A Myrtle Beach vacation is bound to surprise you

 
       

Built in 2011, the SkyWheel, just off the sand in downtown Myrtle Beach, has become a city landmark.

MYRTLE 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 something.

"Have you found the painted buntings?" she asked.

"No, buntings," she said, with amiable Southern sternness. "Itís the most beautiful bird. Itís like God painted it last because he got it perfect Ö"

I hadnít found the buntings, aside from a fake one in the parkís nature center ó a fake that was a genuine beauty.

"Itís 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."

Huntington 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 signature bird.

Iím also guessing what you think you know about Myrtle Beach is wrong. Fasten your paddleboard.

The consensus image is tacky. Lowbrow. Not a luxury destination.

"Historically," 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

"Thereís 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 budgets."

What 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.

It would be easy to scrunch your nose at such a place ó except, well Ö

"Myrtle 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."

"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."

A 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.

"Iíve never seen that before," said Walker ó who has seen a lot ó as he examined the digital image.

Helms knows: "Itís never the same."

Myrtle 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 with monsters.

People 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 barbecue.

Promoters 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?

So 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 national-brand restaurants.

(Locals 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.)

Speaking 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."

From 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."

This 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."

Four 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 complicated story.

And 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.

And Pelicans baseball, where a good seat can be had for the price of a beer in the big leagues.

And where you may even see a little bunting.

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