MYRTLE BEACH, SC - This South Carolina vacation town has been a family destination for decades, known for its white sandy beaches, amusement parks, neon lights, affordable accommodation, fabulous golf courses and mini-putt facilities. Catering to multi-generational family travel — with over 14 million visitors a year — is what Myrtle Beach does best.
However, the area is trying to expand its reach with offerings that are more, well, adult friendly, with nightclubs, fine dining establishments — example: Tupelo Honey Café, known for it’s classic southern shrimp and grits and nutty fried chicken — as well as up-scale hotels that cater to spa lovers and adventure tourists.
Actually, Myrtle Beach is 100 kilometres of South Carolina coastline, home to several distinct communities, each contributing something special to what is known as the Grand Strand. To the north is Little River, which has a laid-back atmosphere and heritage moulded by South Carolina’s Gullah Geechee culture. In the centre is Myrtle Beach itself, the heart of the Grand Strand — and why most people come to visit. And to the south are Murrells Inlet, the seafood capital of South Carolina, and Pawleys Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry, known for its natural beauty and cultural heritage.
So, let’s take a tour, starting at the North Carolina border and heading south:
Little River: This quaint little fishing village provides a relaxing and laid-back feel, but for lovers of deep-sea fishing, this is the place to be. Leaving at dawn, charters take anglers to some of the besting fishing spots on the coast.
Little River is also the oldest town along the Grand Strand and home of the Annual Blue Crab Festival. Evening trips on a casino boat offer a lot of opportunities to separate you from your cash.
Left: The beaches of Myrtle Beach are what endures this destination to families. Right: Myrtle Beach has long been the Fun Capital of the South.
North Myrtle Beach: This is one of the primary tourist towns along the Grand Strand, boasting a small-town charm, fabulous beaches, a wide variety of dining options and great shopping. It is here that the Carolina Shag (or just The Shag) was born in the 1940s — it became the state’s official dance in 1984 — and the swing buzz is still in the air. Many of the area’s clubs offer great music and large dance floors, with the Society of Stranders festival attracting thousands of people to participate in The Shag.
If the six-step doesn’t appeal, then how about throwing yourself out of an airplane from hundreds of metres over the beach? With Skydive Myrtle Beach you can enjoy a 170-kph free fall from over three kilometres above the Earth, followed by a five-minute parachute ride.
Myrtle Beach: This is the heart of the Grand Strand and is a family’s dream vacation spot, offering relaxing beaches, fantastic shopping, thrilling rides, attractions galore — including a fabulous aquarium — and sizzling nightlife. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure, including its long boardwalk. Only rebuilt in 2010, the 2-kilometre-long Boardwalk and Promenade is home to festivals and events, including Ocean Boulevard’s Hot Summer Nights and provides oceanfront views as well as shops, restaurants and cafés.
Also a recent addition to the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk is the 57-metre-high SkyWheel, the second tallest Ferris wheel in North America. The wheel has 42 glass-enclosed temperature controlled gondolas, each with room for eight passengers, and offers spectacular view of the South Carolina coast during the ten-minute ride.
The Pavilion Nostalgia Park provides amusement for big kids — including adults who never grew up — to get a sample of the old amusement park that stood on the grounds for decades.
Left: Kick off your shoes and relax.
Surfside Beach: Known as the family beach, the quiet community has a reputation for maintaining its small-town, laid-back child-friendly community and lifeguards supervise its 3-kilometre-long pristine beaches. The area offers a summer concert series, great fishing, tennis courts, bocce and shuffleboard at its seven public parks.
Garden City Beach: The heart of this community is the pier, a paradise for those looking to fish during the day and dance to live music at night at one of its two stages. There are also two full-service bars, karaoke and a fun arcade. Shopping, restaurants and cafés are all located near the pier. And surfing enthusiasts are sure to catch the perfect wave at this fun location.
Murrells Inlet: Here you won’t find any flashing neon signs or roller coasters. Murrells Inlet — known as the seafood capital of South Carolina — has the feel of a real fishing village, unspoiled by concrete and highrises, and is sought out by anglers and naturalists. It’s here that hush puppies were invented (the deep-fried cornmeal treat), and pirates like Blackbeard and Drunken Jack hid their treasures.
Murrells Inlet Marsh Walk is one of the reasons people come here. The walk meanders along the inlet of the old fishing town and offers spectacular bird watching and feelings of tranquility and peace. But the Marsh Walk so much more; it’s the heart and soul of this community. The creek-side boardwalk has grown to include restaurants featuring fresh seafood and life entertainment, and it’s here you will find fishing charters, boat tours, jet ski rentals and the opportunity to go parasailing.
Brookgreen Gardens, established in 1931, is over 9,100 acres of garden and museum preserve with over 1,400 statues by world-renowned sculptors placed throughout the property. There is also a zoo and butterfly house and daily boat trips take visitors along historic rice fields, now home to alligators, waterfowl and osprey.
Northwest of Murrells Inlet is the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, a paradise for birdwatchers and naturalists. Established in 1997, its mandate is to preserve valuable coastal wetland and adjacent uplands for many species of wildlife, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, as well as swallow-tailed kites and bald eagles. There are also limited opportunities for hunting and fishing, as well as outdoor recreation.
Left: Fine dining is now a big part of the Myrtle Beach food scene and vacationers are eating it up. Right: Watching dolphins dance in the waters off Myrtle Beach is just one of the fun activities for all members of the family.
Litchfield Beach: Want to relax a bit? Then this is the place for you. Its quiet, natural beauty offers fine dining, world-class golf courses, spas, and beaches that are more sparsely populated than others along the Grand Strand. Runners, walkers and cyclists can enjoy the Waccamaw Neck Bikeway, part of the East Coast Greenway, a great way to experience the natural beauty of this unique Lowcountry area. There are also lots of historic sites to explore in the area, including several old rice plantations.
Pawleys Island: This is known as one of the oldest summer resorts on the East Coast, with families of the rich rice planters of the 1700s moving their entire families — including cows, horses and furniture — to Pawleys each May to escape the heat and mosquitoes of the rivers during the summer months. There are 12 residences in the historic district that still remain from the 1700 and 1800s, and islanders proudly refer to their style as “arrogantly shabby.” The leisurely laid-back lifestyle — which includes crabbing, fishing, ghost stories, rope hammocks and the unspoiled wide stretch of beach — still remains.
This area is also rich in the history of the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of slaves who still live in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. Visitors are able to explore museums, farms, plantations, shops and exhibitions dedicated to educating the public about these historic cultures, including their music, food and storytelling.
Pawleys Island is also home to the Gray Man, South Carolina’s most famous ghost.
Conway: Although not technically part of the Grand Strand, Conway offers so much in the way of recreation and shopping it’s hard to ignore. Located west if Myrtle Beach, the area boasts lush vineyards along the Waccamaw River and true South Carolina wine, as well as lots of outlet shopping. There is also a tradition here of glass blowing, with many artisans offering their works for sale in a number of shops and galleries.