A serene sculpture garden might not be the first place you think to bring children while visiting the dynamo of Myrtle Beach, but it should be if you want to be swept into a magical, enchanting world.
Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet is the largest and oldest public sculpture garden in the US, with incredible bronzes set among stunning gardens. Created by Anna and Archer Huntington, it is their gift, along with Huntington Beach State Park, to all of us. Anna Hyatt Huntington is a renowned sculptor, and her flowing, wild, passionate work figures prominently in the gardens, joined by work from more than 350 other artists.
When talking about the artists of Brookgreen Gardens, the landscape architects, designers and gardeners who envisioned and brought to life these outdoor galleries and vistas on what were once rice fields must not be forgotten. It's impossible to say which is more breathtaking: the sculptures or the flowers, trees, vines and fountains in which they are set.
Brookgreen Gardens includes not just its namesake gardens, but also the Lowcountry Zoo and the Lowcountry Trail, which tell some of the history of the enslaved people who once lived and worked on the land when it was a rice plantation.
My 9- and 7-year-old children, my husband and I easily spent the whole day there. In a place with enchanting views at every turn, make sure you and your family visit these five places that we found especially magical.
- It's one thing to look at birds in a zoo, but quite another to enter into their home, to hear the whoosh and feel the wind as they fly just a few feet or even inches from your face. The Cypress Swamp Aviary allows you to do just that. The exhibit, the only aviary in the world that's actually built over a cypress swamp, houses many species of injured birds that could not survive in the wild. Visitors walk through the aviary, a large netted enclosure, on boardwalks above the black water. The birds swim, fly around your head and hunt just inches from you. In fact, the herons, ibis and egrets stare at you with such intense, piercing black eyes that you might not be able to shake the feeling that they're desperately trying to tell you something, as my daughter believed. Or that they're sizing you up as a meal, as my son commented.
- When, in a rare quiet moment with two boisterous children, a butterfly lands on your daughter's head without her awareness and slowly beats its wings before taking off again, the Butterfly House becomes a favorite place. The garden is lush, with the flowers butterflies need and love, and safely enclosed to maintain the right temperature and to protect the butterflies from birds. (After visiting the aviary, you won't forget that birds are predators!) Butterflies fly and float freely as you meander through.
- Located on the Trail Beyond the Wall (how's that for an enchanting name?), the Labyrinth isn't a maze with walls made of hedges or corn stalks or tires that you have to struggle to find your way through. Instead, it is a wide-open, large circle, with a twisting and spiraling crushed-seashell and brick path that brings you into the middle and back out again. Inspired by the labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral in France, it's meant to lead you into a deep and peaceful walking meditation. There are no walls preventing you from running off the path and into the middle, but for children and adults alike, there is something strangely and deeply satisfying about twisting around and around to walk to the center. Well, at least it was satisfying for some children and adults. My daughter and I were like medieval pilgrims in a cathedral of sunshine, green grass and twinkling water. My husband and son just ran across it, waving their arms and pretending to slash and knock down unseen crops and shrubbery.
- Mother Nature's Cafe isn't a place, despite its name. It's a not-to-be-missed program at the Lowcountry Zoo that gives families the chance to see a zookeeper feed the animals. Just watching three otters come loping and scrambling through the woods and glide into the water to wait to catch fish is worth the time to take the hour-long tour. Check at the visitors center for times.
- I've saved the most charming and, in my children's opinion, the best for last. The Children's Garden Room is a whimsical outdoor "room" that looks just like the backyard you wished you'd had when you were little. Like the childhood dreams you never wanted to wake up from or the most magical place your imagination could conjure or Narnia. Sculptures of roly-poly bears and pigs, tortoises on parade and a girl perched on a towering flower high in the air are set among deeply shaded, narrow, twisting trails. Little teepees made of tree branches offer cozy places to hide and imagine. Tunnels of green leaves open up to a fountain with a chubby baby laughing at its center. If you stand in just the right spot, one sculpture of a child suddenly seems to be hanging from a tree. "I don't really know why, but I don't want to leave this place," my daughter said. So we didn't. My husband and I sat on a bench while our children did whatever it is children do when discovering an enchanted place made just for them.