From North Myrtle Beach down to the outskirts of Savannah, Ga., Charlotte is just hours from sun, sand and salt water.
When people in the Charlotte area say they're "going to the beach," historically and statistically, they're talking about the Grand Strand -- the strip of seashore centered on Myrtle Beach, in northeast South Carolina.
The coast closest to Charlotte has been a proven draw for close to a century.
Burroughs & Chapin Co. developed it as a Dixie-fied Coney Island, and a variety motor inns and good-times attractions sprouted around a succession of amusement areas on Ocean Boulevard, in the heart of Myrtle Beach.
Myrtle Beach is one of the top tourist destinations in the Carolinas, though in the last 30 years it has morphed far beyond funnel cakes and suntan oil. It is ringed by four-season shopping complexes and dotted with chain-style live theaters.
Its vast number of mini-golf courses has diminished, and in 2006 the old Pavilion building -- associated by many with teen romance and Strand-centric 1960s "beach music" pop -- was torn down. A one-mile beachfront boardwalk is in the planning stages. Some things never change: Teens flock here for spring break, and Memorial Day through Labor Day is peak season. Value-hunters know room rates dip but air and water temperatures remain high in September.
Late March-September,get a fast taste of classic Myrtle Beach on the classic Swamp Fox wooden coaster at Family Kingdom amusement park, 300 S. Ocean Blvd. (843-626-3447; www.family-kingdom.com)
AREA INFO | 800-356-3016 | www.visitmybeach.com
Myrtle Beach Shopping
None of the top tourist attractions along the Grand Strand involve wearing a swim suit. Nowadays, shopping is king.
Broadway at the Beach is a 23-acre complex wrapped around a lagoon, just north of U.S. 501 at busy U.S. 17 Bypass. Contents? About 100 stores, three hotels, 20 restaurants and 15 attractions. Take the family to the IMAX Theatre, Ripley's Aquarium, NASCAR SpeedPark and MagiQuest (wand-and-wizard quest). For adults? A dozen nightspots. (800-386-4662; www.broadwayatthebeach.com)
Barefoot Landing is on U.S. 17 in North Myrtle Beach. You'll find 100 stores and about 17 eateries. Barefoot is built over its own lagoon, with shopping areas connected by plank walkways. The big attraction: the quite entertaining and educational Alligator Adventure. There are live gators, in fact, in the complex's lagoon. (800-272-2320; www.bflanding.com.)
Barefoot Landing has House of Blues; near Broadway at the Beach is Hard Rock Cafe.
Shops and attractions along U.S. 501 west of the Waterway offer more places to spend time and money. Look for deals at the 90-some retailers (Aeropostale to Waterford Wedgwood) at Tanger Outlet Stores. (866-665-8677; www.tangeroutlet.com/center, scroll/click "Myrtle Beach/Hwy. 501").
There's also a Tanger (rhymes with "hanger") center on the north side of Myrtle Beach: between the intersection of U.S. 17/S.C. 22 and the beach.
New this year: The Market Common urban-retail village on the site of the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base (south of the airport, between U.S. 17 Bypass and Springmaid Beach).
The development has 35 stores and eateries aimed at the affluent locals and visitors (Williams Sonoma, Banana Republic, Anthropologie, P.F. Chang's, etc.).
Taste of the Pavilion
Ten attractions and rides from the historic Pavilion, razed in 2006 -- including the Herschell-Spillman Carousel and the Wave Swinger -- have been safely relocated to the Pavilion Nostalgia Park at Broadway at the Beach ($3 per ride ticket; www.pavilionnostalgiapark.com).
Myrtle Beach Golf
When sports fans think of Myrtle Beach, golf comes to mind: With approximately 100 courses and 2,000 holes, the area bills itself as the Golf Capital of the World.
Pine Lakes -- nicknamed "Granddaddy" -- is the oldest course in the vicinity (opened in the 1920s); more than 70 percent of area courses were built since 1980.
Because of the sheer number of public or semi-public courses, the Grand Strand can't be beat for variety and packages.
Golf Digest pegs these as the top 10: Barefoot Landing Love Course, The Dunes, Ocean Ridge Plantation, Caledonia Fish & Golf Club, Tidewater, Barefoot, The Heritage, Rivers Edge, True Blue and Barefoot Resort.
TPC, in Murrells Inlet, was given a five-star rating by Golf Digest readers.
Golfweek magazine's list of 10 best courses in S.C. courses includes Caledonian (No. 3), The Dunes (4), Tidewater (6), TPC (7), Grande Dunes (9) and Barefoot Resort (10).
"If you're tempted to brush off Myrtle Beach because it's not high-end enough, you haven't been there in a while. Golf at The Dunes Club (www.thedunesclub.net),Tidewater(www.tide-water.com) and the Love Course at Barefoot Resort
Myrtle Beach Shows
After-dark entertainment at the Grand Strand:
Alabama Theatre, at Barefoot Landing, offers a musical-variety effort that ranges from country to Broadway to gospel to comedy. Continues through fall. Admission: $35-$45. Other events throughout the year; admission varies. (www.alabama-theatre.com) Nearby, where U.S. 17 and U.S. 17 Bypass converge, the Carolina Opryshow has a wide-appeal variety show with a similar mix alternating with an oldies-themed revue. Adult admissions: $35-$50. (www.thecarolinaopry.com)
The Palace Theatre, at Broadway at the Beach, features Le Grande Cirque, a Cirque du Soleil-type acrobatics revue. Adult admission: $30-$45. (www.palacetheatremyrtlebeach.com).
Legends in Concert Theater (U.S. 17 Business in Surfside Beach, south of downtown Myrtle Beach) is more a nightclub and features top-notch pop-, rock- and country-star impersonators and is part of a chain with venues in Vegas, Atlantic City and Branson. Admission: $35-$40. (www.legendsinconcertsc.com)
All charge less for children's tickets; all shift to holiday shows the month before Christmas.
Touring music acts play House of Blues, at Barefoot Landing; cover charge varies. (www.hob.com).
Two dinner-show venues aim at families with youngsters. The meals are comparable; at both, servers bring the food to your seat. Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner and Show, near Carolina Opry, sports equestrian events, ostrich and pig races, etc. Tickets: $44-$47; $22-$25 for kids. (www.dixiestampede.com) Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament in Fantasy Harbour, off U.S. 501, has jousts and such instead. Tickets: $51-$61 are $47; $31 for kids. (www.medievaltimes.com)
In 1929, Archer Huntington and his wife fell in love with a rice plantation near Georgetown, between Myrtle Beach and Charleston. He was a tycoon looking for a place to winter; Anna Hyatt Huntington was one of the foremost sculptors in the country.
They bought the old Brookgreen place in Murrells Inlet -- and 9,100 acres more. On it was built a mansion and a studio; their sprawling getaway was wrapped in elaborate gardens.
Their land between U.S. 17 and the coast, including their Spanish-style mansion/studio, Atalaya, is now Huntington Beach State Park ($5, $3 for kids).
The acreage west of U.S. 17 is the nonprofit Brookgreen Gardens -- the largest sculpture garden in North America -- the perfect place to go when you've burned out on Myrtle Beach.
More than 500 sculptures are displayed; all are by Americans -- Frederic Remington, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Anna Huntington and other "names." Some are quite small, but "Pegasus" is the size of a Winnebago.
Even if you don't care for art, you'll love the setting: The grounds hold at least eight different gardens -- "rooms" showcasing Southeastern blooms.
Know what's in bloom when: azaleas in early April;, hydrangeas, poppies and ornamental grasses in summer; roses for summer-fall ($12, $5 for kids).
Bette Davis lives on?
Anna Huntington's 1924 "Young Diana" bronze near Brookgreen Gardens' Brown Sculpture Court is of the Greek goddess of the hunt. But who was the model? It may be of film star Bette Davis, who in later years recalled posing in the buff in Boston at age 16, possibly for Huntington. Fact or folklore? The statue's ID has never been authenticated. The artist gave a copy of it to Queens University, which you can see on the school's campus. So you can decide for yourself in Charlotte.
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Charleston is the relatively exotic and ancient city downriver, a place of great beauty and urban clutter; where you go for shopping, dining and sight-seeing ... along with hordes of visitors from elsewhere.
It's an easy drive -- 3 1/2 hours via I-77 South and I-26 East to the too-narrow peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers.
Most attractions are south of the U.S. 17 bridges over both waterways; the city's heart is the mile from Calhoun Street down to the Battery, on its tip.
Before the Civil War, Charleston was the main port of the Southeast, the capital of the cotton kingdom. That architectural legacy endures: sea-facing mansions line the Battery; behind them are block after block of narrow two-and-three story homes and shops -- many from the 1700s and early 1800s. Many are behind beautiful wrought-iron privacy fences, a Charleston hallmark. Through the bars of some, you'll catch glimpses of another Lowcountry touch: small, elaborate gardens.
Stroll the downtown streets as you wish, contact a walking- or carriage-tour operator, or get directions for a self-guided tour.
Poke through vendors' covered or enclosed stalls at the market on Market Street; check the funky and fashionable shops along King Street.
The cost of lodging rises the closer you get to the heart of Charleston. Parking can be scarce downtown, too. For those reasons -- as well as feet fatigue -- remember to use the downtown DASH Trolley ($1.25 fare; some run 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily). The four trolley lines converge at the Visitor Center on John Street and Meeting -- a great place to get travel info, maps, etc. (DASH and bus info: www.ridecarta.com).
Charleston's especially overrun with tourists in the weeks around Memorial Day during the acclaimed Spoleto USA arts festival (www.spoletousa.org) and its smaller, same-time sibling, Piccolo Spoleto (www.piccolospoleto.com).
Also popular: the monthlong Fall Tour of Homes and Gardens offered by the Preservation Society of Charleston ($45; www.preservationsociety.org); and the Festival of Houses & Gardens (March-April), both staged by the Historic Charleston Foundation ($45; www.historiccharleston.org).
Four Classic Plantations
Boone Hall U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant ($17.50; $7.50 for kids) www.boonehallplantation.comNorth of town, on S.C. 61 (Ashley River Road): Middleton Place ($25-$45; $5-$30 for kids) www.middletonplace.org
Drayton Hall ($14; $6-$8 for kids) www.draytonhall.org
Magnolia Plantation ($15-$43; $9-$31 for kids) www.magnoliaplantation.com
When you tire of downtown Charleston's crowds, leave the city for less-hectic fun.
Take U.S. 17 West across the Ashley River and head to Charles Towne Landing, the state park on the site of (and dedicated to) the first permanent European settlement in the Carolinas -- the direct ancestor of modern Charleston.
Tour the comprehensive and cool visitor center/museum; stroll the grounds to see ongoing archaeological excavations, a replica of a 17th-century sailboat, an outdoor zoo and various displays ($5; $3 for kids; www.stateparks.com).
Drive down to Folly Beach -- Charleston's beach -- and walk the Edwin S. Taylor Fishing Pier: It goes 1,045 feet into the surf. (Bring a fishing pole -- no license is required; fee to fish is $8; $3 for kids).
Frolic in the sand and salt water at the county park. www.ccprc.com
Take U.S. 17 East across the Cooper to Mount Pleasant, where Charlestonians went to beat the heat in the 1800s. Stroll Pitt Street, the gentrified 12-block "Old Village" heart of town (www.townofmountpleasant.com; click "Home," pull down "Visitor's Center").
Order a milkshake and tuna salad sandwich at time-honored Pitt Street Pharmacy (111 Pitt St.).
Go hungry to Mount Pleasant's Shem Creek area -- it's famed for seafood. Try Locklear's (easy to find, on Coleman Boulevard) for lunch/dinner daily. Or the good-luck-finding-it Wreck of the Richard and Charlene (near the mouth of Shem Creek; look for the Wando Shrimp sign).
Watch fishing boats and other craft glide by. Open Monday-Saturday, dinner only.
Hit the Deck at the Yorktown
The Yorktown was not an aircraft carrier to mess with: Pilots and gunners from "The Fighting Lady" saw action in World War II; her last tour of duty was Vietnam (1966). Now at Patriots Point, she's easily the most kid-pleasing attraction in the Charleston area. Wander the flattop for hours, from below-deck hangars to the bridge above. It holds historic aircraft as well as a Medal of Honor Museum. Admission includes boarding a destroyer that was at D-Day, a sub and a Coast Guard cutter. (Tip: Youth groups can spend the night on board, sleeping in the old bunks.)($15, $8 for kids) www.patriotspoint.org
Four Classic Plantations
U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant ($17.50; $7.50 for kids) www.boonehall plantation.com North of town, on S.C. 61 (Ashley River Road):
Middleton Place ($25-$45; $5-$30 for kids) www.middleton
($14; $6-$8 for kids) www.draytonhall.org
Magnolia Plantation ($15-$43; $9-$31 for kids) www.magnolia
Midtown Charleston, centering on Calhoun Street, has its own cache of fun.
Marion Square, at King Street, has a Saturday morning outdoor market.
King Street just north of Calhoun holds an engaging array of boutiques and eateries.
Follow Calhoun east to the Cooper River and you'll find the S.C. Aquarium ($16; $8 for kids; www.scaquarium.org). Its 60-plus attractions include the 335,000-gallon Great Ocean Tank (a two-story whopper) and a series of mountains-to-the-seas tanks that literally go from S.C. mountain fish to salt-water creatures. Great fun for kids.
Nearby: Aquarium Wharf,site of the dock for private Fort Sumter/harbor tours ($15; $9 for kids; www.spiritlinecruises.com) and the National Park Service' visitor center for Fort Sumter -- in the harbor, where the Civil War began (www.nps.gov/fosu).
Enjoy the view upriver of the stunning Cooper River bridge; look across the Cooper toward Patriots Point for a view of the USS Yorktown moored there.
You can rent a bicycle from Bike the Bridge ($15 for three hours; www.bikethebridgerentals.com), pedal across the span in a bike/pedestrian lane, then bring the two-wheeler back via a water taxi ride ($5).
Southernmost South Carolina is changing fast -- but still showing its basic Lowcountry allure. Enjoy this contradiction while you can. The once slow-moving area is sprouting high-end gated resorts and time-shares that feature stellar sports, spas and nightlife.
Hilton Head, Kiawah, Daufuskie, Fripp, Seabrook and nearby spots have been redeveloped as swanky getaways that emphasize golf. Golf Magazine's 2007 list of Top 100 U.S. links included Kiawah Island Golf Resort's Ocean course (28), Hilton Head's Harbour Town (56) and Hilton Head's Long Cove (88). Kiawah's Ocean will host the 2012 PGA championships.
Topping various tennis lists: Kiawah and Hilton Head's Palmetto Dunes, Sea Pines, Smith Stearns Tennis Academy and Van Der Meer. Side activities at resorts range from biking to scuba diving.
The swanky Woodlands Resort & Inn's Dining Room has 2007 Mobil five-star status as a hotel and as a restaurant.
At Kiawah (www.kiawahresort.com), the Sanctuary Hotel has 2007 Mobile four-star rating for food and lodgings..
Another Mobil four-star to hang your hat? The Inn at Palmetto Bluff (www.palmettobluffresort.com) in nearby Bluffton. A stay there includes access to the award-winning May River Golf Club.
Hilton Head has upscale shopping/dining/pubbing.
Downtown Beaufort, based on Bay Street, by Port Royal Sound, has a more Lowcountry vibe -- less toney, more homey and very historical. Take a carriage ride around town. The picture-perfect town, pronounced "B'YOU-furt," has appeared in numerous movies (like "Forrest Gump" and "The Big Chill"). Big doings: Water Festival (July 11-20) and Shrimp Festival (Oct. 3-4).
Step Up to Big View
Climb the Public Park tower in the nearby town of Port Royal. At five stories (67 steps), it's said to be the tallest observation tower on the Southeast coast. Enjoy the sight of marsh-edged channels.