If you think you know Myrtle Beach just because you are aware of the golf (over 100 courses), the family outings on the sand (60 miles of beaches) and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Show (horses and noise), well, you are a little bit savvy, then. But tune out that image and get ready for another one -- the Myrtle Beach of peace and quiet, of hammocks on green lawns, of gorgeous gardens and lazy afternoons. All this can be had in and around the MB area, and if you're clever, you can combine the glitter and the serene, the razzmatazz and the genuine. Me? I'll take it easy, thank you. The other 14 million tourists can have the rest.
The area a few miles south of Myrtle Beach proper was rice plantation country back in the 19th century, and produced "Carolina Gold," once considered the finest rice in the world. Using slash and burn tactics, huge cypress forests were cut down and burned to make room for rice paddies, just as the Amazon is being despoiled today. (And cutting down forests is still going on here. I saw dozens of huge trucks carrying large loads of logs rolling south on Highway 17 during my visit.)
Slaves provided the labor force until the end of the Civil War, when the rice empire collapsed. Many slaveholders lived in magnificent plantation homes, some still standing, a few now resorts or B&Bs. (And some of the modest beach houses used by the planters to escape malarial summers are still standing, a few open to visitors.) George Washington visited the rice country, Bluebeard allegedly abandoned 32 casks of rum here (at Drunken Jack Island) and Mickey Spillane (creator of the Mike Hammer mysteries) lived here until his death in 2006 at age 88. The rice country centered on Waccamaw Neck, where today you can visit Litchfield, Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet, among other spots. In late March each year, plantation tours visit several homes, many restored by wealthy Northerners who bought them after the Civil War.
You'll need a car to get around this part of he world, and you will become well acquainted with Highway 17, the main artery running north and south through Myrtle Beach and area. Be careful of speeding -- some of those patrol cars on the median are decoys (you can tell by the weeds growing up around them), but a real one could be right behind you.
The diamond in Myrtle Beach's elegant crown is Brookgreen Gardens, located just south of town, with over 500 sculptures by more than 300 American artists, many set in outdoor garden "rooms," others in statuary halls. A National Historic Landmark, Brookgreen's art is said to be the world's finest outdoor collection of American figurative sculptures. Created by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington (he the adopted scion of the Southern Pacific Railway's Collis Huntington) in 1931, it was America's first public sculpture garden. You can wander at your leisure through the more than 9,100 acres (previously four separate rice plantations) that make up the Gardens. Much of the work here is done by some 400 volunteers, who put in about 40,000 hours a year, a spokesperson said. Special events take place from February through December. Check out the Sculpture Garden, the Low Country History & Wildlife Preserve, the three restaurants, the boat ride and more. I liked in particular the Carl Milles Fountain of the Muses and the James Earle Fraser sculpture, The End of the Trail.
There are several educational projects, such as one on hummingbird banding, the latter usually on a Saturday in August. The Gardens complex has one of six new "visual storage" research centers in existence, two of the others being at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Brooklyn Academy of Art. Open daily 9:30am-5pm, and some evenings, when musical shows and drama are on stage. Admission is $12 and the ticket is good for seven consecutive days. Closed Mondays in December only and on Christmas Day. Brookgreen Gardens, Ocean Highway 17, tel. 800/849-1931 or 843/235-6000, website www.brookgreen.org.
Associated with Brookgreen also is Atalaya, a Moorish-type castle built by Archer Huntington for his sculptor wife, Anna Hyatt, as a studio. It's located in Huntington Beach State Park, near Brookgreen, and once had courtyard bear cages, still having 30 rooms with 25 fireplaces, all open to the public. There's an Arts & Crafts Festival here in late September each year.
A Lovely Live-In Plantation
You can visit a plantation that is still lived in, and it's South Carolina's first National Historical Landmark. Check out Hopsewee, 12 miles south of Georgetown on US 17. Built in 1740, it was the home of a member of the Continental Congress, Thomas Lynch, and birthplace of his son, Thomas, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Frank and Raejean Bettie, who bought the property in 2000 in an effort to keep developers away, feel their ownership is "a gift from God and a trust to the people of South Carolina and the United States." One of them, or an associate, will show you around from attic to cellar, and that includes the adjoining slave cabins and grounds. I liked especially the nice front yard, edging on the Santee River and presided over by a majestic live oak, Spanish moss clad and all. Open Monday to Friday from March through October, Thursdays and Fridays the rest of the year, or by appointment, 10am-4pm year round, admission $12. Hopsewee Plantation, 494 Hopsewee Road, Georgetown SC 29440, tel. 843/546-7891, website www.hopsewee.com.
If you have plenty of time, take the guided tour at the Hobcaw Barony, where famed economist Bernard Baruch (adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt, among other tenures) had his winter home. As interesting is the story of his aviator daughter Belle and her foundation, which keeps the huge estate (17,500 acres) going these days as a Nature Preserve & Wildlife Refuge. Open weekdays 10am-5pm, but the $20 van tour (three hours) operates Tuesday to Friday at 9:30 AM only. Hobcaw Barony, tel. 604/546-4623, website www.hobcawbarony.org.
They've been making hammocks at the Pawleys Island Hammock Shop since 1889, when a riverboat pilot devised the forerunner of those sold today. You can watch ace craftsman Marvin Grant at work making them, and listen to his colorful stories. Note the hundreds of postcards from satisfied customers glued to the walls and ceilings. A really good 100% cotton rope hammock goes for around $112. The shop is anchor to a group of restaurants, stores and such called The Hammock Shops Village. The Original Hammock Shop, Highway 17, Pawleys Island SC 29585, tel. 800/232-8004, website www.hammockshop.com.
If you want a scenic, slightly urbanized stroll, try the Marshwalk, a ¾ mile wooden boardwalk connecting some area restaurants and marines at Murrells Inlet.
Opened in 1997, the Franklin G. Burroughs & Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum is located in a remodeled 1920s beach house, with nearly 4,000 sq. ft. of permanent and traveling exhibits. The museum is named for two entrepreneurs who are often considered the "founders of modern Myrtle Beach." There's a nice Jasper Johns print exhibit until September 2, 2007 (he was raised in South Carolina). Open Tuesday through Sundays. Free admission. 3100 S. Ocean Blvd., tel. 843/238-2510, website www.myrtlebeachartmuseum.org.
There's a Rice Museum in Georgetown, south of Myrtle Beach, and a 60-minute guided tour takes you through it and two buildings dating back to 1842. The oldest vessel of colonial manufacture in the US is here, called the Browns Ferry Vessel, on the National Register of Historic Places. You can pick up a bit of Gullah history here, too. Open Monday through Saturday, 10am-4:30pm, admission $7. Rice Museum, 633 Front Street, Georgetown SC 29440, tel. 843/546-7423, website www.ricemuseum.org.
Look for local fish, such as grouper, flounder, dolphin (mahi-mahi, not the mammal) and triggerfish
I enjoyed dining at the Litchfield Plantation Carriage House, trying their splendid she-crab soup with sherry and chives ($8.50) and the penne Alfredo with tomatoes, green beans, caramelized baby onions and parmesan tuile ($18.50), also excellent. A good glass of Monrossi Chianti ($7.50) was just right with this.
For a rousing evening where the locals like to go, try Frank's Outback (no relation to the Outback chain), or Frank's other restaurant, next door, which is quieter. I had a great grilled quail with sweet potato and goat cheese fritter for an appetizer ($11.95) and an excellent grilled pork tenderloin with pan fried lo mein noodles ($23.95). There's a very good wine list, too. Frank's Outback, 10434 Ocean Highway, Pawleys Island SC, tel. 843/2237-1777, website www.franksandoutback.com.
Good seafood can be had at the Sea Captain's House in Myrtle Beach, which is proud of its complimentary fried hushpuppies. The she crab soup is fine (cup $4.50) and the shrimp salad has been an area favorite for over 30 years, they say, at $9.75. Once a guesthouse (opened in 1930), it has been a fixture for locals ever since. 3002 N. Ocean Blvd., Myrtle Beach SC 29577, tel. 843/448-8082, website www.seacaptains.com.
There are three places to eat in Brookgreen Gardens, ranging from the Pavilion restaurant to a snack shop. At the Pavilion, the sherry-laced she-crab soup looked good to me (cup $3.95), as did the Huntington Salad, a large offering of green stuff topped with grilled or blackened tilapia at $8.95.
If you can, be sure to stay at the Litchfield Plantation, a former rice planter's home, and ask for rooms in the 1750 Plantation House. The approach on this 600-acre estate is worth the visit in itself, being one of the finest avenues of live oaks I've seen anywhere. (And yes, that's Spanish moss hanging from the 300-year-old trees.) You can enjoy hiking and biking here in near privacy, the occasional deer, bird and turtle your only likely companions. Rooms in the old house and more modern villas and cottages are all furnished with the usual deluxe class amenities, and there are swimming and tennis available, too. The Carriage House has excellent dining and hearty, complimentary breakfasts (with grits if you want them). On top of all this, they have their own beach house about three miles away, a breezy place with towels, chairs, umbrellas and the like for your use in the sun. Rooms (for two persons) start at $230 until October 31, 2007, from $215 through November 30, from $153 from December 1 through Feb 29, 2008. The rate includes full plantation breakfast, but not tax and tips. Litchfield Plantation, Kings River Road, Pawleys Island SC 29585, tel. 800/869-1410 or 843/237-9121, website www.litchfieldplantation.com.
For complete information on Myrtle Beach and area, tel. 888/88 MY BEACH (same as 888/886-9232) or visit www.visitmybeach.com.
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