It used to be just a place you passed on your way to Hilton Head Island. Today, Bluffton is a destination in its own right, luring visitors who want to experience the tidewater town's famed "state of mind" and dine at its many foodie-favored restaurants.
Quirky by nature, casual by design, Bluffton is a friendly, let-your-hair-down kind of community that prides itself on being different. The historic section of the village known as Old Town Bluffton is just a short drive over the bridge from Hilton Head Island, making it easily accessible whether you want to get away for the day or just an afternoon of fun.
Here are five Bluffton must-dos and some awesome eateries to go with them:
Historic Walking Tour
To get the backstory on Bluffton and how it became the artsy and eccentric riverside retreat it is today, start your visit at The Heyward House in Old Bluffton. Built by slaves in 1841, the Carolina farmhouse serves as a museum and the town's official welcome center. Pick up a walking map of the one-square-mile National Historic District, featuring some of Bluffton's most prominent historical sites, among them the architecturally distinct Church of the Cross. After your tour, grab a bite at the Squat ‘N' Gobble, a Bluffton institution befitting the town's unconventional reputation. If you prefer farm-to-table fare, try FARM. It gets rave reviews from foodies with a more sophisticated palate.
Calhoun Street Arts District
Bluffton's free-spirited reputation has attracted an eclectic group of maverick artists and craftsmen, laying the ground for the highly successful arts district on Calhoun Street. You'll want to check out Pluff Mud Art, the Maye River Gallery and the Filling Station Art Gallery among others. Just around the corner on Church Street is Preston Studio where potter Jacob Preston can be found most days sitting at his wheel creating his signature glazed bowls. Tucked among the galleries are several fun gift and antique shops, including The Store housed in an old mercantile built in 1904. When you're ready for lunch, walk down to The Cottage Café, housed in a home built in 1868. Renowned for its scrumptious brunch and desserts, this charming restaurant offers dining on the porch and in the garden.
Bluffton Oyster Company
The last remaining hand-shucking house in the state, the family-run Bluffton Oyster Company is worth a visit just to stand on ground created by the discarded shells of oysters shucked over the last 200 years. In the heyday of Bluffton's oyster business, the town boasted five different oyster gathering operations. Among them was the Bluffton Oyster Company, opened in 1899 at the end of Wharf Street on the banks of the May River. They're still selling fresh-from-the-trawler seafood, from oysters, clams and mussels to shrimp, scallops and blue crabs, harvested from the river, Port Royal Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Visit the nearby Bluffton Oyster Co.'s Family Seafood House to enjoy the catch of the day.
Cruise the May River on a restored 60-foot antique motor yacht and experience the luxurious lifestyle of Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton's premier residential community. One of the last remaining pre-World War I gas-powered yachts, Grace is docked at the award-winning Inn at Palmetto Bluff. As you drive to the Montage-managed resort, enjoy the stunning Lowcountry landscape that makes this 20,000-acre retreat one of the most distinctive in South Carolina. After your relaxing cruise, have lunch at Buffalo's on the Village Green overlooking the May River.
Bluffton also lays claim to the area's largest shopping center. Actually, it's two outdoor malls located a mile apart. The collection of more than 90 stores includes top designer brands like Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5TH, Michael Kors, Kate Spade New York, Tommy Bahama, Lucky Brand Jeans, The North Face and Under Armour. It's easy to spend a day browsing through the assortment of shops offering everything from apparel, jewelry and accessories to housewares, home furnishings and specialty items. You'll find several dining options in both the centers, or you could drive across Fording Island Road and indulge in one of the exquisite dishes at Claude & Uli's Bistro, featuring the inspired culinary creations of Chef Claude Melchiorri, who spent his career in the kitchens of top-rated restaurants like Maxim's in Paris and the Connaught in London.