“You can have any one of these” said the car hire guy at Charlotte Douglas Airport sweeping his suntanned arm towards a line of gleaming SUVs. It made a star-spangled change from the counter staff at European airports who bite back a smile when they tell you the people carrier you booked online doesn’t exist but that you can have a Renault Clio.
Bags and bodies in a hefty, gleaming white Nissan Rogue and we’re off.
First thing you need to know is that the roads in America are stupendous. Huge traffic lights strung from vast cables at main junctions tell you when to go and where to go. Highways are wide, long and straight, and fuel prices are a real holiday from home, it cost just $35 to fill up the Nissan.
With time on our side, the plan is to drive coastline of South Carolina, the easternmost State in the U.S’s `Deep South’, named in honour of the English Stuart kings Charles 1 and 11, who formed the first English colony there.
Bordered by the Atlantic to the east, tucked between North Carolina and Georgia, South Carolina is a triangular wedge 200 miles x 260 miles long, with a spectacular 187-mile-long coastline.
The resort-city of Myrtle Beach is the hub of the 60-mile arc of sandy beach that makes up the `Grand Strand’ in northeastern South Carolina. It was an easy and enjoyable four-hour drive from Charlotte. Easy, apart from the moment a snapping turtle that objected snappily to being moved from the middle of the road and the realisation during a comfort break that the grunting sound (which we each thought was the other) was coming from the ditch. Alligators have lived in the state a lot longer than humans and don’t like being peed on.
Our route passed numerous small communities of timber houses with their characteristic and traditional porches, rocking chairs and monstrous gleaming vehicles.
You know you are approaching Myrtle Beach some 30 minutes before you arrive. Vast and colourful hoardings replace the miles of forest, advertising Pirates and Medieval dinners, all you can eat Calabash buffets, internationally acclaimed golf courses and hotels.
From the sea-facing balcony of the 9th floor of the towering Hilton Anderson Ocean Club & Spa on Myrtle Beach’s seafront the vastness of the Grand Strand’s white sand beach is picture perfect. Colourful mini people way below are making good use of the cocktail hour, the pools, the seawater and the fine sandy beach. Meanwhile, we made good use of the washing machine and the coffee maker.
A few hundred yards south from the hotel is the resort centre, with its beachfront boardwalk, arcades, Ripley’s `Believe it or Not’, henna and ink tattoo parlours, souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, and the 187’ high SkyWheel, one of the country’s tallest Ferris wheels. I managed a quarter of a turn, got to the 9 o’clock position, pushed the panic button and made the remaining turn of shame with the light on in the cabin.
Off the wheel and into the 8th Avenue Tiki Bar & Grill on the seafront for shell on prawns and Blue Moon beer. The Deep South has many small artisan breweries making a vast range of conventional beers, as well as some flavoured with coffee, chocolate, coconut, raspberry and hazelnut.
The seafood capital of South Carolina is Murrells Inlet, an old fishing village built around one of the many creeks and rivers that pierce the state’s coastline. Tourists and retirees have replaced the fishermen and the focal point for visitors is the ½ mile long MarshWalk, with its blissful views of the marshy inlet and its numerous restaurants.
Unlike the Boardwalk in the Drifter’s song, the drifting scents walking along the MarshWalk were of fish grilling, fresh crabs cooking and meats roasting, rather than hot dogs and French Fries. The outdoor terrace with views over the marsh at The Wicked Tuna (steaks, seafood and sushi) is an idyllic setting for a sunset dinner. I ate a Dragon’s Egg, one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted (“halved avocado stuffed with cream cheese, smoked salmon, lump and spicy crab served in a nest of tempura sweet potato flakes with spicy mayo and sweet glaze”.) And followed up the `egg’ with the catch of the day, caught from the boats beneath where we were sitting. From hook to plate.
Still doing the tourist `thing’ we stroked horseshoe crabs and marvelled at the jelly-fish at Ripley’s Aquarium at the Broadway on the Beach (“350 acres of dining, shopping, attractions and nightlife”), but gave the Simpson’s 4D show, the zip-line over the lake and the Dragon’s Lair fantasy golf a miss. Broadway on the Beach is not on the beach, but a short drive inland, and it’s a man-made holiday paradise – perfect for those who like that kind of thing.
If it’s not swimming in the aquarium, in South Carolina it’s served up on a buffet. At Crab Daddy’s near Murrells Inlet we loaded up plastic plates with mussels, gangly pink crabs legs, breaded fish and popcorn chicken, prawn and potato salad, and upgraded to the $54 `eat all you like’ menu to include lobster. Calabash buffets are like mushrooms, they have sprung up all over the region and, unlike mushrooms, they consist of delicately seasoned, lightly breaded and fried, fresh seafood.
With attraction and sea-food overload, we tipped the sand out of our shoes and re-packed the Rogue for the 98-mile road-trip to the historical town of Charleston, just a couple of hours south on the straight and uneventful `Highway 17’.
It would be hard to find two cities more diametrically opposed than Charleston and Myrtle Beach, though the nightlife on a Friday and Saturday when the students finish college in tranquil Charleston would give Myrtle Beach a run for its money.
Charleston is a historic and beautiful city, the largest and oldest in South Carolina and known for its well-preserved architecture, rich history, distinguished restaurants, numerous boutique shops and markets and horse-drawn carriage rides. Rather like Prince `Harry’s son’, (Harrison), the town is named to honour King Charles 11, and Charleston (Charles’ Town), is built on the confluence of three rivers at the head of an inlet in Charleston Harbour. The shopping hub, with numerous restaurants and bars, is King Street, named after… well, the King.
A Saturday morning stroll to Marion Square to browse among the stalls selling crafts, paintings, fresh produce and watermelon lemonade could be followed by a bus or horse-drawn carriage ride, a meander through the tree-lined streets with their beautiful and historic houses, or a splash in the jets of the waterfront park.
All of which were easily accessible from our base, the Hyatt House hotel, a contemporary and stylish property, hidden from view in King Street. The rooms are large, with vast beds, a kitchen and seating area and the location is ideal, in `downtown’ Charleston, with parking for the Nissan Rogue, who by now we had named Colin.
Homesick for sand we took Colin out for a run out to Folly Beach, just 20 minutes from Charleston and known locally as “the Edge of America”. Folly Beach, on Folly Island (one of numerous inlets and islets along the coast), is the surfing mecca of South Carolina. Visitors will find a relaxed little town that makes the most of its natural position and is frequented by bohemian beach combers and laid-back surfers, rubbing shoulders with the pelicans in a spectacular seaside setting.
From the Edge of America to the (Is)land that Time Forgot. Daufuskie Island is South Carolina’s southernmost island, largely undeveloped and with few paved roads. The only link to the mainland, and the city of Hilton Head, is by ferry across Calibogue Sound.
Ancient oaks, historical monuments – including ruined, stone tabby slave houses – and trees hanging with Spanish Moss, like dangling, dusty cobwebs, give it the feeling of stepping back in time. And time is something that Daufuskie Island has plenty of, with up to 9000 years of human history hidden among its rustic roads, sand and shell beaches and canopied forests.
Drawing on thousands of years of detachment from the mainland, magic, tradition and intrigue are inherent. Still evident today are the heaven blue painted shutters on the shack like houses, intended to keep the `haints’ (night-time spirits) away.
Haig Point on Daufuskie Island is a complete paradox compared with the undeveloped part of the island. It is a private, gated, tastefully created haven of beautiful villas, set among parkland and forest, fronting beaches, or dotted between the resort’s Rees Jones-designed 18 hole golf course.
The half hourly ferry from Hilton Head delivered us to the jetty at Haig Point, a few steps from Strachan Mansion. The mansion is a magnificent summer retreat built on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia in 1910 and relocated by barge in 1986 to be restored to its present glory by Haig Point’s developers.
Strachan Mansion’s four suites feature antique furnishings, massive beds and freestanding baths, replicating the style of the original house, which now includes small shop and bar, a breakfast area, a billard room and a meeting and post collection area for the residents who have made Haig Point their permanent home.
While Colin waited patiently in the parking lot at Hilton Head’s ferry terminal, we swapped his burly flanks for a golf cart, the preferred and permitted mode of travel for visitors on the island.
A spin along the coast road passed beaches piled high with centuries of discarded oyster shells, a vigorous nod to Daufuskie island’s former oyster farming heritage. Nipping inland across wooden bridges we passed spectacular villas and traverse thick woodland, spotting deer, armadillos, black squirrels and wild turkeys.
We ate (very well) at both the waterfront Calibogue Club and the 18th Hole Grill, within Haig Point, and took an evening spin out to the Old Daufuskie Crab Factory, pretty much the only other restaurant on the island, a bohemian shack filled with locals and boaties from the nearby harbour.
Nothing quite compares with Daufuskie island, the third of our diametrically opposed stopping points during a 15 day `drive’. Musician and rocker, John Mellencamp, summed up Daufuskie island perfectly.
“(You’re) not on somebody else’s time, not on the boss’ time, but on your time. You get up when you want, eat when you want, walk to the ocean when you want. A watch is of no use to you on Daufuskie. Only the sun matters. It’s gonna come up and it’s gonna go down. The rest of the time, it doesn’t matter what time it is.”
That’s what I call a holiday.
Eventually time caught up with us. Colin delivered us safely back to Charlotte Douglas Airport, leaving us with us a few ancient oyster shells, the remaining traces of South Carolina sand in our shoes and the memory of three incredibly special and very different holiday destinations along the South Carolina coast; Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Daufuskie Island.
To find out more about Myrtle Beach visit VisitMyrtleBeach or call +1 800-356-3016
To find out more about Charleston visit Explore Charleston.
To find out more about Haig Point visit www.haigpoint.com or call +1 800.686.3441
A night’s stay at Strachan Mansion costs from $299, and a stay in the Waterfront Mansion Room with balcony costs $349.