Hilton Head, South Carolina a Great Place to Vacation and Live

Hilton Head Island is one of my favorite places on the Eastern Coast. On prior visits I have stayed at The Marriot, The Westin and The Royal Palms, a fractional ownership managed by the Westin.

This year, I rented a three bedroom, three bath tastefully decorated villa with a screened in porch, in the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.

Palmetto Dunes, a gated community developed by The Greenwood Corporation, encompasses 2,000 acres of land, including three miles of Atlantic Ocean beaches and an 11-mile man-made lagoon system; resort accommodations are centralized and convenient to beach, golf, tennis, fishing, shopping, dining and entertainment. Residential areas, a mix of town houses, one family homes, two story villas and beach front terraced condos, are separate and protected by manned 24-hour security gates. Shelter Cove is the resort's 170-slip marina community, featuring a 15.5 acre deepwater harbor and Mediterranean-style village.

The luxury and comfort of my spacious 2,500 square foot home- away- from- home, just yards from the beach, afforded me the opportunity to invite friends and family to join me. This alternative to a hotel stay, with its well stocked kitchen, washer/dryer and a host of other perks, proved to be a great place to entertain as well as cook breakfast and a few meals. Hilton Head has 285 restaurants so dining out, be it casual or gourmet is a big draw.

Mark Shackelford, Resort Director and his friendly staff greeted me upon arrival, checked me in, and then provided me with maps and info on all the amenities, services, sports facilities, restaurants and shops both within the gates of Palmetto Dunes (there’s even a general store which sells everything from fresh brewed coffee, tea and lemonade to newspapers, sun screen and a variety of edible goodies) and across the highway at Shelter Cove. .

One of the highlights of my stay was the night Chef Chris Mark, the resort’s resident chef, planned and executed an exquisite and sumptuous meal in my villa. Chef Mark proudly oversees menu planning and food preparation for all meetings, luncheons, cocktail parties, weddings and private events at the resort. His genuine passion for fine cuisine made the dinner he prepared for my guests dazzling and delicious. An accomplished professional with more than 13 years of experience, Chef Mark served as lead chef at the Greenbrier Hotel, a five-diamond luxury resort and hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where he was responsible for all food operations at the prestigious Sam Snead’s Golf Club. He also earned gold, silver and bronze medals at the American Culinary Federation’s Hot Food and Cold Food Competitions.

The multitude of activities within Palmetto Dunes kept me busy . . . from swimming in the gentle surf and bicycling on the hard packed sand to eighteen holes of golf on one of several courses . . . plus two free hours of tennis each day.

The Hilton Hotel, inside the South Gate of Palmetto Dunes, has recently been acquired by the Omni Hotel Group, but continues to market itself with the Hilton branding. Earl Nightingale, a well seasoned visionary and long time hotel Executive, recently relocated from Atlanta to take over the reins as Hotel Manager. One of his first challenges was to redesign and renovate the Hilton’s popular bar, and restaurant which he transformed into HH Prime, recently voted the best new restaurant on Hilton Head.

Earl was looking for a trendy concept, but when he found there were only two steakhouses on the island, he decided to follow the mold of a successful steak chain like Morton’s. He tells me: “During a 6 to 12 night stay, guests can spend $10,000, I wanted to create five or six distinct dining experiences; upstairs they see the ocean; downstairs there’s a cozy bar atmosphere and a separate family side. I brought in a local decorator who used lighter colors; I laid out plans for the architect. All the doors and windows are removable allowing open air dining with a Hawaii influence. In October when it cools down, we will also have a guitar player in the gazebo. Coming here was almost a treat. I don’t want to side step management, but I get a lot of freedom. I like to treat this property like a boutique hotel. I helped Hyatt grow over the years, and I want to do the same for the Hilton on Hilton Head. This is an unusual situation for a hotel to be in; it is Omni managed, Hilton Branded and privately owned. I am very proud that we won the “taste of the season annual competition for best desert, thanks to the “bon bon” concocted by one of our interns from Bolivia”.

Executive Chef Erik Maldahn, a graduate of the Michigan Culinary School, and Jordanian born Chef Kaldoun Rabadi work together in the restaurant’s open kitchen. Erik is thrilled to have Kaldoun by his side: “he is helping me with my creativity and taking me places I have not been”. Kaldoun’s impressive culinary background includes a stint with Daniel Boulud at the original Le Cirque in New York and then at the Garden City Hotel on Long Island “I want to be known as the maker of kings. I am 45 years old and I want to impart and shorten the rise of young chefs by giving them a little wisdom”. He tells Erik ” I want to be the strongest link in your chain; I am the accessory; I want to compliment you; there are so many nuances . . . the way you garnish, so much imagination, and we have just begun. It is refreshing to meet a chef with humility, and to be on an island that has 285 restaurants; knowing we are in the top ten”.

The two men are thrilled to have me challenge their creativity. Khaldoun prepares and personally serves an exceptional fois gras.with a Vidalia onion and blueberry marmalade. Rupert, our waiter, follows with a procession of dishes: jumbo lump crab cakes, exquisitely and yet delicately seasoned, a rib eye steak cooked to medium rare perfection, served with heaping platters of al dente asparagus cooked with roasted garlic, and Mac n Cheese “our best seller” prepared with a special twist: three kinds of cheese, heavy cream, horse radish and peppercorn bacon. Dessert was equally impressive, especially the strawberries stuffed with blue cheese.

The wine list according to my wine savvy daughter was “one of the most diverse and reasonable wine lists I’ve seen in a long time” . . . from $30 a bottle to $300; a glass of South African Shiraz is an appreciated $7 a glass; one of my favorite white’s, Sonoma Cutrer is a bargain at $9 a glass. We sip a young pinot noir; the room is warm and inviting; the little lantern lights in the bar, soft and flattering.

Erik tells us: “I once had a culinary instructor who told me “don’t work at any place more than one year the first five or six years out of culinary school”. “ The challenge for me, coming from three different hotels where I focused on banquets, was to come here as the chef and be thrown into a new world. Here the menu is collaboration between me and the food and beverage director. I spent 23 years with Hyatt Hotels and then with the Omni; I feel I’ve worked for two of the best hotel companies; I wanted to work with a private company that was my mission”..

For more info on Rentals: www.PalmettoDunes.com

For Hilton Hotel Reservations: www.hiltonheadhilton.com


On the way back to New York, I spend a night in Savannah at the new Bohemian Hotel, 102 West Bay Street, part of the Kessler Collection of boutique hotels, (they also own the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, a not – to- be- missed restored treasure with a spa, cooking school and fine dining restaurant ).

From my balcony, I watch the cargo ships chug up the river. Richard Kessler, who developed his hotel skills planning, designing, constructing and managing Days’ Inn (a company he rebuilt from the ground up in 1975 and then went on to become the CEO). When he sold out, he had the equity to follow his passion for collecting, not only treasures but treasured hotels he decorates with eclectic artwork and furniture he and his curator have personally collected. Richard tells me: “I have been a collector since I was four years old, from rocks to oriental porcelain, art glass, guns, and furniture (all of which he stores in ware houses until he has a new hotel, restaurant or gallery to fill).

The Kessler Collection of “INSPIRING Places” around the country, including a Guest Ranch in Colorado, has built an impeccable reputation, thanks to Richard Kessler, who spends 25% of his time, visiting each hotel in order to support his management team, chefs and food and beverage directors. Chef de Cuisine, Jonathan Massey works his culinary magic to prepare a few of my favorite dishes. The Bohemian’s rooftop indoor/outdoor bar, with a special light menu is a happening place: locals and guests gather to watch the sunset over the river, and then to dance to a disco beat.

Richard Kessler most definitely lives his philosophy:” what I do, I want to do right; It’s not knowing, its doing”.

For more info on the Kessler Collection: http://www.bohemiansavannah.com/ or www. kesslercollection.com

You can view the Babbie De Derian Blog at  www.travelbeyondexpectations.com

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