This three-part series on the beaches of South Carolina is designed to help you and your family choose the coastal area of the Palmetto State that best fits your idea of a fun and fabulous family beach vacation. Part One is about The Grand Strand’s exciting and entertaining atmosphere. Part Two will give you an overview of the Charleston-area and its beautiful and diverse beaches. Part Three gives you the low-down on the fabulously family-friendly Lowcountry. [NOTE: All of the amazing photographs in this article were taken by my friend, photographer Christy Young of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.]
Sunny South Carolina Beaches Lure Families for Fun Vacations
As a Tennessee girl growing up in the mountains of Appalachia, one of my favorite things about summer was the Family Summer Vacation. This highly anticipated annual event gave the young adventuress in me the chance to break away from the familiar and experience something entirely out-of-the-ordinary for a while, even if only for a week. And for “mountain families” like mine, it seemed we heard the same siren call year after year, enticing us back to the “exotic” (to us) beaches of the South Carolina Coast.
“The Beach” was always one of my family’s favorite travel destinations, maybe because the way of life on the coast seemed so different from our own. The sights and smells of “exotic” plants like wax myrtles, hibiscus, sweet grass, yellow jessamine, and palmettos were downright intoxicating. The days, full of ocean waves that left our skin salty, sun that bleached our hair golden and turned our skin bronze, sand we could sift through for treasures such as shells and shark teeth, swimming, and eating all that fresh seafood left us feeling stronger and healthier than ever. Each evening the salt air lulled us to restful sleep and rejuvenated us, body and soul. We could always count on a beach vacation as pure escapism – designed to relax and revive. By the end of the week were were recharged by the sunshine and salt air, ready to go home to weather the constant change of seasons and moods of the Appalachian Mountains.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to experience the many different regions of the South Carolina Coast. Each region has its own special vibe, its own cultural and natural beauty. And as I’ve aged and changed with life experience, my taste in summer beach vacations has changed a bit, too. I certainly have my favorites. Let me know if you can guess which they are after you’ve read the entire series!
My husband, children and I have learned to choose a South Carolina family beach vacation destination based upon our vacation goals, which could range from the desire to be active and have fun adventures, to explore and learn something new, or to simply enjoy family time together at a beautiful beach.
For the purpose of this series, I’ve divided up the diverse South Carolina Coast into three distinct regions, each with its own special attractions and each with its own distinct personality: The Grand Strand, Charleston, and The Lowcountry. I will be providing my own “Tron’s Beach Town Opinions” based on several different categories that my family finds important in determining what makes a beach vacation fantastic and memorable, including beaches, affordability, lodging, dining, family friendly entertainment, shopping, outdoor and adventure activities, and the arts, cultural attractions, history and educational experiences.
I want to stress, these are my personal perceptions and opinions, based our own experiences, and by no means meant to be a definitive “branding” of the South Carolina Coast. I recommend that you visit each region, experience it for yourself, and determine which one, or ones, fits your lifestyle the best.
Part One – The Grand Strand
Sounds rather majestic, eh? And as a child, it certainly was to me! If a family wants non-stop action and excitement then it’s off to The Grand Strand area you should go – a 60-mile stretch of sandy shoreline from the North Carolina border to Georgetown, known for surf, sand, sun, and seafood!
The Grand Strand includes the beach towns of: Cherry Grove Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach, Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach, Garden City, Murrells Inlet, Litchfield by the Sea, Pawley’s Island and Georgetown. Each has their own special niche or vibe.
Growing up, we loved visiting this area for its sandy beaches with fantastic waves, fresh-off-the-boat seafood, adventurous putt-putt courses, carnival-like night life experiences, picking out our hot-ironed (oh, I remember that smell!) or airbrushed t-shirt souvenirs, and cruising up and down Ocean Boulevard trying to make new friends in the family-friendly atmosphere.
For a while, though, in the 80s and 90s, the Grand Strand, specifically Myrtle Beach, became a huge destination for students over spring break, and soon lost a bit of its luster. It became known more for drunken kids, wet t-shirt contests, and run-down hotel rooms. The boardwalk pavilion, which was the main attraction area with its carnival rides, kitsch-y beach shops, and dance halls, closed down completely. Many families, including my own, stopped visiting and left in search of more family-friendly beach resort areas.
However, I’m happy to report that the Grand Strand has been greatly revitalized in the past few years. It now boasts family-friendly, well-appointed, high-rise condominium resort complexes, outdoor activities, top-notch shopping and dining, and diverse entertainment experiences. The putt-putt courses still abound, and the Grand Strand has also become known for its many phenomenal golf courses – in fact, becoming a destination area for golfers.
Tron’s Beach Town Opinions – The Grand Strand
As promised, here are my opinions of how The Grand Strand fares on the things my family considers most important when choosing a Beach Vacation Destination.
The beaches are public, and boast perfect body-surfing waves, lots of shells and sharks teeth, and many watersports activities. However, the beach itself can tend to get overcrowded in places. If you like crowds, North Myrtle Beach down to Surfside are perfect for you. If you want a bit more privacy and seclusion, well you’re out of luck, but the areas of Litchfield by the Sea and Pawley’s Island are a little less crowded.
The Grand Strand offers something for everyone. With a little planning, you can design a vacation to fit almost any budget.
From high-rises to houses, condos to campers, the Grand Strand has a one of the greatest varieties of lodging choices. Large campgrounds on the southern end provide space for everything from tent campers to the largest recreational vehicles you can imagine. You will also have no trouble finding a motel, hotel, condominium, or resort complex to fit your family’s needs. The Grand Strand also offers many beach houses for rent, from small beach cottages on stilts to grandiose beach mansions that sleep more than 20 people, especially in North Myrtle Beach. Pawley’s Island is known for quaint beach cottages of the “shabby chic” kind, as owners and residents prefer to repair and restore rather than re-build.
From Calabash, North Carolina, just across the border, all the way to Murrells Inlet just south of Myrtle Beach, seafood is literally brought in fresh from the boats on a daily basis. These fishing villages have become known for deep sea fishing excursions and a multitude of seafood dining establishments. You’ll also find hundreds of “all you can eat” seafood and popular chain restaurants up and down the strand, especially on Highway 17. There are several dinner show experiences to choose from as well.
Family Friendly Entertainment
Entertainment venues up and down The Strand offer tons of family-friendly activities, such as the Myrtle Beach Sky Wheel, movie theaters, putt-putt courses, arcades, go-karts, bungee jumping, ferris wheels, bumper cars, and the like. Several new entertainment shows now call the Grand Strand home – such as Medieval Times, Polynesian Fire, and Dolly Parton’s “Pirates Voyage” Dinner Show, billed as a “spectacular acrobatic competition with live animals and a brand new original music score by Dolly Parton which creates an immersive adventure experience”.
The Grand Strand, in its revitalization efforts, has also become a shopping mecca. Broadway at the Beach, the Coastal Grand Mall, Tanger Factory Outlet, and the Market Common are among the best. Don’t neglect to visit the Gay Dolphin Gift Shop, a family owned and operated shopping experience since 1946. It boasts 50 shopping “coves”, including an Elvis Cove, in over 26,000 square feet. The Gay Dolphin is where you go to by novelties such as shells, shark teeth, jewelry, and whoopee cushions (great fun for the ride home). If you’re looking for a more quaint shopping experience, the Hammock Shops Village at Pawley’s Island, known for being “arrogantly shabby”, is known as the place to buy your original Pawley’s Island Hammock, as well as fine jewelry, island wear, home and garden accessories, gourmet food, olive oil, wine, and more.
Outdoor and Adventure Activities
Of course, the main attraction here is the beach and any kind of beach activity you can imagine. As I mentioned, the Grand Strand is now one of the premier golfing destinations, boasting more golf courses than any beach community in the world. World-class fishing from piers and on deep-sea fishing boats is another draw for sportsmen and sportswomen. Kayaking, canoeing, sailing, boating, river tours, surfing lessons, water sports, shelling, biking, and walking along nature trails are just a few more of the outdoor adventures you can experience.
The Arts, Cultural Attractions, Historical and Educational Experiences
Brookgreen Gardens, located just south of Garden City, is a beautiful 9,100-acre sculpture garden and wildlife preserve, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. Pawley’s Island, Litchfield by the Sea, and Huntington Beach State Park, once the seaside escape of wealthy plantation owners from the sweltering heat and deadly mosquitoes of the inland, are slower-paced havens, wonderful for bird-watching and beach-hikes. Myrtle Beach has a Ripley’s Aquarium, a zoo, museums, and dinner theaters.
The Grand Strand Final Analysis: Fun & Action
Overall, The Grand Strand is a wonderful family beach vacation destination with something for everyone. Activities, lodging, and dining opportunities abound, with something for every budget and every interest. Simultaneously, the drawbacks are large beach crowds which make it difficult to attain solitude and quiet relaxation. However, if action and fun is what you’re looking for, the Grand Strand’s still got it!