In October, 2012, I won a trip for two to Myrtle Beach, courtesy of Visit Myrtle Beach, Porter Airlines, and the Hilton Myrtle Beach. There was even a swanky dinner thrown in too!
I decided to take my friend Tanja along for the ride. We booked our flights for the first week in March. And so began our adventure.
We definitely had an image of Myrtle Beach before we arrived: we were sure we would see many golf courses, shopping malls and students on Spring Break. That was not, however, how things worked out at all.
The city of Myrtle Beach is a relatively new community – the biggest industry by far is tourism – and they are blessed with a wide variety of reasons for tourists to visit. Not least of which is the convenient seasonal flights on Porter Airlines from Toronto.
While we were in Myrtle Beach, we discovered many things were not as they seemed – it wasn’t just golfers and spring breakers, there was heaps to do beside the beach, and there was some excellent fine dining available. We quickly learned to expect the unexpected.
After checking into our hotel, we headed to town to find ourselves a drink and a snack at a local Mexican restaurant. We asked for the “regular” sized margaritas and were amazed to find that they were nearly the size of my head. However, we managed to finish them – and after a little siesta, we moved on to dinner at a local favourite: Mr Fish.
Family owned and operated since the start, Mr. Fish is a favourite for a reason. We opted to give some of the local dishes a try – including fried green tomatoes (which I’d been curious about since I first heard them described in the 1989 movie Driving Miss Daisy!), “she-crab soup” (made from cream, female crabs, cream, a little potato, and lots and lots of cream), a few more cocktails, and, eventually dessert: Chocolate Grit Pie. Yes, grits. They were right up there with fried green tomatoes in my mind. Somehow, I’ve become incredibly knowledgeable about exotic curries but had yet to try some American staples. Grits were still a mystery to me.
The pie was surprisingly tasty, but not the grits experience I was hoping for, so I made a mental note to try them one day at breakfast, where they are apparently a near-mandatory side dish.
The next morning, we were up bright and early to go kayaking on the Socastee River – this was an excellent experience. Our guide, Paul, turned out to be a modern-day Huck Finn. He showed us the basics of kayaking which was surprisingly easy. And he took very good care of us as he explained some of the other local contradictions; Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor moss, the double-crested cormorant has no crest – and a red-breasted woodpecker that has no red breast!
We were beginning to wonder what kind of weird place we’d ended up in. It all seemed OK – but perhaps it was a ruse?
That evening we took Paul’s recommendation and went to a local oyster bar: Nance’s Creek Front Restaurant. Here we shared a gigantic bucket of steamed oysters as we looked out the windows at the sun setting over the oyster beds. The place was packed, and the locals we chatted with had been going there for years. It was the kind of place where the waitress calls you Hon, no matter what age you are. I loved it immediately.
We had such high hopes of going out that evening, but we were just exhausted from all the kayaking and shucking, so we decided to have an early night after going for a ride on the SkyWheel. Which, despite being the second-tallest SkyWheel in North America (after the one at Niagara Falls), seemed to elude us for hours. How we managed to get so incredibly lost in a city that is so long and skinny – while looking for a giant landmark – was a mystery until we learned that there are not only two Highway 17’s (which we knew) but also three South Ocean Boulevards, and an additional two 21st Avenues – not to mention a seeemingly random numbering system that still confuses me when I look at the map. After our impromptu tour in the dark, we went for a spin on the SkyWheel (which turned out to be loads of fun) and had a not-so-early night in preparation for our next adventure.
The following morning we tried our hands (and feet) at paddle boarding. Mostly a feat of balance, it was tons of fun to get out there and navigate the waterways. We were very happy to note that despite the intimidating-sounding name, it was actually pretty easy and didn’t require a high level of fitness at all. Our guides, Scott and Deanna were very helpful and gave us loads of insights about the area.
Our evening was already planned: it was swanky dinner night. So exciting! We got our best holiday clothes on (which, truthfully were not all that fancy) and headed out for a delicious steakhouse meal at Aspen Grille. The food was excellent, the wall art was intriguing, and the clientele were all enjoying their meals immensely. At the next table over, a bride and an army groom (still in their wedding best!) were enjoying a romantic meal. It was a really nice local experience, all accompanied by live piano music.
The plan for after dinner was to go and experience what we’d missed the night before: yet another Myrtle Beach contradiction, SHAGGING! Now, before you jump to any conclusions (which I admit I did) you would be wise to remember that Myrtle Beach is a Mysterious Place. Here, shagging is not a private activity – it is in fact a local dance requiring both agility and clothing. We had been looking forward to it since we first arrived, but after dinner we were once again ridiculously tired. So tired that we went straight back to our hotel to watch TV, leaving the shaggers (who are, for the most part, significantly older than me or Tanja) to stay up late and dance the night away. At around 10pm, Tanja tells me, she looked over and I was passed out on my bed as if I had spent the day in hard labour. It turns out I had needed a vacation rather more than I’d realized.
After our remarkably early night, we sought out another American classic for breakfast: The Waffle House. Here, the staff all wear “flair” (buttons and pins) on their hats, the meals are all fried, and the food arrives with near-frightening efficiency. It was a marvel to me. And, it was the chance I’d been waiting for – time to try grits! Well. Let’s just say that the fried green tomatoes were much more worthy of the anticipation.
After our greasy breakfast, we went on to what was quite possibly our favourite activity in Myrtle Beach – beautiful Brookgreen Gardens. This well-maintained conservation area has a splendid sculpture garden, immaculate trails and flowerbeds, and an excellent interpretation program. We were a little early in the season for it to be in full bloom, but it was still a delight. We wished we had found somewhere to rent bicycles, and that we had another few days to enjoy it. There was a children’s garden with sculptures from Rudyard Kipling stories, and other literary references. It was all just wonderful.
After what seemed like no time at all, we were off to our final activity – a performance by the Long Bay Symphony. We were lucky to catch the performance, because they don’t play every weekend – and each show is different. We enjoyed renditions of the William Tell Overture, Saint Saën’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’ first Symphony. It was quite lovely.
All in all, we had a great time- Myrtle Beach exceeded all expectations. It was mysterious and fun – and were content not to spend any time on the golf course, or to see any Spring Breakers, or even to go to the mall. It was a much-needed mini vacation and I’d do it again in a flash. Especially now I know that “hush puppies” have nothing whatsoever to do with dogs.
What to eat:
Mr Fish Restaurant (new location)
6401 N. Kings Highway www.mrfish.com
Nance’s Creekfront Restaurant
4883 Hwy 17 Business S., Murrell’s Inlet
Harry’s Pancake House (delicious food and friendly staff) 2306 N Kings Hwy
Chive Blossom Cafe
85 North Causeway, Pawley’s Island
Things to Do:
Long Bay Symphony Orchestra
Black River Outdoors Center
(birdwatching and more)
Surf The Earth
(paddleboarding and custom adventure)
Brookgreen Gardens – Pawleys Island, MB
Myrtle Beach SkyWheel
Porter Airlines offers direct, seasonal flights from Toronto: