Luxurious resorts, gorgeous beaches, fun amusements, fine dining, exciting outdoor adventures - there's a lot to love about a Myrtle Beach vacation. But beneath the surface of the most obvious pleasures is a host of lesser-known but equally worthwhile things to appreciate and enjoy. These hidden gems are just waiting to be found as you mine the depths of the Grand Strand and uncover a wealth of rich, surprising experiences.
Off the Beaten Grand Strand Path
Be privy to some of Myrtle Beach's best guarded secrets by choosing the roads less traveled. Plantation Island Tours will take you on a journey of discovery to Civil War sites, stretches of pristine shoreline, quiet waterways and more via UTVs (utility task vehicles). Choose from a menu of guided four-wheel adventures that lead to hidden destinations like the private beaches of Waites Island and historical Inlet Point Plantation.
Travel the dazzling Grand Strand coastline on horseback for the ultimate beach experience. Equestrian centers like the one at Inlet Point Plantation lead you from trail to shoreline, making your horseback beach fantasy a reality. Horseback Riding of Myrtle Beach will also arrange your ride; providing you with necessary tack and a horse, of course. Availability is seasonal, so call ahead for info.
Cherry Grove might be famous for its channels and fishing pier, but Heritage Shores Nature Preserve deserves a bit of the spotlight too. A four-block walk from 53rd Avenue North in North Myrtle Beach, this nature park boasts 7 acres of interpretive trails. Because it is an island that juts into the Cherry Grove Marsh, it is appointed with elevated boardwalks and decks for optimum viewing of native plants and wildlife.
Bike or walk from Murrells Inlet to Pawleys Island on the Waccamaw Neck Trail. With approximately six miles of continuous trail; you'll enjoy the shady, flat terrain as it leads you through natural areas rich with wildlife and flora and even into Huntington Beach State Park. While there, be sure to walk through Atalaya, the stunning Spanish castle where sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington once lived.
Everything you've ever wanted to know about the Lowcountry is reflected in the 16,000 acres of Hobcaw Barony, a research reserve in Georgetown County. Natural, cultural and ecological aspects of the region are represented at this internationally renowned site. A variety of tours and programs bring the stories of the past alive and relate their significance to the present. See Bellefield Plantation, a 19th-century slave village and learn about those who once called this Grand Strand treasure home. Explore on foot or sit back and rest your feet with a two-hour bus tour. Reservations required.
When you need a break from the pool or ocean, consider new ways to beat the heat. If you're mad for microbrew, duck into new South Brewing in Myrtle Beach and take a free tour of the facility. You'll learn all about microbrew, observe some of the processes and be treated to complimentary tastings. Afterward, order up your favorite cold draft to enjoy on the spot and fill a growler to take with you.
If beer isn't to your taste, head north to Little River. There, you'll find La Belle Amie Vineyard, where you can sip vino in the cool comfort of the tasting room or savor a breeze and your favorite glass of wine from a rocking chair on the ample porch. Live music and themed festivals are regularly in the air here, so sit back and enjoy.
In the 1800s, area rice planters produced nearly half of the nation's rice supply. That fascinating legacy is documented and retold through permanent and rotating exhibits at the Rice Museum in historic Georgetown. A tour includes the short film, "Garden of Gold", and will take you through two historical buildings: Kaminski Hardware and the Town Clock. Depending on the season, you might also take in an indie film or play at the retro-cool Strand Cinema, a 1940s box office theater that's been painstakingly preserved.
If you suffer heat stroke just thinking about playing a round of mini-golf with your pleading family, don't disappoint them. Be a cool parent and take them to Molten Mountain Miniature Golf in North Myrtle Beach. Hidden beneath the dome of its 50-foot "active" volcano is an indoor course offering 18 holes of air-conditioned mini-golf bliss. No need to sacrifice yourself to the sun gods.
Like reality games? In what just might be the area's best kept secret activity, you and your friends and family can become participants in an exciting game of wits. Break Out Myrtle Beach invites you to accept the challenge of "breaking out" of some prickly scenarios; including a maximum security prison, a hostage situation, a bank robbery and a murder case. Each scenario plays out in a room where you and your group will be assigned. Use your collective problem-solving skills to successfully solve the challenge and win the game.
While major area malls, outlets and grocery stores will handily satisfy your shopping needs; it's fun to occasionally venture away from the hustle and bustle. The Little River Mini Mall enthralls with 25,000 square feet of antiques, collectibles, homemade crafts, kitchenware, art, jewelry, furniture and more. Unlike a flea market, most of the inventory is new. Like a flea market, the vendor prices are easy on the wallet.
Whether you're looking for quirky souvenirs, a beach memento for yourself or fine nautical gifts to take home to friends and family, the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove on Ocean Boulevard should be at the top of your shopping list. Since 1946, this seemingly endless curiosity shop (30,000 square feet, to be exact) has served as Myrtle Beach gift central for locals and vacationers. You'll find everything on your list, from sharks' teeth to shell craft to toys to fine jewelry to artwork and a whole lot more. And then some.
Hudson's Surfside Flea Market is another shopper's paradise with a treasure trove of inventory that's both whimsical and utilitarian. Plan to spend a leisurely morning or afternoon ogling the wares of hundreds of vendors who set up shop in the 70,000-square-foot, open-air covered market, the largest in the area.
If you've never thought of shopping as a particularly charming experience, you'll be delighted to get your quaint on at the Hammock Shops Village at Pawleys Island. This clutch of 22 unique shops, housed in homey clapboard cottages, is a place to leisurely stroll brick pathways beneath the shady tall oaks. Watch the birth of an authentic Pawleys Island hammock, pick up a classic toy for the child in your life, enjoy a casual lunch, or splurge on a new fashion or jewelry find. And do stop and smell the flowers along the way as there are plenty of them.
Culinary tourists, take note! While you'll never have trouble finding good eats in the Myrtle Beach area, there are local treasures that will pique your foodie interests. A few notables include: Mrs. Fish, a downtown Myrtle Beach grill favored by locals. Fresh, expertly prepared seafood served up on paper plates at ridiculously low prices is the specialty of the house.
Nosh on made from scratch bagels and more at Benjamin's Bakery and Café in Surfside Beach. Order up pastries, sandwiches and java in the cozy, front of house cafe. Back of house is Benjamin's wholesale operation, where delicious baked goods are rolled out daily for distribution to area restaurants. One sniff and you'll know you're there.
If you're starving for nostalgia, Lee's Inlet Apothecary has just the prescription for you. Enjoy their old-timey soda fountain; where homemade chicken salad sandwiches and real soda fountain treats like egg creams, malts, phosphates and banana splits are served up to the lucky in the know lunch crowd.
If you're health conscious and hungry, you don't have to settle. There are eateries in the area specializing in healthy, no-guilt dining. Among them is Bay Naturals, a "healthy market" that also houses a delicious secret: a kicking kitchen where you can sip freshly made immune-boosting smoothies, munch on organic baked goods and dig into healthy soups, salads, sandwiches, burritos and more. You'll feel good about yourself and your taste buds will be pretty happy too.
But do forget healthy eating long enough to splurge on a cone at the Original Painter's Homemade Ice Cream in North Myrtle Beach. The ice cream is so delicious it sometimes draws a celebrity crowd, including Eric Clapton and Jerry Lewis among others. In honor of North Myrtle Beach native, Vanna White, try her namesake "Vanna Banana" sundae.
If your accommodations include a kitchen, grocery shopping is likely tops on your to-do list. If so, a trip to area farmers markets is a real treat. There are several that operate along the Grand Strand during the growing season; including in North Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Pawleys Island. Local fruits and veggies, baked goods, seafood, condiments and more are in abundance at these open-air, community markets. There's nothing like a South Carolina peach or a homegrown tomato sandwich to start the summer off right.
While you're stocking up the pantry, stop by Lee's Farmers Market in Murrells Inlet for an interesting variety of local and imported foods. There's an emphasis on Italian goods, though the inventory is quite diverse; running the gamut from everyday staples to specialty cheeses, pastas, fresh produce, meats and seafood, unusual wines and more. If all that grocery shopping makes you hungry, duck into the deli for an honest-to-goodness Carnegie Deli corned beef sandwich.
If the high-energy of Myrtle Beach's more populous areas isn't your thing, choose lodgings in the gentler, more quiet areas of the Grand Strand. You can strike a balance between excitement and relaxation at the oceanfront Mermaid Inn. Once known as the Cherry Tree Inn, this recently renovated small hotel is within walking distance of Ocean Boulevard, but far enough off the beaten path to offer some respite from the action. The lovely décor, amenities such as free wi-fi and modest rates make this a "must-add" to your hidden gem list.
Another best kept secret is the Serendipity Inn, a Myrtle Beach bed and breakfast with a reputation for peace and quiet just 300 yards from the ocean. Slow it down a bit with an evening spent in front of the courtyard fire pit sipping wine and watching the moon. The proprietor will even pick up tickets to your favorite attractions and shows if you'd like, saving you some precious time and effort.
The Inlet Sports Lodge in Murrells Inlet likewise offers a relaxing experience that's within arm's length of all the beach buzz. Walk to the nearby MarshWalk for dinner, live music and dancing, then easily escape the hubbub in the quiet of your spacious, comfortable room.
When it comes to slowing down the pace, it doesn't get much slower than a stay on Pawleys Island. For a quintessential Pawleys experience, try the Pelican Inn or the Sea View Inn, beachfront bed and breakfasts embracing the "less is more" philosophy that defines this area. Begin your day with a homey Southern breakfast, then nap in a porch hammock, go crabbing or settle into an easy chair for a good read. Simplicity, charm and a style that's arrogantly shabby - these are not only a way of life here, but the secrets of a truly relaxing beach vacation.