“I have heard it said that an inoculation to the sights and smells of the Carolina Lowcountry is an almost irreversible antidote to the charms of other landscapes.”—Pat Conroy, “Lords of Discipline”
I’ve been spending some time lately in the South Carolina, Lowcountry. Wind-blown sand sheets, dunes, saltwater marshes, spike-leafed palmetto trees, Spanish moss, and humid days have all led to my serenity when I’m in the region. (Yes, I love humidity!) The southern food and hospitality are two more bonuses, and worth a reason to visit all on their own.
I first became acquainted with Beaufort County, South Carolina as a guest at the Montage Hotel in Palmetto Bluff. Nestled along the scenic May River in Bluffton, the Montage is set within a vibrant 20,000-acre community between Hilton Head Island and Savannah, Georgia. The resort encompasses an extensive nature preserve, eight dining options, a riverfront marina, spa, bike paths, and a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course. Visitors have the choice of staying in the Georgian Revival style main building, in a cottage, home, or family residence. I’ve stayed in both a marsh view cottage (with balcony) and a river view cottage (with a screened-in porch, living room, and fireplace.) All accommodations come complete with bicycles to explore the resort and pedal yourself to the various restaurants on the property. (Golf carts are another option.)
First and foremost, however, Palmetto Bluff acts as protector. Founded in 2003, the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy and its team, led by director Jay Walea, follow the mandate to maintain the ecological and environmental “integrity” of a portion of its 20,000 acres of wilderness at the confluence of the May, Cooper, and New Rivers from future development. At present, 7500 acres are in permanent conservation with more in the pipeline. I particularly liked the Conservancy’s mission statement; its higher purpose is to allow people to experience the magic of the Lowcountry in its ultimate form.
Having room-service breakfast on our porch while watching the sunrise over the May River, hearing only the sounds of the birds chirping, was a peaceful kind of morning that I’ll forever treasure. Riding our bikes through the trails after dinner to come upon the “smores cart” and the stone fire pits was another fabulous surprise.
During my time in Bluffton, I’ve had a chance to explore the Lowcountry in various ways. Scott and I took a bike excursion with a naturalist guide through the preserve. We learned about the history of the area and the Gullah who descended from enslaved people in South Carolina. The Sea Islands, part of the Lowcountry, were the first place in the South where enslaved people were freed. This Gullah culture is a thriving part of the Lowcountry atmosphere today. The Gullah achieved a victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the “Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act”; it provided $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites in the Lowcountry relating to Gullah culture.
We chartered a small boat and captain for a few hours to see Hilton Head by sea, and we ended up being accompanied by some frisky dolphins. We learned that it’s easy to reach other adjacent cities by boat and that docking on public docks is a favorite Lowcountry way to travel for meals. We also boated on the marsh “electric style” and spotted turtles, alligators, egrets, and herons, as well as magnificent water-side homes.
Coming from California, we are always eager to sample the Southern food when we travel, and the Lowcountry does not disappoint. Cahill’s Chicken in Bluffton has live chickens in the coops outback and fresh fruit on the trees. To reach the restaurant, one walks through their quaint cozy store with farm-fresh items for sale to customers. Once inside the one-room restaurant, it’s a “main and sides” for most folks. We sampled the chicken, black-eyed peas, sweet potato casserole with candied pecans, coleslaw, cornbread muffins, peaches, and green beans. Scrumptious!!
For lunch another day, we tried out The Cottage, which is also renowned for its afternoon tea, by reservation only. As we arrived, the cranberry orange scones had just been taken out of the oven, so of course, we started our meal with an order. Fancying myself a connoisseur of tea and scones, these were ranked A+ for a crispy outside, lots of fruit inside, and plenty of flavor. Scott followed up with the shrimp and grits (divine) and I had the turkey cranberry sandwich which was also done with a flourish.
Just across the state line from Bluffton, South Carolina is Savannah, Georgia, also a part of the Lowcountry, and we spent a day exploring the charming park-like squares which are spread throughout the city center. We brunched at Vic’s on the River and devoured our crab cakes and fried oysters. Last time, we brunched at The Olde Pink House, which feels like being invited to a gorgeous southern home while attending an elegant ladies’ luncheon.
Bluffton is known for its art galleries, and one that we loved is The Red Piano, owned by a husband and wife team. They feature both local artists and nationally known ones as well. We were intrigued by Jane DeDecker’s bronze sculptures. She is currently working on the monument to honor the 19th amendment, (women’s right to vote) which will be displayed in Washington D.C. when completed. Some of the gallery’s painters that inspired me are shown below.
Another charming aspect of Lowcountry living is the use of vocabulary that’s new to me as a Southern Californian. For example, I have learned the verb, “porching,” which means sitting on a porch around 4:00 pm and having iced tea or lemonade and some sweets while reflecting on the day’s events. They say all you have to do is find a rocker, sip something, sit back, and repeat. I quickly adopted that plan into my day!
As Lauren Mowery says, “Ultimately, everyone who comes to Palmetto Bluff gets a chance to live carefree, including the wildlife. With that in mind, I ordered another glass of wine and asked for a real estate brochure.” Scott and I did the same.