When many people think of Myrtle Beach, the place is synonymous with one thing: golf. But for those of us who don’t like golf, what is there to do?
Or more specifically, those of us who don’t like to golf, aren’t students on a mid-semester break, or aren’t travelling with a family, what is there to do in Myrtle Beach? The answer is plenty, as I recently learned, when I visited ‘the Grand Strand’ for the first time and discovered 10 things to do in Myrtle Beach for the non-golfer (or ‘un-golfer” as I prefer to think of myself), including hitting the beach in two very different ways.
1. People Watch and Play at Myrtle Beach’s Boardwalk
If beachside bustle is the kind of vibe you love, you’ll want to check out Myrtle Beach’s Boardwalk & Promenade. Located at the very heart of the 60-mile long stretch of wide, sandy coastline known as the Grand Strand, the Boardwalk offers everything you would expect from an ocean-side playground; a huge stretch of sandy beach, tourist shops selling everything from beachwear to fridge magnets, casual waterfront restaurants that offer everything from corn dogs to seafood, and modern-day attractions where you can entertain yourself once you’ve had enough sun.
The 2km-long checkerboard-designed boardwalk was rebuilt in 2010, and continues a long-standing tradition that goes back to the ’40s when this same stretch of coastline was home to bars, pavilions and amusement parks. One of the original bars that you’ll still find here is the Bowery, a gritty little honky tonk that launched the band Alabama, and that still offers live music along with its “8th Wonder of the World” burger.
Of course nothing from the ’40s would have compared to the 187-foot tall SkyWheel, the Boardwalk’s most recognizable landmark where visitors can get panoramic views of the beach and entire area from inside an enclosed gondola.
If you’re not a fan of heights, there’s always the option to follow the wooden walkways along the beach that lead you out to Pier 14, a private pier with a casual restaurant and Tiki Bar that is a great place to enjoy a drink and admire the beach view instead. And if the conditions are right, you might even see a surfer catching a wave or two.
TIP: If you do decide just to go for a walk on Pier 14, you’ll need to pay $1 for access as this is a privately-owned pier, not a public one.
2. Get close to nature at Huntington Beach
If unspoiled, natural beaches are more your idea of seaside bliss, Huntington Beach State Park is the place for you. Located in a State Park a half hour south of Myrtle Beach proper, here you won’t find any of the tourist kiosks or kitschy stores, just sand dunes, beach grasses and 3 miles of expansive, sandy shoreline. This is the perfect beach to bring a book, walk the shore looking for seashells or just enjoy the sun and the waves while doing a whole lot of nothing.
The complete opposite to the commercial stretch of ‘downtown beach’ at the Boardwalk, Huntington Park offers you the chance to relax with nature both on or off the beach. There are also inland trails where hikers can explore the forest or birdwatch, and the only boardwalk here is one that extends out into the salt marsh to give you better views of the wetlands and the wildlife that lives there.
TIP: There is a visitor centre with showers, restrooms and a small gift shop at the Park entrance, but you should come prepared with your own chairs, umbrellas and other beach paraphernalia, and maybe even a picnic lunch if you plan to spend the day here. Entrance to the Park itself costs $5 per adult.
3. Take a Segway Tour at Huntington State Park
I’ve always wanted to try riding a Segway (ever since I saw Niles Crane riding one in the sitcom Frasier), but I was a little surprised when I learned that Myrtle Beach Segway actually offers tours right in Huntington Park, given that this was a State Park. However, it turned out that the Park was the perfect place for a first-timer like myself to try out this two-wheeled wonder. With very little traffic and plenty of parking lot space in which to practice, I got the hang of my Segway right away and before long our group was off exploring.
We rode the paved pathways for the most part, but there are also trails through the woods where you can ride, providing you’re comfortable enough to negotiate the narrow paths and roots. (We stuck to the pavement.) The beauty of these Segways is that they are both fun to ride and quiet, so we didn’t feel like we were disturbing the peace for any of the other park visitors.
4. Visit Atalaya Castle
Huntington State Park was once the private property of Anna and Archer Huntington, a philanthropic, artistic couple who built a winter home here to help alleviate Anna’s recurring tuberculosis. Modelled after the Moorish castles that Archer Huntington had admired on his European travels to Spain, their home was known as Atalaya Castle, and no visit to Huntington Park would be complete without visiting the property.
Don’t be fooled by its name, however; today Atalaya Castle is little more than a series of empty rooms in a structure that is not terribly castle-like in the traditional sense, with the exception of the water tower in the courtyard that houses an elevated cistern. (“Atalaya” means tower in Spanish).
Still, there is something about this house that makes you want to learn more about its residents, the kind of people who owned monkeys and built bear pens to house live animals for Anna to sculpt, yet didn’t have guest rooms, preferring to keep their own company in this private world they had built.
It is definitely worth the $2 admission or $5 self-guided audio tour to wander through the rooms and imagine what it would have been like to live here: in the Huntingtons’ day, the ocean would have been directly visible from the front rooms, wildlife would have wandered the property and the sound of Anna sculpting in her indoor/outdoor studio would have been heard in the serene palm-lined courtyard.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Atalaya isn’t the somewhat unorthodox layout of the home, or its historical significance, but the fact that Archer Huntington used the construction of it as a sort of make-work project for the mostly black residents who lived in the region, employing more than 100 workers on-site during the Depression. As compassionate as he was wealthy, Archer was known to provide shoes and food for the workers, since most of them were too poor to afford either. It is this generosity and humanity of its owners and their story that makes Atalaya much more than just a collection of bricks.
5. Breathe in the Art at Brookgreen Gardens
Brookgreen Gardens deserves an entire article of its own, not just because of its size (almost 10,000 acres), its beautiful grounds, or its extensive collection of figurative sculpture, but because of its patrons, Anna and Archer Huntington.
The property was once part of the massive tract of land that the Huntingtons had acquired in the Myrtle Beach area including their Atalaya property, but it was because of Anna Hyatt Huntington that the gardens became known for its art. An incredibly successful sculptor, Anna was able to earn $50,000 a year as an artist in the early twentieth century, a feat unheard of at the time, never mind for a female sculptress. She particularly loved sculpting animals, (her duelling horses are at the entrance to the Gardens) and when the Huntingtons first founded the park in 1931, it was to provide a location for her to exhibit her sculptures.
Today Brookgreen displays more than 2000 works of art from 425 artists, making it the largest collection of American figurative sculpture in the U.S. Wandering through the gardens is more than just visiting an outdoor art gallery; it is food for the soul, whether you enjoy strolling under swaying spanish moss dripping off giant oak trees or ‘stumbling upon’ charming sculptures around every tree or hedge. If you thought Myrtle Beach was all about golf greens, Brookgreen Gardens will come as a delightful surprise.
TIP: If you are planning to visit both Brookgreen Gardens and Atalaya, I would take the Atalaya tour first, since it gives background and context to Anna as an artist and how some of her sculptures in Brookgreen came to life.
6. Enjoy Seafood, Cocktails and Live Music at Murrell’s Inlet
One of Myrtle Beach’s must-do’s for grownups is a visit to Murrell’s Inlet, a fishing village that dates back to the 1700s when it was reputed to be the lair of the pirate Blackbeard. Today the real treasure you’ll find here is in the super-fresh fish that you catch yourself from one of the many chartered fishing boats you can hire, or the hook-to-plate seafood offered at restaurants like Wicked Tuna (one of the reasons why Murrell’s Inlet is known as the seafood capital of South Carolina.)
But for me, the best part of Murrell’s Inlet is the MarshWalk, an eclectic assortment of casual restaurants and bars that offer everything from porch swings where you can enjoy cocktails on the patio, to live music and wine tastings. With great waterfront views of the marsh from practically every bar, you can sip a drink while watching pelicans diving for fish, people paddleboarding up to the docks, or fishing boats returning to the wharf at dusk.
Don’t miss some of the MarshWalk’s iconic restos: the Dead Dog Saloon is a mecca for live music and not nearly as macabre as it sounds (the restaurant is decorated with mementos to dogs that have gone to heaven); Bubba’s Love Shak, a favourite for lunch and happy hour with its Wall of Friends; and Creek Ratz (a nickname for kids who grow up in Murrell’s Inlet) which promises the ‘coldest drinks’ in town. And when the weather is warm, Murrell’s Inlet is the hottest place to be in Myrtle Beach!
7. Taste Sweet Muscadine Wine at Duplin’sWhile Myrtle Beach is definitely not ‘wine country’ by any stretch, the southeastern states in the U.S. are actually home to the first native grape species to be cultivated in North America: the Muscadine grape. The oldest of these grapes, the Scuppernong, is actually the state fruit of North Carolina, and it was here that the Fussell family first had the idea in the 1970s to transform their locally-grown Muscadines into a sweet wine. And so Duplin Winery was born.
In 2015, Jonathan and David Fussell opened a second Duplin Winery location in North Myrtle Beach, giving locals and visitors to South Carolina access to these sweet wines from their northern neighbour. Although the wines are still made in their North Carolina Rose Hill Winery, the Winery here offers plenty to attract wine lovers, from live music and wine tasting experiences to boutique shopping for sweet treats, wine accessories and unique gifts. The large indoor boutique even features a replica lighthouse from Cape Hatteras (the graphic used on their labels) and all of the varietals are available for purchase (“Scuppernong” and “Magnolia” are worth it for the names alone). If you are visiting Myrtle Beach and love sweet wine, you’ll want to check out Duplin and its unique muscadine wines.
8. Take in a Show at the Carolina Opry
I’m always a little skeptical when it comes to ‘musical variety shows’ that have a southern feel, (maybe because I grew up in the days when Hee Haw was on TV), so when I heard about Myrtle Beach’s top attraction being the Carolina Opry, I was a little leery. But it turns out I was in for a big surprise. The Carolina Opry puts on one hell of a show and there’s no shortage of talent here, whether they’re performing a piano solo of a Coldplay hit or an ensemble song and dance number by Pharrell Williams. Of course there’s some Elvis and some Johnny Cash, but there’s also Katy Perry and a showstopping Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you”. (Yes, that song, and singer Christie Templeton killed it!)
And if that isn’t enough variety, local ‘clogger’ group All That who appeared on the finals of America’s Got Talent entertains with a group of buff men stomping it out rhythmically to popular tunes, like their version of Magic Mike with clothes on and great tunes. Really good stuff.
9. Tear up the Track with a NASCAR Experience
If you like loud engines, speed and the thrill of an adrenaline rush, you’ll want to check out the NASCAR Experience at Myrtle Beach Speedway. NASCAR thrives here in the southern states and this short track is a popular place for Myrtle Beach locals to come for fun on weekends, with a racing series that begins in March peppered with special events like Mustang Days where car owners can race around the track in their own ‘Stangs.
For visitors to Myrtle Beach, the real thrill is the chance to get behind the wheel themselves and drive an actual NASCAR, or ride shotgun with a driver at speeds of 100 mph (160km/hr for us Canadians). Riding shotgun was good enough for me, so I got into gear, climbed through the passenger window like the pros (this is where all that yoga comes in handy!) and got strapped in for 3 laps around the track, watching as my pulse raced almost as fast as the engine and the wall flew by inches away from the car.
Trust me, these drivers know what they are doing, the rush is real and I got to cross something off of my bucket list that I didn’t even know was on it!
TIP: During Can-Am Days, Canadian visitors to Myrtle Beach get great discounts on attractions, including the NASCAR experience. Check out their offers.
10. Pig out on Southern Comfort Food
Fried green tomatoes, chicken fried chicken, collard greens and grits are all part of Southern food culture, and if you want to try these calorific comfort foods, there’s no better place to go for authentic recipes and sheer abundance than Paula Deen’s restaurant at Broadway at the Beach. But come hungry because the menu works like a prix-fixe, with your choice of 2 mains and 4 sides for the table served family-style, and of course everybody gets a dessert. If you can make your way through Chicken Fried Pork Chops, Ol’ Fashioned Southern Meatloaf, Baked Mac and Cheese and Candied Yams and still have room for Ooey Gooey Butter Cake for dessert, you will have my heartfelt – and heart-stopping admiration!
Myrtle Beach may be the land of a thousand putting greens (don’t quote me on the number, being the ‘un-golfer’ that I am), but there’s surprisingly many other things to do here that don’t involve a golf cart. Whether you are a beach bum, an art lover, a music fan, a speed demon or just someone who loves nature, this city in the heart of the Grand Strand offers all kinds of grownup diversions that are “off the beaten fairway.”
Special thanks to Myrtle Beach Tourism who hosted me on my recent visit and introduced me to Myrtle Beach’s attractions.
TIP: Myrtle Beach loves Canadians, and every year since 1951 they’ve welcomed us with their annual Can-Am Days festival, which offers Canadian visitors discounts at hotels and popular attractions (some up to 45% off!). Can-Am Days run from March 10-18, 2018, but some discounts are valid throughout the spring. For a complete list of properties offering deals, visit the Myrtle Beach website.