There's nothing finer than golf in Carolina...

Vultures, alligators and snakes are par for the course on Palmetto Bluff's fairways, says Brian Viner

To a golfer, it is painful to declare a ball unplayable when it is perched within easy reach on a lush carpet of grass. But that is what I had to do on the par-4 third hole at the May River Golf Club. This is part of the vast, 32-square-mile Palmetto Bluff resort in the coastal wetlands of South Carolina, tucked just north of the Georgia state line – not far from the fine city of Savannah. The problem was that my ball was encircled by five baby alligators, not one of whom looked as if he, or she, wanted me to step among them waving my pitching wedge, while considering my approach to the green.

I weighed up my options, though, once my playing partner, Kevin, assured me that they wouldn't hurt me. But then came the clincher. "There's Momma, right there," said Kevin, gesturing towards a pair of baleful eyes just breaking the surface of the lagoon, a few yards away.

Momma promptly gave a little irritable swish of her tail, which seemed an alarming distance – I estimated about half the length of a cricket pitch – from her eyes. I decided there and then that I'd be happy to move on to the next hole with a double bogey six on my scorecard, if not a seven, and all limbs intact.

Golf at May River bears little resemblance to my usual hack-about in a few fields converted by an enterprising farmer in Herefordshire. On the 10th, as I ventured off the fairway in search of my ball, Kevin cheerfully advised me to mind my step on account of the black racers, which I took (not inaccurately) to be venomous snakes.

By the time I played the par-5 15th, I had learned that accuracy off the tee was not only good for the card but also recommended for the health. Overhead, as I sized up my second shot from the middle of the fairway, a turkey vulture glided, either admiring my swing or looking for prey. David Attenborough could have had just as good a time as Tiger Woods out there.

The course, I should add, is superb. It was designed by one of the game's giants, Jack Nicklaus, who did a fine job of sensitively integrating the spectacular features of one of the great wetland wildernesses of the southern United States.

There are those who hold that a wilderness is no longer a wilderness once there are 18 flagsticks stuck in it, but I take the view that golf allows more people to enjoy some of the most wonderful scenery, disheartening though it can be to see a fellow swearing his head off in a verdant Scottish glen or atop a Pacific-kissed Californian cliff.

The May River course meanders through loblolly pines, palmetto trees and live oaks dripping so copiously with Spanish moss that there were times when it felt less like a round of golf than Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And yet civilisation in the form of a bacon-wrapped hot dog was never more than a phone call away: at the furthest point of the course there is a courtesy phone where you can place a food order, which is then delivered to you at the 15th green by a smiley man in an electric cart, just to stop you expiring with hunger before you reach the clubhouse. God bless America!

Later that day I took a sunset cruise on the Grace, the resort's 96-year-old, 60ft gas-powered motor yacht, which was skippered by an engaging old sea dog called George. Actually, George turned out to be not an old sea dog but a former window salesman from New Hampshire, albeit with a lifelong passion for sailing. He had settled with his wife in the nearby Sun City retirement village, home to 12,000 folk over 55, with three golf courses and 120 clubs to occupy their time.

That might sound like a form of purgatory to some, but in his part-time job at the wheel of the Grace, George seemed like the most contented man alive. And he duly made a splendid guide, commentating with infectious enthusiasm as we chugged along the resort's nine miles of river frontage looking out for great egrets, snowy egrets, green egrets, cow egrets and possibly other varieties of egret that I couldn't record because I ran out of paper.

We were also advised to keep our eyes peeled for wild turkeys, wild boar, Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins, bald eagles, ospreys and great blue herons. "There's a whole lot of nature out here," said George, and he wasn't kidding.

The following day we communed even more closely with nature, in one-man kayaks led by a decidedly dishy 22-year-old called Michael Smith, who has been fishing, swimming and kayaking the May River and its tributaries since toddlerhood. In truth, Michael Smith seemed like a rather disappointing name for a young man who should have been called Trapper or Hawk, but four centuries or so ago the Native American princess Pocahontas took John Smith under her wing, so maybe Michael is a descendant. Either way, I felt sure that had my teenage daughter been with me, she would have demanded private kayaking lessons twice daily.

Michael took us along the creeks between the reeds of the seemingly endless saltwater marshes, sending alarmed sandpipers skywards. As we paddled we could see cargo ships heading up the Savannah River 12 miles away, as well as the distant condominiums of Hilton Head Island. Yet there was a powerful and reassuring sense of being in the wild. Not so long ago, however, this region was a sight more wild. The nearby town of Bluffton was home to only 750 people a decade ago; 12,000 today. And much to Michael's dismay, there are no restrictions on boats, with the inevitable consequences of too many people and too much pollution.

The May River is itself a tributary of Calibogue Sound which in turn leads to the Atlantic Ocean. Because these wetlands comprise the most westerly point on the country's Atlantic coast, so they get the biggest tides, sometimes as high as 11ft. As a result, the fishing is still bountiful, with flounder, bass and sea trout aplenty, although the real regional speciality is the oyster.

In fact, Bluffton has the last oyster-shucking factory on the east coast. We paddled past river banks that were black with oysters, while Michael told us dolefully about the hundreds of slaves who drowned while harvesting them because they were never taught to swim.

Slavery looms large in the engrossing story of Palmetto Bluff. Once the home of the Yemassee and Altamaha tribes, drawn by the marvellous hunting and fishing, it was later settled by the French, the Spanish, then the English. In 1730 it was bought by Admiral George Anson, who as any history student will tell you was big in the War of Jenkins' Ear. He divided the estate into parcels of land, the biggest of which, by the time of the American Civil War, was a cotton plantation. But in 1902 the entire estate was sold to a New York banker, Richard T Wilson, whose sister married Cornelius Vanderbilt III.

Wilson built a huge mansion. Here, his wife Marion entertained on a preposterously lavish scale – at least until March 1926, when the mansion burnt to the ground.

After that, Palmetto was owned by timber, turpentine, cattle-ranching and paper companies, before becoming the resort hotel it is now.

The main house has been rebuilt and guests are accommodated in luxurious so-called cottages dotted around the grounds. Needless to add there is, as well as the golf, fishing, swimming, kayaking, biking and horse-riding, a top-notch spa. After a long day in an all-American wilderness, you need a full body massage.

Getting there

The nearest airport is Savannah. Continental Airlines (0845 607 6760; continental.com/uk ) flies from Heathrow, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester via Newark or Houston from £395 return. Delta (0845 600 0950; delta.com ) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick via Atlanta.

Staying there

The Inn at Palmetto Bluff, 476 Mount Pelia Road, Bluffton, South Carolina (001 843 706 6500; palmettobluffresort.com ). Cottages start at $552 (£368).

Fairfield Inn, 105 Okatie Center Boulevard North, Bluffton (001 843 705 2300; marriott.co.uk ). Doubles from $79 (£53).

More information

South Carolina Tourism: 001 803 734 1700; discoversouthcarolina.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home