To rumble down the two-lane highway into Bluffton, South Carolina, is to take a step back to a slower, sleepier time. In this stretch of the salt-kissed region known as the Lowcountry, Spanish moss cascades from gnarled live oaks, oyster shells crunch underfoot and palmetto trees sway in the breezes off the water. And at its heart, tucked amid more than 20,000 pristine acres, lies the Montage Palmetto Bluff, a decadent yet dignified getaway that presides over the banks of the May River (actually an estuary that winds inland from the sea). Luxurious enough for discerning parents, laid-back enough for kids to romp freely, the Montage blends the traditions of gracious living with the mellow rhythm of life on the coast.
As befits the ways of the South, the roots of this expansive property run deep. Its original patchwork of antebellum plantations gave way to an early 20th-century mansion owned by banker R.T. Wilson, used mostly as a winter retreat and host to scores of opulent parties in its day. The mansion burned in 1926 and was never rebuilt; a few stone steps flanked by ruined columns — which now anchor the part of the Montage known as Wilson Village — are all that remain. A small history museum on the property showcases artifacts and curiosities unearthed during digs led by acclaimed archaeologist Mary Socci, and some of the objects on view date all the way back to prehistoric times.
The museum makes for a quick but rewarding stop as you explore the grounds and get the lay of the land. Given the layers of modern convenience and the technological bells and whistles that dominate today’s hotel scene — even in such a relaxed escape as this one — it’s an all-too-rare treat to find such a tangible connection to the past.
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Accommodations at the Montage run the gamut from king and double-queen guestrooms in the main inn, positioned at the property’s core, to one-bedroom cottages and two-, three- and four-bedroom houses spread over the grounds. We stayed in a spacious Forest View King Suite, with a pullout sofa in the living area, a separate bedroom that closes off, a balcony overlooking the inn’s rear patio and firepit, and two full bathrooms (one with a deep soaking tub, one with a shower only). Handsome furnishings with traditional profiles, richly burnished woods, radiant natural light and a palette of soft blues and creamy yellows underscore the Southern sensibility. The effect is elegant, but not at all stuffy; you feel like a guest in an exceptionally well-appointed private home.
Although the inn offers a limited number of connecting rooms, families who need space to sprawl or multigenerational groups might prefer the standalone structures. Cottages, which sleep up to four, include fireplaces, screened-in porches, wet bars and refrigerators but no cooking facilities — for that, you’ll want to book one of the larger homes in Wilson Village. Two-bedroom units and up come with top-of-the-line kitchens, washers and dryers, and separate living and dining areas. While these houses are individually decorated, they all adhere to the Montage’s standards of quality and impeccable taste.
In all categories, cribs are available on request; the cottages can fit a rollaway if needed.
The Montage includes nearly a dozen restaurants and lounges, each with a regionally appropriate focus. Savor local seafood at the Canoe Club, nibble a light lunch at the poolside Fore & Aft or feast on classic comfort fare at Cole’s in the resort’s brand-new Moreland Village enclave. We ate several times at Buffalo’s, the casual Wilson Village hub for salads, burgers, pizzas and pastas. Everything we sampled was fresh and well prepared, but the real highlight here is the morning biscuit bar. Piping-hot buttermilk beauties keep company with local jams and spreads, breakfast meats, grits, potatoes, eggs and more. Savored on the screened-in patio or outdoor terrace, with the sun glinting off the water nearby, it’s an agreeable start to an action-filled day.
The culinary high point is fine-dining venue Jessamine, which serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch in plush and polished surroundings. No matter the time of day, the cuisine is painstakingly prepared and presented, and even the simplest dishes are exquisite. My breakfast bagel and lox came to the table looking like a work of art.
One of the things that makes the Montage Palmetto Bluff (and indeed, the entire Montage brand) so appealing is the array of little luxuries and special surprises sprinkled throughout a stay. As a family of dog lovers, we couldn’t get enough of the hotel’s canine ambassadors — a quartet of yellow, black and chocolate Labs who enthusiastically greet guests. The pups are on hand in the main lobby for set periods in the morning and afternoon, and you’ll often encounter them riding shotgun with staff in a golf cart or out for a walk. And since the Montage is pet-friendly, they might get the chance to mingle with your own four-legged family members too.
In the late afternoons, guests gather at the venerable River House in Wilson Village for “porching,” a tradition of unwinding and socializing over sweet tea, lemonade and freshly baked cookies. Stroll back to the main inn afterward for the daily Culinary Heirlooms offering — small plates of an iconic Lowcountry dish served outdoors at cocktail hour. One night, we sampled steamed oysters just pulled from the May River; the next, we enjoyed Frogmore stew, the classic medley of shrimp, potatoes, sausage and corn on the cob.
For kids, the hands-down winner is the complimentary evening s’mores outside the River House. A bike-pedaled cart holds all the fixings, including handmade marshmallows in flavors like mocha, vanilla bean and lemon meringue. Toast your own creative combo over the firepit, then devour the gooey goodness as you wander toward the nearby dock to watch the sun slip below the horizon.
Because the Montage is spread out, consider renting a bike onsite — you’ll make good use of it. In addition to pedaling from point to point, it’s fun just to tool around on the bike paths that meander along the waterways and through the woodlands. The property is so self-contained that the setup is ideal for giving older kids a measure of freedom to explore on two wheels.
TIP: Golf cart transfers are available for guests who opt not to bike. Just ask the bell staff, and they’ll happily summon a driver.
The Carolina coast is prime golf and tennis country, and the Jack Nicklaus golf course and Wilson Lawn & Racquet Club are recreation standouts for all ages. Guests might also try their hand at clay target shooting, arrange a horseback trail ride via the nearby equestrian center or take a yoga or Pilates class at the fully equipped fitness center.
Given the Montage’s riverfront location, water sports and activities abound, such as paddleboarding, canoeing, tubing and fishing. We took a guided kayak tour and spent an enjoyable two hours swooshing along the shoreline, with our naturalist instructor pointing out native foliage and wildlife and sharing tidbits of area history. It’s not uncommon to spot dolphins in these waters, though luck was not on our side.
The Montage also has two elegant boats, the restored 1913 yacht Grace and the Hinckley picnic boat Palmetto Bluff. The former is home to weekly wine cruises, sunset cruises and brunch cruises, while chartered excursions and smaller river trips take place on the latter. Don’t miss an outing on one of these grande dames if you can help it — gliding through the gentle currents, with the sun glinting off the waves and the breeze rippling the marsh grasses, is simply magical.
Two multistory tree houses and a variety of green spaces, playgrounds and lawn games dot the grounds, providing ample opportunity for kids to climb, run, crawl and work out wiggles. When it’s time to cool off, the family pool behind the inn (the largest of the three onsite) is the place to be. Curtained cabanas allow little ones to take a break from the sun or a quick nap, and parents might even find a few moments for a dip in the adjacent hot tub.
Five- to 12-year-olds can enjoy a taste of kids-only time at Paintbox kids’ club, which — true to the superb Paintbox programming in all Montage properties — marries a camp-style format and a balance of indoor/outdoor time with immersive activities tailored for the region at hand. Here, that might mean learning music and dances from the local Gullah culture, tasting new Southern foods or making crafts from the native palmettos. While the kids are happily occupied, indulge in a coastal Carolina body wrap or a warm river stone massage at Spa Montage; laze by one of the adults-only pools; or sip a cocktail on the terrace of the clubby Octagon Bar. Pure bliss … and a perfect top note for a relaxing respite at this extraordinary gem.
The Montage Palmetto Bluff is an easy 35-minute car trip from Savannah, Georgia, the closest airport. You can also fly into Jacksonville, Florida, and make the 2 1/2-hour drive north. Although there’s no need for a car at the hotel, you’ll want one if you plan to visit Bluffton, Savannah, Hilton Head or other points nearby.
Editor’s Note: The Montage Palmetto Bluff provided a media package in order for us to review the property for families. As always, all opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Lisa Frederick except where noted.
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