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(2015 - Spring Issue)


The skies are lavender, then pink, as sunrise burnishes the Atlantic horizon.

Towering over a beach with talcum powder sand, hard by gentle dunes where seagrass dances a stately saraband, a procession of hotels reaches skyward. Two piers jut into the sea like bores at a cocktail party.

Now the epiphany.

In the past few days my wife and I have discovered the other side of Myrtle Beach, a destination with depth, more than T-shirt shops, more than a golfer’s must-do, though the first thing my golfer friend Jim Fonger said when he heard I was coming was: “I guess you’ll be packing your clubs.”

Wrong. I don’t do golf.

Besides, for those with eyes to see there is much to Myrtle Beach beyond the links.

Good Walks

While I’m with Mark Twain who once said, “golf is a good walk spoiled,”I’ll concede that Myrtle Beach is a golfer’s must-do.

There are around 100 courses here, from the Robert Trent Jones-designed Dunes Golf and Beach Club to Pawleys Plantation Club. If I did indulge, I’d add Myrtle Beach to my bucket list.

But I prefer my walks unspoiled.

At Huntington Beach State Park we stroll along a boardwalk in a salt marsh. The tide rushes seaward, crabs scurry across flats exposed by its ebb.

We cross into a forest silent but for the surf’s tympani roll, the wind moaning through the pines.

Now we approach a beach a hundred metres wide, bordered by voluptuous dunes, stretching to infinity.

The beach lounging beside downtown Myrtle Beach is spectacular.

This one is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

History Lessons

One day we walk along the Waccamaw River in nearby Conway, passing beneath live oak draped in Spanish moss, through a riverside burying ground, along a self-guided historical walking tour. Twelve locations, according to the brochure, are on the National Register of Historic Places.

We stop at the Horry County Museum, noting several Civil War exhibits on loan from the South Carolina Civil War Museum. Given my fascination with all things bellicose, that Myrtle Beach gem is our next stop.

When co-proprietor Ted Gragg was eight years old he began collecting Civil War memorabilia. After he put together a team to discover the archeological site of a Confederate naval yard and uncovered the remains of a sunken ship, he was awarded the rights to showcase the artifacts, as long as they were exhibited in a museum. He hired a retired curator and his wife Connie designed the space. The rest—an unlikely exhibit space sharing a building with an indoor shooting range—is history.

Next morning we visit Geneva Smalls at Freewoods, a working farm in the nearby village of Burgess, for a hands-on demonstration of how freed slaves, post-war, survived. She escorts us past a wooden farmhouse, a tobacco barn, a field of cotton and another of sweet potatoes, to a barn housing two mules. “Kids come on school trips. They learn to plant, they learn that pork doesn’t come from the supermarket.”She pauses. “And they learn a little history.”

For those who look beyond the links, Myrtle Beach offers history galore.

Unexpected Art

It also offers, we discover at the Art Museum of Myrtle Beach housed in a transplanted former summer mansion, some unexpected art.

Now showing: fascinating metal leaf paintings by Joseph Bradley and Voices of the Island, a collection of Cuban art.

Farther south we discover an even more unexpected art installation. And another lovely walk unspoiled.

Brookgreen Gardens, on the grounds of four former rice plantations, are both an idyllic retreat and al fresco art gallery, showcasing more than five hundred American representational sculptures set amidst formal gardens. Among the collection is the work of Anna Hyatt Huntington, who, along with her husband, designed this horticultural showcase in 1931.

When you visit Myrtle Beach it’s easy to focus on the usual suspects: a.k.a. kitsch. But the wealth of art we discover here is an unexpected—and welcome—surprise.

The Usual Suspects

Your first impressions aren’t wrong—just incomplete. Those ubiquitous and often garish tourist draws—the usual suspects—are devoid of any redeeming social value. And infinitely fun.

Stroll the boardwalk: think Niagara Falls’Clifton Hill meets Grand Bend, South Beach without the pretensions, Orlando with a gorgeous beach.

Illuminated in a blaze of blue lights, a huge observation wheel (called the Skywheel), dominates the skyline. Jimmy Buffett’s Landshark Bar and Grill reclines at its base. Around the corner is the wood-fronted, neon-decorated Bowery bar, first home to the band, Alabama.

Here is Ripley’s: the Odditorium, the Haunted House. Here is Peaches Corner: six different kinds of hot dog. Here is Fun City, an arcade pumping out tinned music worthy of a carnival midway.

Now head inland. Ripley’s Aquarium, Broadway at the Beach: another amusement park, bars, souvenir shops. Visit the Hollywood Wax Museum; take in a show at the Carolina Opry, slick and professional; be serenaded by the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe at Legends.

Classy? Maybe not. Fun? Very.

But now, on our last morning here, the clanging bells of the North Ocean arcades sleep off the night before, the bass grooves flowing from the beach bars rest at last in peace.

Now reprise the epiphany: this week my wife and I have explored another side to this popular destination. We have discovered a Myrtle Beach beyond the kitsch, beyond the links.

Travel Planner

Porter Airlines (flyporter.com) offers non-stop flights seasonally to Myrtle Beach from Toronto (to May 18) on a variable schedule while WestJet (westjet.com) is offering twice-weekly flights out of Toronto through October 22.

To help you plan your Myrtle Beach getaway, check out visitmyrtlebeach.ca.

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