First Time Visitors to Hilton Head often get confused as to what is the best place to stay. Some of the advice on this forum tends to be the opinion of the poster, and not necessarily best for the person who has asked the question.
For that reason, I am posting this fairly lengthy explanation about our resorts.
Our gated communities are commonly referred to as Plantations. Not all of our Plantations allow short term rentals or have Hotels available. I will not talk about these. there are also non gated areas with guest accomodations available. I will mention them and their benefits. One last caveat. I can't cover each and every accomadation. that is for you to research.
1 - The SeaPines Plantation: SeaPines is the largest community on the island covering approximataly 1/3 of the island. Sea Pines boasts 4 golf courses (one is private) which includes the famous Harbor Town Course, host to the Verizon Heritage Classic. They also have 2 Tennis clubs. the Sea Pines club in Harbortown is run by Wimbledon winner Stan Smith. There are two "towns" on the plantation. Harbortown and South Beach. The public access to residents and visitors is at the beach club which is midway, between the two towns. The two marinas have charter boats and tour boats available.
There is shopping available in both Harbortown and The Sea Pines Center. There is a small group of stores in South Beach. Each area has it's share of restaurants. The resort has available for visitors a few small hotels, Condos, Homes and Timeshares.
2 - Palmetto Dunes: This is the beach oriented Plantation. Like Sea Pines it has both top rated tennis facilities and 3 golf courses. All the courses are public. The Plantation is divided into two parts 'Mariner" and "Inverness". Inverness has mostly Condo complexes including 5 that are directly on the ocean. the other condos are situated a short walk from the beach. Mariner has a few condo complexes, but the majority of homes are found here. All the oceanfront homes are on this side of the resort. The complex also has a thirteen mile lagoon system, and visitors can rent canoes and kayaks to navigate. It also has good fishing from the lagoons. There are two hotels in PD. The Marriott and the Hilton Oceanfront resort are both oceanfront facilities. Outside of the hotels, there is a small general store and one restaurant "Alexanders"
Closely aligned with PD is Shelter Cove Harbor which is on the other side of Route 278. Here you will find shops and restaurants. There is a mall and shopping center which includes a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. The Arts Center of the Low Country is here also. They present shows and concerts. Shelter Cove has a marina and like Sea Pines you have charter craft and excusion boats. The Disney Resort timeshare is here, and they run trams to their beach house in Palmetto Dunes. During the season April through October the PD Buggy will take visitors between the two venues, and some other nearby attractions.
3 - Port Royal Plantation: Much of this plantation is behind a gate, and the public is not invited, but there are timeshares including Marriott's Barony Beach, and the Westin Hotel , which is probably the best hotel on the island. There is also a few condo complexes which have short term rentals. There are three golf courses available, though one is normally only available to members. The private course varies from month to month. They also have a very nice tennis facility, including the only grass courts available on the island. This facility is favored by tennis pros from around the east coast who bring their students to the island for tennis clinics.
4 - Shipyard Plantation: This plantation is primarily condo's and timeshares. It is also home to the Crown Plaza hotel. None of the these are oceanfront, but they do have beach access in an area next to the Crown Plaza. It is the Home of Dennis Van Der Meers Shipyard Tennis Center. This world reknowned teacher is the reson why many tennis players come to Shipyard. The plantation sports 27 holes of golf which is very noce to play. Other than the two restaurants at the Crown Plaza, you have to leave the plantation for eating and shopping.
5 - Forest Beach: This is the largest ungated area on the island. Like Palmetto Dunes the southern area is mostly condos, and the northern area is mostly homes. Forest Beach was developed early and many of the accomodations are dated. On the other hand you have lots of restaurants and nightlife within walking distance, and the Coligny Plaza shopping area has the most stores on the island. The biggest hotel in Forest Beach is the Holiday Inn and is on the beach. The beach is fairly crowded because the public beach is situated in the Forest Beach area.
6 - Folly Field: Here you have some of the oldest condos, and the most expensive homes on the island. Folly Field is located mid island and is a mix of homes and condos. Other than home buillding on or near the beach, most of the homes in this area date from the fifties. The condos available here are also older than most others on the island. As a rule they are nicer than those on Forest Beach with some exceptions, and some (Island Club, and HHB&T) have resort amenities.