The Atlantic Ocean may not be the sexiest when you consider it from a UK perspective, however, those wild waves and grey skies give way to bright blues and pale golden sands at the world famous Myrtle Beach, one of the most popular beach resorts in the US.
Myrtle Beach may be a youngster in the tradition of great seaside towns, but it quickly established itself as one of the most popular coastal destinations in the US. It became popular in the 20th century with the development of its airport, formerly a landing strip belonging to the US Air Force, and the development of the King’s Highway. This road from the north saw so-called snowbirds - the frozen people of the northern states - flying down to lap up the sun on the shores of Myrtle Beach. And what wondrous shores they are - Myrtle Beach is home to the 60-mile long stretch of Grand Strand, a light golden beach backed by protected dunes and wild grasses. Here the sands blend with the light mist of gentle Atlantic breakers to refine the bright sunlight creating an idyllic, dreamlike coastal stretch.
Family fun in a classic beach resort
That dream lives too in the nostalgia of Myrtle Beach. It has the familiar atmosphere of a traditional seaside town - with 16 million visitors a year, it is a popular tourist destination, after all. But change any ideas you may have of kiss-me-quick hats and donkey rides on the beach. This is a classic US beach resort. Instead, you’ll find the wooden walkways of the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade running for more than a mile of coastline, being home to a host of wild rides and attractions, dazzlingly bright souvenir shops and neon-blaring bars and restaurants. This is the place to come for family fun with omnipresent seaside arcades, four fun Ripley’s attractions, a zipline and thrill-seekers' rides.
It was one of the less racy rides, though, that drew me in; the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel. When it opened in 2011, the SkyWheel was the first observation wheel of its kind in the US. As it rose over 60 metres, I looked out over the resort town, with the boardwalk below, and further out to the far horizon - I had a seabird’s eye view of the Atlantic Ocean from one of its enclosed gondolas. Myrtle Beach SkyWheel may not have the views of the London Eye, I mused, but then London is not a place blessed with great ocean views.
More family fun is found just two-and-a-half miles away at Broadway at the Beach, where surf shops and chain restaurants and bars (get ready for your Señor Frogs balloon hats) line wooden walkways that wend and wind their way around a lake.
The lake is full of fun, watery attractions such as Myrtle Waves Water Park - South Carolina's largest water park with 22 slides, pools and play areas. Then there is the Beach Rider Jet Boat, described as a roller coaster on water. Back on land there is Pavilion Park Central - a theme park with new and nostalgic rides for all ages. The fun continues at the Hollywood Wax Museum, Ripley’s Aquarium and Broadway Grand Prix with its seven go-kart tracks, rock climbing walls and two mini golf courses.
Off to a tee
That said, the mini-golf courses likely pale into insignificance when you consider Myrtle Beach’s golfing claim to fame. The town and the wider area have more than 80 award-winning courses, many of which have been designed by legendary golfers.
Among the most popular is Barefoot Resort’s Dye Club, which isn’t just a favourite course - it is consistently recommended in a list of America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses, but for the past 15 years it has also hosted the Hootie & the Blowfish Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am, bringing music to the green.
The greenery continues further down the coast at one of Myrtle Beach’s most authentic and popular attractions. Myrtle Beach Farms donated the verdant lung of Myrtle Beach State Park to the people of the region in 1934, making it the first state park in the US.
Trees twist in from the road as you arrive at the 312-acre park and before long the rush of the highway and the bright lights of Myrtle Beach are forgotten as you find yourself immersed by South Carolina’s flora and fauna. The forests here are filled with oaks, wax myrtles, hollies, poplars, and magnolias, while they are also home to many species of birds, amphibians and reptiles.
There are two nature trails, which you can follow down to a one-mile stretch of relatively undeveloped beach. I chose Sculptured Oak Nature Trail, an easy half-mile hike through this oceanfront maritime forest. With only the gentle scrunching of leaf litter beneath my feet, I wandered deeper into the forest along winding paths. Around the halfway mark - perhaps a little further, but my green immersion in the forest left me distracted - I took a turn off the path for a moment to visit an overlook at a pond. A film of vibrant yellow-green algae had settled on the top and eagles soared above, their wings, the only thing to cut through the silence.
Back on the path, there was a hint of salt in the air, and as I neared the beach the gentle rush of the waves became a chorus, enticing me closer and closer. Soon the leaf litter gave way to sands punctuated by reedy-looking grasses, before I reached a boardwalk that led directly onto the beach - the Atlantic Ocean spreading out before me once more.
Given the close vicinity of the State park to the bustling attractions of downtown Myrtle Beach and its boardwalk, it would be hard to imagine flora and fauna flourishing here. But such is the beauty of Myrtle Beach State Park and the ocean that laps its shoreline. To further evidence this, the park also manages sea turtle nests, helping to conserve these endangered creatures.
Nature isn’t only to be found in the heart of Myrtle Beach. Just a 30-minute drive from the resort town, between the old fishing village of Murrells Inlet and quaint Pawleys Island, is Brookgreen Gardens. Founded in 1931, it melds art, nature, and history in one of America’s premiere gardens. Here they collect, exhibit, and preserve American figurative sculpture, as well as the plants and animals of the south east US, across 9,127-acres of botanical and sculpture gardens.
Its impressive attractions include a live oak allée with 250-year-old live oak trees, a butterfly garden, and the Lowcountry Zoo (Lowcountry being the geographic and cultural region of South Carolina’s coast). The animals at Brookgreen were either born in captivity or have sustained an injury and couldn’t survive in the wild; they include alligators, bald eagles and other birds of prey, grey and red foxes, river otters and white-tailed deer.
Then there is the Palmetto Garden, where rows of sabal palmettos, a form of palm and South Carolina's State tree, stretch skywards. But it was within Brookgreen’s sculpture gardens that I seemed to spend the most time. Brookgreen Gardens is home to the most comprehensive collection of American figurative sculpture in the country, set in a stunning garden setting and across three galleries. The collection contains over 2,000 works by 425 artists. Though the indoor galleries, such as those in the Rainey Sculpture Pavilion, present exhibits of smaller sculptures, paintings and etchings, it was outside among the art and plants that I lost myself.
Here, some figures sat listless on lakes, while more figurines were secreted among shrubs and others boldly burst forth from blooms. These are not robe-wearing, sandal-shuffling renaissance-style sculptures. Instead, the collection contains bright, bold modern works, such as those in the whimsical Fountain of the Muses Garden, which also displays the sculpture of the same name and takes garden design to new heights.
Other attractions at Brookgreen Gardens include its Creek Excursion, which takes you out on its creeks on a 14-metre pontoon. During the tour you will pass historic rice fields, which are now home to alligators, waterfowl, and osprey.
It’s also a chance to discover more about the site’s history. The gardens are on the site of former rice plantations and the tour highlights the role of enslaved people in the cultivation of the rice crop there, as well as how they shaped the history of the Lowcountry. Throughout the summer, you can also learn more of the culture of the descendants of the Africans of the Lowcountry, known as the Gullah Geechee people. Ron Daise, a descendant of the Gullah, presents on the culture, food, language, and history of the Gullah Geechee people in programmes held at Brookgreen Gardens.
Myrtle Beach may have all the bright lights and family fun you would expect of a traditional seaside resort, but dig a little deeper and you will unearth a region rich in culture, history and spectacular nature.
Art in April
Go further afield to the cultured town of Lake City - an hour and a half from Myrtle Beach. Each April it hosts the nine-day Artfields Live, an exhibition of 400 works of art, turning 40 downtown venues into galleries. It’s aimed at taking art out of traditional galleries and putting it into the buildings people use, so you will even find the art in hairdressers, mattress shops and all kinds of unexpected places.
British Airways now runs daily direct flights to Charleston from London Heathrow airport. The flight takes approximately eight hours.
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