Myrtle Beach is the hidden gem of South Carolina’s coast. While the port city of Charleston rightfully stakes claim as the historical gateway to the Palmetto State, Myrtle, 100 miles to the north, is an entertainment paradise, with some of the most beautiful beachfront real estate in the country, seafood cuisine that cannot be beat and so many mini golf courses that Myrtle Beach has been dubbed the “Miniature Golf Capital of the World.”
But there’s so much more to experience in this waterfront city of but 32,000 souls — a population that increases drastically during the height of the summer. But the off-season too is a great time to explore this hovel situated along the shores of the Atlantic.
Whether it’s dining, craft liquor, outdoor activities or golfing — of the miniature or regular varieties — Myrtle Beach is a vacationer’s paradise.
From the airport I head south on U.S.-17, the so-called Kings Highway, to find the Palmetto Moonshine distillery (4801 S Kings Hwy., Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 29575, 843/238-2855), founded by brothers Trey and Bryan Boggs to craft not only the first legal moonshine in the Palmetto State since Prohibition, but also to try their hand at whiskey as well.
For a small fee you can taste of Palmetto’s wares. The White Lightning moonshine, made from sweet corn, is rather smooth; because of its freshness, it heads off hangovers, an employee says. The Strawberry variety is a little fruity for my palate but would make a fine base for a daiquiri, and the Apple Pie, with just a hint of cinnamon, would be great for dessert.
The absolute winner is the South Carolina whiskey, bottled at 89.3 proof in new French oak barrels and based on a 19th century recipe. This is one to sip leisurely on the beach, taking in the waves and enjoying life. It’s perfection neat, without even a drop of water, and I buy a bottle to take with me.
Heading north along Kings Highway, I drive past untold numbers of mini golf courses — a testament to the nickname of Myrtle Beach. Clearly each course has had much time and effort put into its design. It makes me smile, recalling min golfing at Ortley Beach, New Jersey, when I was younger.
Soon I’m at the Island Visa Resort (6000 N Ocean Blvd, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 29577, 843/449-6406), a luxurious property right on the sea. The desk staff is incredibly friendly, and I make the acquaintance of a chap behind the counter named Steve who happens to be a former resident of Alexandria, Virginia, the D.C. suburb I currently call home. Steve offers guidance on places to dine and visit as he checks me in.
My “room” at Island Vista should rightly be called “chambers.” It’s a huge three-bedroom suite, suitable for a vacationing family (or two), and a dining table that can be set for nearly a dozen. The kitchen is well stocked — but I’ll only need a whiskey glass for my purposes. The living area offers a comfortable couch and two recliner seats for optimal views of the large television.
My inner sanctum, the master bedroom, has a king bed and an extremely generous bathroom that has a his and hers (or his and his, or hers and hers) sinks, a shower as well as a whirlpool tub for relaxing. I can recline in bed and watch a second television mounted above the dresser if I’m so inclined, but the marquee feature of this room is the sliding door that leads to the balcony, which has seats for no less than four persons.
Standing at the balcony, I can see the outdoor pools of Island Vista below, with the spit of beach at the edge of the property transitioning ever so gracefully into the gentle waves of the Atlantic. The smell of salted air and sounds of rolling waves lull me into relaxation — and it’s something I wish to bring into the living area. I leave open both the bedroom screen doors as well as those leading into the living area, thus allowing the sounds and smells of the ocean to become part of the potpourri of my erstwhile dwelling.
I take a quick nap in this very contented state.
I soon wake and head downstairs to the Island Vista’s Cypress Room to meet up with Diane Charno of the Myrtle Beach CBV. As it turns out, Diane has relocated to South Carolina in 2017 for the job, and she I share stories of the Palmetto State.
Afore us come martinis, one an orange cordial, mine a mixture of vodka, Cointreau, Godiva chocolate liqueur and creme — dessert in a glass! Diane’s William Alexander entails William Wolf pecan bourbon, Disaronno, creme and just a hint of spice.
Diane and I toast as the sun descends into the sea. Another day has ended, but the evening has barely commenced.
It’s time for dinner, and for this I head to The Chemist (300 9th Ave N, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 29577, 843/445-7077), whose motif doesn’t even sneak up on you gradually as no sooner have I sat at a table featuring a section of the Periodic Table than I am presented with a smoking beaker whose steam forms a foggy blanket across my dining surface.
It’s like chemistry class if you were allowed to have fun. I’m quite OK with this.
First stop, the Periodically Peach Martini, with Tito’s Vodka, St. Germaine, house-made peach simple syrup with a splash of orange juice and served in a glass featuring a sugar rim and candied orange.
Oh, and all of this set above a bowl of dry ice! See, there are ways to get kids interested in science.
To sop up the booze I select an appetizer of German pretzel sticks served with cheese dip, which is absolutely delectable. For entree I try the seared ahi tuna dusted with coriander and served over Asian pasta. The tuna is tasty, a delight to the tooth, but I find the noodle sauce a bit overpowering for the dish itself. I complete the meal with mango coconut panna cotta.
Now I grew up in New Jersey, so if there’s one thing I’m familiar with, it’s boardwalks and mini golf. It’s such a beautiful night that I must amble over to the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. It’s the off-season, but there’s still activity among the bars and arcades, just as there would be at the Jersey Shore this time of year.
The big attraction here, of course, is the SkyWheel, which whisks the rider some 200 feet above the ocean. Each gondola is climate-controlled, thus disallowing the chilly breezes from reaching me at these heights. The views are 360 degrees around, entailing the boardwalk, the cityscape as well as the ocean, which stretches away seemingly into infinity.
After the ferris wheel I walk back to where I parked near The Chemist and hear some rocking music emanating from The Bowery (110 9th Ave N, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 29577, 843/626-3445), a longtime favorite hangout along the waterfront. I learn this is where the band Alabama got its start and, apropos, a six-piece country band is rocking out the staple “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show.
I return to the Island Vista to walk along the beach before enjoying a glass of that good Palmetto whiskey in the outdoor hot tub before retiring to my quarters.
Yep, it’s late fall, and even though it’s warmer here in the southern latitudes than where I live in Washington, you still need to dress warmly for kayaking this time of year.
At the boat launch at Huntington Beach Start Park I meet Richard from Black River Outdoors for the two-hour salt marsh tour. I still have my waterproof pants thanks to my recent trip to Alaska, but Richard also proffers gloves and a life preserver for the voyage.
It’s a light complement today: a couple from Florida, Richard and myself. Richard pushes us off into the Murrells Inlet Salt Marsh, which, unlike other marshes along the eastern seaboard, comprises 100 percent saltwater. Therefore, the water is uncommonly clear — and shallow. Oyster beds are inches below the hulls, and at one point I even “beach” my kayak upon one. This certainly explains why so many oystermen and -women are seen this morning trudging among the reeds in search of mollusks.
As we fight some occasional strong winds, Richard points out the birds who inhabit these parts, many in search of the same oysters as their human neighbors. This was also, Richard says, once rice-growing plantation territory, where many early Anglican South Carolinians benefitted from ample slave labor to turn over the harvest. Early American engineering kept the rice fields separate from the salt water of the marshes that would blight the crops, with the slaves employing field techniques of the old country.
Richard tells us a strange tale of a 12-year-old slave named William who was known for scooping up stone crabs by hand. However, one day at an exceptionally low tide, William found a rather large crab in a den. He attempted to remove the crustacean from its hovel, but it latched on to his arm and refused to let go; the tide came back in and poor William drowned. The legend goes that, on certain nights, you can still hear the poor boy crying for help.
We come to a dike separating the marsh from the freshwaters of the Waccamaw River beyond. Richard says alligators, who live in fresh water, sometimes venture over to the salt marshes to hunt, but we don’t see any today.
By the time we are back ashore, my fingers and toes are numb, and I have to dismount from the kayak slowly to give my muscles and joints a few moments to adjust. It’s been a great sortie and I’ve worked up an appetite.
Just down the way is Wicked Tuna (4123 US-17 BUS, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, 29576, 843/651-9987). The incredibly friendly staff kindly directs me to a table on the indoor-outdoor porch, which is now enclosed with plastic window treatments to keep the chilly wind at bay.
You should come to Wicked Tuna both hungry and prepared for options as their menu is dual-sided, with one devoted to grilled options and the other to sushi. My waiter Aaron suggests starting out with the house specialty, the dragon egg, a halved avocado stuffed with cream cheese, smoked salmon, blue crab, king crab and spicy crab. It’s both aesthetically pleasing to the eye and a symphony on the tongue for a truly unique melding of various flavors.
Since its name is on the dish, I figure I have to try out the Wicked Tuna Roll, entailing tempura shrimp, lobster salad, cucumber, seven spice seared ahi tuna, ponzu sauce, sweet chili and wasabi mousse. It’s extremely well prepared, delicious and the wasabi definitely gives it an afterbite.
Even though I’m full, Aaron says to give the autumnal pumpkin creme brulee a try. I’m glad he did as it’s wonderfully presented with a jack o’lantern chocolate atop, and is a great meal-capper.
A short distance away are the rather extensive grounds of Brookgreen Gardens (1931 Brookgreen Garden Dr., Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, 29576, 843/235-6000) an estate that is equal parts sculpture garden, art museum, zoo and location for zen meditation. The facility was founded in 1931 by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington — Archer being of the Huntington family dynasty of wealth and philanthropy.
You could spend hours or days here, exploring the work of world-renowned artisans and seeing exotic animals. My advice is to not have a plan and just see where the paths take you. I amble past amazing works of art and peek into various galleries. One palmetto-lined path even takes me to a bend in the Waccamaw where a sign warns that gators may be nearby.
I figure this is as good a place as any to meditate, and so I sit facing the river, allowing myself to feel the fear that while the great reptiles are in the area, my chances of encountering one accidentally — and/or meeting with serious injury — are slim. It’s a beautiful, crisp day, and the sounds of nature mingle with the laughs of children as families elsewhere traverse the grounds in the periphery of my hearing.
Done with my reverie, I walk past trees with hanging moss as I make a long arc back to my car.
I found the distillery yesterday, but there’s a brewery in these parts I need to try called New South (1109 Campbell St, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 29577, 843/916-2337). It opened in 1998, and judging by their hilarious beer menu, they don’t take themselves to seriously. (One, Java the Nut, features the face of a man, presumably an employee, pasted onto Slave Leia’s body pulled up next to the Huttese crime lord.)
The American Lager is crisp and refreshing — a perfect pour all year long. I find the Oktoberfest properly malty for the style, but it’s not my fave. What I appreciate about this place is that they’re willing to go experimental, and the Redrum red ale is aged in Jamaican rum barrels, which lends it a unique taste that I’m glad I tried, but can’t see buying a six-pack. I absolutely have to try the Under the Sea Pineapple IPA, what with SpongeBob and Patrick on the label, and I really like the hint of sweetness. The Dirty Myrtle black ale has a rather amazing taste profile, and the Nut Brown Ale is one of the better browns I’ve found in my travels — especially necessary as Newcastle’s quality control has left much to be desired the past few years.
After freshening up back at Island Vista, I go for dinner at Hook & Barrel (8014 N Kings Hwy Suite B, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 29572, 843/839-5888) which, despite having only opened this year, is taking Myrtle’s seafood cuisine to a whole other level. Owner Heidi Vukov stops by my table, and informs me of how her restaurant is eco-friendly and everything I see is recycled, even the tables, and the wine pourings come from taps rather than bottles in an effort to save on solid waste.
The staff starts me off with pimento cheese and crackers, a very Southern staple, and the bread plate it is served upon also happens to be shaped like South Carolina. I like that attention to detail. While enjoying a “Sand Dune” martini that has some actual jello as part of the mix, I enjoy some oysters from the Gulf of Mexico and Virginia. Next up is the bacon, figs and brie. I like the taste of the brie on its own, but the mix of savory and salty with the dates makes for a decent marriage.
For my entree, I’m served the absolutely tasty goodness of the grouper pan-seared with white wine butter sauce. There aren’t enough wows for me to use to describe how good this dish is. The staff recommend the sides of garlic mashed potatoes and the mac n’ cheese, the latter of which is infused with crab meat for a taste symphony.
Somehow, in the end, there’s still room for the homemade vanilla bean ice cream butler banana and homemade chocolate granache. It’s criminal how much I’ve eaten today, but this is a perfect way to finish out my food tour. (I’ll work out next week, I swear.)
Back at Island Vista I enjoy another soak in the hot tub followed by a final glass of the Palmetto Whiskey in my room. As I drift off, the sounds of ocean waves gently lapping at the beach outside, I dream of returning here in the future with my special lady Victoria. For Myrtle Beach, with all its fun and food, is rather romantic.
Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.
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