“The Pee Dee” – it’s apt that such an unusual name represents one of South Carolina’s most interesting regions. Comprised of seven counties – Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Lee, Marion, Marlboro and Williamsburg – this eastern area of the state was named for its early inhabitants, the Native American Pee Dee Indians, as well as two major rivers that ramble through it: the Great Pee Dee and the Little Pee Dee. This is a region where agricultural roots, natural beauty and an unhurried way of life remain time-honored despite proclivities to modern lifestyles and a robust local industrial presence. Take a long weekend to experience the past, explore gardens or waterways, immerse yourself in the arts, take in a concert or play, find great barbecue, enjoy energetic nightlife or do some antique shopping. The Pee Dee offers all this and then some.
Ease into your first day with a freshly brewed java drink at Midnight Rooster in Hartsville. The eclectic café, set in the heart of the downtown business district, has a funky vibe that will set the mood for a morning of shopping at the town’s many specialty stores, all within walking distance. Stow your packages in the back seat and mosey over to the Hartsville Museum where you’ll see the “Locomobile,” South Carolina’s first car, learn about the role cotton played in the area’s economy and view exhibits about early Native American inhabitants.
When you’re finished, take a short drive to Kalmia Gardens, a 35-acre botanical garden brimming with camellias, azaleas, dogwood, rhododendrons, wisteria and other flowering plants. Follow the trails to learn about the diverse fauna and flora, and take the boardwalks down to the gently flowing waters of Black Creek. Also on the grounds of this former plantation is the historic Thomas Hart House, which once served as the residence of the town’s first postmaster, and later, home to other persons important to Hartsville history.
Head over to Darlington and have lunch at Joe’s Grill, housed in an unassuming clapboard building a few blocks from the town square. At this locals’ favorite, the burgers are hand-patted, the fries freshly cut and the meat-and-three plates are served up hot and heaping. Wash it down with some sweet tea, hop back in the car and drive over to the place that put this town on the map: Darlington Raceway, home of the Southern 500. Visit the track’s Stock Car Museum and National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame for a raceway history lesson and to learn about NASCAR’s greatest legends.
Watch the sun set while sipping your favorite cocktail at the rooftop bar in The Mantissa, Hartsville’s upscale boutique hotel. Then, enjoy a romantic Italian dinner at Da Massimo, an intimate restaurant serving authentic dishes and fine wines. Have an after-dinner coffee at Crema Coffee Bar, where you might just catch a local musical act, or check out Center Theater for live performances.
Pick up a taste of the region when you hit the Pee Dee State Farmers Market, located between Darlington and Florence on US 52. Fresh vegetables, local honey and other products, plants, herbs and more fill this sweeping, open-air affair – the largest farmers market in South Carolina. Though it’s open year-round, you’ll find more local products and produce during the summer and fall growing seasons. For farm-fresh produce, meats, seafood, cheeses and more, check out the Ovis Hill Farms market under the awning next to Naturally Outdoors in Florence.
Get your coffee and pastry fix in downtown Florence at Clay Pot Coffee Shop, where you can also see the works of talented local artists. This is sure to whet your artsy appetite, so walk to the nearby Art Trail Gallery and be wowed by the current exhibits as well as the works of internationally renowned sculptor, Alex Palkovich, whose gallery is housed there. You also won’t want to miss the impressive Florence County Museum, where you can view art exhibits, historical artifacts and some of the best traveling exhibits in the nation.
Back track to the Clay Pot for a lunch made from locally sourced and organic ingredients, or order up something good to eat in the Victorian setting of Top Hat Special-Teas. For a late afternoon treat, do as the British do and enjoy an authentic tea service complete with finger sandwiches, scones and a pot of your favorite tea. If that’s too dainty for you, take a drive out to Hemingway where famed pit master Rodney Scott operates the nationally lauded Scott’s Bar-B-Que. Considered by many renowned chefs and gourmands as the finest pit master in the US, Scott draws crowds to his humble barbecue joint where you can dig into smoky, tender pulled pork slathered with his signature vinegar-pepper sauce. Don’t forget the white bread.
For something old that’s new to you, spend the afternoon wandering the aisles of Florence’s Palmetto Peddlers, where multiple vendors sell their retro and vintage wares. Or put on your walking shoes and tackle the 40 acres of Florence Flea Market. With more than 750 vendors, you’re bound to find just about anything and everything.
If shopping’s not your thing, opt to visit some of the Pee Dee’s historical sites. Begin with the Florence National Cemetery, established in 1865. This site was initially a Civil War stockade that became the grave site of Union soldiers who died in captivity. An interpretive walking trail and historical markers tell the story of those dark times while conferring appropriate honor on all who rest there. A newer section of the cemetery serves as the final resting place for US soldiers who served in various conflicts.
The Florence Veterans Park, located behind the Florence Civic Center, is a moving tribute to those who served or who are serving in the US military. Sculptures, a water wall and pool, plaques, an amphitheater and sculptures by Alex Palkovich make for a thought-provoking experience.
Another poignant, but Pee Dee-proud point of interest is the Ronald E. McNair Memorial and Life History Center in Lake City, which is a just a short drive from Florence. The late NASA astronaut and pioneer physicist, a Lake City native, lost his life in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. Learn how he overcame the burdens of discrimination to become one of the most remarkable figures in the history of this region – and nation. When you’re finished, do some shopping along the town’s charming Main Street, which is brimming with antique dealers, gift stores, clothing boutiques and art shops. Find designer duds at Mosaic, personalize a gift at Seven Monogram Boutique, admire antique craftsmanship at The Elegant Bee or find a unique souvenir at Main Street Mercantile.
Florence is rich with notable dining and imbibing choices, among them Tubb’s Shrimp and Fish Co., where the seafood comes fresh from the ocean, the iconic Redbone Alley, featuring innovative South Carolina cuisine, and Victor’s in Hotel Florence, the area’s favorite fine-dining establishment. If you’ve taken the drive to Lake City, check out the Crossroads Grill at Inn at the Crossroads, or experience Lake City’s “fly in” eatery, The Patio Restaurant/Grill at Runway 19. This small café, situated at the area's airport, is locally owned and features a tasty assortment of dishes in a very casual setting. The owner is a skilled pastry chef, so don’t skip dessert.
Back in downtown Florence, have a casual wine experience at Dolce Vita, which offers self-service automated pours and hand-made chocolates, or head next door for a hand-crafted cocktail in the speakeasy atmosphere of The Library. If you want a cold one, check out Seminar Brewing at Florence Mall and Southern Hops on US 76 for locally brewed craft beers.
It’s the weekend and that means you want to have some fun. Southern Hops,the Renaissance Courtyard downtown and the Hotel Florence courtyard typically offer a variety of live music. The vibe is always hip and relaxed at After Dark Jazz Café, a dimly lit, intimate downtown club for socializing and chilling to great local jazz.
The state-of-the-art Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center, which serves as home to the Florence Symphony Orchestra, also regularly features an exciting lineup of well-known performers and programs. Plays and musicals are the specialties of Lake City Community Theater, Florence Little Theater and Francis Marion University, each of which offers seasonal live theater spotlighting the finest local talent – and there’s plenty in the Pee Dee.
Sleep in, have a leisurely brunch at Victor’s, then change into your duds for some outdoor adventure. Stop by Block and Vino to pick up provisions for a picnic and pack a cooler. Now, you’re ready to explore the beautiful trails and waterways of the Pee Dee at area parks or through local outfitters such as Swamp Fox Kayaking and Rentals. Advanced planning is a must, of course and don’t forget the bug spray and sunscreen!
Canoe and kayak rentals are offered at Cheraw State Park, which features walking trails, a golf course and a 300-acre lake. At Little Pee Dee State Park, you can choose to paddle its 54-acre lake or the Little Pee Dee River. You can also follow the South Carolina Revolutionary Rivers Trails by putting in at Lynches River County Park near Florence. This waterway trail takes you deep into the cypress swamps – the stomping grounds of the legendary Revolutionary War hero, General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, whose keen knowledge of the landscape helped him outsmart the British. Make a stop at the park’s Environmental Discovery Center to see live critters and learn about the area’s rich habitat. For a different perspective, meander through the treetops on the canopy walk and make sure you have a camera in hand. You’ll want pics to remember the breathtaking beauty of this Pee Dee treasure.
Time to head home. Amazingly, there’s still so much to see and do in the Pee Dee, so make plans to return soon.
Pee Dee Lodging Options
From cozy to elegant to hip, accommodations in this region are, well, accommodating! For a comfortable, laid-back “time out” from Life’s hustle and bustle, consider a stay at one of the Pee Dee’s many fine inns or hotels.
The Breeden Inn offers four 19th century houses appointed with antiques and surrounded by lavish gardens. Situated in the historic Marlboro County town of Bennettsville, this property is designed for relaxation and quiet. Whirlpools for two make it a popular choice for couples. The Grove – The Inn on Harlee in Marion County offers bed and breakfast with a big helping of history. In addition to luxurious, spacious rooms and a sumptuous breakfast, this five-acre estate distinguishes itself by offering living history displays such as cooking with fire and building period furniture. For those with discriminating tastes in both lodging and dining, Abingdon Manor in the quaint town of Latta is your perfect getaway place. This stately Greek Revival manor house offers award-winning fine dining nightly as well as gracious accommodations in the tradition of the best English country inns. Even if you don’t stay overnight, you can often secure a dinner reservation if space allows.
Some of the Pee Dee’s most popular towns offer boutique hotels for those who enjoy a central location, modern atmosphere and upscale creature comforts. In charming downtown Hartsville, The Mantissa is where it’s at with hip executive suites and a rooftop bar for sunset cocktails. The Inn at the Crossroads in Lake City, home of the regionally renowned art competition, ArtFields, draws travelers with its spacious rooms, modern décor and popular onsite restaurant. If you’re visiting Florence, the activity hub of the Pee Dee, a stay at Hotel Florence is a must, especially if you want to walk to the bars, restaurants and art galleries of downtown, which is undergoing revitalization. A lot of guests simply stay put, though, and enjoy the plush rooms, fine onsite dining at Victor’s or music and drinks in the hotel’s lovely courtyard.