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Jan 31, 2024

Jesse Blanco: Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival

Jesse Blanco

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Impressive food, amazing experiences, for a great cause.

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If memory serves – and I find it serves less and less these days – I would venture to guess that we shared some time in this space nearly a year ago, reflecting on one of the most enjoyable culinary experiences I can remember on Hilton Head Island.

I seem to recall that in my afterglow of an amazing week on the island, I was compelled to share my story. I know I told anyone about it who would give me five minutes. I know I shared it with a number of people here in and around Savannah, where I live. I do spend a ton of time on Hilton Head Island, but I do reside in Savannah. I share that because I am regularly asked.

I also digress.

The source of my glee was the wake emanating from the Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival. It had just wrapped up and I could not have been more impressed with everything I enjoyed over the course of five days.

As a point of reference, we do a lot of festival-ing around here. There are some regulars on our circuit, plus every year you can add or subtract one or two depending on time and availability. Tough job, yes, but someone’s got to do it, right?

Jesse Blanco

The point being, we see a lot. We enjoy a lot. Sometimes we get frustrated with long lines as much as the next guy. Sometimes we prefer one venue over another. I may be “working” but I make it a point to enjoy just as any other guest.  

That’s what impressed me so much about the island Seafood Festival in 2023. I had attended several times before, but this one just felt different.

The top ticket for me has always been the Friday night Pig Pickin’ and Oyster Roast. The first time it was held at the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton, I thought it was the most beautiful venue in the region for that event. It was waterfront, with a spectacular sunset in the distance. Cafe lights were strung across the venue and live music was coming from beneath a large tree. It was a scene from a storybook. It was one of my fave Friday nights of the year, anywhere.

That event’s popularity outgrew that waterfront scene, so it was moved to Coastal Discovery Musuem at Honey Horn. It would be hard to imagine a scene as beautiful as what we had at the waterfront, but last year’s was. The lighting and decor had been tweaked, the entryway enhanced. There were flowers at nearly every table. I noticed it all immediately and it just felt spectacular. 

I mean, it was a pig pickin’ and oyster roast. A huge mess is almost expected, but this still felt special. This year’s event will be held Friday night, February 23. Tickets are still available (at press time) and I highly recommend you get one.  

Oh, I didn’t mention the food? It’s all exceptional. When I tell you it is my favorite Friday night of the year, I’m not kidding.

My other highlight at the 2023 festival happened a few days before Pig Pickin’ Friday. Held at Holy Tequila, the Holy Mole and Olea dinner was one of the more special dining experiences I’d ever had on Hilton Head Island. That’s saying something because, as you might imagine, I’ve seen quite a bit.

Beard Award-winning Chef Fernando Olea of Santa Fe joined Holy Tequila owner/chef Tim Nelson for an unforgettable night of amazing food. The Sopa de Amor we were served by Chef Olea is a signature soup of his from his restaurant in Santa Fe. It’s a blue crab and poblano chowder with cinnamon and chocolate, and an amaretto whipped cream on top. Yeah, it was that good.

In fact, this soup was so delicious, before I was finished with it, I was looking it up on chef’s website back in Santa Fe to see if this was available all the time. It is. I wasn’t the only person impressed with it. The room fell kind of silent as guests enjoyed every bite. The looks around the room were what you might expect. This was unlike anything we’d ever eaten.  

The soup highlighted another fabulous dinner. It was a first time they had this dinner too, and it was an absolute home run. Fortunately for you, it is back this year, on February 21. My guess is that by the time you read this, tickets will be gone already (though they are available as I write this). I would highly recommend you take a look immediately and try to grab a seat.

How can I forget the main event, the big festival at Honey Horn on Saturday the 24th? It’s one of the most enjoyable days of seafood the island sees every year – family friendly, delicious, and a ton of fun.

Of course, those are the nitty gritty details that I enjoy about this festival, and last year’s in particular. But it would be irresponsible of me to ignore how much good this festival does for people in need on the island. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars” is how Andrew Carmines described the funds raised last year. The David Carmines Memorial Foundation is at the top of the billboard, but the dollars reach far and wide across the island to hundreds of people in need.

It all takes a lot of work. I can sit here and describe it as well as I can, I can tell a friend, I can talk about on television, but ultimately none of it happens without the hard work and dedication of the people involved with the festival and their volunteers. On festival day, there is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears poured into making your day as perfect as possible. I’ve witnessed “behind the scenes” many times. It’s a pressure cooker I’d want no part of.

Of course, that leaves you, a resident or a visitor to the area during the last week in February, to buy a ticket and enjoy this year, or make plans to participate next year. It’s a whale of an event and it’s not going anywhere. As they say, don’t delay. Grab what’s left of those tickets and plan to eat it and like it.  

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