Southern Comfort in South Carolina

I have been all over the world, but I have never been to South Carolina. That sounds like a good start for a song  (now that I think about it), but I just got back from Bluffton, SC where I spent 3 fantastic days learning about the area, oysters and local history.  Never heard of Bluffton? You will.Beaufort County is one of the fastest growing communities in the United Sates. Why? It’s not too hot, not too cold, and it’s beautiful; Postcard beautiful.

I was invited to stay at The Montage Palmetto Bluff which is best described as a luxury resort/residence. This concept is a big trend in travel for those who like to have their own place, but want to be spoiled as if they were staying in a hotel. For the jet set, you can own a second home here, get away from real life and enjoy all the resort has to offer. Forget where you parked your car? You can borrow one of the Mercedes at the lodge. Don’t have a pet? The ambassadors of the Montage are three of the cutest Labradors you’ve ever met and their job is simple: look adorable, be petted and do tricks for you. If you don’t own a place at the Montage, not to worry: you can rent one of the homes there or stay in the plantation themed inn that looks like it belongs in Gone With the Wind. There’s a beautiful reading room with a fireplace, a gorgeous pool and restaurants and bars sprinkled throughout the property.You can even pop in and have a visit even if you’re not staying there; you pull your boat in on the nearby dock and have some oyster heirlooms in the shaded area behind the inn. We’ll get to all that in a minute.

I must confess that I half expected to be a little bored on this trip. I’m more about jumping off bridges and tramping through jungles and ruins then doing what I imagined South Carolinians to be to be doing. After all, “porching” is a legitimate activity in this area, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The reality is I was so entertained that there was rarely a dull moment. I never did “porch” though, to be completely honest. I did have a golfing lesson, a massage, went bicycling, played bocce, took a yacht up the May River, and learned how to shoot clay pigeons.

Montage Palmetto Bluff is 20,000 acres of marsh, maritime forests and beaches that appear to go on forever in a unique area in the US referred to as Lowcountry.  The South Carolina coast and estuaries are rich with oysters. There seems to be a never ending supply of them and there’s an entire process to cooking them that I’ve never seen anywhere else. A huge fire is made with a swiveling metal plate above the flames. The oysters are tossed on top, covered with wet burlap and allowed to simmer in their own briny juices, then popped open to enjoy on the half shell. It’s a big social event, with even the locals making a trip to the resort to join in the action and to sample the hotel’s signature drink : Artillery Punch. The experience is “porching” on steroids.

I’m not a golfer (unless you count putt putt), but I got a short lesson on the Jack Nicklaus signature golf course and got to feel like a high roller for a little while. The view and the grass were impossibly perfect and of course my swing wasn’t. However, in just a few minutes with one of the golf pros, I improved my game so much that I was missing the hole a lot closer than before. We took the golf cart down to the May River (which isn’t really a river but an estuary) and went for a cruise on the antique yacht, the Grace. This amazing boat was built in 1913 and was literally a time capsule with it’s rich wood trim. The boat is available for private events as well. Most of the buildings along the May are a southern plantation style and look like part a movie set with the ancient moss covered live oaks. Drifting down the river in the Grace is like a step back in time.

The clay pigeon shooting was one of my favorite activities. The little round disks look nothing like pigeons of course. Interestingly enough, I was the only male out of a group of 8 travel journalists visiting and the majority of my female companions had never picked up a gun. By the time we’d gotten some one-on-one instruction and shot a few dozen propelled disks out of the sky, everyone had ear-to-ear grins. It’s a sport I’ve never tried and after a quick lesson, I was hitting over 50% of the targets. I’ve never stayed anywhere that offered such a cool activity and made it accessible and safe for everyone.If  guns don’t excite you, there’s archery right next door.

The Montage Spa at Palmetto Bluff is world class. I’ve been to some very nice resorts in my travels and this one holds its own compared to any others I’ve ever visited. Beautiful hot tubs, saunas and a relaxation room with drinks and home made cookies. My massage was fantastic , but i don’t think I’ve ever had a massage that didn’t feel good. The difference is in the details: anything you might need is provided before you think to ask for it: razors,toothbrushes, and great soft heated towels. Did I mention cookies? After my massage, we played a rousing game of bocce. Bocce is an Italian game that is best described as a cross between shuffleboard and bowling. You toss giant stone balls on a sandy playing area to get as close as possible to the first thrown ball or nudge out your opponent. It’s great fun and another rare experience not offered in many places.

The resort property is huge, but can easily be navigated by golf cart, bicycle or kayak.  Grab a two wheeler or tandem bike at the inn and head down some of the beautiful trails or shaded streets. Prefer to row? You can take one of the resort’s kayaks out on the lagoon waterways and rivers that snake through the area. The resort is incredibly scenic with birds and beautiful trees around every bend; and ridiculously peaceful. We took one of the loaner Mercedes to the nearby town of Bluffton to check out some of the antebellum homes. The city is one of the fastest growing in the US, but still has it’s charming historical quarter and cozy restaurants offering comfort food or big city dining options. One of the town’s natives, peddles tourists around on bicycle taxis so you can see the old buildings up close and personal.

Savannah is the closest large city with an international airport, and in spite of the fact that it’s in Georgia, it’s only about 30 minutes drive to Bluffton.