rocking chairs on a porch at the montage palmetto bluff hotel in bluffton south carolina

As someone who loves the sprawl and the energy of a big city — I’m happiest in a place like Paris or New York — I find that small towns pose a bit of a quandary: what will I do with myself?

But after spending time in some of the towns and villages that dot South Carolina, I have my answer: wherever the day takes me. That’s because a weekend in a smaller community changes my attitude from trying to cram everything I can into the day to giving in to my curiosity and pausing at whatever catches my attention. The results are rarely disappointing. I’ve discovered heartbreakingly beautiful paintings in the back of a museum shop, romantic ruins at the end of an unmarked lane, and ice cream so deeply flavored I went back for more.

That ability to go where I want extends to outdoor adventure, too. Surrounded by untouched land instead of suburban sprawl, small towns are convenient jumping off points for hiking, paddling, and cycling. Best of all, you can be back in town in time for happy hour.


equestrian jumping a hurdle at a horse show in aiken south carolina
Courtesy of Visit Aiken

Wondering about the brightly painted, life-sized equestrian sculptures that decorate Aiken’s lively downtown? They’re a nod to the city’s history as a destination for equestrians, who arrived in the late 1800s to train thoroughbreds, canter over miles of wooded trails, show, jump, and play polo.

These days, you don’t need a horse to enjoy Aiken — the leafy downtown is lined with cafes, restaurants, galleries, and shops; just outside, Hopelands Gardens charms with a centuries-old live oak allee. Spring and fall bring a plethora of outdoor events including art walks, free concerts, and garden walks.

Still, there’s plenty of horsey fun to be had. Hitchcock Woods, one of the largest urban forests in the country, is strewn with 65 miles of bridle trails (they’re open to walkers, too); during the spring and fall, Whitney Field hosts polo matches every Sunday.

Best Stay: Over the years, riding boots worn by Astors, Vanderbilts, and Whitneys have clomped across the wide front porch at The Willcox; today, the luxury boutique hotel pampers guests with plush rooms, a pool, a spa, and a see-and-be-seen bar and restaurant. Gracious extras like breakfast, shoe-shining service, and a dog (or horse) concierge are complimentary; for a fee, the hotel will arrange private polo lessons. 

Litchfield Beach

an empty boardwalk and beach in south carolina
Courtesy of Todd DeSantis via Unsplash

Set on a wide, white beach 20 miles from the bustle of Myrtle Beach, Litchfield is an old-school beach community. During the day, kayak or crab in the marsh, splash in the waves, or cycle on the hard-packed sand to Atalaya, a Moroccan castle built for industrialist Archer Hunter Huntington and his wife sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. Atalaya is the sister property of Brookgreen Gardens, the oldest and largest sculpture garden in the U.S. Refuel with dinner at Bistro 217, where the local catch often features an Asian twist or choose the romantic outdoor garden at Frank’s Outback. 

Best Stay: Lodging options abound at Litchfield by the Sea, and include condos, villas, and multi-story private homes with ocean views. You won’t get bored, either, thanks to private pools, fishing ponds, miles of paved walking trails, a tiki bar, an exercise facility, and a beach club. At night, the resort turns off beach-facing lights to encourage sea turtles to nest in the sea oat-covered dunes. 


marina view from elizas in georgetown south carolina
Photo by Andrew Cebulka, courtesy of George Hotel

Though this part of South Carolina is better known for its beaches, tiny Georgetown adds a touch of Charleston charm. Set along the Waccamaw River, the pretty downtown is filled with twisty live oaks, elegant period homes, and historic storefronts filled with cafes, shops, and wine bars. Learn the story of the city’s rice culture at the Rice Museum — at one time, the county produced more than half the rice grown in the US — then stroll along the Harborwalk or hop aboard a sunset boat tour through the marsh. Just outside of town, Hobcaw Barony is a historic estate once owned by Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch. The home and 16,000-acre tract is open to the public and contains one of the original 12,000-acre parcels granted by the English king to the eight Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas in the early 18th century.

Best Stay: Open since March 2024, the 56-room George Hotel is the first luxury boutique hotel in Georgetown. Clean-lined rooms are done in cool neutrals with touches of blue or burgundy, local art, and antique-inspired accessories. There’s a seafood-focused fine-dining restaurant, The Independent, and a waterfront bar called Eliza’s.


montage palmetto bluff poolside lounge in bluffton south carolina
Courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff

Rising from the banks of the May River, Calhoun Street forms the heart of this historic community; here you can wander past some of the oldest houses in southern Beaufort County. Bluffton’s shops, galleries, and cafés ramble past the edges of the shady downtown; keep going, and you’ll run across the Gothic 19th-century Church of the Cross, which sits on a breezy bluff overlooking the May River. On the way back, stop into Preston Studio, one of the town’s original galleries and home to a group of talented potters and Bluffton Oyster Company, where you can watch oystermen unload mountains of the briny bivalves into one of the few remaining facilities where they’re shucked by hand.

Best Stay: Set on 20,000 acres of pristine marsh, shady forest, and open wetland — all hemmed by three rivers— Montage Palmetto Bluff showcases the landscape with low-impact trails open to cyclists, equestrians, and walkers, restored architectural ruins, a stunning golf course, and guided boat and kayak cruises through waters inhabited by playful otters and curious dolphin. For sheer indulgence, book a river-view cottage suite, where you can nap on a screened porch overlooking the May River, relax by the fire, and enjoy complete privacy in an elegantly furnished suite — think heart-pine floors, Oriental rugs, marble bathrooms, and a mile-high four-poster bed. Save time for a treatment — or two — at Spa Montage.

Travelers Rest

hotel domestique landscape in travelers rest south carolina
Courtesy of Alex Reynolds via Unsplash

Tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the area that comprises what is now Travelers Rest has served as a place to pause before or after crossing the “Blue Wall” for centuries. Today, though, instead of a rough trading post, you’ll find a Main Street chock full of casual eateries, shops, and a brewery. But what makes Travelers Rest exceptional is the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a paved pathway that makes it easy to cycle the 17.5 miles between Greenville and Travelers Rest. Not only is the trail shady and fairly flat, but, along the way you’ll pass a couple of cycle-friendly restaurants — pop into Swamp Rabbit Café for a quick and hearty breakfast — and even a cycle repair station.

Travelers Rest is perfectly positioned to discover Greenville, South Carolina, as well as the waterfall-strewn trails that wind through the Blue Ridge Mountains’ Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area.

Best stay: Hotel Domestique feels like a French chateau: ceilings soar, the stonework is ornate, and the view from the mountaintop sublime. Earth-toned rooms have hardwood floors and wrought-iron beds; some have fireplaces and river-rock showers. Opened in 2013 by cycle racer George Hincapie, the 13-room hotel offers pro-grade cycle rentals, free use of Garmin GPS units pre-loaded with routes, and wellness room outfitted with both workout and recovery equipment. Though you’ll want to spend your days exploring, plan on sticking around in the evening for dinner at Restaurant 17, where SC Chef Ambassador Haydn Shaak gets deliciously creative with local produce, meat, and fish. The wine list is a winner, too. 

Featured image courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff.

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