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Jun 26, 2024

The Rising Tide of Harbourfest: 35 Years

Barry Kaufman

Photography By

Celebrating the timeless joy of a community coming together

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Nearly everywhere else you go, Tuesday is just another day. 

As days go, it lacks the freewheeling panache of the weekend, and isn’t even as much of a standout as the other five workdays. Friday, obviously, is a day to get your ducks in a row for the weekend’s festivities (especially on Hilton Head Island. If you need proof, try getting anyone on the phone after 3 p.m. on a Friday). On Mondays, we can all commiserate over the start of a work week. Wednesday we can all at least bask in our shared accomplishment of surviving half the work week.

That leaves Tuesday on an island of its own. Well, in most places.

Because here on Hilton Head Island, for the past 35 years, Tuesdays have been the day when we pull out all the stops and simply celebrate this magnificent place we call home.

Shannon Tanner delights the crowd with his high energy antics and covers of beloved songs like The Unicorn Song and Country Roads by John Denver. One of the highlights of the show is when he brings young guest stars up to sing their special renditions of the latest Taylor Swift song or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. 

At the heart of this weekly celebration is HarbourFest, the massive blowout of live music, fireworks, and fun that has turned Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina into the biggest multi-week event on the island every summer since 1989. The best part is, it’s tradition – one that has been running long enough for three generations to remember.

The heart of the experience, naturally, is the bombastic fireworks display. Rivaling any Fourth of July pyrotechnics, this dazzling show is impossible to miss, soaring into the sky and visible across the whole of the island. But that’s just the grand finale.

A family from Kentucky has a swell time in the Unicorn Rainbow Bounce House set up outside Top Dawg Pizza while  parents supervise with a brew in hand. 

Before the first fuse is lit, HarbourFest fills Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina with unforgettable experiences, whether it’s live music from Shannon Tanner, face painting and balloon animals with Cappy the Clown, jumping in the bounce houses, or a ride on the festival’s iconic train. “That train we have on fireworks nights … I see a lot of parents who are just as excited to ride as their kids are,” said Brad Marra, COO of Palmetto Dunes Resort. “It’s a big deal.”

The entirety of HarbourFest has evolved since the event was first launched at the dawn of the ’90s. And with each new offering, it has grown from a way to simply bring people in on a typically slow day into a tradition embraced by locals and visitors alike. Families often enjoy group photos next to the iconic 12-foot Neptune statue, the world’s largest working sundial.

Cappy the Clown poses with Maeve and Nora Donovan from Pennsylvania, whose family has been visiting Hilton Head Island for almost 40 years. 

“Especially since 2016, we’ve really expanded the experience with so many things to do, we’ve upgraded the vendor that we use for fireworks, and the whole setup has been fine-tuned,” Marra said.

Thirty-five years in, at least on Hilton Head Island, Tuesday has gone from an also-ran weekday into the prime spot on the social calendar. 

Train rides around the Harbour as the sun sets on a Tuesday night. 

“We love to see crowds of families gather all along the marina promenade from one end to another. Our thirty-fifth year of HarbourFest continues to be a memorable evening for all generations to enjoy,” Marra said. “Last year’s USCB study showed HarbourFest to be the largest multi-week event on Hilton Head Island. In terms of the people we bring in, it makes a huge impact to so many businesses around here.” 

The businesses will back him up. Obviously, the many shops and restaurants around the marina benefit from the crowd of people who flood Shelter Cove to experience this quintessential community experience every Tuesday. 

“Our staff looks forward to Tuesday nights,” said Maryanne Laskowitz, owner of San Miguel’s. Occupying a broad stretch of waterfront to one side of the harbour, this island institution’s outdoor dining space represents some of the best real estate for taking in the show. 

“There’s a good energy and we’ve got 41 people scheduled to work at the restaurant each Tuesday night,” Laskowitz said.

That’s a direct benefit to the restaurants, but it goes well beyond that. 

“You’ll see all kinds of charters from all over out there on the water every Tuesday letting people watch the fireworks from the water,” Marra said. “This goes well beyond our own marina.”

Grace Van Guyse with Outside Hilton Head has run a brisk business kayaking out onto Broad Creek on Tuesdays since joining the company around two years ago. 

“The barge is right out there on the water with us, so it’s a really neat experience to have the best seat in the house,” she said. “Even if I’m not working that day, I’ll still come down and watch the fireworks.”

These ancillary benefits to the entire town are a large part of why sponsors have been so generous in helping HarbourFest grow over the past 35 years.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have so much commitment to the community, from the Palmetto Dunes POA to the Town of Hilton Head Island,” Marra said. “That commitment from the community has allowed us to continue this tradition for 35 years and it will help us carry it into the future.” 

HarbourFest returns every Tuesday during the summer, with entertainment starting at 6 p.m. and fireworks starting when the sky is dark. For more information, visit Visit the Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina Facebook page (@ShelterCoveHarbourMarina) for show updates throughout the summer.  

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