I spent my first evening in Myrtle Beach blinking back tears. Not because I was sad. Far from it.
I had just spent a glorious afternoon riding the waves of the sparkling blue Atlantic Ocean on an inflatable raft that I'd bought at a hotel gift shop. I was now sitting at happy hour beneath palm trees and Tiki torches on a beachfront patio in the extremely laid-back Bummz Beach Café.
While nibbling on beer-steamed shrimp and sipping a drink with a festive paper umbrella in it, I listened to live music intermingled with the sound of the ocean's roar. I was also witnessing a sunset over the water, the likes of which I had never seen. What brought tears to my eyes was the sheer majesty of the ocean, no more than 50 yards away.
Now I concede that I'm by nature a rather emotional person. But I can't think of too many people I know who wouldn't be awestruck by such a vista - the perfect sunset, the perfect white-sand beach, and yes, I admit it - the perfect cocktail. I had just arrived in Myrtle Beach that afternoon, and I was already in love.
And what's not to love? In addition to the more than 6o miles of clean white sand beaches along the Grand Strand, palmettos waving in the ocean breezes, more than 200 sunny days a year, and emerald-green fairways (more than 100 championship golf courses), the Myrtle Beach area offers Springfield vacationers restaurants serving up some of the world's finest seafood, myriad shopping complexes (including specialty boutiques arrayed along boardwalk promenades) and a wide range of unique attractions and entertainment options, suitable for the entire family. And, as of May 21, Direct Air, a privately held airline, will begin twice-weekly nonstop flights to this extremely affordable coastal paradise from Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport. So what are you waiting for? Get ready to experience true Southern hospitality, Myrtle Beach-style.
Naturally, the fun begins at the beach, the area's No. 1 attraction. Seemingly endless miles of pristine coastline provide visitors with ample opportunities for play - swimming, surfing, parasailing, shell collecting, sunbathing, fishing and sandcastle-building. Or you can just let the waves have their way with you while you float on a cheap inflatable raft. There are so many possibilities. It's no wonder that the Travel Channel named Myrtle Beach one of America's Best Beaches for 2004 and 2005 and also singled it out as the Best Family Beach. The Intracoastal Waterway offers water-lovers even more opportunities for fun in the sun. And if you still crave more splashing, Myrtle Waves Water Park is calling your name.
Then there are the golf courses. Their architects include Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Robert Trent Jones, Tom Fazio, Greg Norman and Gary Player. In fact, Myrtle Beach has been called the "Golf Capital of the World," with more than 4 million rounds of golf played annually. If you're in a more mellow state of mind, you can enjoy one of the area's more than 50 miniature golf courses, with all kinds of elaborate, kid-pleasing themes, from man-eating dinosaurs and lava-spewing volcanoes to high-seas adventures aboard pirate ships.
If you're not a golf enthusiast, then you can indulge in the fabulous sport of shopping! And, believe me, in Myrtle Beach, shopping is all about the thrill of the hunt. The Grand Strand shopping complexes are destinations within themselves. You can choose from so many different venues - outlet malls, flea markets, and trendy boutiques. So pack your most comfortable shoes; you'll need them for your shopping spree. My favorite places for retail therapy are the Coastal Grand Mall, with almost 200 shopping, eating and entertainment options; Broadway at the Beach, with 350 acres of shopping, dining, attractions and hotels; and Barefoot Landing, which resembles an old fishing village alongside a 27-acre lake. Barefoot Landing is particularly enticing as a family outing and contains more than 100 retail shops, including stores selling jewelry, specialty foods and enchanting, one-of-a-kind toys. Relax in the cool breezes that blow off the waterway, while your kids marvel at the migratory waterfowl, exotic fish, and other wildlife that make Barefoot Landing their home.
Eating is another great pastime in Myrtle Beach. So throw your calorie counter away (everyone knows that when you're on vacation, calories don't count) and indulge in such Southern delicacies as sweet potato fries and Key lime pie. With nearly 1,700 eateries at your disposal, you may feel a little bit overwhelmed. There are renowned chain restaurants/entertainment complexes like the House of Blues at Barefoot Landing and the Hard Rock Café at Broadway at the Beach. Broadway at the Beach also sports a Joe's Crab Shack and a Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, with chef specialties of coconut shrimp, crab cakes and, of course, the "Cheeseburger in Paradise." I particularly recommend the peel-and-eat shrimp as starters. If you have any room left after your meal, the chocolate hurricane is a decadent dessert.
Seafood is what most vacationers want when they come to Myrtle Beach, and let's face it: Can you really get fish as fresh in Springfield? Original Benjamin's Calabash Seafood is the largest Calabash seafood restaurant in the world, with a 170-item seafood buffet. If your kids turn up their noses at shellfish, Original Benjamin's mascot, Louie the Crab, says not to worry. This eatery has a huge selection of beef, chicken, vegetables and baked goods that will put smiles on your kids' faces.
If you've just spent the day on a golf course, you might want to try Greg Norman's Australian Grille at Barefoot Landing, featuring Greg Norman Estate Wines. The restaurant's extensive wine list received an award of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. Another upscale, award-winning dining experience awaits you at the Sea Captain's House, where each night the chef offers a selection of fresh-caught fish of the day, and the ocean views are to die for.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dick's Last Resort, which bills itself as "the joint your mama warned you about!" If you think you'd enjoy having your food served up in a big, stainless steel bucket, while the surly, energetic waitstaff inflicts insults on you (all in good fun), then you'd better hightail it to Dick's. You may end up wearing a two-foot-tall paper hat complete with a humorous slogan or doused in a sea of napkins. There's never a dull moment in this three-ring circus.
For affordability, I recommend Key West Grill at Broadway at the Beach, which douses fresh daily catches with a Caribbean flair, and the aforementioned Bummz Beach Café. Oh, and the spectacular sunsets seen from Bummz' oceanfront garden are on the house.
Other family activities abound in Myrtle Beach - way too many for me to list them all here. Here are some of the ones I consider almost mandatory: Ripley's Aquarium (a $40 million, state-of-the-art, 87,000 square-foot experience, featuring a yearlong exhibit devoted to nature's incubators and featuring baby sharks, seahorses, frogs, jellyfish and dinosaur eggs); Alligator Adventure, voted "Best Outdoor Adventure" by The Travel Channel, a zoological park and one of the largest facilities for reptile life in the world; the Palace Theatre, located at Broadway at the Beach, featuring Le Grand Cirque (currently the hottest ticket in Myrtle Beach) through October 2009; and MagiQuest (a high-tech, live-action game for the whole family - your child will get the chance to be like Harry Potter and wave a wand to make adventures happen). Country-western music fans will enjoy shows at the Carolina Opry and the Alabama Theatre. (If you've ever been to Branson, then you'll know what's in store for you at these venues.) La Belle Amie Vineyard in North Myrtle Beach is well worth a drive for the chance to partake of their private label wines in the tasting room.
And where to stay? Myrtle Beach offers accommodations for every budget - from camping to five-star hotels, and everything in-between. My personal favorites are the Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel, for its prime location, just one-and-a-half blocks from the beach; the Myrtle Beach Marriott Resort & Spa at Grand Dunes, for its top-rated Hibiscus Spa and its waterfront location; the Marina Inn at Grand Dunes, a 2,200-acre property exuding luxury; and Island Vista, another luxury resort on a gorgeous stretch of uncrowded beach, which offers so many exclusive amenities (like large Jacuzzi tubs) and activities (like a kids' themed area with waterfalls, a splash pool and a lazy river) that guests can have a fabulous vacation without ever leaving the premises. And, no matter where you stay, be it a humble campground or a luxurious inn with 300-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, you won't ever want to leave.
Life moves at a little slower pace here. Kick back. Stay awhile. Y'all are in for a treat.
Story published Friday, May 1, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 3 )