For far too long, popular destinations like Savannah, Charleston and Atlanta have overshadowed their smaller Southern counterparts that are sometimes just an hour’s drive away. Not anymore. Now that word is getting out about the charm and culture of these under-the-radar cities, they’re slowly but surely becoming places to stay rather than towns to pass through. Consider adding these four gems to your next Southern sojourn.
Bluffton, South Carolina
Located just eight miles from Hilton Head, South Carolina, this sleepy town oozes Southern charm and ambience. Though the historic downtown district is quite small, with just a few blocks of Calhoun Street serving as home base for a handful of art venues such as The Filling Station Art Gallery and Maye River Gallery, it’s worth stopping in for a visit to The Cottage Café, Bakery & Tea Room. On weekend nights, it’s difficult to score a table here — entrées like the savory crab and shrimp “gumbolaya” are the reasons why — so plan to arrive early or call ahead. The real draw of Bluffton, though, is the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel that has 50 elegantly appointed guest cottages and suites. Tucked away on 20,000 acres of mostly untouched wilderness, the large, circa-1800s white manse is the centerpiece of the small town, and boasts cobblestone drives, towering oaks strewn with Spanish moss, and views of the breathtaking Intracoastal Waterway. Later this year, the Inn will host Music to Your Mouth, a culinary extravaganza set for November 19-24 that will feature more than 75 of the brightest local and regional chefs, brewers, winemakers and more.
Highlands, North Carolina
Your car will ascend switchback after switchback to reach the small town of Highlands, but the commute is well worth the effort. Long overshadowed by its nearby neighbor Asheville, this western North Carolina mountain town is chock-full of excellent dining and shopping, and even a bit of nightlife. The highlight of a trip to Highlands is a night at Old Edwards Inn and Spa. The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel recently unveiled Falls Cottage, which boasts 22 guest suites in addition to the existing 68, many of which are elegantly appointed with Molton Brown products, heated bathroom floors and Waterworks fixtures. In addition to a Four-Star spa and a renowned restaurant, Madison’s, Old Edwards also beckons visitors with The Rooftop Terrace bar atop the main building. Antique lovers, be sure to visit Scudder’s Galleries, a live auction house selling everything from vintage jewelry to nineteenth-century French and English antiques. For home décor and upscale women’s attire, Acorns Boutique and Acorns on Church are not to be missed. Both feature fine European and American antiques, as well as pieces from Juliska, Jan Barboglio and William Yeoward Crystal. The boutique offers jewelry collections from Elizabeth Locke, Steven Vaubel, and Slane and Slane.
Pinehurst, North Carolina
This quaint town, located in the foothills region of North Carolina (about 90 minutes from Raleigh-Durham), will take center stage in 2014 when Pinehurst Resort hosts the men’s and women’s U.S. Open golf championships. The town’s namesake resort is the main attraction here, with guests visiting to experience a luxurious night at The Carolina Hotel at Pinehurst Resort, a grand, white mansion with traditional décor and Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star status; world-class dining at The 1895 Grille; and soothing treatments at the Four-Star Spa at Pinehurst. And, no trip to Pinehurst would be complete without teeing off on the resort’s famed No. 2 course. Off property, though, the city center is full of shopping, cafes, bars and restaurants just a walk (or bike ride) away through cozy neighborhoods of Nantucket-style homes with white picket fences. A visit to Green Gate Olive Oils is a must. The comfy tasting room allows you to sample more than 40 olive oils (try the garlic-infused or black truffle varieties) and flavored and balsamic vinegars on tap. For the men, check out Gentlemen’s Corner, which stocks golf and casual attire and shoes by Peter Millar as well as Robert Talbott neckwear.
Serenbe looks like it’s straight out of a movie: Long, meandering dirt roads lined with split-rail fences, horse barns and green pastures. The setting of this idyllic 1,000-acre community, located 30 minutes from Atlanta, is just one of the reasons why Southerners make it a point to ditch the city and relax here. The other reason? The food. Designed as a model of sustainability, Serenbe has devoted 30 acres to farming — Serenbe Farms is certified organic and biodynamic with a thriving CSA program and Saturday markets, and its products are utilized in the menus at nationally acclaimed The Farmhouse at Serenbe and The Hil on The Hill, owned by executive chef Hilary White. Throughout the summer, Marie Nygren, proprietress of The Farmhouse, hosts the Southern Chefs Series, a two-day cooking class in her personal kitchen with some of the South’s top chefs (past guest chefs have included Anne Quatrano of Atlanta’s Four-Star Bacchanalia and Forbes Travel Guide Tastemaker Sean Brock of Husk). The downtown of this rural town keeps travelers busy, too, with galleries, gift shops, yoga studios and the Serenbe Playhouse lining its streets. Overnight guests shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to stay at the Inn at Serenbe. The restored circa-1905 farmhouse — which was once home to the Nygren family, who established Serenbe — features 40 guest rooms. Guests are treated to afternoon tea, sweets at bedtime and a full country breakfast in the morning.
Photos courtesy of Palmetto Bluff