Our guide, Mike Overton, maneuvers the 20-foot-long Cobia deck boat with the skill of an experienced captain through the serpentine thoroughfares of golden sea grasses. Overton, 48, has dirty-blond hair threatening to go gray and the crinkled eyes of someone who has spent many days squinting across a sun-drenched horizon. He is also a gifted storyteller who weaves ecology, history and gossip between the shifting speeds of the boat.
“That’s Daufuskie Island, settled by freed slaves,” he says, pointing to what looks like a deserted island, lined with trees along the deep brown water. “Many of the descendants of those original freed slaves still live on the island.”
History and beauty run hand in hand here along the May River, which surrounds the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, located in Bluffton, S.C. Overton is president of Outside Hilton Head, an adventure tourism group that runs kayaking tours as well as half-day boat and walking tours for visitors.
Although he’s a transplant to the area, Overton peppers his tour with plenty of local lore, such as how Squire Pope, a notorious scoundrel, acquired his house (now part of the Historic Preservation Society) in a wild card game. Or how another local used to take potshots at cars whose owners had the nerve to show up late to his oyster roasts.
It’s hard to imagine something that raucous happening in this serene place where the homes on the coastline quietly emerge from pine and live oak forests; it’s easier to conjure up the rustic oystermen that Overton says still work the mud flats in wooden bateaus.
But like Baltimore, this area celebrates its eccentrics, many of whom were proudly “outed” in the novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” set only a 30-minute drive away in Savannah, Ga. And while the mileage between the inn and Savannah may be brief, the two feel worlds away.
To reach the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, you fly into the tiny Savannah airport, drive through backcountry roads lined with pine forests, turn left at the edge of nowhere and enter a piece of the Low Country that is a world unto itself. The resort sits on 22,000 acres between Savannah and Charleston, S.C., at the confluence of the May, New and Cooper rivers. With acres of forest buffering the property from the nearest road, a trip to the Inn at Palmetto Bluff is truly a transporting experience.
The inn is managed by Auberge Resorts, which also manages the posh Auberge du Soleil in the Napa Valley, as well as resorts like Esperanza in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where Gwyneth Paltrow and hubby Chris Martin reportedly spent their honeymoon. The fivestar inn, opened in 2004, is Auberge’s first East Coast property. For all its remoteness, the bluff that houses the inn is no stranger to illustrious guests. It was formerly the site of Palmetto Lodge, a 72-room mansion built by Richard Wilson, Cornelius Vanderbilt III’s brother-in-law. Evidence of past inhabitants can be seen in the 19 cemeteries on the property, including one for the burial of favorite hound dogs (this is the South, after all). Like the resort, the mansion was ideally situated on the river’s edge to benefit from the sea breezes. The home was destroyed by fire in 1926 and the property was most recently used as a hunting preserve, but the toppled columns and brick foundations of the house remain at the center of the inn’s “village” square, a series of newly constructed buildings arranged around a central green that could be a set for a ye olde antebellum postcard. It has a post office, art gallery, bar and grill, even a little non-denominational church, all built in the Low Country style, with clapboard siding and hipped metal roofs. The centerpiece of the village is the River House. Built in the style of the plantation houses of old, with gabled windows and long, large porches inviting hours of mint julep sipping, the River House contains the resort’s main restaurant, spa and event facilities. Although there are houses around the village square that can be bought or rented (many of which are still in development), most guests gravitate to the inn’s cozy cottages.
Designed to mimic the architectural vernacular of the area, each cottage has a large screened-in porch and metal roof. Inside are fluffy beds wrapped in high-end linens, a steam shower and separate teacup bathtub, candles and a gas fireplace.
On my first evening at the inn, I took in one of its decadent six-course wine dinners, which are presided over by the hotel’s executive chef, Stephen James Jordan, and wine manager, Bill Harris. Unlike some sommeliers, who are either tediously dull, horribly snobby, or both, Bill is a character, not afraid to bring his own quirky sense of humor and panache to the table. He has a habit of introducing wines with the catchphrase, “Hello, my name is,” as in, “Hello my name is Sauvignon Blanc, note my scent of peaches and mowed grass.” Or “Hello, my name is RosŽ and I’m nothing like the horrible pink stuff in the box.” I met six wonderful wines that night as well as a delicious lavender-dusted filet mignon and a decadent Earl Grey truffle cake for dessert. (Unfortunately, I hear Bill has moved on since my visit.)
That night, I slept with the door to my screened-in porch open and in the morning woke to the sound of squirrels chasing acorns as they fell from the live oaks that twist over the cottages and drip Spanish moss onto the roofs. Although the cottages create a village of their own, they don’t lose a sense of privacy. That morning I wrapped myself in my robe and had a room service breakfast served on the porch where I could watch the sun rise over the May River- and never worried about peeping toms. No doubt this is what attracted a certain “Saturday Night Fever” star to the inn when his plane was being fixed in Savannah.
Bluffton’s remoteness is a blessing and a curse. It is hardly a booming metropolis, so the burden is on the inn to entertain its guests. In addition to the boat tours and tours of area historic towns, there is a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course, the wonders of which were lost on me but I heard good things about it from fellow visitors. I had a different stroke of luck adventuring on the inland lagoons with the resort’s compli- mentary kayaks.
As soon as I got in and began to paddle toward the resort’s spa, I noticed the unmistakable lumpy head of an alligator slowly submerging into the green depths. I presumed that this was “Big Mike,” who calls the lagoon home. Now, I’ve been told that alligators are more dangerous to unwitting poodles than women in kayaks, but when a large triangular wake cut across my bow, my boat seemed suddenly insignificant. The wake submerged with an audible gurgle, leaving large bubbles on the surface of the water. I admit that I returned to the dock with the speed of an Olympian. After this brush with mortality, it was definitely time to hit the spa, which is secreted away on a quiet side of the lagoon. My masseur was Scott, and despite my initial apprehension, he was more discreet with my private parts than some first dates I’ve had. For an hour and a half, Scott rubbed me with wild rice and mulberry leaves then, after a quick shower (in private, of course) rubbed some more with unscented soy oil. Fully tenderized and practically drooling from relaxation, I was deposited onto the second-floor private porch outside my treatment room, where Scott had drawn me a hot, rose-scented milk bath.
The outdoor baths are hidden from prying eyes by chair-rail-height plantation shutters, but are open above so I could enjoy the fresh air. The autumn air cooled with the dusk, causing steam ringlets to rise off the bath water. I watched their ascent, listening to the commotion of egrets and cranes coming in to roost in the lagoon while a half moon rose slowly between the winding arms of a live oak.
Baths, in fact, were something I couldn’t get enough of at the inn. The teacup bathtub in my room, surrounded by white candles, scented oils and bath salts, was such a temptation I couldn’t help myself from indulging. The cottages are all outfitted with stereo surround-sound and a few pre-selected CDs. I confess I had a bath with Harry Connick Jr. not once, but twice. As I extinguished the candles and dressed for another fantastic dinner, I couldn’t help but think the Low Country never felt so high class.