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Palmetto Bluff is not only one of the United States’ most celebrated resorts, it’s also a unique nature preserve.

Located just to the north of Savannah, Georgia, Palmetto Bluff is a conservationist haven—a rare and fascinating gem of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the southeastern corner of the state famous for its mazelike waterways under big, blue skies. The 20,000-acre bluff, shaded by century-old live oaks, includes 32 miles of riverfront and marsh coastline, bordered by the winding May, Cooper, and New rivers. Balancing the desire to preserve this unique part of the eastern seaboard with the demands for development is a unique challenge—one entrusted to the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to maintaining the area’s ecological diversity.

As the Conservancy’s director, Jay Walea is entrusted with leading the organization’s vital work. Few people are better suited to the task: Walea spent his youth exploring the Bluff’s forests. After years of observing its birds, deer, and other species, he now brings a unique passion to the research initiatives of the Conservancy. Among its activities are monitoring the alligator, turtle, white-tailed deer, and bluebird populations. Each evening, screech owls emerge and fly above the Bluff in search of prey. The birds rely on other species, such as woodpeckers and squirrels, to create their nests, which are then naturally enlarged by decay. Monitoring these nesting sites and ensuring the health of the screech owl population is one of Walea’s principal tasks. By day, majestic bald eagles circle the skies, and tracking them is also at the heart of the Conservancy’s work. In everything they do, Walea and the Conservancy embrace the goal of attempting to leave the earth better than they found it and encouraging that same ethos in the guests who visit Palmetto Bluff.

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While Walea is entrusted with safeguarding the area’s environment and wildlife, Dr. Mary Socci, Palmetto Bluff’s on-site archaeologist, is the guardian of its long history. The oldest human artifacts found here, including early stone arrowheads, are estimated to have been created around 12,000 BCE. This makes the Bluff among the longest-inhabited regions of North America, and the descendants of those earliest inhabitants—the Eastern Siouan—would eventually greet planters who established indigo and rice farms in the 17th and 18th centuries. The History Center at Palmetto Bluff provides visitors with an introduction to the peoples who have called this part of South Carolina their home, with a historic timeline wall, maps, and miniature exhibits. The Conservancy Reading Room in Moreland Village also has a rotating display of history exhibits. (Both the Center and the Reading Room are free and open to the public.

Located throughout the 20,000-acre property, the houses of Palmetto Bluff have been designed to embody both the area’s natural beauty and its long history. Just as the thousands of acres of land protected by the Conservancy shelter a diversity of birds and other animals, the elegant resort properties are homes, even if only briefly, for human visitors who want to explore this magical part of South Carolina.