The 14-in-1 Vacation Secret on South Carolina's Coast

May 26, 2019

The vacation world’s answer to one size fits all, Myrtle Beach is the rare spot that makes every traveller happy—because it’s not actually a single place: It’s a 14-in-1 destination. With distinct communities scattered up and down its Grand Strand (the 60-mile shoreline that the region is best known for), Greater Myrtle Beach has inlets and islands, adventure parks and nature preserves, history and mystery (see: ghost dinners) and pretty much anything else you could want out of a summer escape.

So whether you’re vacationing with the kids, as a couple, or as a solo traveller, there’s something (but more likely, many things) that’ll make you fall for this stretch of the South Carolina coast. Or fall all over again, if you've already a fan, because there’s a lot of new stuff to sweeten the deal.

So read on for the lowdown on each of 14 communities, then start plotting your summer getaway.

Myrtle Beach

Welcome to the Grand Strand’s beating heart and main resort town. But in this case, “resort” means high-end high-rises, old-school motels (one of which is newly and fabulously redone)—and every accommodation in between. There are even six historic rental cabins at Myrtle Beach campgrounds, all built in the early 20th century by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Yes, this place has long been a bastion of family fun, as you’ll see from the local entertainment ops, which range from the Pavilion Nostalgia Park’s 105-year-old Herschell-Spillman Carousel to the just-opened Simpsons in 4D Theater. In between, there’s plenty to please the family adrenaline junkie (see: the NASCAR Racing Experience); or nature lover (there’s actually a wildlife-rich state park within city limits); or Aquaman fanatic (beyond the ocean itself, which makes for blissful swimming here, there’s Ripley’s Aquarium, Splashes Oceanfront Waterpark and—for those even want aqueous accommodations—a whole lineup of hotels with lazy rivers.

And good news for the music lovers among you: Summer concerts are abundant (every night but Sunday between June and early September)—and free—at the Boardwalk. And while you’re in the neighbourhood, take a ride on its most iconic feature: the Skywheel, where you’ll find some of the Grand Strand’s best views from your glass-enclosed, climate-controlled gondola.


Little River

There is, quite possibly, no better place to slip into vacation brain than Little River at the northern tip of the strand. The village has a rep for being laid back—at least nowadays (arguably less so when pirates used to show up on the regular a few centuries ago). While piracy is no longer a thing here, seafaring certainly is—from family paddles with J & L Kayaking to casino cruises aboard the Big M to angling adventures with the Little River Fishing Fleet.

Back on land, be sure to get a taste of the local food scene. Book the Ghost Dinner and Tour at the Brentwood Restaurant & Wine Bistro, where any number of deceased residents and guests of this early 20th century fisherman’s “tourist home” will likely join you at some point. While you’ll be grateful that their antics don’t include making off with your Shrimp Chardonnay or Key Lime Charlotte, don’t be surprised if a wine glass or two winds up on the floor. But if ghost-free wine tasting is more your thing, there’s always La Belle Amie Vineyard, home to Twister Sisters Wines.


Carolina Forest

Okay, there’s no real forest here. But you’d be forgiven for thinking so given the preponderance of green. Yes, this is one golf-happy little spot, with four beloved courses, not least, the Arnold Palmer-designed Myrtle Beach National. Then again, if you consider shopping a competitive sport, prepare to score big here (see: the 84 shops at the Tanger Outlets, among other retail meccas).


Loris

An inland town that got its start as a railroad stop for the lumber industry, Loris is better known as a foodie stop these days. If you do nothing else here, try the iconic chicken bog—so named for “the way in which the pieces of chicken sit in the pot, like hummocks in a bog,” according to The New York Times (one of countless publications to laud this rich, rice-thickened stew—though many list rival explanations of the nomenclature).However the dish got its name, go get a taste for yourself at Shorty’s Grill—where Thursdays are all about the chicken bog. Conveniently, Thursdays also happen to be Farmer’s Market days in Loris, so you can feel virtuous about adding some balance to your local food pilgrimage.


Atlantic Beach

Dubbed the Black Pearl of the Gullah/Geechee people—linguistically and culturally distinct descendants of West African Slaves—Atlantic Beach was one of only three South Carolina beaches accessible to African-Americans during segregation. The old stomping grounds of Marvin Gaye and James Brown (among other entertainers who performed in Myrtle Beach, but couldn’t stay there during the Jim Crow era), Atlantic Beach is now the first stop on the eye-opening Gullah Museum Tour (call 843-527-1851 to book).


North Myrtle Beach

Multi-generational travel parties, this one’s a serious find. For those at one end of the age spectrum, there’s the likes of mini-golf and a grand Alligator Adventure; for those at the other, there’s the OD Pavilion, historic home to the local Social & Shag Club. (The Carolina Shag dance was born along this stretch of coastline, and the young-at-heart keep the moves alive and well here.) For teens (and yes, of course, parents of teens, too), there’s everything from horseback riding on the beach to zip-lining and all manner of water sports.  

Looking for something to do all together at night? Hit the Alabama Theatre for One the Show, an age-spanning musical revue with a light show for good measure. Or head to McLean Park, where free concerts run all summer.

For pre-concert meals, one of your best bets is Dockside Village, the recent addition to Barefoot Landing, where Lucy Buffet’s LuLu’s (that would be Jimmy’s sister's restaurant)  serves up a mean seafood gumbo and fried green tomatoes, among other local specialties.


Conway

This historic riverside community is textbook Old South, complete with oak tree-lined streets, riverboat cruises and antique shops. Dig into its history at the Horry County Museum or, if you have little ones along, at the museum’s L.W. Paul Historical Farm, where they’ll get to see how local families lived at the turn of the 20th century.


Aynor

Various books and articles on the nation’s best BBQ joints will lead to this inland town, home to 800 or so residents and the one and only Radd Dew’s Bar-B-Que Pit. Though the buffet may be unlimited (so pack your best stretchies), the hours are not: Call 843-369-3453 to make sure the pits will be fired up when you're there.

If you visit at the very end of summer—literally, the second-to-last day—you can catch another local claim to fame: The Aynor Harvest Hoedown Festival, celebrating 40 years this Sept. 21. Expect music, pony rides, vendors galore (this is another great place to try chicken bog) and naturally, a parade.


Socastee

Known in modern times as an enclave for Air Force families and boaters, this community on the Intracoastal Waterway is listed in the National Register of Historic Places thanks to something that dates much farther back: The Socastee National Historic District, one of a few intact examples of post-Civil War development (history buff heaven, in other words). There you’ll find two homes, a store, a swing bridge and a pecan grove that date to the turn of the 19th century. Download a driving map here.


Surfside Beach

What’s in a name? For Surfside Beach, everything. This town is all about its beach, which offers 36 access points, three of which are wheelchair-friendly. In fact, Surfside even provides beach wheelchairs for extra ease. In keeping with the inclusiveness theme, the perfectly-named All Children’s Park offers up fun for kids of differing abilities.


Garden City Beach

Garden City Beach is another family travel haven—especially for the family that baits and tackles together: There’s a 668-foot fishing pier, providing stellar access to the local Spanish mackerel, pompano, whiting and blues (for starters). And for die-hards, there’s 24-hour fishing for much of the summer.

The pier also comes with an arcade and live summer entertainment (karaoke in the afternoon, live music at night). And if you’re in town for the 4th of July, the kiddos need to see the golf cart parade. Okay, so do you.


Murrells Inlet

Billed as the seafood capital of South Carolina, this fishing village doesn’t disappoint—particularly along the Marsh Walk, where the catch of the day is served up with heaping sides of natural beauty and live entertainment.  

The restaurants’ names are good, old-fashioned hokey fun—see: Wicked Tuna, Dead Dog Saloon and Creek Ratz—but not the hokiest. That honour goes to the pirate-themed boat tours that nod to one of the area’s most infamous former residents: Blackbeard. And rest assured, the kids will love every second. Or—if they’re more naturally inclined—take them on the local kayaking and dolphin-watching expeditions.

Botany and/or art lovers, meanwhile, will swoon over Brookgreen Gardens, a national historic landmark and home to the largest collection of outdoor American sculpture (plus the Low Country Zoo, where kids 12 and up can sign on for the Zookeeper for the Day program). Also, check the Gardens’ summer calendar listings for everything from concerts under the oaks to solstice walks.


Litchfield Beach

Urbane and wild in equal measure, Litchfield Beach blends the world of private clubs, tennis and golf with seemingly untouched shores (your only company on the wide-open beach may be the gorgeous, windblown sea oats) and a greenbelt (the local Waccamaw Neck Bikeway is part of the East Coast Greenway). In other words, head here with your partner—or yourself—for a spot of sun-splashed escapism.


Pawleys Island

A barrier island separated from the mainland by a nature-rich salt marsh, Pawleys is accessible via one of two causeways. Here, you can explore the historic summer homes of some of the 18th- and 19th-century’s wealthiest rice planters. Or the year-round home (that is, the marsh) of some of the modern era’s most beloved locals: herons, egrets and ibis. Book Surf the Earth’s morning kayak or paddleboard tour of the island’s ecosystems to see firsthand. (Yes, this another perfect couples’ or solo escape.)

Either way, you should also consider a brand-new addition to the local scene: Carolina Food Tours’ All About Pawleys excursion, which kicks off this June and runs throughout the summer. You’ll lunch in a très Gone-With-the-Wind setting (avenue of live oaks included); have dessert in an award-winning bakery; and wrap up with a digestif of sorts: a wine tasting at a quaint local shopping village.


Ready to go? Start planning your summer vacation to Myrtle Beach.

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