The Best of Myrtle Beach

The Grand Strand is long and thin, since everyone wants to be close to the beach. Starting at the north end, these are the major cities or areas: Calabash (just inside North Carolina, famous for its seafood restaurants), Little River, North Myrtle Beach (formed in the 1960's when Cherry Grove, Ocean Drive, Windy Hill, and Crescent Beach merged; these areas are still often referred to), Briarcliffe, 'Restaurant Row' (a commercial district of restaurants and other businesses), Myrtle Beach, Surfside, Garden City, Murrells Inlet (another seafood center), Litchfield, and Pawleys Island. Altogether the strand stretches about 60 miles down the coast. Paralleling the ocean is the Intracoastal Waterway a few miles inland. This combination of natural rivers and man-made canals is used by boat traffic up and down the U.S. east coast.

The major highway running north to south is U.S. 17. From Myrtle Beach to Garden City there is a U.S. 17 Business (also known as King's Highway), and a U.S. 17 Bypass. Of course the Business route is dense with businesses, but the Bypass is also getting developed lately (Broadway at the Beach is located on the Bypass). Normally the Bypass is faster, but at times the area near Broadway at the Beach is more congested than the Business route. The Murrells Inlet area also has Business and Bypass routes for U.S. 17; the seafood restaurants are on the 2 lane Business road, and Brookgreen Gardens is on the Bypass. The other major north to south road is Ocean Boulevard, which is right beside the ocean. Major highways coming into the strand from the west are U.S. 501 into central Myrtle Beach, S.C. 9 into Little River and North Myrtle Beach, and S.C. 544 into Surfside. The Conway Bypass takes travelers around Conway and into the strand near the Restaurant Row area.

Also available for north-south travel is the Carolina Bays Parkway, a north to south freeway located west of the Intracoastal Waterway. The northern end is at SC 9, in the northern North Myrtle Beach area. The southern end is S.C. 544 in Surfside. Major interchanges are also located at the Robert Edge Parkway (leading into the Ocean Drive portion of North Myrtle Beach), the Conway Bypass (leading to one of the outlet malls, Restaurant Row, the Myrtle BEach Mall, Barefoot Landing, etc.), the Grissom Parkway (leading to the Broadway at the Beach area) and U.S. 501 (leading to the other Tanger Outlet Center and the central part of Myrtle Beach).

Broadway at the Beach: Major shopping, dining, and entertainment center in central Myrtle Beach on U.S. 17 Bypass. The shops are located around a lagoon. Includes the Ripley's Aquarium, with a walk through tunnel where the sharks swim right above you; a giant screen IMAX Theater; the 2700-seat Carolina Palace Theater; the Dragon's Lair miniature golf course; Celebrity Square, a collection of nightclubs; a movie cineplex; 2 Ben and Jerry's ice cream shops; and a number of restaurants. Theme restaurants here include the Hard Rock Cafe, with the dramatic pyramid-shaped building, and Planet Hollywood. Across the street from the main complex is a go-cart park and arcade, Nascar Speedpark. The beautiful new baseball stadium is also adjacent.

Barefoot Landing: This is the other shopping, dining, and entertainment center built around a lagoon. It predates Broadway at the Beach. It is located on U.S. 17 at the south end of North Myrtle Beach. The Alabama Theater is here, with weekend performances by visiting name acts, and a regular show the rest of the time. The House of Blues theme restaurant and nightclub is also here. Adjacent is Alligator Adventure, with over 700 of the animals on display, including albinos.

Both Broadway at the Beach and Barefoot Landing have fireworks, once a week, during the summer. Ask someone at the attractions for a schedule.

There are 3 regular enclosed malls: Coastal Grande on U.S. 17 Bypass near U.S. 501 in central Myrtle Beach (largest in the state), Inlet Square in Garden City where U.S. 17 Bypass and U.S. 17 Business merge, and the Myrtle Beach Mall just south of North Myrtle Beach on U.S. 17.

Two large outlet centers are operated by Tanger. One is on U.S. 501, the highway heading back inland from central Myrtle Beach, and the other is located at the intersection of U.S. 17 and the Conway Bypass near Colonial Mall.

The Myrtle Beach Pavilion: Sadly, this longtime center of activity no longer exists. The nearby businesses are still open, including Ripley's Wax Museum, a motion simulator ride, a haunted house attraction, and lots of arcades and beach shops. This used to be a very popular area for teenagers to slowly cruise through, down Ocean Boulevard; this has diminished quite a bit in the last few years.

The major amusement park still open is located about a mile south of the Pavilion area on U.S. 17 Business in central Myrtle Beach. The Family Kingdom park has about 40 rides, notably including the large wooden Swamp Fox coaster and a log flume.

The 2 biggest water parks are Myrtle Waves, on U.S. 17 Bypass near Broadway at the Beach, and Wild Water and Wheels on U.S. 17 Business in Surfside (my favorite). Both feature a wave pool, lots of water slides, and a lazy river encircling the park. The smaller Family Kingdom water park is across Ocean Drive from the Family Kingdom amusement park.

Besides the Carolina Palace and Alabama Theaters previously mentioned, other live performance theaters include the Carolina Opry (the original, with a permanent cast and a predominantly country music show), and Legends in Concert (a great celebrity impersonator show). There are also 2 dinner show attractions: Dolly Parton's Pirates Voyage, adjacent to the Carolina Opry, and a jousting show (Medieval Times) at the old Wacammaw complex (U.S. 501 near U.S. 17 Bypass).

The Myrtle Beach area has over 2000 places to eat. Seafood is well represented, of course, and the better places serve excellent, very fresh selections. Other food genres of note are steak houses and family restaurants, plus plenty of fast food and major chain outlets. Some of my favorites include the Chesapeake House (on Restaurant Row), Sea Captain's (Ocean Boulevard near the Pavilion), Drunken Jacks (Murrells Inlet), Bovine's (Murrells Inlet), and Captain George's (seafood buffet across from Broadway at the Beach). The best theme restaurant is the House of Blues. Breakfast restaurants are also in abundance. The best are the 3 Hot Stacks. Some of the Plantation Pancake House breakfast places open at 10 p.m. and stay open all night. Numerous ice cream and yogurt shops are located along the strand.

A drive down U.S. 17 Business will reveal just how many miniature golf outlets can be contained in one resort. At last count it was almost 50. With that much competition, some are quite elaborate.

If your tastes run to real golf, the strand has around 100 courses, most open to the public, making Myrtle Beach one of the golf capitals of the world. The presence of spring and fall golfers is responsible for turning this formerly summer-only resort into a year-round destination. The Tidewater Course in Cherry Grove is very highly rated.

There are eight fishing piers along the coast. Some are free if you're not fishing.

Brookgreen Gardens features one of the largest collections of outdoor sculpture in the U.S. It is located on U.S. 17 in Murrells Inlet.

There are over 50,000 rooms for rent along the beach (including a large number of condos available), so picking a resort may seem overwhelming. I like the oceanfront hotels in the northern part of Myrtle Beach, around 70th Ave. N. The Caravelle, Monterey Bay Suites (formerly the Patricia North), and Ocean Dunes are particularly nice. For a larger family, consider the charming channel homes in the Cherry Grove section of North Myrtle Beach. They are a short walk to the beach, and you can crab or just enjoy the view of the waterways behind your house. See the real estate agencies located on Sea Mountain Highway for more info. If you do stay in Cherry Grove or Ocean Drive, check out the nifty Boulineau's store. A combination of grocery store and beach shop, it seems to carry just about everything, including free tide charts. If you're into camping, there are a number of very large campgrounds (mostly oceanfront).

Some notes on the timing of your visit: There are 2 biker weekends in May. One occurs earlier in the month, is predominantly Harley-Davidson riders (mostly older folks, in fact), and tends not to cause much trouble. (A new fall Harley-Davidson weekend has now been organized in late September.) On Memorial Day weekend, the Black Biker fest is held. In years past, this created huge traffic jams in North Myrtle Beach, but with the Carolina Bays Parkway available, this has been mostly alleviated.

Visiting in the summer is more expensive than the off-season. Even though the strand gets year-round visitors nowadays, the summer is still the most popular time of year. Some motels change their rates over a dozen times during the year, starting with very inexpensive rates in January and escalating to the peak rates in July (then back down to very inexpensive by December). It is not unusual for a room that goes for $140 in July to be $35 in January.

Beachside parking is free to the public throughout most of the strand, and there are numerous parking lots available. Surfside installed parking meters a few years ago, but they seem to have taken them down for now. A few lots in the central Myrtle Beach amusement district have meters.

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