Each April, thousands of fans of professional golf - and a good time in general - find their way to Hilton Head Island, specifically to Sea Pines Resort and its Harbour Town Golf Links, home to South Carolina's lone annual PGA Tour event, the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. They come to enjoy the golf, but also the restaurants, shops, beaches and other attractions that make Hilton Head a prime destination.
Over the past decade, though, more and more are discovering another inviting spot - albeit quite different from the island - just 14 miles, or 25 minutes by car, from Sea Pines. Old Town Bluffton, a community with a rich history and plenty of sights and places to visit, has become a "must-see" stop for those seeking something else on their trip to the SC Lowcountry.
A recent day in Old Town Bluffton - away from golf and crowds - started with breakfast at the Corner Perk (1247 May River Road), a casual coffee shop that serves a variety of morning dishes, from brioche French toast and "create your own" omelets to the quick Egg & Cheese Bagel, plus a wide assortment of coffees. Sue Sparks is in charge - she's a relative of owners Josh and Kali Cooke - and has worked there much of its nine-year existence, five on the current location.
"Josh grew up in Bluffton," she says, "and the bricks (that form the floor of an outdoor dining area) are from his grandfather's property, hand-picked and cleaned, and we laid them ourselves," an example of the small-town, low-key vibe of Old Town Bluffton.
In recent years, Old Town has established its own identity - "It's Bluffton, not Hilton Head," Sparks says - and has found an appetite among island visitors for its unique vibe of small, local shops, art galleries and interesting restaurants, she says. "We're getting a name for ourselves. And the history brings people, too," she says.
You want history? Corner Perk sits at the midway point between Calhoun Street - with its small pottery and gift shops, the Farmers Market (open on Thursdays) and the historic Church of the Cross, which overlooks the May River ("if you haven't seen the river, you haven't been to Bluffton," Sparks says) - and The Promenade, home to a selection of shops and eateries.
Some 26 homes dating to the early 1800s dot Old Town Bluffton, with one - the Heyward House (70 Boundary Street), built in 1840 - serving as a public museum, welcome center and starting point. An easy-to-use phone app leads visitors on a self-guided tour. Access the app here.
An easy 10-minute walk along Calhoun Street - passing a small shop with a sign reading, "Bluffton is a State of Mind" - brings visitors to the Church of the Cross, founded in 1767 and built on its current location in 1854, with its weathered wooden walls, views of the May River and spacious, quiet interior. Outside, a large, rough-hewn cross at river's edge beckons visitors to stop and reflect.
Reverse course back across May River Road and walk The Promenade, lined with restaurants and shops. A block off the main drag, at Garden Gate Nursery (2 State of Mind Street), owner Margie Fox is happy to offer her local "review" of places to eat.
"We have 22 restaurants, so the question is: What do you feel like?" she says. Lunch favorites include Bluffton BBQ, Fat Pattie's, Local Pie, Captain Woody's Seafood Bar, and Calhoun's, which has "a burger to die for," Fox's friend Mary O'Neill says.
For dinner, there's the Bluffton Room for steaks and wine, the May River Grill for local seafood, The Pearl Kitchen & Bar (call 843.757.5511 for reservations), and Corks Wine Company, a wine and tapas place. The Old Town Dispensary offers a menu of pub fare, live music evenings and outdoor seating.
Next door to Fox's spacious nursery, Abode Fine Home Furnishings is a low-key store with everything from furniture by (owner) Anne Hagerty Interiors to clever jewelry. Across the street is the future home of Old Town Golf Cars, which will sell/rent golf carts for easy getting around. But the most interesting last stop is further down Promenade at Midnight Bakers, where owner Roberto Plantadis, a native of Antibes, France, is "controversial" and "a character," locals say.
The genial baker/chef comes across in person as more the latter. "Food creates a dialogue," he says while offering delicious French shortbreads and coffee. "When I came here (in 2010), I wanted to do a simple bakery and kitchen - no wait staff or hostesses - and focus on quality."
Plantadis' made-from-scratch baked goods were an instant hit. "The first day open, I sold everything I made, bingo!" he says. "So I doubled what I bought" at the local Farmers Market, "and sold out again. I thought, this is what people have been waiting for."
He says he left a position in Savannah for the small-town feel of Old Town Bluffton, and is happy he did. "People come in every morning to get their (food)," he says. "It didn't take long for me to be embraced."
Indeed, Old Town Bluffton is just that: a old-fashioned Lowcountry small town that embraces visitors with plenty to see, do and eat. For a relaxing day away from golf on Hilton Head, it's hard to beat.