Both have incredible restaurants showcasing the region’s incredible seafood and are fun getaways with friends.
Drive the 2.5 hours between them or fly into Hilton Head-Savannah or Jacksonville airports and rent a car. It’s also possible to arrange a JAX Airport Transfer to Amelia Island.
If you only have time for one, we’ll help you determine which one is right for you. But to be honest, we think you should see both!
Both beach communities aren’t known for the traditional “things to do” like museums. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do.
Hilton Head Island has its famous red and white Lighthouse, which you must pay $6 to visit. The Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge has hiking trails and birdwatching. The Coastal Discovery Museum has gardens, boardwalks, and historic buildings to explore.
Amelia Island has a handful of museums and landmarks, including the Amelia Island Museum of History, which covers the history of the island from Spanish settlement to the present.
The American Beach Museum focuses on the African American beach in the resort community that operated during the Jim Crow era. Fort Clinch State Park has a historic fort and trails. Amelia Island State Park offers horseback riding and birdwatching.
In terms of attractions, we’re calling this one a tie.
Most travelers come to Amelia Island or Hilton Head Island for their beaches, both located along the Atlantic Ocean.
Hilton Head Island has many beaches limited to hotel guests, but there are also public beaches including Forest Beach, Coligny Beach Park, Burkes Beach, Driessen Beach Park, and Folly Field Beach. Despite the lax public drinking laws in nearby Savannah, you cannot consume alcohol on the beach in Hilton Head.
Amelia Island has over 40 public beach access points, in addition to the resort beaches. American Beach is a formerly segregated beach. The Boneyard Beach at Big Talbot Island State Park is similar to the one on Jekyll Island. North Beach and Peters Point are two others.
Both islands have public beaches featuring the clear Atlantic Ocean and soft sand beaches. It’s a tie.
Both islands are well located to other destinations, once you’ve had your fill of the beach and attractions.
From Amelia Island, travelers can see Jacksonville (1 hour), St. Augustine (1.5 hours), Savannah (2 hours), and Cumberland Island (30 minutes by boat).
From Hilton Head, it’s easy to get to Beaufort (45 minutes) and Charleston (2 hours). You can also spend time exploring the small town of Bluffton (15 minutes) and taking the ferry to the nature preserve on Daufuskie Island, home to the Gullah Geechee communities.
Another tie for plentiful day trips!
Drinking and Nightlife
Neither Hilton Head nor Amelia Island is known for its nightlife, but rather have laid-back bars for drinking with friends.
On Amelia Island, visitors can experience the upscale cocktails at the Lobby Bar at the Ritz Carlton or sip on locally made spirits at Marlin & Barrel Distillery. SJ Brewing Co. offers IPAs, sour beers, and seasonal varieties.
Hilton Head has more waterfront bars with standard beer and wine, including Skull Creek Boathouse. But there’s also Hilton Head Brewing Company, a brewpub with IPAs and lagers. Hilton Head Distillery and Island Winery are also nearby.
Both islands offer relaxed drinking experiences with craft beverage options, so we’ll call this a tie.
Both Amelia Island and Hilton Head Island have fantastic food, especially seafood, since they are close to the best products the region has to offer. And because of their locations and resorts, chefs come through both areas to train.
Amelia Island, and specifically Fernandina Beach, have many locally-owned restaurants spanning just about every cuisine. You can have authentic sushi at the Ritz-Carlton, bagels at Aloha Bagel, and fish tacos at Timoti’s. I also had an incredible chef’s dinner at the Omni Amelia Island, pictured above.
Hilton Head Island is also known for its restaurants, although they mostly skew towards casual seafood restaurants that are appropriate for families. I enjoyed my meals at Lucky Rooster Kitchen & Bar. Skull Creek Boathouse and The Salty Dog Cafe are also popular.
I loved both islands for their food, but I’d give a slight edge to Amelia Island for more options.
Both islands have activities for families. On Hilton Head Island, kids will love Adventure Cove, Pirate’s Island, and Legendary Golf, three of the putt-putt courses. Bike rentals are also popular since there are so many trails that connect the island.
On Amelia Island, visitors can traverse the creeks that connect the island. Amelia Island Adventures offers guided tours and kayak rentals of the black water and rivers surrounding Amelia Island. Stand up paddleboarding is another option.
This one’s a tie depending on which activity you prefer.
If you’d like to tee off, both Amelia Island and Hilton Head Island have many golf courses open to the public. The Omni Amelia Island and Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island both have courses. Hilton Head is known for its golf events like the RBC Heritage tournament as well as private courses like Harbour Town.
Golfers will love both of these destinations.
Hotels and Accommodations
Both Amelia and Hilton Head have well-known resorts from big brands as well as vacation rentals. Amelia has more rental homes, while Hilton Head has condos and townhouses. You can find them from HomeAway, Wyndham Vacation Rentals, and Airbnb.
Hilton Head boasts luxurious options like The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, known for its golf courses and fitness center, and Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort, one of the brand’s few independent properties. The Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort is another favorite.
On Amelia Island, guests can stay at the AAA Four Diamond Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, which has residences and vacation accommodations, most of which are ocean-facing. The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island and Amelia Schoolhouse Inn are also great.
I’m going to give the edge to Hilton Head just because of the higher number of oceanfront properties.
Both islands have local shops to pick up essentials for your stay like resort wear and souvenirs. Most of Hilton Head’s shops are limited to those inside the resorts and in Bluffton. On Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach is full of unique shops like The Book Loft, a sprawling bookstore.
I found that Amelia Island had more shopping in a concentrated area, so they win this one.
At the end of the day, Amelia Island and Hilton Head Island tie in the important areas. No matter which one you decide to visit, you’re sure to enjoy yourself.
Do you prefer Amelia Island or Hilton Head Island? Let us know in the comments!
James M Fink says
You didn’t give Hilton Head the advantage on anything, which is unfair. If you had included tennis and pickleball as activities, Hilton Head would win hands down.
Caroline Eubanks says
If you read the post, you’d see that I gave the advantage to Hilton Head for accommodations.
Ennis Davis says
Interesting article. Both islands were once home to Gullah Geechee descendants prior to them becoming resort communities. Which, in your opinion, has retained more of their Gullah Geechee culture, heritage and cuisine?