Open for business: Myrtle Beach was spared by Hurricane Dorian last week and remains ready to welcome guests.
With as many as 19 million visitors vacationing at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, each year, there’s no doubt that this beach town on the Atlantic is a major tourist destination. The heart of what’s called the “Grand Strand,” a 60-mile stretch of beach that skirts the state’s northern coastline, Myrtle Beach is known for its thrill rides, 1.2-mile Oceanfront Boardwalk, the newly opened and nearly 20-foot Skywheel (the tallest on the East Coast), exuberant nightlife, a bevy of water parks, award-winning restaurants, and oodles of shopping opportunities. It famously has more than 100 championship golf courses, and, less famously, some of the most elaborate miniature golf locations you’ll find anywhere. There’s simply a lot to see and do.
But what many visitors may not know is that there are exciting places to visit beyond the main strip, all along the Grand Strand, from Pawley’s Island in the south to North Myrtle Beach near the North Carolina border. For those who might want to venture off the beaten path, here are seven things to do in Myrtle Beach beyond the basics:
1. Drive a real NASCAR racecar, off Route 501
Sure, it’s fun to sit in the stands and watch professional drivers zoom around the semi-banked asphalt oval track at the Myrtle Beach Speedway. Some of NASCAR’s biggest stars—including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff —trained here, and all four generations of Pettys and three generations of Earnhardts have taken a green flag around the Speedway.
But things can get even more heady than just passive race-watching with a special adventure that lets you drive (solo) a NASCAR racecar for a five-minute timed racing session. Following a drivers’ meeting with the crew chief, it’s a go-it-alone thrill ride with no lead car to follow and no instructor riding with you. You do, however, get in-car radio communications with a personal spotter.
Another option lets visitors ride shotgun with a professional racing instructor in a real NASCAR racecar for three heart-pounding laps at top speeds. For a less intense experience, you can sit back and hold on tight as you take three laps around the Speedway in the NASCAR racing experience pace car. Passengers ride one in the front and two in the back with a professional racing instructor driving. The pace car ride is fast enough to put a little fear in you but safe enough for all ages, weights and heights.
2. Relax in an historic river town, Conway
The old buildings of Conway, one of South Carolina’s oldest towns, have helped earn the town a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to the buildings, tree-lined streets and a revitalized business district, the hamlet features a riverwalk that skirts the Waccamaw River and leads past rustic wooden buildings and an elegant inn. And, at one end of the trail, there’s an arboretum with a wide variety of trees and plants.
I had lunch in the historic district at the Rivertown Bistro, billed as a place where contemporary meets traditional, meaning it nicely balances its Southern roots with culinary innovation. A good example of the restaurant’s style is the lunch entree I had: shrimp and sausage prepared with spinach, tomato, pearl onion, tasso gravy, and jalapeño grit cake.
3. Go shagging, North Myrtle Beach
North Myrtle Beach claims to be the birthplace of “shag dancing,” although the claim is challenged by some. The dance is said to be descended from the Carolina jitterbug and grew in popularity in the 1940s. Today, there are shag groups all over the country who carry on the shag tradition.
In North Myrtle Beach, Fat Harold’s Beach Club is a shag epicenter, with lessons offered Monday and Tuesday evenings at 7pm. Other shag hot spots include Duck’s Beach Club and the OD Arcade & Lounge, both in North Myrtle Beach. Three times a year—in September, January and April—shaggers converge on the beach town for dancing festivals that go on for three to eleven days.
4. Visit a winery (yes, there are wineries in South Carolina), Little River
And La Belle Amie Vineyards in Little River has to be one of the prettiest. It’s set on the grounds of an old tobacco plantation that has been in the Bellamy family since the 1800s.
After a lengthy career in Houston, Texas, owner and winemaker Vicki Weigle moved back to her roots to take care of her mother. Somehow, she lit on the idea of following in her winemaking uncle Gifford’s footsteps by planting a vineyard and opening a winery, something that came to fruition in 2000. Using the wood from the trees removed from the site, she built her tasting room and gift shop, which is stocked with everything from sauces and salsas to relishes, mustards, dressings, and flavored cooking oils.
On the afternoon of my visit, the place was abuzz. Live music poured in from a covered stage while listeners sat in a shaded pavilion enjoying food and house-made wine. Later, my walk around the grounds and vineyards proved to be a horticultural pleasure, as La Belle Amie (French for “beautiful friend”) has a park-like aura, complete with a duck pond, rose bushes, trees, and—of course—grapevines in straight rows like something out of Napa or Tuscany.
Live entertainment is offered in the afternoon Tuesday through Saturday, as are wine tastings with a Twisted Sister label that range from very dry to sweet. Be sure to try a wine slushy after the tasting. It’s refreshingly cool and tasty. Tours of the grounds with Vicki or her husband, Chuck, are sometimes available and include tales of the adversity in the form of hurricanes that plagued the vineyard in its early days. If you take the tour, also be prepared to learn a bit about the family’s long history on the property.
5. See a castle (and turtles) in Huntington State Park, Murrells Inlet
What a surprise to find the former home of Archer Huntington, the well-heeled son of one of the country’s original robber barons, at Huntington State Park on Murrells Inlet. Huntington and his wife, Anna, a
famous sculptor, bought the property and the surrounding 9,000 acres in 1930.
Huntington, who was interested in Spanish history, designed his 30-room manse, Atalaya (Spanish for “watchtower”), in the Moorish style. After Mrs. Huntington’s death in 1973, the property became Huntington State Park, which now includes nature trails, boardwalks and programs that give visitors a chance to see loggerhead turtles and other endangered plant and animal species up close. The park also has 300 species of birds and three miles of pristine beach.
6. Get lost in Brookgreen Gardens, Murrells Inlet
When the Huntingtons started building Atalaya in 1931, they also took on another massive project, which in its finished form is now located just across Ocean Highway Route 17 from their former home. Built in the shape of an open-winged butterfly with a 300-year-old oak tree serving as its tail, Brookgreen Gardens takes its name from one of the four former rice plantations that once stood on the site.
Today, more than 2,000 sculptural pieces from over 400 artists make the gardens the biggest repository of American sculptural works in the world. Scattered among them are many of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s own works from her life as a sculptor.
The sculpture gardens take up 551 of Brookgreen’s total 1,600 acres. Another section, the Lowcountry Center, focuses on the history of the area from the era of the Native Americans through present day. To learn more about life on a rice plantation, you can take a walk along the Lowcounry Trail which offers interpretive panels, an audio tour and sculptures that line a boardwalk overlooking the restored rice field of a former plantation.
Several times throughout the day, 45-minute pontoon boat excursions ply the waters of a creek that meanders along the banks of the former rice fields. Representatives from an accredited zoo give guests an up-close look at the animals of the Lowcountry: gray foxes, bald eagles, river otters, alligators, egrets, and blue herons, all living as close as possible to their natural habitats.
7. Eat well, everywhere in Myrtle Beach
When it comes to food, Myrtle Beach’s offering runs the gamut from “down home” to upscale gourmet. Start your day with breakfast at Benjamin’s Bakery in Surfside Beach. Bagels, brioches and bialys are just the start of the wide assortment of breads and sweets made daily here. Benjamin’s started as a father-and son bagel and breakfast shop. Now in its 25th year, the establishment is headed by Lee and Wendy Zulanch and supplies baked goods to 150 area restaurants. The biggest bakery in Myrtle Beach, Benjamin’s has somehow managed to retain its boutique aura. Also open for lunch, the kitchen does great sandwiches, which are always served on in-house baked bagels and breads.
In the Common Market District, Nacho Hippo is colorful and lively. This Tex-Mex cantina features $3 margaritas and fireballs, live entertainment, 12 kinds of tacos (the “Bangin’ Shrimp,” which is fried shrimp tossed in spicy mayo, shredded lettuce, and mango pico de gallo, is a knock-out for $3.95), and 10 different preparations of nachos including a build-your-own option.
At the Southern end of the Grand Strand on Pawley’s Island is Rustic Table. Here, chef/owner Adam Kirby holds the distinctions of being elected as a “chef ambassador” of South Carolina and top honors at the 2017 Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. Kirby’s upscale Southern food is made from scratch and includes such interesting lunch items as popcorn alligator bites; fried beets; flounder, shrimp or oyster po’ boys; and that Southern favorite, shrimp n’ grits.
For a restaurant with a knock-out view, the outdoor patio at Wicked Tuna on Murrells Inlet overlooks the fishing fleet that delivers seafood straight from hook to plate. You’d expect great seafood and sushi here, but red-meat lovers will also find plenty of top-grade beef to choose from.
Over at Island Vista Resort, the Cypress Room maintains an amazing balance between classy elegance and family-friendly informal. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Cypress Room is known as one of the best dining spots in Myrtle Beach. Here, chef Michael McKinnon, a Myrtle Beach native, creates French-inspired new American cuisine that uses the best fresh ingredients. From she-crab soup and lobster tostado appetizers to “Low Country Bouillabaisse” and “Brown Butter Flounder” entrees, the menu pays homage to its Southern roots with notes of French inspiration.
Last but not least is the Sea Captain’s House, which has won more awards than any other restaurant in Myrtle Beach. Southern Living magazine has even named it the area’s “Best Seafood Restaurant” four years in a row. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it offers a wonderful variety of unique seafood dishes as well as poultry, steak, pork, and daily lunch specials.
Where to stay in Myrtle Beach
For a place to stay, the Island Vista Resort (from $$77/night) is the only oceanfront hotel for nearly a mile in either direction. This gives it the feel of a secluded luxury island despite the fact that it is mere minutes from the heartbeat of downtown Myrtle Beach. Amenities include three indoor and outdoor pools, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, a kids area styled in an ancient ruins theme, a lazy river, a tiki bar and café, poolside Wi-Fi (available resort-wide), a large grassy tanning lawn, an oceanfront veranda, an oceanfront massage cabana, and towel service.
For more travel to Myrtle Beach and the surrounding area, visit visitmyrtlebeach.com.