by Pam Hobbs

At 7 a.m. the walkers are striding along a beach that's freshly groomed and as firm as asphalt where the tide has receded. By eight o'clock, multi-coloured umbrellas are being planted in the sand and already oil-soaked bodies are stretched out for their daily toasting. Later on, shopping malls, swimming pools and water parks will be busy; ocean-front cafes and bars echoing sounds of vacationers having a good time. Twilight brings out theatre-goers in full force. And at any hour from dawn to dusk I can see golfers on the course across from my hotel room window. So goes an average day at Myrtle Beach, heart of South Carolina's Grand Strand, which attracted some 14 million visitors last year. After ten days here in early June, I can see why they are expecting even more in 2009.

It used to be that Canada's Snowbirds wouldn't stop on their journey south until they reached Florida. Not any more. Not since they've discovered Myrtle Beach - a destination about two thirds the distance, blessed with l00 km of wide beaches, entertainment to rival many a Broadway show, and accommodation to suit every style and pocket-book. True, January and February can be a mite chilly, but invariably within a few days low temperatures pop right back into the upper teens or low twenties (celsius). By March the golfers are out in full swing, and those early morning walkers wear no more than light sweaters over their shorts. June through September is family time bringing inter-generational groups by the van load to check into beach houses and spacious condos for an action-packed vacation.

Once discovered it seems Myrtle Beach becomes a perennial favourite, bringing 75% of its visitors back time and again. Youngsters who used to come with their parents now bring their own children. Groups of three generations are commonplace.

Our family first discovered Myrtle Beach in the late '70s when a motorhome vacation took us unexpectedly south to escape rainstorms in Maine. For the next decade or so we came here for most March school breaks and occasionally in summer too. Now, after an absence of fifteen years, I find that most of the Grand Strand has changed beyond recognition.

According to local historian Jack Thompson whose photos of the Myrtle Beach I remember are displayed all over town, tourism began in earnest around l900 when forests of pine trees were cut for ship-building and exposed those splendid beaches. In l905 the first hotel was built in what was known then as New Town, and later renamed for the area's prolific Myrtle shrubs.

The l930s brought great excitement by way of a grand hotel featuring an outdoors patio designed for dancing. Soon, the big bands travelling between New York and Miami began stopping off to perform here. For several decades special events, innovative hotel packages and worthwhile discounts have proved an enticing draw. So have March's Canadian/American Days, (March 14-22 2009) when it's said more Canadian than American licence plates are seen on cars at the malls.

Comfortable weather and beautiful beaches aside, one of the nicest aspects for Snowbirds here is that they are never at a loss for something to do. Beach fun, theme parks and shopping malls are fine, but there comes a time when you want to shake the kaleidoscope for something new and different. This is when you hop on down the coast to lively fishing villages where your lunch was caught that very morning. Explore historic Georgetown, a busy export terminus before the War of Independence. Get all gussied up and dine at the elegant Pawleys Plantation. Take a tour of one of several l8th century plantations, restored to times when they grew vast crops of rice and cotton. Grab your binoculars and hunt down the elusive red-cockaded woodpeckers hanging out with 299 other bird species in Huntington Beach State Park. And pick a blue-skies-and-sunshine day for Brookgreen Gardens (at $l0 admission if you're 65 or older, it's a steal,) once the site of several plantations. Wander beneath its ancient moss-draped oaks - discover its secret gardens studded with fanciful sculptures - and you'll come away feeling at peace with the world.

Websites and contact numbers will assist with up-to-the-minute information on Myrtle Beach.. Meantime, here are some thoughts from my visit last summer:


Airline surcharges and taxes being what they are today, and because to explore the Grand Strand really you need your own wheels, it shouldn't have surprised me to learn that 90% of today's visitors arrive by car. From Toronto it is approximately 1,500 km, (Montreal 1,689 km) which translates into 16 - 18 hours driving time on good highways all the way. During my stay, some hoteliers were giving their guests ten cents for every gallon of gas used to get here. Others handed out $25 - $50 vouchers to ease the expense of driving around during their stay. Non-drivers might look into coach tours, which take care of the drive south and some excursions too.


We all know the importance of location and lifestyle when buying a new home. Now, with such a wide choice of accommodation (motels from around $75 a day, 2-3 bedroom resort condos in the $200 plus range) throughout the Grand Strand, vacationers can be just as picky. As a prospective Snowbird I checked out several properties, and whittled my list down to two - for their accommodation, attentive staff, amenities and convenience. The Marina Inn at Grande Dunes is a member of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Although fairly new it has the ambience of a gracious old European hotel wedded to southern hospitality. Rooms and suites have all the expected luxuries; expansive public areas are decorated with interesting art, and uniformed employees are on the ready to look after my every need. There's even a library for those chilly afternoons, when afternoon tea by its fire is bound to hit the spot. Pools are located indoors and out; a private beach (reached by a continuous shuttle service) has its own snack bar, change rooms, beach towels and umbrellas. Golfers have a great time on the inn's award- winning championship course, where I was told that tees along the inter-coastal waterway are spectacular. Personal instruction is offered to beginners at a Golf Academy, equipped with putting and practice greens. One small problem. With two restaurants on site, and bicycles to take me along local paths, I may not see much of the world outside if I winter at the Marina Inn.

When Hurricane Hazel visited Toronto she had already devastated Myrtle Beach's oceanfront, and so induced massive rebuilding along the coast soon after. As a result you will find hundreds of hotels right on the beach, but that was 55 years ago and some are showing their age. Island Vista though is a little gem that's been all shined up, in a quiet residential community fronting the ocean. Resembling one of those majestic Palm Beach hotels that few of us can afford, its 1-4 bedroom suites are ideal for families or a group travelling together. Amenities include indoor and outdoor pools, a river ride and supervised children's programmes should the grandkids visit. Also an excellent restaurant and attractive seasonal packages.


One thing's for sure - you will not go hungry here. Not with almost 2,000 full service restaurants and countless fast food outlets strung along the Grand Strand. Seafood is fresh off the boats, produce from local farms, and prices are similar to what we pay in Canada. I should add that portions are so huge, waiters are accustomed to serving one entree on two plates, and desserts with two forks. Ordinarily I wouldn't go to a shopping centre for an evening meal, but Market Common Shopping Village is an exception since we discovered Tommy Bahama's succulent scallops the size of golf balls. The Sea Captain's House too is a place I would return to often given the chance, for its crabcakes and a window table overlooking the beach. Then, for a little local folklore with my lunch, I'd head on down to Murrell's Inlet,(acknowledged as South Carolina's seafood capital), for Drunken Jack's - Jack being a mate of the pirate Blackbeard.


I am told that some Snowbirds who don't know one end of a golf club from another when they first arrive, become avid players by the time they leave. Even this scene has changed over the years. Not so long ago a bunch of guys would get together for a Myrtle Beach golf vacation in Spring or Fall. Now it's a family affair, in all seasons, and last year a million golfers came to play the Grand Strand's one hundred courses.

Serious golfers are advised to make plans well ahead of their visit. To do so you may want to look at a non-profit organization called Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, which organization will tailor your trip to match golfing/hotel requirements, while reserving your tee times up to a year ahead of your visit.


The Myrtle Beach I used to know rolled up its sidewalks at dusk. Now the Grand Strand's entertainment scene is such that the good folks in Nashville and Branson could be getting a mite worried. At this time there are so many purpose-built theatres along the Grand Strand, short-term visitors must be selective. Snowbirds, on the other hand, will be entertained all winter, and since tickets sell at around $30 - $50 apiece even top shows are affordable.

While it is impossible to detail all of the area's live entertainment, I can tell you that . The Carolina Opry is probably the hottest ticket in town. Opened back in l986, it is now staged in its own state-of-the-art auditorium. This same venue hosts Good Vibrations, featuring major hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s. (Who doesn't have memories of the l967 Age of Aquarius?) In the heart of Myrtle Beach, a complex called Broadway at the Beach can happily detain you for hours before and after a show. As well as theatres and nightclubs it has one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, themed attractions and three hotels. The Palace here is packing 'em in with its Le Grande Cirque, featuring 50 fearless acrobats performing quite unbelievable feats.


On the drive to a mall one rain-soaked morning, our cabbie told us of her friend who comes from England every year with an empty suitcase that goes home filled with bargains. In view of our current exchange rate, and some extraordinary discounts in the stores, I expect more than a few of this year's Snowbirds to be doing the same. Largest of the enclosed shopping areas is the Coastal Grand Mall featuring more than a hundred stores, as well as restaurants and cinemas. If you like a certain clothing designer or brand of linens, do check out the factory outlets which continue to grow on their success in two convenient clusters - one on Highway 17 and another on 50l. The recently opened Market Common entices with a very attractive shopping cum residential community on a former USAF base. Truly inspired, its upmarket shops, restaurants and pubs are built around a landscaped square planted with rocking chairs that keep waiting spouses content. .

Much as I enjoyed the deeply discounted prices and an upbeat atmosphere permeating Market Common, I was delighted to find Pawleys Island, (25 miles south of Myrtle Beach,) practically unchanged since my last visit. No great bargains here. Just nice little shops crammed with hand-made crafts, classical music drifting through open doors, easy-going citizens in sync with their environment. Pawleys is world-famous for its handmade hammocks in a store fronting the highway, but please don't end your visit there. Cross one of two causeways and you will come to comfortably shabby beach houses, some of which date to times when plantation owners spent their summers on the island. Occasionally dolphins are seen leaping offshore, though not today. On this afternoon pristine beaches glisten in the sun, a fisherman snoozes beside his rod stuck in the sand, and youngsters work on their moated castle. It is a Norman Rockwell portrayal of The American Summer Vacation, long ago when life was at a gentler pace. And yet this too is part of the fabulous Grand Strand.

BEFORE YOU GO: (all telephone numbers are toll free)

Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce: Tel. 1-800-356-3016.

Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday: Tel. 1-800-845-4653

The Marina Inn at Grande Dunes. Tel: 1-866-437-4113

Island Vista tel: 1-800-854-5426

DeNure Tours has coach tours to Myrtle Beach from l0 - 30 days. Tel: 1-800-668-6859