By David Smallwood
60 miles of warm, soft, sandy beachfront
Knowing that you’ve heard of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina somewhere in the recesses of your mind, the question you want to ask yourself is, “Do I want to go visit?”
The answer is, yes. Heck yes, you do! Why? To play,foremost,in one of the world’s longest sandboxes.
Myrtle Beach is the hub of the Grand Strand – a 60-mile string of wide, warm, soft sandy uninterrupted beachfront stretching down the eastern seaboard from the North Carolina border south to the plantations that made the area the rice-producing capital of America in the colonial days.
These are not those tropical, white sand, crystal clear blue water beaches found in exotic island locales. These are Chicago’s Rainbow, North Avenue, Oak Street, Margaret Burroughs, and 57th Street-type beaches, except a lot cleaner, without the fishy smell.
Myrtle Beach offers clean, brown-sugar-colored beach sand embedded with seashells and lapped by the waves of the powerful, gritty Atlantic Ocean.
Imagine getting 60 miles worth of that between your toes or in your shirt as you roll around in the sand without a care in the world.
Chicago has only 26 miles of scattered beach by comparison. The Grand Strand is still a mile longer than the distance from Park Forest in our south suburbs to Ravinia in Highland Park. Imagine if that entire stretch was beachfront.
Most importantly, it’s a “play on” type of beach – for families, water freaks, sunbathers and lovers – and with a 60-mile string of it, combined with short cool winters and hot humid summers, Myrtle Beach is one of the major centers of tourism in the United States.
Some 16 million people visit the area annually and over 92 percent of them hit the beaches, according to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. An interesting thing about Myrtle Beach, however, is that thongs, or any swimwear revealing any portion of the buttocks, are not permitted anywhere in public in the city or any beaches. Go figure.
Naturally, all the accouterments that accompany spending a day at the beach have become ingrained in the Grand Strand area – places to eat, drink, party, places to sleep, buy and rent beachwear and equipment, and then stuff to do after you momentarily tire of the beach – clubs, attractions, amusement parks, shopping malls, museums – it’s all there, on the streets right there adjacent to the beach.
Not to mention golf, of course. With more than 102 golf courses – more than half of which are rated four stars or better by Golf Digest Magazine – Myrtle Beach has been called the “Golf Capital of the World” because of the more than three million rounds played there annually, not counting on the numerous miniature golf courses.
USA Today named Myrtle Beach one of the 10 Best Golf Destinations for 2014. It is also ranked as the most popular summer travel destination for 2013 and 2014 by Trip Advisor, the world’s largest travel site; the number three summer beach destination by Priceline.com; and one of the top nine best last-minute trip destinations by dream.plan.go.com.
The Myrtle Beach Boardwalk is one of the most awesome in the country, right behind Atlantic City’s, Coney Island and Venice Beach, and Huffington Post ranked Myrtle Beach as number six out of its 15 restaurant crazy cities.
The Golden Strand has around 2,200 restaurants serving food of every variety, and with 94 percent of visitors dining at those establishments, it is the single most participated in activity at Myrtle Beach.
So, Grand Strand is one of the fastest growing areas in the United States. In the last decade, the population has increased about 35 percent, which is providing it with a healthy more year-round economy, than seasonal. It’s a financially sound place to live, with low taxes and two-bedroom apartments renting for about $670 on average.
N’DIGO Hits The Beach
The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce/CVB has been importing journalists to visit and write about the area and N’DIGO had the opportunity to go for a long weekend at the end of April.
Even though it was a jam-packed “Taste of Myrtle Beach” type trip, with samples to momentarily enjoy, but not enough time to fully savor – I found that place to be utterly fantastic and will break my neck trying to get back there!
Just when I was getting the lay of the land, figuring where things were, where I wanted to go and do, it was time to get back on the plane for home. Isn’t that always the way when you travel?
But I plan to take my family back for a week in the fall. Interestingly, the average business trip there is three days, according to the Chamber of Commerce, and the leisure visits average six days – which is how long we were there and how long we want to go back for.
I also know to next time rent a car, like the Chamber said 88 percent of people do, because zigzagging back and forth over 60 miles takes a toll in cab fares. And not to knock the Strand’s cabs, but using Uber was a far more economical way to get around if you lack access to your own vehicle.
Myrtle Beach is like a Southern California beach town, just with the occasional Southern accent thrown in. Calm as you want it to be, as hard partying as you might desire, and as family friendly without being boring as you would hope.
It’s just one big ole pile of damn fun, and though we piled in a lot from Friday morning to Monday afternoon, the most enjoyable part of everything was actually being on the beach…when your shoes come off as if by magic from the very first step and you find yourself wallowing in the sand even in your casual dress clothes.
We did that on Friday afternoon after riding the Skywheel on the boardwalk. That’s a Ferris wheel that lets you see over the entire area from a glass-enclosed gondola with leather seats for a 10-minute ride. Afterwards, best to just sit and chill in the Boardwalk sand under the afternoon sun. (myrtlebeachskywheel.com; 843/458-4374).
The most fun of that most fun part of playing on the beach came Saturday morning with the people from Ocean Watersports, where the water adventure is unlimited.
There’s nothing like the quiet serenity of parasailing 300 feet above water for 15 minutes with the warm wind gently nipping at your heels. That was preceded by a brisk ride on the banana boat to get us out to the parasailing rig, and followed by a kinetic ride on the jet boat, featuring twists and turns by a maniac driver sure to get you soaked!
The most experienced parasailing outfit on the East Coast, Ocean Watersports has been in Myrtle Beach since 1981, when Capt. David founded it. The captain is an accountant who does financial work through tax season, then comes down to his beloved ocean for the summer. He has been sailing for over 35 years, since age 10.
Jim, the marketing guy, says Ocean Watersports serves a thousand people a day during the peak summer season when the air temperature is 100 degrees and the ocean water is in the cool refreshing 80s.
The package deal for parasailing, jet boat and banana boat riding is $140 a person, and that allows you to hang out with the crew on the beach all day and go out on the water several times. (parasailmyrtlebeach.com; 843/445-7777).
My favorite eating spot was a really cool tavern/grill kinda place called ART Burger Sushi Bar – a great, inexpensive afternoon after the beach place to catch a meal that we visited after parasailing.
Owners Larry and Fabiana Bond wanted to build a little oceanfront sushi bar for locals and their friends, then decided to add some burgers and cocktails infused with liquid nitrogen. They also turn a portion of the place over to local artists to create, display and sell their works for free.
Kind of a rambling business plan, but it works. Killer music, eclectic art, a gourmet burger to die for with the ART logo branded into the bun, in a non-pretentious room leading out to the beach. (wwwartsushibar.com; 843/839-4774.)
At any given time, there are about 99,000 beds available for rent along the Grand Strand, about 60 percent in hotels and motels and another 20 percent vacation rentals. Almost all of them have magnificent views of the ocean/beach or are located right by it.
We stayed on the 15th floor, the top floor, at the fabulous Myrtle Beach Marriott Resort and Spa at Grande Dunes (www.marriott.com/hotels; 843/449-8880). This top of the line venue with all the amenities has sliding window doors that open to allow in the ocean breeze and sounds of the surf.
First hotel I’ve stayed in and left the curtains open to allow the morning sun to wake me. The highlight of the stay was getting a Hibiscus massage by a Black massage therapist named Noel shortly before checkout on Monday. This sister knew her stuff – she really got in there and popped some nodules and unkinked some muscles that had been knotted up for a while. Thanks Noel!
Every restaurant we visited was a winner and no matter what the cuisine, the seafood on the menu is some of the freshest you’ll ever have – sometimes maybe only hours old, minutes even.
That’s the case with The Wicked Tuna, a huge primetime tourist restaurant boasting tasty meals and exceptional service that can cater to 5,000 customers a night. To do that, Wicked Tuna has three boats right outside its doors that continually go into the ocean and bring back seafood.
During peak season Wicked Tuna GM Scott told us that between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of seafood from those boats are processed right at the restaurant every day. (TheWickedTuna.com; 843/651-9987).
Thoroughbreds Chophouse & Seafood Grille seems to be the premiere dining experience in the area. It’s a mom-and-pop-owned place, according to general manager David, but also an exquisite white tablecloth steakhouse, as well as a two-story funhouse that hosts eyebrow-raising private parties, larger formal events, and individual diners, all in separate areas for each to enjoy their own thing without intrusion.
The key to the impeccable service is being asked if you’re in a hurry – the waitstaff will adjust their pace accordingly. Thoroughbreds is not to be missed on your visit for affordable fine dining. It has won a slew of awards for most romantic and fine dining by the locals. (Thoroughbredsrestaurant.com; 843/497-2636).
Two great lunch/brunch establishments are Croissants Bistro & Bakery and Tupelo Honey Café. Croissants owner Heidi Vukov is a bit of a community legend in the area. Her place is popular and always packed, featuring tasty fare such as shrimp and fish tacos and roast beef sandwiches, as well as wonderful baked goods. (www.croissants.net; 843/448-2253)
Tupelo Honey Café was an unexpected delight found in the trendy Market Commons area of Myrtle Beach. Tupelo features a menu of fresh Southern Appalachian cooking made from scratch and the greatest sweet ice tea I’ve ever tasted.
Unusual (to Northerners) dishes included fried chicken salad, sweet potato pancakes, fantastic apple cider-braised collard greens, and “wampus cat” ribs. (Tupelohoneycafecom; 843/315-3780). Both Croissants and Tupelo have cookbooks containing their recipes; the books can be ordered online to keep the taste of Myrtle Beach in your mouth once you return home.
And your dining experience wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Scatori’s Italian restaurant for an abudanza of delicious, very reasonably priced food and a chat with Scatori’s larger than life owner, Chef of the Year, and Food Network chef contestant Kevin Levine.
It was the last restaurant visit of our trip on Sunday night, and the lasagna dish was so bountiful and tasty that I brought it back to Chicago for dinner for my daughters the next day. They asked me to call Chef Kevin and have him ship some more! (scatoris.com; 843/650-3370).
On a tight schedule, there were so many things we were unable to do that unfortunately got left on the table. My biggest regret was not getting to all the fantastic Ripley’s stuff – an aquarium, a believe-it-or-not museum, haunted house, mirror maze, and moving theater. Great for little kids and grownup kids! (www.ripleys.com; 843/448-2331).
We visited was Alligator Adventure to see a fascinating collection of reptiles, including albino alligators. We watched the gators get fed their daily ration of raw chicken, and also attended a special show where we got to pet a lizard, a python, and a baby alligator. This is a must adventure for the kids. (www.alligatoradventure.com; 843/361-0789).
The Must-See Attractions
The one attraction you must devote a day of your trip to, is the Brookgreen Gardens. It is a combination of art, history and zoo, and is one of the top, most visited, highly-respected gardens in the country.
Archer and Anna Huntington of the Huntington Beach, California train family and Newport News, Virginia shipping family, founded Brookgreen in 1931. They turned it into a sculpture garden because Anna was a sculptress; it’s also a wildlife preserve with a butterfly garden.
What it really is to African Americans is a remembrance of slave history at its most suggestive. Brookgreen is a collection of four adjacent rice plantations covering 9,000 acres, half of which were rice fields operated by slaves.
In the colonial days, up until the Civil War, these fields comprised the rice capital of America, while also producing the indigo dye that was sold to Europe and made the white plantation owners in the area among the wealthiest people in the country.
At the time, the population was 20,000 – there were 2,000 white people, and 18,000 African slaves. The hierarchal structure of the plantation was the white owner, the white overseer, the Black slavedriver, and the Black slaves, who truly operated the plantations – the white owners didn’t know how.
Black slaves literally engineered the rice operation; in fact, some slaves were sent to England and taught to be engineers. The slaves built by hand 35 miles of earthen dykes to keep the fields from flooding. They built the dykes along swamps that were teeming with alligators, seven types of venomous snakes, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
A 45-minute pontoon boat tour of the swamps tell the story of the history of the plantations, including the fact that slaves were worth $1,000 a head – a king’s fortune back then – and came with “operating instructions,” like a tractor or any other piece of equipment.
After the Civil War, when the freed slaves left, the rice fields turned back into natural land because no one knew how to keep the fields operating or could pay for the formerly free labor it would take to keep doing it.
There is a boat tour for this and a land tour of the plantations as well as an African slave cemetery. There is also information on the Gullah Geechee people, about 80 of whom still live in a section of the Gardens and are original descendants, including Ron Daise, Brookgreen’s Vice President for Creative Education and creative force behind the TV show Gullah Gullah Island.
While you’re in Myrtle Beach, make sure to visit Brookgreen Gardens to honor the ancestors and imagine their slave lives there. (www.brookgreen.org; 843/235-6019.)
(Special thanks to Susan Phillips, Director of Marketing for the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce/CVB. To help plan your trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, go to visitmyrtlebeach.com.)