Experience Southern comfort at Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina’s eco-friendly destination for relaxation and adventure.
A baby alligator was the first thing I noticed when pulling through the gates of 20,000-acre nature preserve, Palmetto Bluff. Sunning on a rock in the carefully kept marshland that spans the property, he appeared to have not a care in the world. Completely relaxed. Something I was looking forward to being myself.
“Are they monitored?” I asked my driver, who had come to collect me from Savannah airport, just 23 miles away, for my stay at the charming and luxurious Montage Palmetto Bluff, a five-star, world-renowned resort located on the May River in South Carolina.
“They’re more scared of you than you are of them,” he said, a sentiment echoed by Jay Walea, director of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy.
“We teach our property owners how to live with the alligators before they build their home,” Walea, a Lowcountry native who has worked on Palmetto Bluff conservation for more than 30 years, told me. “There’s a lot to be said about being able to walk out your door and right into nature.” Conservancy staff is also on hand to educate Montage guests on living harmoniously with the wildlife – in addition to the gators, you’ll likely spot dolphins, sea turtles, bald eagles, deer and egrets.
This admirable approach to development is part of what makes this idyllic residential community and resort so authentic. Simply put, the land comes first.
RELAX & RECHARGE
The second thing I noticed was how quintessentially Southern the place felt. A winding oak tree-lined road takes you to the main building of Montage Palmetto Bluff, which looks more like a classic Southern mansion than a hotel. I spotted caterers setting up for an outdoor wedding and a small chapel that I later learned was built on the premises specifically for destination weddings. White picket fences and colorful gardens accentuated cozy cottages, and tanned families in athletic gear rode bicycles on cycling paths along the river. The trees were both magnificent and abundant, draped in Spanish moss, a scene oozing with Southern romance and nostalgia.
My worries melted away immediately. Big city life felt so distant from here. This is not to say that the amenities were provincial. The on-site Cottage Spa offers caviar facials that rival any in Washington, and you can request in-cottage spa services for full body scrubs, wraps and massages. I stayed in a Cottage Suite, one of 50 on the grounds, equipped with a fireplace; a luxurious bathroom with a large walk-in steam shower, standalone tub and bath salts; a flat-screen TV; a plush bed with Italian linens; and a private balcony with a view of the May River. My room also overlooked the quiet adults-only swimming pool (one of two impressive pools at the Bluff), ideal for those who prefer a quiet place to relax with a book and a cocktail. A nearby gym offers group yoga classes or one-on-one sessions.
Golf carts and bicycles are available to guests to roam the land. I recommend taking a bicycle and exploring the trails sans cell phone to get the full experience of enjoying a magical place at a slower pace. As one resident explained, when you’re riding a bicycle you can’t be checking your smartphone. It allows people to decompress in a way they don’t often do.
Another relaxing, oh-so-Southern activity is “porching,” an afternoon tradition that simply involves sitting on lounge chairs at the inn’s large screened-in porch with lemonade, cocktails and camaraderie.
Since people want different things from a getaway, I appreciated that Palmetto Bluff always offers guests the choice of relaxing in solitude or joining the friendly village community for activities.
A SPORTSMAN’S PARADISE
There is no shortage of activities here, particularly of the outdoor variety. Ironically, long before its purchase by Crescent Communities in 2000, Palmetto Bluff was once owned by a paper company. When its owners first stepped onto the land in 1937, they saw its beauty and decided they couldn’t in good conscience chop down the trees. They developed a sporting camp on the property instead, a tradition that’s continued to this day.
Christine Wrobel, Montage Palmetto Bluff’s public relations and marketing manager, gave me a tour by golf cart, pointing out the options for outdoor fun available to community residents and resort guests. There’s a brand new shooting club featuring 13 clay stations (“like golf but with a shotgun” she explained) and hunting dogs to accompany you. Many guests take advantage of the extensive freshwater estuary to fish for bass or try their hand at fly fishing (lessons are available). Lawn sports like croquet and bocce ball are available, tennis is always popular, and you can paddle the river by kayak or saunter over to Longfield Stables where you’ll find a 173-acre equestrian facility. For the kids, there are playgrounds and even a three-story treehouse that will keep them entertained for hours.
On the golf course I spotted another gator, lounging atop a lagoon near a giant oak. It’s an impressive feat how an 18-hole signature Jack Nicklaus golf course (and a certified Audubon course, at that) can remain as green as it does. Wrobel told me that Chris, the superintendent, sees to it that the course enhances the environment. All of the machinery runs on vegetable oil and bluebird boxes placed around the course encourage the avian population.
FOOD, DRINK & BLUFFTON
You can’t visit the South without eating great food and Palmetto Bluff knows it. With four restaurants on the property, an adorable village market and 24-hour room service, it’s safe to say you won’t go hungry. I loved the comfortable ambience of Buffalo’s restaurant, where you can sit outside and people watch while munching fried green tomatoes and gourmet pimento cheese sandwiches. The Canoe Club, with views of the May River on one side and the Palmetto Bluff Water Trail on the other, is fantastic for a romantic evening. Its “coastal kitchen” menu celebrates local seafood and draws inspiration from Lowcountry ingredients and traditions. The crispy skin snapper with callaloo is phenomenal. When you leave to Canoe Club, head to the River House for fireside s’mores.
The drinks are also delicious at the Bluff, and best enjoyed on a riverboat cruise. I joined other inn guests for “Mimosas on the May,” a dolphin-spotting, history lesson tour of Palmetto Bluff on The Grace, a recently renovated motor yacht. Capt. Ed Johnson shared insights into the region and encouraged me to check out Bluffton, the thriving artistic community across the river.
For one-of-a-kind shopping, art galleries and cafes, Bluffton is easy to visit by boat or car. If you wish to leave Palmetto Bluff to explore any of the nearby towns, including Savannah and Hilton Head, Montage will hand you the keys to a complimentary Mercedes Benz.
It doesn’t get more hospitable than that.
Accommodations at Montage Palmetto Bluff begin at $275 per night. Palmetto Bluff homesites begin at $150,000 and homes from the upper $700,000s. Washington, D.C. is one of the three top markets for home purchases at Palmetto Bluff.
Read the full story in the Summer 2016 issue of Washington Life.