Five Fotos (Vol 2.): Bluffton, S.C.

Wherein I attempt to capture a destination in five photographs

My introduction to Bluffton, South Carolina, was a car wreck in a traffic circle. It was my fault. I pulled into a red pickup truck while frantically changing lanes in the two-lane traffic circle. Thankfully, the guy in the red pickup was happy to shake hands and not get the cops involved after surveying the scuffs but no real damage to our vehicles other than all the red marks on my car. 

The next thing I noticed about Bluffton was the thing that got me into the accident: the traffic. A constant stream of cars led into the Old Town district. The owner of the inn I was staying at in the heart of Old Town texted me to say that traffic was worse than usual that day and told me where to park behind the building. It was a big help to pull in with my scuffed-up car, park next to my room and not worry about anything else to do with driving. From the Old Town Bluffton Inn, I could walk anywhere I wanted or needed to be for the duration of my stay. While walking I noticed the traffic wasn't a problem anywhere else in Old Town except on the main drag. Once you leave the traffic stream, it's an idyllic pedestrian-friendly village shaded by old-growth trees laden with Spanish moss and best explored on foot or by bike. 

I'd heard about Bluffton for many years and had been to Hilton Head Island next door a couple of times before, but this was my first time in this historic hamlet on the May River. It has a different, sleepier Lowcountry vibe than its big beach resort neighbor. A friend who grew up on Hilton Head Island told me that when he was a kid Bluffton was a speed trap with little to see or do for all the tourists heading to the beach. These days, that's all changed and it's hard to imagine anyone speeding due to the constant slow crawl of traffic snaking through the town's main artery during the daylight hours.

Here are five photographs from my short stay in Bluffton. 

  • Church of the Cross

Constructed in 1857, the Church of the Cross is the only thing I knew about Bluffton before visiting—I had seen so many pictures of it in magazines and on social media. It's an iconic structure in town. I'm currently reading a book set in the region published in 1972 called “The Water is Wide” by the late Pat Conroy. Here's how Conroy describes the church and Bluffton on page 69 of the book: “Bluffton perched above the winding, tide-ruled May River, egrets fished its shores and fleets of long bateaux explored the blind inlets and creeks in search of productive oyster beds. Bluffton is a town of matchless serenity, a town thick with glinting, towering magnolias, impressive oaks, sloughs glutted with wildflowers, peeling but remarkably attractive houses. A church built from cypress stands beside the river; a structure of elegant simplicity and fine lines built by slaves …” 

I'll admit, I had to look up the word bateaux. It's the plural of bateau, a small, elongated flat-bottomed boat used on creeks and rivers in North America long ago.

  • The May River

The quintessential waterside view in Bluffton—long residential piers on the winding May River stretching out to a covered section, then a gangway-style ramp connected to a floating dock that rises and falls with the tides. I took this from the bluff in the courtyard of the Church of the Cross. To the left out of the frame is the Calhoun Street Public Dock. The dock is connected to Wright Family Park. Be sure to walk down from the bluff to the water at low tide to see the throngs of tiny fiddler crabs scurrying in all directions away from the stomp of your feet on the sands. 

  • Calhoun Street

This isn't an outlier building on Calhoun Street, more an indicator of its typical architecture. The “peeling but remarkably attractive houses” that Pat Conroy wrote about in 1972 are still there, only now they are art galleries, cafes, boutiques, private homes with historic markers out front, and more art galleries. One of the more well-known galleries, Le Petite Gallerie, features works by six local artists and a courtyard garden embued with more artsiness.  

  • Burnt Church Distillery

At a tasting and tour of Burnt Church Distillery led by owners/brothers Billy and Sean Watterson, I discovered that non-alcoholic spirits don't suck. Seriously. I had avoided fake liquor since I heard about it a few years ago. After trying their Amethyst blends of distilled fruits and botanicals, I was sold. One of the brothers told me that they've seen people get fake drunk on them. My favorite was the lemon-cucumber-serrano blend, which is odd because normally I can't stand anything with cucumber in it. The lemon and serrano helped it go down and left a nice little kick in the back of the throat afterward. 

Of course, the distillery has plenty of alcoholic spirits (seen in the background here), but I found myself reaching for the non-alcoholic blends as much as the true-spirited ones.

  • Old Town Bluffton Inn

It looks like it might be a restored period building, but the Old Town Bluffton Inn was built from the ground up in 2016. It's owned by Vince Harrison, the guy who texted me where to park when the traffic into town was bad, and his wife Danielle. This 14-room inn gets so many things right. Even the walk-in showers have controls at the walk-in point, not underneath the shower head, so you don't have to run to escape the spray before it warms up. It's the little things that make a place stand out and the inn has a lot of nice touches in this regard, from the 24-7 lobby pantry where guests can help themselves to complimentary specialty coffee, snacks and other homemade goodies at any time, to the premium pillow-top mattresses and plush towels in the rooms. More than a dozen non-chain restaurants are within walking distance of the inn, including FARM next door, a local hotspot for elevated Southern fare with long wooden tables providing a wide open view of the chefs at work in the kitchen. 

— Blake Guthrie