Standing at the center of the Grand Strand, Myrtle Beach (pop. 27,109) is one of the largest and most popular beach resorts in the country, attracting some 13 million visitors every year. It’s a huge place, with mile after mile of motels, Walmarts, and fast-food franchises lining all the main roads. Long famous for its golf courses (and for having the world’s biggest collection of miniature golf courses), in recent years Myrtle Beach has matched roller coasters and beachfront fun for shopping and merchandising. In the 1950s, Myrtle Beach was the birthplace of “The Shag,” a sexually charged slow jitterbug that is now the official South Carolina state dance.
Myrtle Beach Practicalities
If you don’t mind keeping your tongue wedged firmly in your cheek, the Myrtle Beach area can be fun, and it’s definitely a mecca for fans of ersatz “themed” restaurants: Hard Rock Café, Johnny Rockets, and Margaritaville all vie for attention in the massive Broadway-at-the-Beach complex on Celebrity Circle, northeast of US-501. Owned by the same company that tore down the Pavilion, this is the biggest attraction in Myrtle Beach, but despite the name, Broadway-at-the-Beach is over a mile from the ocean.
If you want a more genuine taste of South Carolina, some of the best places to eat are in Murrells Inlet. That said, one nice old-time Myrtle Beach restaurant is the Sea Captain’s House (3002 N. Ocean Blvd., 843/448-8082), which has survived the developers’ blitz and is still serving three delicious meals a day, just as it has since 1954. The seafood is great, and just about every table has an ocean view.
Detour: South of the Border
If the Grand Strand and Myrtle Beach haven’t satisfied your need for roadside kitsch, or if you’re bombing along I-95 looking for a place to take a break, head to South of the Border, the world’s largest and most unapologetic tourist trap. Located just south of the North Carolina state line at I-95 exit 1, South of the Border is a crazy place with no real reason to exist, yet it draws many thousands of visitors every day to a 135-acre assembly of six restaurants, giant video arcades, souvenir shops, and innumerable signs and statues of the South of the Border mascot, Pedro.
Many roadside businesses suffered when a new interstate or bypass left them high and dry, but in the case of South of the Border, the opposite is true. It started as a fireworks and hot dog stand along US-301 in the early 1950s. But when highway engineers decided to locate I-95 here, its middle-of-nowhere locale suddenly became prime highway frontage. Owner Alan Shafer (who died in 2001 at the age of 87) made playful use of its location (50 feet south of the state line) to create this pseudo-Mexican “south of the border” village-cum-roadside rest stop. Though the complex itself is hard to miss, with its 50-foot-tall sombrero-clad Pedro and 200-foot Sombrero Observation Tower giving a panoramic view of the interstate, I-95 drivers from both directions get plenty of notice of their approach, thanks to the hundreds of garish billboards that line the road, saying silly things like “Chili Today, Hot Tamale.” The subliminal messages all but force you to pull off and chow down on a taco or three and buy some mass-produced keepsake you’ll throw away as soon as you get home.
South of the Border is open daily; each attraction has its own specific hours of operation. Along with the myriad tourist shlock, it also has two gas stations and a pleasant 300-room motel (843/774-2417, $90 and up).