A stay at this southern resort will make y’all a fan of sweet tea, porch swings, and the slam of a screen door.
Anyone who’s ever caught the travel bug has probably written out some sort of travel bucket list. Perhaps it has “eat gelato in Italy” or “go on a safari in Africa” near the top of it. Maybe it reads “put toes in sand under the Caribbean sun” or “stay in thatch cottage in the English countryside.” Those were just a few of the items on mine. Since compiling my wanderlist, I’ve ticked off those items and many more. So when I tell you to add this next item to your list, maybe you’ll believe me when I say that it’s well worth it: “sip sweet tea on a porch swing in the South,” and more specifically, “while staying at Palmetto Bluff with your family.”
Right now, I know some of you may be thinking, “The South?!” Some of us Yankees (as they call us) never think to travel there. Stereotypes abound about this part of America, so much so that nearly every European that I’ve ever met imitates an “American” accent with some sort of fake southern twang. They think banjos, big trucks, and hillbillies. But to my mind, the South is so underrated. So unexpected. So incredible.
Sandwiched between Hilton Head and Savannah deep in the heart of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, Montage Palmetto Bluff is a gated resort that embodies Southern charm and hospitality. It stays true to its roots by giving guests an authentic southern experience that they’ll not soon forget. It’s a place of simple pleasures of times gone by – where bicycles are the main mode of transportation, where kids play without parents worrying, where afternoons are spent “porching” (socializing while sipping sweet tea… or something stronger!), and where evenings are spent reconnecting with loved ones around the fire.
KidTripster Tip: My favorite time to visit Palmetto Bluff is in the spring from April through early May, when the smell of jasmine wafts through the air on a warm breeze. The weather is also very pleasant from mid-September through October. July and August can get extremely hot and humid. I’ve heard that it’s also very cozy and festive around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the resort books up quickly, so plan ahead.
Where to stay
Yes, a stay at most five-star resorts is more than likely going to be great, but not all five-star resorts are like Palmetto Bluff. It’s luxurious without being pretentious and elegant without going over the top. The staff makes you feel like you are family or at least a close family friend.
My husband and I fell in love with this resort after attending a wedding here. When we received the invitation, I remember thinking “South Carolina?! Why on earth would a couple living in New York get married there?” Then we arrived and instantly thought, “Oh, this is why!” We have since returned annually, bringing with us family and friends who want to experience the same magic. It has yet to disappoint.
The entrance to this place alone is enchanting. You drive two whole miles under a shady canopy of Spanish moss, cascading off Live Oak and red cedar trees. Once inside the sprawling estate, you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Park your car. You won’t need it for a while.
Stroll around the neighborhood to the quaint village square, and you’ll see the original Inn, designed like a southern plantation house, plus a little white waterside chapel, a corner cafe, and sweeping views of the May River. You’ll also pass picket fences, flickering gas lampposts, fragrant gardens, and older folks in their porch rockers waving hello. It’s like something out of a movie.
Just beyond the Inn across a tiny bridge that stretches over a lagoon, the property is dotted with 50 secluded cottages that are quintessentially southern, striking the perfect mix between rustic, cozy, and elegant. Complete with shiplap walls, beautiful marble bathrooms, working fireplaces, and furnished screened-in porches that look out over the lagoon or into the forest, these gorgeous cottages are both homey and luxurious.
Most of the cottages are a large, single room with a sitting area and a screened-in porch off the back. Some, like the River View Cottage Suite, are one-bedroom suites which allow Mom and Dad to put the kids to bed, close the door, and still relax in peace. Better still for larger families or families traveling with friends are the residences. These two-, three- or four-bedroom homes are equipped with gourmet kitchens, screened-in porches, washers and dryers, and all the comforts of home. Some even have fire pits and BBQs.
Rooms start at $275/night; larger homes around $500/night. Is it expensive? Yes. But the beauty of the homes is that you can have a few families or in-laws all in one house, thereby splitting the cost.
KidTripster Tip: The cost of your house or cottage includes bicycles for each member of the family. Just let them know how many you need, and you’ll find them waiting beside your home when you arrive. Kids’ bikes, baby seats, and kid trailers are also available, so just ask when you book. Golf carts are not included but are available for a daily charge.
What to do
Or perhaps the question is – what not to do? This is the perfect place to put away your cell phone and really, truly get away from it all. Hop on your bicycle and within 10 minutes, I guarantee, you'll be less stressed and feel like a kid again. There’s just something about tooling around on a bicycle with the wind in your hair that takes your cares away. Maybe it’s because you can’t check your email and ride at the same time! And kids love it, too. It’s nice for them to be in a safe place, where they have the freedom to ride without the constant worry of traffic.
Along with miles of bike and walking paths, the resort has two swimming pools (one is adult-only; the other actually is comprised of three pools and a Jacuzzi), two fitness facilities, tennis courts, paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding, and fly fishing. There’s even a club for sport clay shooting. There’s croquet, bocce ball courts, several swing sets, and the most amazing three-story treehouse that your kids have ever seen, complete with a zipline and a big hammock tied up between two trees for Mom or Dad to enjoy while the kids play. If that’s not enough, the resort offers scenic yacht cruises, dolphin tours, salt- and fresh-water fishing excursions, and private charters.
The resort, the largest remaining waterfront property on the East coast, sits on a secluded slice of land that’s surrounded by natural beauty: ancient maritime forest land, old antebellum rice fields, and saltwater marshes. With more than a third of the resort’s land under conservation, the property is teeming with wildlife. Kids will enjoy seeing everything from alligators and turtles to blue herons and bald eagles. They may even step on a snake like my husband and little girl did. (Don’t worry, it was harmless!)
KidTripster Tip: Because Palmetto Bluff is a conservation area, know that the American alligator calls this area home. While it’s fun for kids to see the creatures, please always be aware of your surroundings and follow these basic rules: 1) leave alligators alone, 2) do not feed the alligators, 3) never swim in any of the lagoons on the property, and 4) never, ever allow your children to play unattended near the water.
In the summer, Palmetto Bluff offers its Explorers and Pioneers Camps for children (ages 5 to 12). Kids will make friends while enjoying fun adventures, daily recreational activities, arts and crafts, and special events. And while the kids are at camp, you can enjoy the resort’s luxury spa or the world-class May River Golf Course, an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Course that meanders through May River Forest.
Palmetto Bluff is ideally situated to take advantage of some fun day trips. You can hop on a free ferry to the beaches of Hilton Head or even borrow one of the resort’s complimentary Mercedes and drive over. Head to Savannah for a historic trolley tour and some home cooking at Paula Deen’s Lady and Sons Restaurant. Then if your kids are old and brave enough, take a ghost tour of Savannah’s historic cemeteries.
You also can drive 15-minutes from the resort to Bluffton and explore the cute shops, art galleries, and cafes. Or check out Thursday's Farmers Market and grab some killer BBQ afterward. Or head to historic Beaufort to learn the history behind many of the antebellum mansions, including some that were featured in films like The Big Chill and Prince of Tides, both filmed in Beaufort.
KidTripster Tip: The concierges at Palmetto Bluff will work with you to plan fun outings. I highly suggest taking advantage of their local knowledge.
Where to eat
The first time that we stayed at Palmetto Bluff, we were in one of the cottages, which meant it was all restaurants, all the time… or snacking on whatever fit in the mini fridge. That was fine for a weekend, but for our subsequent longer stays, we much prefer being in a larger home where we have a kitchen of our own. With kids and grandparents along, we like the flexibility of being able to eat in some nights.
The property has four restaurants, as well as 24-hour room service and an adorable country store. But I’m not going to lie, the family-friendly dining options within the resort are somewhat limited; but the ones that I’ll suggest are excellent, and I believe more restaurants will be opening soon. Southern cuisine may not be the healthiest, but it certainly is tasty. And if you’ve never had it, make sure you at least try some grits, hush puppies, hoppin’ John, and the fresh local seafood that’s so abundant in this area.
Buffalo’s is the go-to spot for families at Palmetto Bluff. Located in the heart of Wilson Village, this casual corner cafe offers breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner along with serene views of the water and village chapel. From biscuits and gravy with a side of cheesy grits at breakfast to fried green tomatoes, crab cakes or pimento cheese sandwiches at lunch or southern fried chicken sandwiches and artisan pizzas at supper time, the menu is varied, and the service is incredibly friendly. If shrimp and grits scare the kids, don’t worry; there are plenty of kid-friendly options. There also are lighter options like salads, if Southern food is too heavy for you. Dine inside, on the screened-in porch or al fresco, so you can hear the church bells ring and get in some good old-fashioned people watching.
KidTripster Tip: Buffalo’s will even do pizzas for you to take away, if you ask nicely. One night, we stayed at the pool too late, hadn’t thought about dinner, and couldn’t be bothered to get showered to go out. So we stopped in, placed our order, and picked it up 20 minutes later. I don’t recommend doing this unless you have a golf cart; biking and pizza delivery don’t mix well. Take it from us!
May River Grill is another great casual dining option. Sit alongside the pristine fairways of the May River Golf Course for a bite in a relaxed atmosphere. You’ll find plenty of soups, salads, and sandwiches along with nice craft beers, bloody Marys, and of course, sweet tea. It only serves lunch, so dinner isn't an option.
Slightly on the fancier side, the Canoe Club celebrates Lowcountry fare and local seafood. It also offers southern fried chicken, steak, and cheeseburgers for the more finicky diners in the family. Go early, if you’re dining with little ones or try the lite fare options on Sundays and Mondays, starting at 2 p.m. Also, if it’s not too hot and humid, sit out on the deck, and you’ll have an amazing view of the sun setting over the water.
KidTripster Tip: The resort offers a babysitting service through Guardian Angels Sitting Service. We used it, and the sitter was excellent. Get a sitter and then introduce yourself to Trevor, the bartender at the Canoe Club. Ask for a Basil Breeze or a Lowcountry Mule, if you like fruity drinks, or a Piedmont Old Fashioned, if you want Bourbon with a modern twist. A couple of those and a bit of friendly chit-chat, and I guarantee that you’ll be late to your seating. They don’t mind though; there’s not much rush down South!
A trip to the Carolinas isn’t complete without some Carolina BBQ! Blufton BBQ is a barebones BBQ joint that serves up award-winning, finger-licking good, pulled pork. It nearly melts in your mouth. Piled high on Texas toast with some extra sauce (a secret, of course), and you’re in pork heaven. Be sure to get some ribs, coleslaw, and beans, too. And don’t forget the moon pies for dessert, decidedly and deliciously Southern. You can dine in, if you’re out exploring the town of Bluffton, or you can do what we did and head to the counter, tell them what you want and how many people you’re feeding, and they’ll figure out the rest. Take it all home (with a ton of napkins), and you’ll have happy campers… and no one has to cook!
Funny name, serious grub. Fat Patties is family-friendly spot, serving up beer and brats, burgers, tots, and homemade ice cream in seasonal flavors like local peach cobbler. Try the burnt marshmallow ice cream; it’ll bring back all of your childhood camping memories. Best part about Fat Patties? It’s not fancy, and it has lots of outdoor seating with a fenced-in play area, where kids can play with balls or in a large sand pit. Now this place gets families!
Skip dessert at any of the above restaurants and instead head back to the Inn for the nightly fireside s’mores buffet, complete with long bamboo sticks and unlimited marshmallows, graham crackers, and Hershey bars. It starts at 8 p.m. every night at the River House fire pits. People are so friendly here that we seem to make new friends every time we visit.
Palmetto Bluff is about a 40-minute drive from Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport; Charleston International Airport is about a 2-hour drive.
KidTripster Tip: We have used a car service called Diamond Transportation to get from Savannah to the resort a few times. It’s was great option, mainly because we were arriving late at night with a baby and didn’t want to have to deal with getting a car and figuring out where we were going. On our last visit, however, we rented a car at the airport which allowed us to take more day trips and stock up on groceries in nearby Bluffton.
Marcia Breen is a former television journalist and Oregon native, who has traveled all over the world and been to all but five states in the USA. She grew up thumbing through her mom’s copies of Southern Living magazine, went to college in the South, and dreams of one day owning a house with a screened-in porch. Until then, she shares a tiny Manhattan apartment with her husband and daughter.
Editor's Note: Marcia won the prestigious Gold Prize from the North American Travel Journalists Association for this article.