Travel

Small-Town Escapes: Bluffton, SC

A riverside hamlet on the rise, rooted in Lowcountry tradition

photo: Imke Lass

The waterfront Church of the Cross.

Population: 13,606
Drive Time: Thirty minutes northeast of Savannah

There’s something about Old Town Bluffton, a drowsy village on the banks of the May River between Savannah and Hilton Head Island: something ageless and authentic and maybe a little haunted. There’s a hint of Mark Twain’s Hannibal in the air. The  gnarled limbs of ancient oaks reach over tin-roofed cottages. Egrets pose motionless near oyster beds exposed at low tide. It’s “a sweet little town,” says local potter Jacob Preston. “People wonder how something like this can still exist.”

Bluffton comes by its old-river-town vibe honestly. Many a current of Southern history flowed through this corner of the Lowcountry. Planters grew rice, then indigo, then cotton. Robert E. Lee bought his storied horse Traveller hereabouts. Canneries and fishing fleets boomed as Americans acquired a taste for oysters, crab, and shrimp.

Over the last twenty years, Bluffton’s secret has gotten out; dozens of neighborhoods have gradually sprung up, and what was not long ago a one-square-mile community of 700 souls has stretched its boundaries to manage the population swell. But its palpable sense of place and small-town appeal remain intact.

The 24-Hour Agenda: Although it’s just over a decade old, the architects and planners behind Palmetto Bluff—a conservation-focused planned community that includes an exceptional inn and for-rent cottages a short drive from Old Town—were clearly head over heels for Lowcountry vernacular. The spacious bungalows, nestled among the oaks, feature screened-in porches with river views, deep soaking tubs, fireplaces, and bikes to explore the lovely grounds. Start your day with a lap or two through the “biscuit bar” at Buffalo’s, just a quick stroll or pedal from the inn, and sip a top-notch Bloody Mary on the restaurant’s patio.

 

Rodney Heyward totes a bushel of May River bivalves at Bluffton Oyster Company.

photo: Imke Lass

Toast of the Coast

Rodney Heyward totes a bushel of May River bivalves at Bluffton Oyster Company.

In Old Town, get a no-frills introduction to the town’s salty heritage at Bluffton Oyster Company, the daily-catch market run by the Toomer family—where you can pick up local mahimahi, grouper, tilefish, and the like—and the only remaining hand-shucking operation in the state. (They also have a sit-down restaurant nearby. Order a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp, and go to work.) Calhoun Street is lined with fetching mom-and-pop shops and galleries—among them the Filling Station, with works by more than fifty local artists; Pluff Mudd Art, packed with paintings, jewelry, and woodwork; and the Storybook Shoppe, which carries good reads for kids. To satisfy your sweet tooth, visit pastry chef Robert Plantadis at the Midnight Bakers. You can also tour the Heyward House, on Boundary Street, an antebellum farmhouse that survived Union troops setting the town aflame in 1863; or just take a load off in one of the front porch’s rocking chairs. Grab lunch—or on Fridays and Saturdays, dinner—at the Cottage, and don’t let the tearoom decor fool you: The portions are fit for a longshoreman.

Meet the Locals: For three generations (and counting), Larry Toomer’s family has made their livelihood on the May River. The owner of Bluffton Oyster Company and Bluffton Family Seafood House, he’s seen a small colony with dirt roads and one or two stores grow into a bustling destination. “There wasn’t opportunity back then,” he says. “Most people had to leave. Having my kids want to stay and raise their kids here…shoot, that’s the ultimate.”

“We had the opportunity to actually make the place that we live in,” says Jacob Preston. “And there was a pretty amazing group of folks here at the right time.” The tall, bearded potter—he was the model for a twelve-foot statue of Neptune at a Hilton Head marina—has manned the wheel in his church turned studio (on Church Street, naturally) for nearly forty years and has become a walking embodiment of Bluffton’s artsy renaissance.


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