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Only in Palmetto Bluff

In a single day, I shattered clay discs with a double-barrel shotgun and swallowed more than my share of oysters. Until then, I’d never touched a gun or had the guts to swallow the briny culinary pearls, tonged from their beds in the sea.

Montage Palmetto Bluff Between Hilton Head and Savannah

If that had been my first day at Montage Palmetto Bluff, located within an exclusive gated community midway between Hilton Head and Savannah in the South Carolina Lowcountry, I might have tried neither. And what a shame that would have been. I hadn’t yet settled in to understand that I wasn’t just at a resort. I was in a place.

Only a hand-lettered, wooden sign serves as a breadcrumb for first-timers that they’ve reached the turn off to enter these 20,000 acres, “About the size of Manhattan,” says my driver, Sean. “When I drive people who’ve never been here (Palmetto Bluff) before, they expect to enjoy it,” says Sean. “But when I pick them up four-five days later, they are overwhelmed. Every time. Many end up buying a second home.”

Sean drives down a long stretch of paved road lined with gas-lit lamps and bike trails that run parallel to a forest of oak, pine, palmetto and magnolia. Before dropping me at the Inn, he tools through Wilson, one of two villages that anchor not only the resort, but also private residences and businesses within Palmetto Bluff.

Palmetto Bluff Established 1902

Palmetto Bluff
Palmetto Bluff

Architectural eye candy of one-of-a-kind front porch houses are clustered around the tidy oak studded village green containing stone ruins. They are all that remain of the Wilson Family Gilded Agemansion that burned down in 1926. It was the Senior Wilson who’d been a railroad baron and who bought this acreage as a hunting lodge in 1902, establishing Palmetto Bluff. A clapboard chapel sits on the bank of the broad May River – a Southern bride’s wedding fantasy.

When we reach the white-columned, 74-room Inn, completed in September 2016, Sean tells me it was modeled on the mansion whose ruins I had just seen. A black Labrador retriever named May is in the lobby being loved-on by guests. She’s one of four canine ambassadors at this pet-friendly property that I soon discover is as welcoming to four-legged guests as to their two-legged owners.

In a richly paneled library off the lobby, there’s a fire in the hearth, guests in every leather armchair and one gentleman with a dog nestled on either side of his lap. I make a mental note to claim an armchair in that library the first chance I get. Bonus if there’s a glass of merlot in my hand.

Broader Perspective of Palmetto Bluff

Palmetto Bluff

To get a broader perspective of Palmetto Bluff and the historic community of Bluffton of which Palmetto is part, the next day I join a group of guests, including a few other travel writers who have become my compatriots, and board the resort’s 104-year old fully restored commuter yacht, named The Grace for a river cruise.

It is from my perch on this mahogany-paneled boat that I better understand where I am. The Grace’s prow cleaves the tidal path through marshland that’s been used since now-extinct Native American coastal tribes fished and hunted here, long before the European explorers showed up in the 1560’s. There is so much evidence here of past peoples that Palmetto Bluff employs a fulltime archaeologist.

Dolphins leap and birds alight on the water’s surface bathed in golden light. Another guest, an older gentleman, points to the cottages on both sides of the river. “When growing up in Savannah, mostly doctors only had houses on the May River. There was no electricity, so they were summer cottages.”

We approach Old Town Bluffton with its working oyster dock. Captain Ed points out the Garvin House, glimpsed from the water. “It was the first house built in Bluffton by a freed slave after the Civil War,” he said. “It’s been recently restored so you can visit.” Next is an enormous copper roof atop a rustic, unpainted wooden structure. “That’s the Anglican Church, built in 1857 and the most popularwedding spot in town.”

We return to the hotel famished and refuel with lunch on the patio overlooking the lagoon at Fore & Aft, the casual dining option that also serves the two pools (one is part of the spa). A group of kayakers emerges from under a bridge and paddles past. It is only from my view here that I finally understand how the total of 200 guest-rooms at Montage are counted.

Stand-alone cottages face the river and lagoon. One of my best friend’s has stayed in them twice and her advice is, “Insist on a river view and you’ll never want to leave.” There are also two-level “guest house” compounds, each with a handful of rooms identical to those in the Inn, and ideal for groups.

In addition, Montage has recently completed its third of 35 planned residences whose owners can choose to put their luxury vacation home into a rental pool managed by Montage and whose guests will have access to all of the service, amenities and privileges of resort guests, such as access to the otherwise members-only May River Golf Club and the Palmetto Bluff Shooting Club.

I’m starting to understand how Montage Hotels & Resorts, aligned with one-of-a-kind luxury resorts out west (Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills, Deer Valley, Los Cabos in Mexico and Kapalua Bay on Maui) has embraced not only Palmetto Bluff, its first east coast property in its portfolio, but its coastal Carolina culture and Southern hospitality, too.

That evening, we take advantage of the resort’s Mercedes program (they have four loaners for guests to use) and return to Bluffton for dinner. But first, we’re pedaled around on a bike taxi, treated to a historic tour by lifelong resident Trey Snow that includes the 10 remaining Antebellum structures in town that survived the burning of Bluffton by Union troops during the Civil War.

It’s on my last full day that we visit the Shooting Club, a head-on collision with my values and comfort level. I had never before even touched a gun, but in the spirit of the place, I embrace the “yes” and step up to the shooting stand. It’s part of the 13 station, 40-acre sporting clay course whose only targets are neon-orange clay discs.

My instructor is a willowy brunette who reminds me of the actress Connie Britton from the television show Nashville. Sarah instills confidence in me, even when unexpected tears start to flow as she adjusts my cheek against the wooden stock so I can properly site down the barrel of the shotgun. There are a lot of unnamed emotions flowing through me and I want to step away, but Sarah is patient and keeps me at the platform, wrapped up in her girl-power energy, until those clays start flying and I start shooting, shattering nearly every one.

We return to the Inn in time for the daily culinary happy hour that showcases a rotating menu of heirloom dishes that are central to this place – in the South, on the river, at Montage Palmetto Bluff. Today’s Culinary Heirloom are oysters plucked from the May River, steamed in their shells over the fire and shucked as fast as we eat them.

Emboldened by the adrenalin of my shooting experience and a glass of Artillery Punch – a cocktail of epic Southern lineage pulled from a Savannah grandmother’s handwritten trove of recipes and served in antique-looking glassware – I scoop my first-ever oyster with a touch of hot sauce and horseradish onto a Saltine cracker and pop it in my mouth. The combination is pure pleasure.


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