While its outskirts (so-called “Greater Bluffton”) are now a haven for new planned communities hoping to mimic some aspect of Bluffton ’s historic patina, the town center itself remains an authentic and charmingly retro look at old South Carolina. Retro cuts both ways, however, and Bluffton has been a notorious speed trap for generations. Always obey the speed limit.
When General Sherman came through, he repaid the favor of those original Bluffton secessionists, which is why only nine homes in Bluffton are of antebellum vintage; the rest his troops torched. One of the survivors is the Heyward House Historic Center (70 Boundary St., 843/757-6293, www.heywardhouse.org , Mon.–Fri. 10 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., $5 adults, $2 students), which is not only open to tours but serves as Bluffton’s visitors center.
Built in 1840 as a summer home for the owner of Moreland Plantation, John Cole, the house was later owned by George Cuthbert Heyward, grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Heyward. (Remarkably, it stayed in the family until the 1990s.) Of note are the intact slave quarters on the grounds.
The center of tourist activity focuses on the Old Bluffton Historic District, several blocks of 1800s buildings clustered between the parallel Boundary and Calhoun Streets (old-timers sometimes call this the “original square mile”). Many of the buildings are private residences, but most have been converted into art studios and antiques stores.
The wares feature a whimsical, folk art quality very much in tune with Bluffton ’s whole Southern Shangri-la feel. While the artists and shopkeepers are serious about their work, they make a point to warmly invite everyone in, even when they’re busy at work on the latest project.
Whatever you do, don’t fail to go all the way to the end of Calhoun Street as it dead-ends on a high bluff on the May River at the Bluffton Public Dock. Overlooking this peaceful marsh-front vista is the sublimely photogenic Church of the Cross (110 Calhoun St., 843/757-2661, www.thechurchofthecross.net , tours Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–2 p.m.). Though the current sanctuary was built in 1854 and is one of only two local churches not burned in the Civil War, the parish itself began in 1767, with the first services on this spot held in the late 1830s.
Standing here on the bluff, with the steady south breeze blowing the bugs away and relieving you of the Lowcountry heat, you can see why affluent South Carolinians began building summer homes here in the 1800s.
You might want to get a gander at the state’s last remaining working oyster house, the Bluffton Oyster Company (63 Wharf St., 843/757-4010, Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m.), while you still can. The adjoining five acres were recently purchased by the Beaufort County Open Land Trust with the intention of evolving the area into a community greenspace celebrating a key aspect of local heritage, the celebrated May River oyster. Meanwhile Larry and Tina Toomer continue to oversee the oyster harvesting-and-shucking family enterprise, which has roots going back to the early 1900s.
While the oysters are growing scarce on the May River, get a close-up look at an interesting state-funded seafood farm on the Colleton River estuary, the Waddell Mariculture Center (Sawmill Creek Rd., 843/837-3795). Free tours are available Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. Shrimp, fish, and shellfish are some of the “product” raised and harvested here. Get to Waddell by taking U.S. 278 east out of Bluffton  and then taking a left on Sawmill Creek Road.