It’s only four hours from University City to the beach, but first you’ve got a choice to make.
Our closest beach towns, Sunset Beach and Myrtle Beach are just a few miles apart on the coast but are completely different.
To me, they call to mind a dolled-up beach babe in a leopard skin bikini and faux Chopard sunglasses, plunked down along the surf right beside a weathered old salt in a crusty T-shirt, flip-flips, and a pair of cut-off jeans.
Everyone knows Myrtle Beach, a party town built along a garish boulevard lined with beach paraphernalia stores, ABC outlets, and fast food restaurants, paralleling a beachfront littered with high rise condos and tourist emporiums.
Meanwhile, on a modest sandbar just north of the state line in North Carolina, is sleepy Sunset Beach. Until a couple of years ago, the only way to get there was across a kind-of pontoon draw bridge, that further slowed things down by periodically swinging open to let boats on the Intracoastal waterway pass through. Quiet and simple, Sunset Beach remains a throwback to a less complicated time.
One isn’t necessarily better than the other. If you have kids or feel like partying, Myrtle Beach can be a lot of fun.
My family fell in love with Sunset Beach at first sight two decades ago, after moving to Charlotte from coastal California. We badly needed a beach fix, and Sunset Beach was just what the doctor ordered. But even we sneak off to Myrtle Beach from time to time, for distractions, diversions, and maybe a game of miniature golf in the shadow of a bellowing, full-sized, purple T-Rex.
To get to Myrtle Beach, it’s slightly faster to drive through South Carolina via U.S. 501 South. For Sunset Beach, the quickest route is U.S. 74 East. About the only difference is that when you take 74, you pass the Pee Dee Orchards Peach Stand, just west of the Pee Dee River in Lilesville. A family-owned farm, they have some of the most delicious peaches and peach ice cream you’ve ever tasted.
To me, Sunset Beach is a magical place, with an air of timelessness.
You can walk west from the pier along the broad sandy beach to reach isolated Bird Island, a refuge for wildlife and poets, where a mailbox perched in the dunes invites visitors to leave a message for “kindred spirits.”
Like California’s South Coast from Carpinteria to Point Conception, North Carolina’s South Brunswick Island Coast faces south and runs east to west, from Cape Fear to Bird Island.
But first impressions can be misleading. Myrtle Beach’s history actually stretches back much further than that of Sunset Beach.
For all its anachronistic charm, Sunset Beach is actually something of a modern invention. Formerly called Bald Beach, it became an island when the Intracoastal Waterway was built in the 1930s. In the 1950s, developer Mannon Gore purchased the area, renamed it Sunset Beach, built the pontoon bridge, and created a community based on his personal vision.
The iconic bridge – the State Employees Credit Union near UNC Charlotte has a painting of the bridge on display – was replaced by a conventional concrete bridge named for Gore in 2010, but the town has so far maintained its laid back feel.
Myrtle dates back to the first European colony in North America. It was founded by Spaniard Lucas Vasques do Allyon in 1526. It survived less than one year.
Skipping forward centuries past pirates, rice plantations, and post-Civil War isolation, the area began developing at the start of the 20th century, when the area known as Withers Big Swamp was rechristened Myrtle Beach in a contest sponsored by a local newspaper. Since then, in spite of hurricanes and cycles of boom and bust, Myrtle Beach has experienced explosive growth, morphing into the tourist mecca it is today.
The two contrasting worlds do touch at Cherry Grove, at the far northern edge of Myrtle Beach just across an inlet from North Carolina’s Bird Island. There’s still plenty of development, including a vast entertaining hybrid of grocery, deli, beach emporium, and sporting goods store named Boulineaus right across from the beach.
But if you hunger for nature and solitude, you can easily walk or kayak to Bird Island from the South Carolina side, relishing one of the most beautiful stretches of unspoiled beach in either state.
So, which is the top contender for University City’s official beach? As with so many other things about living here, we are lucky enough to have a choice.