Laze in Luxury: South Carolina’s Lowcountry Beckons Break Time
written by JENNIFER COLOSIMO | photos courtesy of MONTAGE PALMETTO BLUFF
IT’S A RARE GETAWAY when you get home and don’t have to say, “I need a vacation from my vacation.” Whether it’s attributed to kids in tow, uncooperative weather or an overly packed itinerary, what is intended as an escape from the rat race of everyday life often becomes a strenuous test in patience. But, believe me, the possibility of rest for the weary does exist. Let me redirect your course of complaint to the impossibly laid-back way of life offered deep in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
Just across the river from touristy Hilton Head Island, over the bridge from Savannah and tucked deep behind the Intracoastal Waterway is a little piece of heaven. While you may have heard of the posh Daufuskie Island or the bordering Beaufort beaches, Palmetto Bluff is where the epitome of porch life gets defined. It’s where effortless lounging is the real luxury, and it makes front porching not only a verb, but a priority … a way of life even. For me and my husband, staying at Montage Palmetto Bluff – sans toddler – made for one of the best vacations we’ve had since our honeymoon.
PRESERVING A PIECE OF PARADISE
The state of mind begins to change as soon as you make that right turn into the neighborhood. Off a two-lane highway in Bluffton, S.C., you’re immediately hidden from roadside fruit and vegetable stands, body shops and beach shacks by giant, sweeping pine trees and grand oaks for several miles into the resort. Overall, its sprawl spans 20,000 acres of marsh, field, forest and waterways, but it feels like you’ve crossed a bridge into uncharted land, something undiscovered and untouched by developers. And, as we soon learned, that was the plan. Driveways are barely noticeable, trees were preserved and much of the land looks as it did a hundred years ago. For good reason, the inhabitants now don’t want their preserved piece of paradise going anywhere; therefore, Montage Palmetto Bluff was built into the land, rather than on it, and the architecture remains soundly Southern, private and subtle, albeit luxurious and worth a lingering glance.
That glance reveals bits of history, including a present-day nod to the estate of William McKinley’s late 1700s homestead, undeveloped plots showcasing the ruins of banker Richard T. Wilson’s family and that same family’s namesake yacht — Grace. The 60-foot, circa-1913 antique motor yacht, acquired and restored by Palmetto Bluff, got her sea legs back this season. Even adjacent islands are represented, like Bull Island’s famous swimming buffalo that sits on the wall inside the resort’s casual restaurant, aptly named Buffalo’s. The land was owned by Union Camp, a bag and paper company, in the mid 1900s and dates to 10,000 B.C. when Native Americans farmed the area for oysters, fish and wildlife. Evidence of this history is on chronological display at the resort’s quaint riverfront museum, The Palmetto Bluff History Center, or in black-and-white photographs lining the walls at the resort.
Certainly the overwhelming presence of history makes you want to tip a wide-brimmed hat or peer beneath a parasol at the sunset over the May River. For my husband, something was missing without a cigar or a brandy in hand because being here transports you to another time – deep into another mental state for sure, where time isn’t something to pass, but rather to enjoy.
REST AND RECREATION
For all the relaxing to be done, there’s no shortage of activity awaiting your day at Montage. In fact, you could easily stay as busy, or as lax, as you want. The morning can start with breakfast delivered doorside and enjoyed (in a plush robe, no doubt) on your second-story balcony overlooking the sunrise-dappled lagoon. Or, your most important meal of the day could begin with a bike ride across the property to the Biscuit Bar at Buffalo’s … mimosa and/or Bloody Mary optional. Breakfast could lead you back to the pool, where drinks and snacks from Fore & Aft come right to your chair – or cabana – and complimentary citrus water, sunscreen and service never run out.
If you had second helpings at the biscuit bar (and that chicken apple sausage is tempting enough to ensure so), then you could choose to burn it off on the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, built into the trees using man-made waterways to collect rainwater for irrigation. It could take you straight to the gym for a private workout or group class, or into a kayak to paddle adventurously along the May River or lazily through the lagoon. In the river, winding creeks and shallow banks let you get up close and personal with thriving oyster beds, a huge population of friendly dolphins and several types of birds and clawed creatures nesting in the grass.
The water to-dos don’t stop there, as Montage offers mini boats to rent for a sunset cocktail cruise with friends, educational kayak tours with a guide, stand-up paddle boarding and fishing. Or still, as we did, let the water inspire someone else to do the work with one of the larger boat tours, like the sunset dolphin cruise which included much more than simply spotting a few finned friends – we threw the net for shrimp, collected bleached shell souvenirs from the beach, learned the history of the surrounding islands, spotted a rare bald eagle and cracked open a few oysters.
On the note of leasing out labor, we spent one whole day doing just that. After a few leisure laps at the pool, two incredible salads from Fore & Aft and a couple of cocktails until the sunscreen wore off, we traded swimsuits and towels for robes and slippers inside the gorgeous Spa Montage. Armed with a reservation for the Couple’s Retreat, we cooled off with a round of services that would make doing anything else seem crazy. That included pedicures, massages and facials (several firsts for my husband), quiet time in the relaxation rooms and plenty of fresh-baked granola, hot tub time and cool, plunge pool relief.
Though we didn’t burn too many calories, relaxation of this caliber still managed to work up quite an appetite. Thankfully, the resort is replete with plenty of ways to satiate it. Our favorite was Jessamine, the resort’s newest, chicest in-house spot. True to its state flower namesake, it blossoms into a decadent culinary experience, whether you’re sitting down to lunch or a dinner reservation. To start, share the tomato and burrata caprese, but if you opt for the warm kale or the roasted beet salad, you won’t want to spare a bite. For the main course, their best seller is a black bass vera cruz served over Carolina gold rice, juicy tomatoes and olives, and my husband will tell you it’s the dish he’s still thinking about long after our return home. I chose the Wagyu beef short ribs, served underneath an impossibly creamy cauliflower puree and burgundy jus. And, because they’ve got a page of great steaks, a lot of can’t-miss sides come a la carte, so as true Southerners with a penchant for fried food, we ordered the Vidalia onion rings dipped in black pepper ranch
Delivered with a reservation at Canoe Club on the other side of the resort, their waterfront dinner is another fabulous option. Sit inside to avoid the buggy, riverside balcony, but settle in for a multi-course arrangement that truly impresses almost as much as the interior’s grand architecture. The roasted black grouper comes piled over Benton’s bacon, fingerling potatoes, carrots, caviar and succulent oyster stew, while the crispy fried chicken (I told you we like fried food) gave the traditional Southern dish a brand new reputation atop its bed of spicy rice, sausage and beans. You may not think you have enough room for dessert, but their ever-changing options of sweet treats should convince you otherwise. We got ours to go, so we could take advantage of another meal on our balcony.
Perhaps the best part of Montage Palmetto Bluff is that not everything needs a reservation – or a life preserver. If you do bring the kids, tree houses abound, kiddie pools are open, vast fields beckon and interactive craft classes at Paintbox entice young minds every day. Bikes are in excess, inviting you to pedal slowly through the oak trees along shady winding paths, taking in sun-kissed glimpses of the river, making your way to the shooting club or checking on the high-handed friends at the stables. Walking paths let you meander through the original ruins, visit the onsite museum, pop in and out of the general store and peruse the boutiques. Fireside games of Clue, Scrabble and playing cards let you idle for as long as you like, while a fleet of Mercedes lets you explore the beckoning land outside the gates.
When you want to indulge in serene, Southern style, Montage Palmetto Bluff is the South’s answer to supreme resort living. Making it feel like home away from home is as easy as staying as a guest at the Inn, renting a cottage, booking a guest house or buying real estate and claiming residency (and resort perks). You don’t have to wait until next summer, either – the pool is open year round and the rocking chair doesn’t require a reservation.
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