En route from our cottage to the pool in a golf cart escort one summer afternoon at Montage Palmetto Bluff, our driver enthralled us with a story. A giant alligator who lived in the waters on property was once relocated to 100 miles upstream to Charleston, South Carolina, only to reappear in his original home a few weeks later, much to everyone’s surprise.
Truth or folklore, we’ll never know. One thing’s for certain, though: as the alligator understood, once you’ve experienced the magic of this Low Country destination, you’re sure to return, again and again.
Montage Palmetto Bluff is a five-star resort tucked inside the 20,000-acre Palmetto Bluff development halfway between Hilton Head and Savannah, Georgia, along the May River. The gorgeous South Carolina setting (it’s where Hailey and Justin Bieber tied the knot in 2019) and accessible location make it an irresistible destination, an easy two-hour drive from Charleston or 45 minutes from Savannah.
My best friend Mary and I headed here for our annual girl’s trip, renting a shiny BMW convertible through car-sharing marketplace Turo. Our bold car selection proved the perfect vehicle for the setting, the Low Country breeze whipping our hair and prepping us for a carefree weekend as we drove the 5-mile, tree-lined entrance road to the Montage’s grand entrance.
The property first opened as a Montage in 2004, yet its roots trace back centuries. Generations of Native Americans harvested oysters and fished in the rivers here, as evidenced by shells, bones and fragments of pots discovered here by archaeologists. In the early 1900s, wealthy New York banker R.T. Wilson, Jr. built the first hotel on property, the 72-room Palmetto Lodge. He hosted many Great Gatsby-esque parties there for his friends before the hotel sadly burned in 1926. Ruins of the lodge are still intact, a unique juxtaposition of historic and modern—a mix that also carries through in Montage Palmetto Bluff’s outstanding culinary program.
If you’re staying at a secluded resort, it’s easy to tire of the food options. Not so at Montage, which has three different restaurants on property, each serving cuisine offering a true taste of place. The signature restaurant, River House, reopened in May after a complete reimagining, led by Chef de Cuisine Daniel Vesey. When Mary and I dined there on a Tuesday night, the elegant space—with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the May River and moss-draped oak trees—soon became packed with hotel guests, Palmetto Bluff residents and visitors, too (it’s the only restaurant that welcomes outside reservations). The experience and menu are both a celebration of the Low Country, emphasizing the connection between table, land and ocean.
“We’re a steak and seafood house, but extremely elevated,” says Vesey. He works with nearby farmers to source ingredients like chicken from Joyce Farms in North Carolina (utilizing the entire bird and making stock from the bones) and Anson Mills grits from Columbia, S.C., along with produce like chili peppers and herbs from their own burgeoning garden on property. In pursuit of the best-tasting products, he doesn’t shy away from outsourcing what’s in season around the world, though: think Morel mushrooms and cherries from Washington state, halibut from Alaska and wagyu beef from Japan.
The River House menu features many reinterpretations of steakhouse classics, often with an Asian spin, like the Rohan duck leg appetizer. Vesey first flavors the meat with housemade five-spice confit, then glazes it with local honey and serves it with orange segments over a bed of tatsoi greens. Even where Vesey could go with premade ingredients, he goes the extra mile to make it himself: for instance, making smoked maple syrup in house (which he uses to top sous-vide sweet potatoes) or ramp butter (brushed onto grilled shrimp).
Chef Vesey doesn’t take credit for the entire meal experience at River House. Executive pastry chef Melissa Logan bakes some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted, served to every guest as soon as they sit down. The night Mary and I dined, the flavor was peach brioche—a hot-from-the-oven, pillowy soft concoction topped with huge flakes of sea salt and served with butter molded into the shape of a beehive.
Despite loading up on bread, Sansanian caviar on lemon zest-dusted blini, seared tuna, shrimp and plenty of sides throughout our several-hour meal, we still saved room for dessert. Our baked-to-order chocolate cake (filled with the Montage’s signature bourbon milk jam) took longer than usual to arrive, so our server kindly brought us two more: S’mores baked Alaska, lit on fire tableside, and the lightest strawberry cheesecake, topped with hibiscus rhubarb sorbet (my favorite). Thankful for the loose-fitting dresses we’d worn that night, we skipped making a fourth dessert in the large firepits after dinner but sat around the fire enjoying the evening and watching another group of female friends making s’mores together, a free nightly activity open to all guests.
Luckily, Montage offers plenty of outdoor adventures to work up an appetite again, meaning you can bookend every activity with delicious food. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Octagon in the main inn serves up healthy fare like avocado tartine with toasted benne seed (a Low Country staple), blackened salmon or oyster mushroom Hoppin’ John, a local specialty made with black-eyed peas, Carolina gold rice and smoked tomatoes. If you visit for dinner, grab a spot on the deck overlooking the water, a prime spot to enjoy oysters or shrimp and grits.
Fore & Aft, located along the edge of the lagoon and adjacent the pool, was our favorite spot for lunch. Friendly servers in hip floral trucker hats (which they also sell to guests) became our best friends, delivering trays of addicting mango-habanero salsa, tacos and Instagram-worthy hibiscus bowls with pineapple and jicama. Mid-afternoon, we’d don cover-ups and venture into the inn’s lobby for “porching,” a traditional afternoon break of lemonade, sweet tea and fresh-baked cookies that I was tempted to continue at home after our stay.
Shortly after Mary and I visited, Montage’s first dedicated coffee shop, Buzz, opened on property, a much-needed spot to grab an iced coffee and pastry on your way out to explore the miles of biking trails around Palmetto Bluff. But we did get a sneak peek of Hush, the first speakeasy for the entire Montage brand, which officially opened early this summer. Located behind a secret entrance beneath River House, it’s open late and serves as a cozy spot to enjoy old-school cocktails pre- or post-dinner.
Beverage director Bob Smith says that in this space, they’re focused on drinks heavy on flavor and alcohol, carefully handcrafted using spirits from around the world. The booze-forward Casino Royale, a shaken concoction of Hayman’s London dry gin, Polish Wodka Vodka and Italian Contratto Bianco vermouth, was a supremely sippable favorite—unexpected for a pair who usually lean toward Champagne cocktails.
Speaking of Champagne, anyone who loves bubbles will enjoy the Veuve Clicquot Picnic + Pedal experience, which Mary and I booked one afternoon. Riding two Veuve-branded bikes loaded down with picnic baskets proved wobbly, so we didn’t pedal far before stopping to lay out our blankets, pour a drink and dive into our Southern Parisian curated picnic, which included a variety of meats, cheeses, fruits and macarons for dessert. It was easy to feel entirely carefree, relaxing beneath an oak tree on the cool grass overlooking the May River.
Three nights at Montage Palmetto Bluff proved the perfect girls’ weekend, and as Mary and I drove away in our convertible our last morning, we were already discussing plans for our return. We experienced first-hand the legend of that old alligator, the boomerang pull of this special place imprinted upon us.