If you're looking for the quintessential week-at-the-beach experience, South Carolina's Hammock Coast offers an unparalleled combination of beach, food and fun things to do.
Situated between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, the area is defined by wide, sandy beaches and ancient rivers. It's slower and more laid-back than its neighbors, drawing people back year after year to Pawleys Island, Litchfield Beach, Murrells Inlet, Garden City Beach and Georgetown. Once you discover it, it's a part of you forever.
During the summer months, it's a haven for families. Most rent beach houses for a week or more, and they're always on the lookout for fun things to do in the hours they're not building sandcastles or riding the waves.
Spring, fall and winter are perfectly suited for golf, boating and outdoor sports, and even a warm winter day can be a good time to visit the beach.
The area is full of history and adventures waiting to happen. Here are some to explore during your week at the beach:
1. Discover Brookgreen Gardens
Brookgreen Gardens is one of South Carolina's most special places, combining exquisite world-class sculpture on a Lowcountry plantation to create a magical, enchanting world.
Created by Anna and Archer Huntington, it is the largest and oldest public sculpture garden in the US, with incredible bronzes set among stunning gardens. 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. 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.
2. Explore Atalaya Castle
There is something strangely mesmerizing about Atalaya Castle, the 30-room mansion perched on the edge of the dunes and overlooking the ocean at Huntington Beach State Park.
Along with Brookgreen Gardens, the park was once part of the estate of Anna Hyatt Huntington. She and her husband built Atalaya Castle, a Spanish Moors-style compound, and used it as their winter getaway.
You know this is a house like no other the moment you glimpse its foreboding walls from the outside, but what really seals the deal that you've entered a different world is one of the first rooms you see. Other mansions have ballrooms, but Atalaya has "bear pens."
Anna's preferred subject was animals, and she had several large kennels, stables and pens attached to her massive indoor and outdoor studios. She worked in aluminum and bronze and is perhaps most famous for her enormous equestrian statues.
Atalaya was built around a central, enclosed courtyard full of palm trees lined up in orderly rows. In the center, there's a short watchtower that gives the home its name.
One of the best ways to see this National Historic Landmark is during the Atalaya Arts & Crafts Festival (atalayafestival.com) each fall, when more than 100 artists fill the rooms of the castle and the courtyard it surrounds.
Atalaya Castle is located within Huntington Beach State Park. Maps are available, and very helpful, to explain the different aspects of the building.
3. Go birding and hiking at the beach
There are lots of reasons for jaws to drop at Huntington Beach State Park. The wildlife that make it their home are just the beginning. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted there, drawn by the salt marsh and tidal waters of the maritime habitat.
One of the best places to spot the avian show (along with alligators sunning themselves) is on the causeway leading into the park. Once inside the park, the visitors center has a wonderful exhibit complete with a very cool saltwater touch tank.
From there, head out on the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail, an easy two-mile out-and-back trek through a coastal forest of oaks and red cedars. There's a nifty observation platform at a saltwater pond where you'll be greeted by a lively combination of birds, usually including great blue herons, egrets and ducks. The trail ends at a paved path that leads to one of the best-preserved beaches in South Carolina's upper coastal plain.
4. Golf the Waccamaw Trail
The best way to explore golf on the Hammock Coast is to check out the 11 championship courses that make up the Waccamaw Golf Trail. The trail (the name comes from the Indian word for the coastal area between Georgetown and Litchfield Beach) includes three of "America's Top 100 Public Courses," one of Golf for Women magazine's "Top 25 in America" (women-friendly courses), six courses rated 4 ½ stars by Golf magazine and one of only three 5-star courses in the Southeastern US.
Caledonia Golf and Fish Club and True Blue Plantation are the "must-plays" here, both combining stunning Lowcountry beauty with Mike Strantz design, and TPC of Myrtle Beach is the Grand Strand's only five-star course.
5. Hunt for ghosts
Georgetown claims to be one of the most haunted towns in America. The town, founded in 1729, is certainly old enough to have built up some good ghost stories. Fortunately, there are a few guides to help you learn about the otherworldly residents.
One guide who also happens to be a master storyteller is Elizabeth Robertson Huntsinger, a Civil War reenactor, author and full-time storyteller with the Georgetown Library and Georgetown County First Steps. Huntsinger has written three books, "Ghosts of Georgetown," "More Ghosts of Georgetown" and "Georgetown Mysteries and Legends," and conducts Ghosts of Georgetown Lantern Tours. A fourth book, her first novel, is the murder-mystery "Waterline" set to be released by South Carolina publisher Holladay House Publishing.
Huntsinger will show you some haunted places but also tell you the stories of two of South Carolina's most famous spirits - Alice and the Gray Man.
Alice, a young woman who died of a broken heart, is said to wander the Murrells Inlet marshes near her family home, the Hermitage. She is buried in All Saints Episcopal Church with a simple tombstone marking "Alice."
The Gray Man appears on the Pawleys Island beaches just before a hurricane comes ashore. He is said to appear to beachgoers and warn them of the coming danger. Whenever there's a hurricane, someone always claims to sees him.
In a place with so much history, it's only natural - well, supernatural - that a few ghosts come with the territory.
6. Get on the water
Cruise to the lighthouse or a barrier island for shelling, search for dolphins, go deep-sea fishing or just paddle around. This area is perfect to explore from the water.
Rover Tours and Cap'n Rod's Lowcountry Plantation Tours are both great options. And at Crazy Sister Marina in Murrells Inlet, you can go deep-sea fishing, sail on a pirate ship, rent boats, kayaks or paddleboards and just about anything else. You also can have dinner and drinks on the waterfront at the marina's restaurant, Wicked Tuna.
7. Eat along the famous Murrells Inlet Marshwalk
A trip to the Hammock Coast isn't complete without eating seafood in the state's "seafood capital," Murrells Inlet. The small fishing village is dotted with restaurants catering to all appetites, from fine dining to great burgers, many with outside dining and an incredible view. During the warmer months, you'll find music and fun events along the area's Marshwalk.
8. Lounge in a hammock
Pawleys Island is home to the world-famous hammocks, and you'll find them hanging on porches and trees everywhere you turn. Rope-tied hammocks are still made on the island, just as they have been for the past 125 years. You can watch as a master craftsman weaves rope into a magical swinging bed at the Original Pawleys Island Hammock Shop, right on US 17. While you're there, take a walk under towering oaks in the lovely shopping village, and you're sure to find the perfect souvenir.
9. Stroll the Harborwalk
The Harborwalk in Georgetown is a short four-block stroll that's packed with places to eat, shop and see. There are parks at each block honoring famous figures from South Carolina's history, including Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. Two historic sites bookend the walk: the Kaminski House on the west and the Rice Museum on the east.
10. Take in a museum
At the Georgetown County Museum, you can learn about important industries of the past, such as ship building and the lumber business; famous residents, including Thomas Lynch Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence; the Native American tribes who lived in the area; and the plantations where rice, indigo and cotton were grown.
The Kaminski House Museum, in a 1769 home, displays American and English antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Rice Museum explores the impact of the rice industry on Georgetown County. At one time, the county produced almost half of the entire US rice crop, and it brought great wealth to the area. It's easy to find; just look for the large town clock.
Next door, the South Carolina Maritime Museum is a must for anyone who yearns for the open waters. It celebrates South Carolina's rich maritime history, and you can see the original Fresnel lens from South Carolina's oldest operating lighthouse.