At Eggs'n'tricities (71 Calhoun St.; 843/757-3446), yellow and purple is everywhere, as though the papier-mâché fish hanging from the ceiling and the funky furniture needed a more boisterous backdrop. Next door, the Red Stripe Gallery (69 Calhoun St.; 843/757-2318) features pottery and ironwork; you can't miss the motorcycle gang assembled from potbellied stoves, coffee cans, angle irons, and other yard junk. At the Store (56 Calhoun St.; 843/757-3855), Babbie Guscio jokes (we hope) that her job is to "crack the whip" over her stable of painters—Guscio's own mother, daughter, sister, and niece. An expanded area opened last fall displays rotating folk-art selections from dealer Louanne La Roche's collection. Several antiques shops are located along Route 46 (known on this stretch as May River Road): Antiques & the Garden (1263 May River Rd.; 843/757-8046) has outdoor statuary, sago palms, and topiaries of moss; and eight dealers offer toys, books, and furniture at Bluffton Antiques & Gifts (1261 May River Rd.; 843/757-7488).
For lunch, grab a sweet tea and a big old burger at the Squat & Gobble (1231 May River Rd.; 843/757-4242), an archetype of locals' joints the world over. Though the Copper Kitchen (5 Godfrey Place; 843/815-4557) can't match the Squat & Gobble's no-nonsense vibe, it does have good salads and sandwiches.
Before you leave Bluffton, be sure to stop at the end of Calhoun Street to admire the Episcopal Church of the Cross (110 Calhoun St.; 843/757-2661), a handsome wooden building from 1844, overlooking the May River. Die-hard shoppers coveting a Brooks Brothers tie or Coach handbag can always stop at the outlet mall, Hilton Head Factory Stores 1 & 2 (Hwy. 278, one mile from the bridge; 888/746-7333 or 843/837-4339), on the way back to the island.
meet jacob preston
The dean of the town's art community, Jacob Preston calls himself "Bluffton's Tallest Potter." Tall he is, with a bushy beard that made him the perfect model for the Neptune statue at Hilton Head's Shelter Cove Marina. When Preston isn't off sailing, as he is for three or four months starting in January, he'll show you around his studio (10 Church St.; 843/757-3084), recommend bike routes, and tell stories. One tale concerns a local composer who transcribed Gullah spirituals: After a tree fell on his house, the composer closed the door to the damaged room. When the resulting moisture began to make some of his piano keys stick, he simply wrote songs around them.
the beaufort style
After Hilton Head's postwar suburban layout, it's refreshing to hop over to the mainland to this stately old town. Bay Street, Beaufort's thriving main drag, makes for prime strolling, as does the parallel promenade along the Beaufort River. There's antiquing aplenty (a brochure listing the dealers is available at the visitors' center, 1106 Carteret St.; 843/524-3163), and—because the town was occupied by Union troops throughout the Civil War and therefore never attacked—blocks and blocks of antebellum atmosphere. The T-shaped floor plans and double verandas of houses here, in fact, have a nom d'architecture all their own: the Beaufort Style.
Where to Go
St. Helena's Episcopal Church (507 Newcastle St.; 843/522-1712) was built of English brick in 1724 (the balconied interior—closed until summer for renovation—dates to the 19th century). The oldest tombstone in the walled graveyard marks the burial spot of two British officers killed in the Revolutionary War. A tiny Union Jack, left by a British group that conducts an annual memorial service, stands next to the stone. At noon, sunlight filters through a thick canopy of Spanish moss as the church bells toll, and it's downright spooky to be here.
Inside the foreboding iron gates and yellow walls of Beaufort Arsenal is the quirky local attic, the Beaufort Museum (713 Craven St.; 843/525-7077). Another place to introduce yourself to the area's history is the Federal-period John Mark Verdier House (801 Bay St; 843/524-6334), where the Marquis de Lafayette was once entertained. Or you could browse the McIntosh Book Shoppe (917 Bay St.; 843/524-1119), with its wide selection of secondhand titles on South Carolina and a set of 1910 Tom Swift novels. The Longo Gallery (103 Charles St.; 843/522-8933) is filled with ceramic sculptures and expansive abstract canvases; the entrance is marked by two fantastically gnarled thrones made of found objects.
Where to Eat
If you can, stay for dinner—the town has been disproportionately blessed with inventive chefs. Bistro De Jong (205 West St.; 843/524-4994; dinner for two $55), owned by the former chef of the Beaufort Inn (809 Port Republic St.; 843/521-9000; dinner for two $100)—which locals say still lives up to its reputation—is the place to go for sashimi tuna in a spicy peanut-mushroom sauce. Emily's Tapas Bar (906 Port Republic St.; 843/522-1866; dinner for two $50) has slow-baked alligator ribs and peppered ostrich steak. Some find Hemingway's Bistro (920 Bay St.; 843/521-4480; lunch for two $15) cozy, others claustrophobic. A pubby place, it's decorated with bullfight posters and dollar bills stuck to the ceiling. For a midday salad or sandwich, try Caviar Wishes (221 Scott St.; 843/522-8387; lunch for two $12), run by a sushi chef born and reared in Beaufort.
a detour from your day trip
Five minutes from Bluffton, in Port Royal, you'll recognize a scene from Forrest Gump: shrimp boats tied up at 11th Street Dockside (1699 11th St. W.; 843/524-7433; dinner for two $40). If you've been wanting to try frogmore stew, a sort of Low Country bouillabaisse (made by request—it's not on the menu), this is the place. To get there, follow Route 281 south from Beaufort and bear left at the Exxon station, then turn right on 11th Street. Going the opposite direction on Seventh Street will bring you to the Port Royal boardwalk, where you can take in the Intracoastal Waterway from the top of a wooden tower or join the locals crabbing with a chicken neck tied to a piece of string.
for night owls
Before you head out, get used to the idea of bars in shopping centers—on Hilton Head, everything is in a shopping center.
A good place to start is the dockside happy hours at South Beach Marina, in Sea Pines. Go for something frozen and fruity at the Salty Dog Café (843/671-2233), or a plate of peel-and-eat shrimp (15 cents apiece) and a $5 pitcher at South Beach Deli (843/671-4406).
The place for a mini pub crawl is the "Barmuda Triangle," three watering holes in the Hilton Head Plaza shopping center. Say what you will about the cigar-and-martini-bar trend, but you've got to admire the Lodge (843/842-8966). It has antler chandeliers, four pool tables, a walk-in humidor, a full menu of single malts, and two stone fireplaces complete with roaring fires—the air-conditioning is that strong. The island's biggest party warms up around 11 p.m. on Wednesday: Disco Night at Hilton Head Brewing Co. (843/785-2739), universally known as "the brewpub." By midnight, the young crowd is wall-to-wall, an Afro-wigged DJ is deep into his set, and any notion that Hilton Head is just for golfers, families, and retirees has been discoed out the door. Cavorting to the sounds of the seventies usually lasts until three or four. For a quiet barstool and a pint of stout, head across the courtyard to Reilley's (843/842-4414); it seems to be in crisis over whether it's an Irish pub or a sports bar. Whatever. They know how to pour a Guinness.
The island's top spot for music is Blue Nite (4 Target Rd.; 843/842-6683). It was the Blue Note until lawyers for the famous New York City jazz club swooped in. You could be partying with college students just off their shift waiting tables or soccer moms cutting loose on a baby-sitter night—often both at once. Try to be there on Wednesdays, when local diva Shuvette Colvin takes the stage. At Moneypenny's (Palmetto Bay Rd., Village Exchange; 843/785-7878), the atmosphere is that of a snug, dark coffeehouse, and the music is acoustic.
Hungry?Settle into a semicircular booth at the Brick Oven Café (25 Park Plaza; 843/686-2233), pick a wine from a list of nearly 50, and order a wood-fired pizza. Through a connecting door is Monkey Business (25 Park Plaza; 843/686-3545), which, like the very popular Wild Wing Café (72 Pope Ave.; 843/785-9464), pulls in the collegiate (or collegiate-at-heart) crowds looking for a dance floor.
For a thorough lowdown on the nightlife scene, pick up the Posh Rock Rail, a free monthly available at most island nightspots.