Not long ago, Bluffton was a sleepy village on the southern coast of South Carolina with its oyster industry heyday behind it.
Now, it’s among the fastest-growing towns in the state. But despite the boom—since 2000, its population has swelled from 3,000 to 15,000—it retains its small-town character and seriously enchanting landscape. It’s a community that lives close to the land. Or, more precisely, to the water: Even the county Bluffton calls home, Beaufort, is comprised of more waterways, marshes, and estuaries than hard land. Part of that is the broad and winding May River below Bluffton’s Old Town—in many ways the heart and soul of the place.
In a town so closely tied to its salt marsh terrain, it’s easy to find restaurant kitchens taking advantage of the local bounty. A good Bluffton morning begins with the shrimp boat breakfast at Cahill’s Market, an eatery, farmstand, and country store hybrid off May River Road. The eggs, fried shrimp, and stone-ground grits will prime you for a day of exploring. Before leaving, snap a photo in front of “the world’s largest boiled peanut,” a twenty-two-foot legume Cahill’s bought from I-95 roadside attraction South of the Border back in 2013. Of course, when it comes to getting fresh catch on the table, it helps that Bluffton Oyster Company calls these parts home. Run by the Toomer family since 1899, it’s a reminder of Bluffton’s once-thriving oyster industry—into the 1930s, the hamlet was home to five different gathering operations. Now, Bluffton Oyster Company is not just the last hand-shucking oyster house in town; it’s the only in the state. It’s built on the legacy of those who came before—literally: Today’s building sits on reclaimed land formed by two hundred years of shucking operations dropping shells into the May River. At any given time, its market is stocked with the day’s catch and a no-frills restaurant nearby piles plates high with peel-and-eat shrimp.
There’s also May River Oyster Co., a farming operation that supplies bivalves to regional restaurants, among them FARM on Bluffton’s main road. At lunch, chef Brandon Carter breathes new life into the meat-and-three with sides like fried beets with ras el hanout and chimichurri; dinner brings a menu of small plates made for sharing (those fresh oysters just may be roasted in vinegar barbecue sauce and butter and served with garlic toast for dipping). You could also snag a seat at a fire pit outside Old Town Dispensary. It’s a favorite for live music, gussied-up burgers, and local brews, like the IPA from River Dog Brewing over in Ridgeland. In nearby Hilton Head Island, Clayton Rollison cooks up modern coastal comfort food at Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar (like a trinity of blackened catfish, fried oysters, and grilled shrimp served over red rice). A more casual outpost, Lucky Rooster Market Street opened in May with the chef’s take on street food.
Ask the locals about their favorites and you’ll get the scoop on some stellar gems located just off the beaten path. There’s the Honduran Baleada Express with its papusas and pastelitos. Soul-warming bowls of pho and bánh xèo await at Saigon Cafe, while Hilton Head’s Thai Smile Cuisine doesn’t hold back on the fish sauce and spice. Go for the jungle curry.
On your visit, a casual amble around Old Town Bluffton is in order. (Or, you could opt for a guided tour of the historic district via Bluffton Bike Taxi, which are peddled by storytelling- minded locals.) A few starters: the Heyward House, one of ten remaining antebellum homes that’s been converted into a museum and welcome center, and the Garvin-Garvey House, built around 1870 by freedman Cyrus Garvin. It’s thought to be located on the land of his former owner, whose home burned during a Union attack on Bluffton in June 1863. Garvin ultimately bought the fifty-four acre lot for $239.70 in 1878. Perched atop a bluff overlooking the May River, the circa-1857 carpenter gothic Church of the Cross, with its longleaf pine exterior, appears almost a natural feature of the moss-draped landscape. The structure survived the Civil War; even its original bell made it through unscathed, reportedly stolen by local townsmen who buried it on the property for safekeeping and later returned it to the church steps during service. Stop in and buy a bottle of holy honey, a tradition that dates to the 1990s when forty-eight colonies of honeybees were found living in the church’s northern wall. After the bees were removed by a local beekeeper, their honey was collected from the walls and sold as a fundraiser for the church.
Winter can get chilly in these parts. For a warmer, stop into family-owned coffee house Corner Perk (the pour-over is a sure bet) then head next door to the Roost Host & Home, a stylish shop with embroidered napkins, delicate glassware, and sundries to feather your nest. Just down Calhoun Street, the Farmers Market of Bluffton sets up on Thursdays year-round. Eager to get out on the water? Look into Outside Palmetto Bluff for kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals; May River Excursions for guided boat tours; and Hilton Head’s Southern Drawl Outfitters for fishing charters.
Just south of Old Town Bluffton, Palmetto Bluff sets the standard for Lowcountry luxury. The twenty- thousand-acre community has it all: accommodations at the Montage Palmetto Bluff, several restaurants, sporting clays and golf courses, equestrian trails, a spa, and private homes. But perhaps most notable is its dedication to the land: More than half of the property is designated as conservation or preservation, and thus is off- limits to development. A stay at the grand inn or one of its charming cottages brings access to an abundance of activities and food options. After a sunrise kayak on the May, refuel with a trip to the biscuit bar at Buffalo’s. On the golf course? Keep an eye out on the 6th and 13th holes for comfort stations stocked with hard-boiled eggs and hot sauce, a combo that dates to the course’s first golf pro. For dinner, head to the casual Cole’s for blue crab-topped fried green tomatoes and crispy chicken by the bucket. Or, get a table at the more refined, cocktail-forward Octagon off the inn’s lobby. Any meal here should begin with a glass of Chatham Artillery Punch and a dozen May River oysters—the kitchen can easily go through ten thousand on a holiday weekend.