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
Saturday 29 August 2009
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.
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.
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).
South Carolina Tourism: 001 803 734 1700; discoversouthcarolina.com
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