Myrtle Beach’s Secret Season

The beach is never far from mind in Myrtle Beach

There would be beaches. This I knew. Heading into my four-day September retreat down to Myrtle Beach, I knew very little about my destination, and the little I knew was telling me I was a season too late. There would be beaches, but they would be colder and drier as they began their descent into off-season dormancy.

Another summery fall day on Garden City Beach

As it turned out, they were alive and well. The beaches I discovered on South Carolina’s eastern shoulder were straight out of a textbook on beaches: soft, pillowy sands reflecting mid-80s rays back towards a beaming sun; waves cresting at just the right height so as to be welcoming, and yet still novelly exciting; beachgoers still beachgo-ing in search of ataraxia, and finding it.

Again, this was September. On the brink of fall, these were beaches still worth visiting, still worth spending four (or five, or six) days on. Only a few air hours from rapidly cooling Boston, summer seemed unfazed by the calendar’s advances; had I just gotten lucky with the weather?

Over a few cans of New South Brewing’s White Ale, which I miss dearly, I confirmed with a few locals that no, this was just September as usual in Myrtle Beach—and that October would be more of the same. A little research confirmed that every year, the weather in both months is reliably summery, but without the sweltering humidity of actual summer (it can reach nearly 90 percent in July). Combine that with fewer tourists and a dip in prices, and you begin to see why September and October may just be the best time to experience Myrtle’s incredible beaches—and more.

With 60 extra days of summer to spend in Myrtle, here’s where to start (then head to www.visitmyrtlebeach.com, who’ll take it from there):

A plane comes in for landing just over the beach

Getting there

Depending upon how much you like driving, Myrtle Beach is within driving distance from most of the eastern U.S. Most visitors do, in fact, drive, but if you’re coming from further out, or just want to leave the car at home, Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR) is pretty convenient as far as small airports go.

Just three miles from the beach, it’s serviced by daily nonstop (and cheap) flights from 25 major U.S. markets. For the unserviced, you’re looking at a quick connection, perhaps in Charlotte or Atlanta—not ideal, but overall pretty painless and delicious (I spent 30 minutes feasting on barbecue in Atlanta). Completion of a new terminal is expected in January too so more options are on the way.

Here’s a quick list of leads to get you started:

Helpful tip: Even if you fly, you’ll probably still need a car to get around. The airport has plenty of rental options, so go ahead and lock one down ahead of time.

Where to stay

Known as the Grand Strand, the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina divides 60 miles of pristine, Atlantic coastline between 12 separate communities (though less generously with three of them). Myrtle Beach proper is actually just one of these communities, but as the most visited and well-known of the bunch—by far—its name is often applied to the entire Grand Strand.

Besides giving you local credibility, an understanding of this distinction can help you make a more informed decision regarding where to stay. The area’s people, paces of life, entertainment and even beaches come in 12 variations—and that’s worth giving some thought.

Front and center: the beach house I called home, with neighbors

Honestly, I gave it no thought before my trip, but however it happened, I’m happy that I landed in Garden City, which has a slower, more-beach-house-than-hotel kind of feel than Myrtle proper. And more than anything else—including a pier as great as its website is not so great—it was the beach house I stayed in that made the difference.

Gone Coastal (this is the kind of place where houses have names) was a gorgeous blend of traditional comfort and bright turquoise flair, with a back deck that marched by wooden walkway directly into the Grand Strand sand. In my room on the second floor, I fell asleep each night to the rhythms of the ocean, and awoke to comically beautiful sunrises each morning. It was an exceptional four days to build my experience on, and I’d recommend Dunes Realty to anyone hoping for the same.

Helpful tip: Garden City is home to the original Sam’s Corner, a famous 24-hour hot dog and fries joint where you can find $1 drafts from 4 to 7 pm. Oh, and five-cent coffee all day.

I’d choose Garden City again, but there’s something to be said for the others too; for example, what the state of South Carolina offers in this guide. The Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has said things too, which I’ve filtered and pieced collage-style into the basic guide here:

  • Myrtle Beach: “heart of the Grand Strand”
  • North Myrtle Beach: “four smaller communities joined,” “home of the shag
  • Garden City: “a favorite of area surfers and fishermen,” “Garden City Pier is a hub of activity”
  • Surfside Beach: “the family beach”
  • Atlantic Beach: “molded by the Gullah-Geechee culture”
  • Murrells Inlet: “the Marshwalk,” “Seafood Capital of South Carolina”
  • Pawleys Island: “the East Coast’s oldest summer resort,” “calls itself arrogantly shabby’”
  • Litchfield Beach: “elegant, upscale”
  • Little River: “small fishing village,” “life moves at a slower pace”
  • Conway (not on beach): “mecca for local artists and craftsmen”
  • Loris (not on beach): “known for its friendliness,” “if you’ve never tried chicken bog, you’re in for a treat”
  • Aynor (not on beach): “celebrate country living,” “Little Golden Town”

The Brentwood from the outside

The Brentwood and what to eat

As far as the Myrtle culinary scene goes, you can’t do any better than Little River’s The Brentwood. Self-billed as “Low Country French Cuisine,” the Brentwood fuses the French-culinary background of Chef Eric Masson (who was born in Brittany, France) with traditional Southern-style cooking.

The results, like the “Crab Cake Dijonnaise” and “Tomato & Boursin Napoléon,” are as sensational as the setting—a converted early-1900s Victorian home with an elaborate ghost story. Don’t miss out on dinner here, and if there’s time, it’s worth checking out one of Chef Masson’s cooking classes.

After you’ve had your fill at The Brentwood, you might check out:

  • Sea Captain’s House (Myrtle Beach), where hush puppies are free and the she-crab soup (a Myrtle staple) is top-notch
  • Gulfstream Cafe (Garden City), where the views from the roof are unbeatable and the lobster tail is close to it (also, “Firecracker Prawns”)
  • Villa Romana (Myrtle Beach), where the ”Shrimp San Marzano” is good, and the charismatic accordion player is ridiculous (it’s also been LocalEats‘ “Italian Restaurant of the Year” for nine straight years)

The SkyWheel lights up the night

Myrtle Beach Boardwalk & Promenade

After its original wooden boardwalk was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the Myrtle Beach area went without a replacement for more than 50 years. In 2010, all was righted with the completion of the 1.2-mile Myrtle Beach Boardwalk & Promenade, which is by all accounts—including my own—a great place to spend some time.

Right along the beach, it lays out an incredible spread of bars, restaurants, shops, food stands, more bars, street performers, rides and beautiful, meandering walkways, which I can only assume lead to even more bars.

During the day, it pulses with energy; at night, all these bars drive the liveliest nightlife anywhere on the Grand Strand, all beneath the glow of the illuminated, 190-foot SkyWheel. It’s no surprise that National Geographic named it no. 3 on its “Top 10 U.S. Boardwalks” list, as there really is something for everyone.

From what I can tell, the only real downside is that everyone seems to be there, all the time—and the crowds can be intense in the summer. In September and October, however, things are just a little bit slower—and with a world-class beach escape just steps away, there’s really no excuse for missing out.

More on the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk & Promenade:

  • City-produced video of the boardwalk, with extra dramatic camera pans
  • Travel + Leisure “Best Beach Boardwalks” feature on MSNBC (at 1:44)
  • Live webcam feed from near the SkyWheel

The Palmetto Garden at Brookgreen Gardens

Brookgreen Gardens

Located just south of Murrells Inlet, Brookgreen Gardens is America’s largest outdoor sculpture garden. Hundreds of works from some of the last century’s greatest American sculptors are on permanent and impressive display here, sprawled across more than 9,000 acres of former rice plantations. If you’re not a leading expert in American sculpture, as I too am not, rest assured that the gardens’ calming beauty does not discriminate—and that there’s a zoo as well if you’d prefer that.

Helpful tip: Every ticket to Brookgreen Gardens is good for a full seven days, so you can return free of charge as many times as you like in that span.

Respecting the speed limit by kayak

Black River kayak tour

The dark, swirling waters of the 151-mile Black River feel nothing like the beach-driven Grand Strand—but everything like what a real Southern swamp should be.

Towered over by bald cyprus and tupelo trees, draped in low-hanging Spanish moss and home to snakes and alligators (our guide Paul was shocked we didn’t see any gators), it’s an entirely different side of South Carolina, and kayaking through it is just a great time. Paul was great, and I’d definitely recommend going with him and the Black River Outdoors Center (and specifically their Cypress-Tupelo Swamp Tour).

A little more on Myrtle

Ian Livingston About Ian Livingston

Ian Livingston has traveled to 42 countries and six continents, carrying an unkempt, neck-heavy beard through many of them. Now living in Brooklyn, he has parlayed his passions for exploratory travel and the linguistic lens into his responsibilities as Editor here at JohnnyJet.com. His work has been featured in both local and international publications, in digital, video and print media, and he aspires to be able to continue sharing the world as he discovers it for many years to come. Get in touch at iantlivingston@gmail.com or on Google+.