in 2011, the SkyWheel, just off the sand in downtown
Myrtle Beach, has become a city landmark.
BEACH, S.C. ó Nancy Helms probably owns a better camera
with a bigger lens than yours. When sheís not home in
Midlothian, Va., near Richmond, sheís probably here, in
Huntington Beach State Park, aiming her Canon at
you found the painted buntings?" she asked.
buntings," she said, with amiable Southern sternness.
"Itís the most beautiful bird. Itís like God
painted it last because he got it perfect Ö"
hadnít found the buntings, aside from a fake one in the
parkís nature center ó a fake that was a genuine
kind of our signature bird this time of year," said
park ranger Mike Walker, who has been assisting visitors
to South Carolinaís marshes, forests and beaches since
2001. We were chatting in late spring. "I once had a
visitor actually accuse us of painting the painted
buntings. We donít paint them."
Beach State Park is about 15 beach-miles south of downtown
Myrtle Beach (and a few miles south of much smaller Myrtle
Beach State Park). Iím guessing you didnít know that
ó or that anything in or around Myrtle Beach had a
also guessing what you think you know about Myrtle Beach
is wrong. Fasten your paddleboard.
consensus image is tacky. Lowbrow. Not a luxury
said Andy Milovich, president and general manager of the
Class-A minor league Myrtle Beach Pelicans, a Chicago Cubs
affiliate, "thatís been kind of the reputation. But
if you visit here Ö
high-end resorts and accommodations, and great restaurants
and great shopping," added Milovich, who grew up in
South Bend, Ind., and has worked everywhere. "And
thereís also affordable options for families on
passes for downtown Myrtle Beach is dominated by the
187-foot SkyWheel ó a Ferris wheel built in 2011 that
rotates above everything, including a newish boardwalk
(think Atlantic City but much more compact) and a
pleasant, busy beach. Myrtle Beach, to many and for better
or worse, means downtown: sandy beach, boardwalk, beer,
SkyWheel, a couple (believe it or not) of Ripley
attractions, pizza and burgers and ice cream and corn
dogs, and T-shirts and shell necklaces for sale, and some
hotels facing the Atlantic.
would be easy to scrunch your nose at such a place ó
except, well Ö
Beach has a whole plethora of different experiences,"
said Walker, the ranger. "A lot of people like a
hotel with a beach right in front of it, and they like
having the different gift shops and attractions right
there. And then if you want something else, go further
south, and youíve got ó this."
is Walkerís 2,500-acre reserve, one that includes what
may be the stateís finest beach, hiking and biking
trails, fishing off a jetty, and marsh easily assessable
via boardwalks and populated by egrets, herons and, on
this particular morning, three pink roseate spoonbills.
And other things. "Go on the boardwalk on a low
tide," he said, "and you can see fiddler crabs
by the thousands."
photographer with a smaller lens than Nancy Helmsí was
able to catch an alligator tossing and catching a
horseshoe crab the size of a rugby ball.
never seen that before," said Walker ó who has seen
a lot ó as he examined the digital image.
knows: "Itís never the same."
Beach is, in fact, 60 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline
marketed as "The Grand Strand." Itís home to
12 communities, some with discreet resorts, others with
indiscreet seafood buffets and beachwear emporiums and
music venues and monster mini-golf layouts, some complete
live here, of course, a growing number of them
ex-Northerners (including not a few Canadians) who
seasonally like the weather and the relatively low-priced
housing (compared with Toronto) and who quickly develop a
taste for she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, and excellent
brag of the areaís 102 golf courses, not including the
ones with monsters. Many have been recognized by credible
recognizers as among the nationís finest public courses.
And any community with that many elite places to abuse
$50-a-dozen Titleists is going to have elite places for
duffers to rest their heads ó and now youíre beginning
to get the picture, arenít you?
thereís that. Thereís also Broadway at the Beach, a
sprawling entertainment-dining-shopping venue thatís
nowhere near Broadway and not very close to the beach, but
those are mere technicalities. The shopping is mostly
youth-oriented, and so is just about everything else,
including the obligatory water park and familiar
will steer you toward longtime favorites, including Sea
Captainís House for South Carolina goodies,
Thoroughbreds for steaks, Johnny Dís for waffles and any
of two dozen restaurants along Murrells Inlet for seafood,
some of it right off the boats.)
of fish and Murrells: Veteran guide Jamie Moore took me
out from there, eight miles into the Atlantic on his
26-foot boat, mainly in search of sharks. Over a couple of
rushed hours (my bad) in the afternoon chop, we settled
for great conversation, some small sea bass and a 5-pound
something. But another party back at the marina brought in
two nice groupers, two beautiful dolphin fish (mahi-mahi,
not Flipper) and other tasty-looking stuff. Next time:
king mackerel, blues, kingfish, tuna, wahoo, shark. Mooreís
biggest, out there: "About an 800-pound marlin."
a landing between Murrells and the big state park, guide
Paul Laurent and I canoed the marsh, observing eagles, a
Forsterís tern, egrets, kayakers, paddleboarders and
more, and talked about birds we didnít see ó like that
elusive painted bunting, "which is about the
prettiest bird in the country. Itís like some 4-year-old
went out with a magic marker."
part of South Carolina was rice-growing country ó
serious fortunes were made here ó until the end of
slavery disrupted the labor supply. The South Carolina
Civil War Museum, a small but interesting collection
affixed to a gun range inland from the beaches, provided
this synopsis from a particular point of view:
"Lincoln overthrew the Second Republic of the United
States established by the U.S. Constitution when he
launched his war against the South."
former rice plantations form the core of Brookgreen
Gardens. Its sculpture collection would be reason enough
to visit, but ó history again ó flat-bottom boat tours
of waterways separating what were rice fields tell a more
there are those 60 miles of beach. A few get pretty
crowded in summer vacation season ó but in all seasons,
beaches can be found away from the SkyWheel that are quiet
enough for a solitary morning jog or a hand-in-hand walk
with someone you like a lot.
Pelicans baseball, where a good seat can be had for the
price of a beer in the big leagues.
where you may even see a little bunting.