What do you get if you cross Blackpool with Miami Beach and then inject it with military history and the bucolic charms of America’s oldest state park? Myrtle Beach is what y’all! South Carolina’s most brilliantly fun playground is a beach-kissed, seafood-blessed getaway that has been attracting visitors since the early 16th century.
It was soon easy to see why when the Guild followed millions of ‘snowbirds’ by descending on its famed balmy sands this spring.
Those 16th-century visitors were Spanish ‘explorers’ who found little to detain them with just bare beach stretching off into the distance to the north and south, with thick vegetation putting them off the alligator ridden hinterland. It took until the 20th century for Myrtle Beach to really make use of its idyllic location tucked at the heart of the 60 mile long sandy expanse of Grand Strand.
Tourism in earnest began when Myrtle Beach International Airport came into being in the 20th century. Commercial flights shared the main runway with the US Military until 1993 and since the USAF left they have mushroomed. The opening of the King’s Highway in 1940 was a game changer too, allowing those frozen ‘snowbirds’ from the states further north the opportunity to share this subtropical oasis.
Our base was right down on the sands at the Residence Inn Myrtle Beach Marriott. I enjoy a hint of the nostalgic beachfront feel of Blackpool and am always up for a touch of Miami Beach glitz, but it was with some trepidation I took my first walk on the sands. Myrtle Beach may only harbour a standing population of 30,000, but this mega resort region attracts a staggering 14 million visitors a year.
I was also concerned about the ‘thong ordinance’ ban, which not only bans toe-curling swimwear, but the bearing of any part of the buttocks. As a Scotsman I shifted uneasily on hitting the sands. I needn’t have worried on both counts. It was sunset and I watched the swollen sun slip down into the Atlantic in an explosion of deep oranges and fiery reds with more seabirds for company than tourists – 60 miles after all is a whole lot of beachfront. Mercifully my kilt stayed firmly in place too.
As such a popular resort Myrtle Beach should be efficient at the mass tourism thing. It is, as I found at the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk, which opened in 2010. This massive orgy of unashamed retail and fast food actually manages to be quite charming with its wooden walkways, expanse of water and unfailingly beaming staff, who are always on hand to dispense that winning Southern charm.
We were only making a fleeting visit, but over a Dirty Myrtle beer (I know) at the hotel bar the almost frighteningly friendly bartender Tracy enthused me about the rest of Myrtle Beach’s charms.
Did I know that I could go to baseball game, see sharks at the massive aquarium, check out speedway or deep sea fish? What about the Carolina Opry and Legends in Concert entertainment extravaganzas? She only lost me proclaiming the Myrtle Beach area the ‘Golf Capital of the World’ with its myriad courses. I’m fae Scotland.
It was one of Tracy’s tips that led me to the Myrtle Beach State Park. Gone were the chain hotels and tourist attractions and in their place was a serious green lung. Here I lost myself in a world of vaulting trees and thick vegetation where sea snakes filled the waters and eagles patrolled high above.
Despite the clear signage, I didn’t need a map and just followed the Atlantic roar. I eventually spilled out on to a totally undeveloped stretch of sand. The scene was little changed since that day in 1526 when those Spanish sailors first stumbled ashore. You don’t find anywhere like that in Blackpool or Miami Beach.