Destin vs. Hilton Head

Which beach is best for you?

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Destin, Florida and Hilton Head, South Carolina are both popular choices for family beach vacations. They share common elements that attract visitors from all over.  Although they are both top beach destinations, they are actually quite different.  We know you may be trying to decide which is better for you.  That is why we are comparing and contrasting the two based on factors that are important to all beach seekers.  

The Sand

The sugary shoreline of Destin has been described as having the whitest sand in the world. It is as “white as snow,” and folks have even nicknamed it “summer snow.” The reason for this is that it is composed of pure white quartz crystal which was washed down to the gulf during the last Ice Age. Over the millennia wave action ground it into a fine powder-like crystalline form that shimmers in the sunlight and doesn’t burn your feet since it reflects light. Hilton Head like most Atlantic coast beaches has sand comprised of gritty pulverized seashells that is brownish in color. The upside of this is that you can find more seashells along the beach in Hilton Head whereas Destin usually only has sand dollars when they occasionally wash up.

The Water

The glittering gulf in Destin is jeweled in a luminescent color that ranges from a dazzling green to an awesome Azure blue. This is why it is called "The Emerald Coast." The white quartz crystal reflects light underwater that illuminates microscopic natural sea plankton that glows. This water is often “swimming pool clear” since river sediment runoffs are very far away. There are few high waves in Destin unless a storm is brewing off-shore so serene paddleboarding has become quite popular. The Atlantic at Hilton Head is a kind of murky grayish green color which is fairly typical of waters on the east coast. Waves are much higher on the ocean, and you do have more opportunities to surf!

Destin vs Hilton Head Beach

The Beach

The beach in Destin proper extends almost nine miles across the glistening gulf but then continues another twenty miles through adjoining Miramar Beach and the picturesque coastal villages along Scenic 30A in South Walton. Many people refer to this entire 29-mile coast as being a part of Destin. Hilton Head has a total of twelve miles of beaches facing the Atlantic since the Harbor River wraps around the other two sides of the island. Many beaches in Hilton Head are privately owned with no real public access unless you are at a private residence, hotel or resort. Food and rental housing is 13% more expensive than Destin. There are many beach access points in Destin which is significant if you are staying at a vacation rental that is not right on the gulf. Destin and The Emerald Coast have received national acclaim for many years. It has been rated as a top rated beach nationwide by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. Southern Living magazine also rated Destin as the #1 Best Place for a Family Beach Vacation. Professor Stephen Leatherman aka “Dr. Beach” who writes for the Forbes Travel Guide consistently rates Destin on his Top Beach list nationwide. The Destin beaches have also received the Blue Wave Beach award which is the nation’s highest designation for cleanliness, water quality, maintenance, and conservation. This private research organization has awarded sixty-two of these certifications for beach excellence nationwide. Twenty-six miles of beaches here are the only ones in the nation to receive such acclaimed certification for a contiguous coastline.   

The Landscape

Hilton Head is a lovely, languid island with forests of ancient Live Oak trees draped with Spanish moss. It is fairly flat with river marshlands known for its “Low Country” wetlands that border parts of the beach. Many of these boggy areas are on a river that wraps around two sides of the island. The Destin area is more diverse with forested coastline mixed with open, windswept beaches. Live Oaks, towering pine trees, magnolias and palmetto palms are indigenous to this area. Unique precious coastal dune lakes that are found in very few other parts of the world parallel the gulf along Scenic 30A. They support an awesome array of natural wildlife due to the water’s composition that opens and closes with the tides. Over 15,000 acres are permanently preserved but have nature trails throughout for hikes and biking. Some sugary dunes soar almost thirty feet over the gulf and Blue Mountain Beach, which is part of this sensational scenery, has the highest elevation over the Gulf of Mexico.

The Fishing

Hilton Head has a charming inlet that comes into the center of the island from the river and hosts a small marina. It is called Shelter Cove Harbor since it is not on the open Atlantic. You may go out on fishing charters from there with nine different charter groups to choose from. However, you have to navigate out the Harbor River and around the side of the island in order to fish in the Atlantic. Destin was famously founded by fishermen over 150 years ago due to a cornucopia of fish in both the bay and out in the gulf. The Destin Harbor has direct access to deep water fishing and is home to the largest private charter fishing fleet in the entire nation! There are abundant angling opportunities to experience charter fishing adventures of all kinds.

Destin Sunset at Vacation Home

The Sunshine

Both locations feature spectacular sunsets, however, in Destin the sun sets right over Choctawhatchee Bay during the summer months and out over the open gulf during the winter. In Hilton Head, it sets across the river. Destin is sunnier than Hilton Head, which makes sense since it is located in “The Sunshine State!” On an average year, Destin has 226 days of sunshine while Hilton Head has 215. It is not much but that extra eleven days could be important during your vacation stay at the beach!

Well, now you know. Take a look at our wide selection Destin vacation rentals and take your pick.