Story by Anneliza “Pippi” Itkor + Photos courtesy of Outside Brands
The Lowcountry, a region steeped in history and natural beauty, offers an array of hidden gems waiting to be uncovered. Join us as we embark on a journey with local experts and guides who share their intimate knowledge of the area. Through their eyes, we explore secret trails, historic sites and untouched natural wonders that make the Lowcountry a treasure trove of experiences.
Tucked along the May River, Palmetto Bluff is one of those special places that feels miles from anywhere but is actually right next door. Jill Moore, Outside Brands’ lead guide at Palmetto Bluff, conducts hiking, biking and kayaking tours and revels daily in the beauty of the nature paths along the river and throughout the maritime forests that shroud the Bluff. “Winter is the perfect time for nature walks and biking excursions in the Lowcountry. The temperatures are crisp, keeping the bugs away, and the berries on the trees of the understory add a festive feel.”
There are other reasons the cooler temperatures lend a certain magic to an outdoor adventure. While the live oaks, pines and palmettos keep our forests green year-round, the understory goes dormant, making it easier to catch sight of wildlife and birds. “The migrating birds stop over to feast on berries and Spartina seed, adding excitement to winter birdwatching,” Moore said. “We can spot songbirds and stunning cedar waxwings on land, and on the water hooded mergansers, buffleheads, pied-billed grebes and common loons add to our winter variety.” It makes for quite the show.
In the salt marsh the phytoplankton that enriches our tidal waters has ebbed, and we can see to depths that we never can in the warmer months. Being able to spot a dolphin passing under your kayak, or gaze down at the fish darting about in the shallows as you paddle through the high marsh, adds a layer of sightseeing the summer months can’t provide.
Before or after a hike you can grab a warming cup at Buzz Coffee or a hearty bite at Buffalo’s, both in Wilson Landing and adjacent to the trails on the Bluff.
There are detailed illustrated trail maps available at Outside Palmetto Bluff to help you plan your excursion. Strike out on foot, rent a manual bike or an e-bike, or join Moore and let her personally show you why the trails of Palmetto Bluff are her hidden gems. “Leading guided tours with Outside Palmetto Bluff feels more like fun than work. It’s hard to imagine another place in the Lowcountry that can top the trails, views and outdoor opportunities.”
While some think of fishing as spending sun-dappled days with toes dipped in warm water, Capt. John Werner, veteran Outside captain, says winter fishing is the best.
Werner has plied Lowcountry waters as a fishing captain since the early 2000s. Even in his off hours you will find this jovial, ginger-haired local out with fellow anglers, enjoying the bounty of the tidal salt marsh.
“People always ask me, ‘What’s the best season to fish here?’ Werner says with a grin. “There isn’t really a ‘best season.’ There is always something to fish. But when you get to the winter season, and the water gets colder, it is a great thing for us fishermen.”
Area waters boast a healthy population of redfish year-round, but in the cooler months locals head for the grasses for the best inshore fishing. “Up in the grass, in the oysters, redfish will school up for protection and because it’s cold. When you go up in a flat this time of year, when there isn’t a lot growing in the water, you have very clear water. And when you have clear water and a limited amount of food, you will get these localized schools of juvenile redfish. There is nothing more exciting than seeing these schools that can be upwards of a hundred strong, if not more. And in any given area you might have several schools. So, in winter, the visual aspect of fishing is absolutely amazing. It becomes more of a stalk or hunting.”
From a local perspective it is important to fish responsibly to preserve their numbers, Werner notes. “Out of respect for the environment, there are some things we practice here. We’ll maybe only catch a couple of fish out of that localized school and then move on. You don’t want to beat them up. We want to be able to come back and fish that area again, so we want to tend those watery pastures carefully.”
According to Werner, it isn’t just the inshore waters that are teeming with fish in the winter. “During the winter our offshore bite can be good as well. “We have these redfish that have basically graduated from college, and enormous schools of these bull reds amass just offshore here. They hang out with the other sea life moving up and down the coast. Big tuna, black sea bass. Sheepshead will come in too. It can make for some very exciting fishing!”
Every season here offers fishermen a different experience. Visitors to the area love chasing cobia in the spring and shark and tarpon in the summer. But when the temperatures drop, along with the tourist population, locals revel in a true fishing hidden gem.
Without question, one of the most powerful things about living in the Lowcountry is that it breeds a contagious desire to learn all there is to know about it. And more valuable than any book is the opportunity to spend time with locals who have immersed themselves in the tales that have been told here for centuries. One of the greatest storytellers in the area, a man who has such a deep respect and passion for the delicate and complicated narrative of the Lowcountry, is Outside Brands’ Captain Pete Barbano.
“Daufuskie is more than a hidden gem. More like hidden gems, with multiple heritages and cultures to explore. Starting with the Yemassee/Muscogee Indians, the European settlers, the Gullah/Geechee culture of formerly enslaved Africans and now to its present-day existence… Everything that is its past has made it what it is today.”
The number of locals who have never made their way to this special locale, being accessible only by boat, is surprising. A great way to be introduced to it is by Captain Pete.
Barbano speaks to the historical, less developed side of Daufuskie. When you disembark onto the county dock, it feels like a step back in time. The quiet, unspoiled roads that lead from tale to well-versed tale make Barbano’s golf cart tour captivating. A 4.5-hour journey merely scratches the surface of all there is to learn about this isle, and you will be enticed to return again and again.
A seasoned captain with Outside Brands, J.C. McCune knows the waterways of the Lowcountry inside and out. When challenged to name one of his hidden gems, he answers without hesitation, “Page Island.”
There are a lot of islands here with which locals are well acquainted: Bull Island, Buck Island, Daufuskie and Savage. But few are aware of this pristine 40-acre stretch of hammocks just off the Cooper River on the back side of Daufuskie. This little haven is owned by Outside Brands, but there are all kinds of ways to experience its beauty. These cooler months offer the perfect time to explore this secret little paradise.
For McCune, Page’s proximity is part of the appeal. “This is one of the most ‘remote’ destinations you can visit within an hour of home. And the intentional lack of development throughout the islands showcases the Lowcountry landscapes the way Mother Nature intended.”
It is that rustic feel that sparks “summer camp” vibes among visitors, prompting them to shed inhibitions and embark on experiences reminiscent of their childhoods. “Whether you’re kayaking, paddle boarding or hiking the trails through the maritime forest, Page Island will take you back to the adventurous joy of being 9 years old,” McCune says with a grin. “It is a place where we all get to be kids again.”
Page Island is accessible through excursions that run year-round and is the perfect base camp for all sorts of cooler-weather pastimes. Largely because of its untouched beauty, Page Island is the site of the Outside Foundation’s annual oyster roast, an event that raises money for Kids in Kayaks, a program that focuses on introducing every 7th grader in the Lowcountry to the area’s invaluable ecosystem. The oyster roast is the perfect opportunity to discover all that Page has to offer and partake in a delectable feast. Visit outsidefoundation.org to learn more.
Millions of years ago a very different kind of life populated the waters here in the Lowcountry. Species flourished and evolved or foundered and died out. While not exactly primordial ooze, these creatures, when they died, were encased by mud, and the fossilization process began. There is one fossilized item in our waters that, to many locals, is more precious than gold: the elusive shark’s tooth. And the ultimate prize? The tooth of a megalodon.
Capt. Kenny Kaiser, the 2024 winner of Outside Brands’ Golden Prop Award, lights up when he talks about his hidden gem, Shark Tooth Island. Kaiser points out, “With the constant dredging of the Savannah River, fossilized teeth are churned up with the mud that is deposited on the shores of the little islands that line the route from Daufuskie Island to Savannah.” That, coupled with our strong tidal structure, makes this particular waterway a gold mine for the shark-tooth scavenger.
“It is my favorite adventure with families.” Kaiser said. “And it is like a little secret because it is a new offering for Outside. It seems like not too many folks have stumbled across it yet.”
This time of year a ride to Shark Tooth Island is an excellent cure for cabin fever. The group is all bundled up for the bracing ride to Capt. Kenny’s secret spots, perhaps a thermos of hot chocolate in tow. “On the way it’s always fun to see the wildlife and beauty of the Lowcountry,” said Kaiser. “That never gets old. And the arrival to the first ‘hunting’ ground is always such a thrill. Then, of course, is the first find. That is when the smiles and laughter start, as a sort of friendly familial competition begins. Who will find the most? The biggest? It is a blast watching families chattering excitedly and running around, not caring about getting a little muddy or wet. Kids get caught up in the thrill of finding their own shark teeth, and the adults, well, pretty much forget themselves and become just like the kids. It’s special.”
You might want to bring a basket of snacks along for the ride, as treasure hunting is hungry work. “I love watching the kids digging into a bag of Goldfish with one hand as they show off their finds in the other,” laughs Kaiser.
Then, of course, there is the big daddy of finds at Shark Tooth Island, the megalodon. It is exceptionally rare, but with extensive dredging of the Savannah River recently, more of these prizes than usual have turned up. Their size alone tells a story of aquatic monsters that swam in our waters for 13 million years before becoming extinct 3.6 million years ago. “When a child or adult comes across a tooth like that, they often don’t realize what they have found,” he said. “When I tell them what they are holding is over 3 million years old, the expression on their face is priceless.”
Kaiser says the longer, often challenging routes to these mud beaches is why they remain hidden gems. “Even an experienced captain has to be very familiar with these backwaters to not only safely navigate there and back, but with the time our captains spend out there, we have all kinds of aces up our sleeves to yield a successful experience on Shark Tooth Island.”
When driving over the Talmadge Bridge en route to Savannah, it is hard to ignore the expanse of the port laid out below. It’s fascinating to watch enormous cargo ships pass under the bridge, with seemingly inches to spare. Boo Harrell, a boat captain with Outside Brands for over 20 years, shares that fascination and loves to tell stories about the history of the port and the details of the inner working of the one of the fastest-growing container terminals in the country.
Many don’t know that it is possible to get close to the Savannah Port, which is a primary reason Capt. Boo considers this to be one of his favorite hidden gems.
“I was born in Savannah and raised in the Lowcountry. Being able to take small groups of folks up the Savannah River to see all the industry and port operations from the water never gets old.”
Launching from the Savannah Westin, the cruise upriver to the Savannah Port offers a stunning view of River Street, and the Outside Savannah captains, like Harrell and Capt. Peter Pearson, embrace this opportunity to take guests on a journey that spans from the development of Savannah under the leadership of Gen. Oglethorpe and the Yamacraw chief Tomochichi, through the founding of the Georgia Ports Authority, all the way to today. It is an exciting lesson in industry, nature and conservancy.
You might witness tugboats at work, guiding container ships in and out of the port. Or maybe you will see lumber trucks offloading giant pines at the paper mill. It is awe-inspiring to cruise into the port in a 28-foot skiff and watch cranes remove 45,000-pound containers so effortlessly. It’s like watching a game of Jenga.
“The port of Savannah is changing daily,” Harrell says. “You just never know what will be happening on any given day. Billions are being spent on expansion, and with the rapid growth each tour brings something new to experience.”