June 2007

View from the Top of the Lighthouse

Author: Melinda Copp

The world-famous Harbour Town Lighthouse in Sea Pines may be known as one of the island’s biggest tourist attractions, but islanders who haven’t been to the top of the lighthouse in the past five years should tie up your sneakers and get ready to climb.

In 2001, the 114 steps that lead to the top of the beacon were transformed into a walk through time. Each level of the stairway features storyboards and photographs that tell the tale of Hilton Head’s history.

“We wanted to turn the stairway into an experience,” said Nadia Wagner, the lighthouse keeper and manager. The lower levels describe the island’s ancient history, with early drawings depicting the first recorded inhabitants—the Yemassee Indians. As you climb higher, you are introduced to the first European explorers to set foot on the island, the first “Sea Island” cotton plantations, the Civil War, and the roots of the Gullah culture. The island’s modern history is marked by the first bridge connection to the mainland and Charles Fraser’s development of Sea Pines Plantation.

Fraser’s vision of Sea Pines was a community that embraced the natural environment and complemented the Lowcountry landscapes. His philosophy of “highest and best use” for land allowed for green open spaces, architectural consistency, and the links that make Harbour Town a classic in the golf world.

“We really owe it all to Charles Fraser,” said Wagner. “He wanted something special and unique for Harbour Town, and the lighthouse was the finishing touch.” Creating a museum experience from the lighthouse climb serves as a tribute to Fraser’s vision and the island’s rich history. And according to Wagner, the lighthouse museum continues to evolve with more pictures and storyboards coming soon.

Although some may be intimidated by the climb to the top, the rewards make all the work worthwhile. First, the view from the observation deck is breathtaking, regardless of how many times you’ve seen it. And each direction is marked so you know what you’re seeing in the distance.

View from the Top of the Lighthouse

Plus, according to Wagner, one of the only woman lighthouse keepers in North America, the Harbour Town Lighthouse is likely the only lighthouse with an actual gift shop at the top. The Top of the Lighthouse Shop offers a unique shopping experience with over 2,000 items for sale, many of which are crafted exclusively for the store. Some of their finest pieces include Pandora Scandinavian jewelry, Crystal World fine crystal lighthouse figurines, Harbour Lights collectibles, and Zoppini and Amorini Italian charms. They carry hand-painted ornaments and prints from local artists, as well as a variety of souvenir items such as t-shirts, key chains, and jewelry.

Once at the top, you can wave to your friends anywhere in the world via the lighthouse webcam, which is broadcast on the website, www.harbourtownlighthouse.com. The lighthouse sees approximately 250,000 visitors each year; 20 to 30 percent of whom are repeat visitors. And a percentage of the admission fee goes to local charities.

The lighthouse has become a Hilton Head Island icon. Families return year after year, and young couples get engaged and even married on the observation deck. According to Wagner, they have an average of twelve weddings each year on the deck, and they can also host cocktail parties and other small, intimate events.

“The lighthouse has so much meaning to so many people,” said Wagner. “Come up and enjoy the view.”

Shoppe at the Top
Harbour Town

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