Destinations & Articles
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
On and Off the Beaten Track in
Article & Photography by Jennifer Merrick
Each year, close to a million Canucks flock to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, many returning year after year. What’s the attraction? For some, it’s the golf. “It can’t be beat in terms of value and quality,” says Don Wood, an avid golfer from Kingston, Ontario, who has been coming to Myrtle Beach on a regular basis for 20 years. His wife, Joni Hartman, loves the beautiful beaches and the fact that ocean-front accommodation is reasonably priced. “Every once in a while we try some place else, but we always come back to Myrtle Beach.”
Personally, I don't play golf; and since I was travelling in December, it meant that I wasn’t going to be frolicking on the beaches. Besides, I was with my 14-year-old son, and looking for a vacation that was both exciting enough for him and relaxing for me. A tall order to fill, but Myrtle Beach delivered with fun tourist thrills, off-the-beaten-track activities and peaceful surroundings for a much-needed break.
The 196-ft-high SkyWheel was an ideal first stop on our Myrtle Beach vacation, giving us a bird’s-eye-view of its famous boardwalk and beach in the comfort of glass-enclosed gondolas. Afterwards, we strolled along the classic beach town promenade, stopping to listen to a band playing in the parkette. The beach beckoned, and we casually beachcombed for treasures, scanning our eyes over the endless white sands looking for shells and fossilized shark teeth.
Thoroughly touristy, but a whole lot of fun, Broadway at the Beach is a 350-acre site teeming with attractions, shops and restaurants. We ventured into a shark tunnel at Ripley's Aquarium, and marveled in amazement as these prehistoric predators glided above us, along with giant stingrays, snappers, sawfish and a sea turtle. The jelly fish also captivated us with their graceful dance-like movements in the lit up, floor-to-ceiling tanks. As we were visiting off-season, there were no crowds and we would have stayed longer, but my 14-year-old was starving (as teen boys always are).
A hamburger and milkshake at Johnny Rockets hit the spot, though we both got a bit of a shock when the waitresses burst into a rendition of “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. Apparently singing is what they do at this popular American hamburger chain. But the song was fitting, as we did just that exploring WonderWorks, a hands-on science attraction (impossible to miss because the building's upside down – yes, you read that right). With rope obstacle courses, laser tag, a hurricane simulator and fighter jet rides, it's perfect for kids of any age to burn off energy and have a blast.
Even after this nonstop activity, my son still had enough pep left in him to beat his mom at a game of mini-golf at Dragon’s Lair Fantasy Golf, and spend all of his allowance on kitschy souvenirs. “Don't grow up, it's a trap,” says his newly-purchased T-shirt.
Civil War Treasures
Delving into your kids’ interests and exposing them to local culture is one of the greatest benefits of family travel. Knowing my son’s love of history, especially when it involves war and weaponry, the Civil War Museum was an obvious choice.
It turned out to be very much off the beaten track - even our GPS brought us to the wrong address. We did eventually find it, but I have to admit, I was a little worried about the place I had taken my son to when we first approached. The “museum” had a shooting range, sold guns and displayed a NRA support sign on its door.
In fact, at first glance, there was nothing about it that resembled a museum. But when I tentatively asked about this, the manager unlocked a door, switched on the lights, and lo and behold, there was an impressive array of Civil War artifacts, including maps, flags, medical kits, clothing, guns and swords. At the back were remains from a sunken battle ship that the owner found. The owner found? It became clear that there was quite a story behind the collection.
Owner Ted L. Gragg, a Civil War enthusiast, had spent his life searching for the lost Confederate battle ship, CSS Peedee. He was rewarded with its discovery, and founded the museum to house his rare and historically significant collection to ensure that the treasures wouldn’t languish in a warehouse.
Out front in the store section, where you can actually buy authentic Civil War relics, my son held a sword and a powder pistol, enjoying this all too much for his mother’s liking. Visitors have the opportunity to fire powder pistols for a fee, and the manager was in the process of making a phone call to see if my 14-year-old could have a go, but I stopped it. I’m all for exposure, but my Canadian sensibilities could only be pushed so far. Instead, he tried out the laser shooting range and played Wild West with a huge smile on his face.
"I rarely go downtown unless we have out-of-town guest,” said Paul Laurent, our guide from Black River Outdoors. "This is what I love.” We were kayaking at Huntington State Beach Park, 30 minutes south of Myrtle Beach. Looking around, it was easy to see why Paul was so passionate about the area. The grassy coastal scenery was idyllic, and the only other people we saw were a few fishermen and oyster diggers.
As we paddled through the calm marshy water, we immediately spotted a Great Blue Heron, the first of many birds on our two-hour excursion. We learned about “pluff” mud, which according to Paul, "everyone remembers their first experience with.” It's not quicksand, but one step and you might end up knee-deep or worse in the shiny, dark ooze that can suck you in and swallow your shoes.
Then there was the story about Pirate Drunken Jack, who got stranded on an island, now named after him, with a supply of rum. He never got out alive despite shallow water within walking distance from mainland. Perhaps he got stuck in the pluff mud?
The tides started to change the marshy landscape, and we headed back to shore. Once again my son was starving, so we ventured into nearby Murrells Inlet for a seafood lunch and to explore. The boardwalk here was more low-key, though, like its Myrtle Beach counterpart, it had several drinking and eating establishments along it. The birds liked it, too, and almost every wooden post had a feathered friend perched on it, claiming it for their own. Our favourite was the giant pelican who wasn't the least bit shy about us standing next to him.
This was another side of Myrtle Beach -- one that I didn’t expect.
I now understand why it’s such a popular destination. Your vacation here can be whatever you want it to be, whether you’re a golfer, beach aficionado, shopper or a nature-loving mom travelling with her thrill-seeking, always-starving teenager.
If you go:
Yes, there are plenty of fast-food type joints with feasts of fried everything and happy hour specials, but you can also find more upscale dining and local culinary treats to savour.
If you’re on vacation, why not indulge a bit, and Thoroughbreds is just the place to do that. The atmosphere was warm and inviting, reminiscent of a grand house, especially in our seat by the fireplace in the library. But it was the food that would be remembered. The house specialty, New York striploin encrusted with coffee and cracked peppercorn, was so tender it hardly needed a knife, and the broiled scallops melted in your mouth. The Caesar salad was prepared table-side, and my son loved it despite the anchovies and asked if I could make it like this at home. That might be difficult.
Bonjour y’all is the fitting slogan for Croissants Bistro & Bakery that pairs European cuisine and Southern home cooking. Creative sandwiches on homemade French bread and Southern classics with a twist have made this place a local favourite. My son declared that his aptly named “Not Your Mama’s Meatloaf” sandwich was indeed much better than mine. And after enjoying the shrimp and grits with andouille sausage, fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese grits, I contemplated moving to the South.
As over 15 million visitors vacation in Myrtle Beach each year, it’s not surprising there are so many music, dance, comedy and dinner shows plus concerts to keep them all entertained. The Alabama Theater, House of Blues, Legends in Concert and the Palace Theater all host live productions.
We were lucky enough to snag tickets for the Carolina Opry Christmas Special at the Calvin Gilmore Theater. In its 30th season, it is the show to see, and tickets sell out fast. After experiencing it for ourselves, I understand why. The beloved variety show has Southern comedy, along with heart-warming classic songs performed by a large cast of talented artists. We left the theatre humming, basking in the Christmas spirit. The Carolina Opry showcases crowd-pleasing performances throughout the year.
Knights on horseback, jousting and sword fighting, falconry, and a four-course meal eaten without cutlery…. What kid could resist Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament? Certainly not mine, and we thoroughly enjoyed cheering on our knights and our meal at this family favourite.
With one of the highest hotel/motel per capita on the East coast, there is no shortage of accommodation and many offer significant discounts, especially during shoulder and off-season. We stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites and were extremely satisfied with their large family-friendly suites with kitchenettes and hearty breakfasts. The balcony with the ocean view was a highlight of the trip. There is nothing like the sound of ocean waves. Ahhhh.
Click on cover to view published article