MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Myrtle Beach has a reputation as a family beach – a workingman's destination where a week of sun and fun with the kids won't break the bank.
In a time of layoffs, high unemployment and recession, that makes the Grand Strand – the 60 miles of shoreline from Georgetown, S.C. to the North Carolina state line – especially attractive.
The area offers a bit of everything: weathered beach bungalows at Pawleys Island and mom-and-pop hotels amid pricier high-rise condos in Myrtle Beach; amusement parks where you pay by the ride; and golf challenges ranging from tilting at mini-golf windmills to making the green on windswept layouts winding through stands of oak. But the main attraction is, and always has been, the beach.
Start your visit at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce – better yet go online before you arrive: www.visitmyrtlebeach.com.
The main office is a few blocks off the shore in the heart of Myrtle Beach. There's a second visitor center at the airport and a third in the fishing village of Murrells Inlet to the south. The chamber folks are invaluable at helping with reservations and sorting through an array of options.
Most visitors arrive by car. On busy beach weekends, that can mean traffic snarls. New roads in recent years have helped. The Carolina Bays Parkway, state Route 31, and the Conway Bypass, state Route 22, now provide expressway alternatives to what was once stop-and-go traffic. An interstate link, I-73, is also in the works.
On the visitmyrtlebeach.com site, you can click on a city of origin and get an estimate of gas costs for the trip. That can help ensure your budget isn't bushwhacked even before you arrive.
FREE, OR NEARLY FREE, FAVES
A new mile-long, $6-million boardwalk, set to be completed this spring, is being built along the shore in the center of Myrtle Beach. It will have green spaces to sit and old-fashioned street lamps. During the summer, there are street performers, face painters and free concerts; www.myrtlebeachdowntown.com
Broadway at the Beach, between the shore and the Intracoastal Waterway, is a 350-acre entertainment and shopping complex featuring everything from an IMAX 3-D theater to Ripley's Aquarium and from Hard Rock Cafe to burger restaurants and pubs. As the weather warms up, there are free concerts with regional acts followed by fireworks; www.broadwayatthebeach.com.
A change of pace from the lights and bustle of downtown Myrtle Beach is the free Murrells Inlet Marsh Walk in nearby Murrells Inlet. It offers picturesque views of the fishing boats and wildlife such as heron and gulls in a quiet walk along the inlet. On the mainland side, the walk connects with a string of eight seafood restaurants in the town locals like to call “The Seafood Capital of South Carolina;” www.murrellsinletmarshwalk.com
Festival season along the Grand Strand includes concerts, parades and other free events, kicking off with the annual Canadian-American Days Festival, March 13-21 – which is only fitting, since Canadians and other Northerners are the only ones in the water that early in the year. The Sun Fun Festival takes place in June and the Beach Boogie and BBQ Festival winds up the season at Labor Day; www.grandstrandevents.com.
From June through August, the Market Common, a shopping complex on what was once the old Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, offers a KidZone every Monday with jumping castles and the like. Kids can jump all day for $10. Friday nights the complex's Valor Park has free live music; www.marketcommonevents.com
If you're looking for something beyond sand and surf, stop by the Franklin G. Burroughs Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum. The museum, also free, has displayed contemporary art by Southern artists since 1977; www.myrtlebeachartmuseum.org
FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE
The Myrtle Beach area offers a variety of amusement and water parks. Family Kingdom Amusement Park is the only seaside amusement park in the area. Dating to 1966, it features the signature Swamp Fox wooden roller coaster and the largest Ferris wheel in South Carolina. There's no admission to the park itself, so parents won't have to pay if it's only the kids who want to ride. There are individual ride tickets or a $33 combo pass for unlimited rides for a day at both the amusement and water parks; http://www.FamilyKingdomFun.com
The famous beachfront Myrtle Beach Pavilion closed down several years back. But a number of the smaller rides, and the funnel cake stand, have been relocated to the smaller Pavilion Nostalgia Park at Broadway at the Beach.
During spring and fall, you'll find more people on the golf course than on the beach. With 100 regulation golf courses, there's something for every golfer and most courses are public. More than four million rounds of golf are played annually and each fall the PGA Tour Superstore World Amateur Handicap Championship is held on 70 different courses along the Grand Strand. One place to start is the Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday Web site, where you can log in with details about your trip plans and get quotes on golf packages with accommodations; www.golfholiday.com.
Golfers not trying to pitch out of a bunker are often trying to putt past buccaneers. The Grand Stand has more than 50 miniature golf courses, many with nautical themes. Full-price tickets run $8 for adults and about $6 for kids – but most courses offer discounts if you play during the day rather than during the busier evening hours.
Another big draw is shopping. You'll find outlet stores, national chains like Victoria's Secret and everything in between. The Grand Strand has 326 gift, novelty and souvenir stores, including the ubiquitous beachwear shops. The most popular souvenir? Anything from gym shorts to T-shirts and from paperweights to drinking glasses with “Myrtle Beach” on them, says Kimberly Miles, the public relations manager for the chamber.
The Grand Strand also boasts 1,700 full-service restaurants. And it's not just seafood. You'll find everything from pancakes and country cooking to ribs, barbecue and international cuisine.
With 60 miles of coastline, it's not hard, or expensive, to find a room with a view of the water or one within a block or two of the shore.
The Grand Strand has nearly 90,000 rooms for rent, from upscale hotels to mom-and-pop motels to villas and condos on golf courses.
For the latter, the chamber can direct visitors to a half-dozen agencies that rent to vacationers. Or book your own online: Online rates for many condos and hotels in late March and April range from under $100 to over $200 a night.
Many hotels in spring and fall offer specials, giving visitors a free night or two if they stay a specified number of nights. You can also stretch your dollar by looking at amenities. The Dunes Village Resort has a full-fledged 15,000-square-foot indoor water park, free for guests, with a slide big enough for adults, so there's no need for a trip to an amusement park; http://www.dunesvillage.com. If the ocean is too cold for you in spring, many condo towers on the beach have free indoor-outdoor water complexes with pools, hot tubs and lazy rivers.
For camping out, Myrtle Beach State Park offers 350 campsites along with nature programs and hiking trails. Huntington Beach State Park, farther south, has 133 campsites and features a castle-like home, Atalaya, once the winter home of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her husband; www.SouthCarolinaParks.com.
If you're bringing the RV, the Lakewood Camping Resort offers 1,100 campsites and 85 villas on a 200-acre oceanfront campground.
The resort is said to be the eighth-largest camping resort in the world; www.Lakewoodcampground.com.
Fall and spring are increasingly popular times for golfing and shopping. But the most popular season is still summer, with July Fourth as the busiest weekend. July is also the hottest month; temperatures average 87 degrees and the seaside humidity can make it feel hotter, but often the afternoon brings a sea breeze or even a thunder shower.