overview of a porch with outdoor furniture overlooking greenery and a body of water at montage palmetto bluff in south carolina

For some visitors to South Carolina’s salt-scented lowcountry, the tidal marshes and river-like estuaries that lie between the mainland and the ocean serve as a sort of starting gate: once you’ve passed over the marsh, you’re almost at the beach.

But pause at the marsh, and, before long, you might find yourself captivated by its understated but remarkably diverse beauty — the islands of tall grass that whisper and bend with the slightest breeze; the graceful, twisting lattice of a single live oak tree silhouetted against the sky, even the quiet rush of the incoming tide.

a boat sailing on a body of water near montage palmetto bluff in south carolina
Courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff

Lowcountry rivers, which are really tidal estuaries, are alive with creatures, too, like alligators that slink into freshwater lagoons if your boat pulls too close or the curious dolphins that, if you’re lucky, will take an interest in your kayak. And, since some marshland has evolved into maritime forest, those dense thickets of palmettos, more live oaks, holly trees, and cedars offer welcoming shade on a warm summer day.

But where can you find a perfect patch of lowcountry beauty? I found it at Montage Palmetto Bluff, which is the kind of low-key but luxurious resort where you can spend your days rambling through 20,000 acres of protected forest, meadow, and marsh watching river otters, alligators and bald Eagles, and nights sipping aged bourbon from a crystal tumbler in front of a flickering fire.  

What to Do at Montage Palmetto Bluff

a nature trail near montage palmetto bluff in south carolina surrounded by trees and other greenery
Courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff

When was the last time you rode a bike? If it’s been a minute, you’ll fit right in with many of the guests, who wobble and laugh as they find their balance before taking off along the pathways that wind through the resort.

Those bikes are a great idea — not only can guests use them to scoot from tennis (and pickleball) to the Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, the shopping area, kid-friendly tree houses, or the kayak rental place, but they can take them on the network of trails that crisscross the huge property. Don’t miss the chance to spend time with the resident naturalists, particularly Cassie Beato, who runs the resort’s nature programs. Not only did she keep our group of adults informed and entertained during an hour-long nature walk but, later, she delighted a family with three small children with fun — but instructional — stories about alligators and other wildlife on a boat tour of the resort’s inland waterway. There is actually a huge range of exploratory experiences available, including dolphin cruises, boat trips to the beach, harbor cruises, and fishing and shrimping jaunts, both on property and off-site.

The Spa

overview shot of a pool surrounded by cream colored lounge chairs and umbrellas as well as trees at montage palmetto bluff in south carolina
Courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff

Locals were a bit nervous when Montage shared plans to expand the original Inn at Palmetto Bluff and its beloved spa — some of the treatment rooms had outdoor bathtubs overlooking a bird sanctuary — but their worries were unfounded: Spa Montage has managed to not only maintain the original sense of place, but has boosted the level of services considerably. They’ve also maintained their pre-Covid steam, sauna, and cold-plunge areas as well as a large heated tub in a brick-walled garden. Though there are plenty of wonderful massages to be had — mine was dreamy — the spa’s focus is on wellness therapies that combine the power of botanicals, high-tech modalities like vibrational technology, and highly skilled therapists to help faces and bodies look and feel their best.

Though the resort’s gym is not gigantic, it’s equipped with nearly every piece of equipment you can imagine; even better are the three complimentary fitness classes offered each day. The schedule is well-thought out: each day, there’s one cardio offering, a weight-heavy option and some kind of body weight-driven class, like mat Pilates. The welcoming fitness team makes it easy to try something new.

Eating and Drinking

closeup shot of a menu item at Montage Palmetto Bluffs dining option River House in South Carolina
Courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff

Think of a restaurant with a wondrous view and your brain will likely take you to a rooftop aerie that looks out over a scene. River House, Montage Palmetto Bluff’s fanciest dining option, turns that premise on its head and instead immerses diners in a tableau of moss-laden live oaks, emerald-green lawns and, in the distance, a flash of blue water. Across the hall, at Octagon, start your meal with a cocktail on a wide waterfront porch where chairs are set in small groupings that allow for lots of privacy. Although both restaurants do a great job of honoring local foods and cooking methods, dishes loaded with flavors from other cultures offer plenty of delicious variety.

My favorite culinary surprise, though, came at Fore & Aft, a casual outdoor spot where I discovered a menu filled with fish tacos, nachos topped with carne asada, and other Mexican dishes. Turns out the chef had recently relocated from Montage’s Los Cabos property and brought his recipes with him.

Montage Palmetto Bluff’s newest cocktail destination is Hush, a subterranean speakeasy that attracts a young, lively crowd with creative cocktails and live music. It’s a terrific addition to the resort’s other venues, where a soothing, romantic vibe prevails.

For a different kind of  energy, head to the nightly bonfire, where a team of patient professionals distributes extra-long bamboo skewers, marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers to kids and adults for DIY s’mores. It’s a fun way for families to gather after dinner — kids can run off their energy in the grass, parents can finish off that last sip of wine — before heading back to rooms and suites.

Montage Palmetto Bluff is located within the Palmetto Bluff residential community; there are enough people around to support a number of other eating and drinking establishments, which are located within the grounds. If you’re staying for more than a long weekend, it’s nice to have such variety without leaving the property.

Sleeping at Montage Palmetto Bluff

When the Inn at Palmetto Bluff first opened in 2004, lodging was limited to a handful of beautifully appointed cottages that dotted the riverbank. Montage has not only fully renovated the structures, but added additional accommodations that includes rooms and suites in the main inn and within multi-room “guest houses,” as well as freestanding private homes with between two and five bedrooms. Solitude seekers will still fall for the cottages, which have huge screened-in porches that are shaded by tall pines; for a similar experience but closer to the action, book a one-bedroom poolside suite, which occupies a corner unit of a guesthouse with a fenced grassy yard that fronts the river house pool and, just beyond, the river. The views from the screened-in porch are breathtaking and the rooms, with their oversized marble bathrooms, fireplaces, and large sitting areas, are comfortable and spacious.

What to do Outside the Resort

a bridge going over a body of water surrounded by trees near montage palmetto bluff in south carolina
Courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff

Montage Palmetto Bluff feels wonderfully remote, but the resort is also within easy striking distance of towns, historic sites, and beaches. The closest village is Bluffton, a former artist colony now filled with restaurants, boutiques, and coffee shops, all surrounded by centuries-old live oak trees, historic homes, and an 1857 cypress-clad church. The historic city of Beaufort has become a center of Gullah culture in the United States; one of the best places to explore this unique society is on St. Helena Island at the Penn Center, a museum on the site of one of the nation’s first schools for formerly enslaved people.

You can also tour remote barrier islands, including Daufuskie Island, where author Pat Conroy once lived and taught; and St. Phillips Island, which was owned by media mogul Ted Turner until 2018. Hilton Head, with its famous golf courses, is also less than an hour away, as is Savannah, Georgia.

Featured image courtesy of Montage Palmetto Bluff