PHOTO: The shoreline along Ocean Boulevard shows a great expanse of sea, surf and sky despite the crush of visitors throughout the downtown Myrtle Beach area. (Photo by Hal Gibson)
A late-September sunset is still hours away on the beach that parallels Ocean Boulevard. A massive school of silver baitfish shoots down the crest of a wave, kingfish in hot pursuit. Osprey attack from the air. Overhead, indifferent to life-and-death battles below, a flock of two dozen pelicans whisks by, forming a messy V.
Tourism officials launched a “60 more days of summer” on the Grand Strand’s 60 miles of coastline this year with clever promotions such as steep restaurant discounts for people turning 60 before the end of October. Everyone knows that Florida offers year-round sun and fun, but Myrtle Beach’s tourism officials feared their coast (just named America’s favorite in a Tipspoke ranking) sports a shuttered-after-Labor-Day image.
Obvious benefits for September and October visitors include a watery view with only the marauding osprey overhead and a red parasail outlined against a cloud-studded sky. There’s no wait for the famous, slowly rotating Sky Wheel. The GTS Theater hosted a full house on a Friday night but only a smattering the following night for its Motown Tribute Show, where five young local talents lived up to the standards of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Charmingly, the cast in this cabaret-style theater come out to greet patrons after their rockin’ performance.
Meanwhile, at one of the other many theaters in town (Alabama, Atlantic Stage, Legends in Concert), Jordan Watkins Gilmore recalls how her father founded the Calvin Gilmore variety-show theater in the 1980s and then worked to lure tourists back after summer’s end.
“With most area businesses closing after Labor Day and re-opening in April, it was hard even to get lunch in Myrtle Beach during the winter!” she said. “Calvin Gilmore helped change what was known as the off-season along the Strand into a growing economic season of its own, helping many businesses to stay open all year.” His efforts predate the Chamber’s campaign by exactly 30 years.
Where to Eat
Trendy in part because of owner Heidi Vukov’s highly touted cookbook, Bonjour, Y’all, Croissants Bistro and Bakery is not only a media favorite but also a must-see for foodies. Vukov, in business more than 20 years, grows most excited when talking about her breakfast menu. The crabcake Benedict lives up to her hype. Tucked away in a three-story white building housing offices and retail, Croissants serves breakfast until 4 p.m.
At a second out-of-the-way location is the surprisingly upscale Collectors Café & Gallery, sharing space in a strip mall with a cigar store, a gift shop and a hot-dog joint. Pastry chef Holly Braddock sets out fresh-baked truffle cakes, pecan pies and bourbon-flavored delights as former pastry chef-turned-GM Daryl Kenworthy watches. The interior is a visual feast with hand-painted countertop tiles, an Art Deco-style bar area backed with gleaming colored glass, and several rooms filled with art from Southeastern artists.
Murrells Inlet, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Myrtle Beach, is nicknamed “the seafood capital of the world.” A standout restaurant is Wicked Tuna, with eight boats ferrying in fresh fish, shrimp and oysters each day. Outside diners can enjoy the marshy smells and wafting sea breezes. Oysters Rockefeller come without even a soupçon of grit. On the pan-seared grouper, a hint of blue cheese does not overpower the sautéed lobster and lump crab topping. A sherry-butter aftertaste renders she-crab soup addictive. The most popular dessert is a nontraditional tiramisu with layers of crushed cookie soaked in coffee liqueur.
Other dishes worth mentioning are the Caesar dressing made tableside and the Grand Marnier crème brûlée at Thoroughbreds on Kings Highway, decorated throughout in a curiously romantic horse-racing theme, and the liquid-nitrogen cocktails (the chocolate-whiskey, vanilla crème and rum combination is deeply satisfying) at the oceanfront ART Burger Sushi Bar. The latter restaurant’s offerings are uniformly exquisite, ranging from grass-fed beef burgers to the delectable omakase sushi entrée with each piece a different size and shape. Be sure to ask directions to the free parking, which is across two streets and a block away.
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Free and Elevating
Not everything involved in a Myrtle Beach vacation costs money. The Horry County Museum is a free jewel in small-town Conway, a half-hour drive accessed by a quaint curved bridge. The 60,000 square-foot former school building, built in 1905, went through a $6 million renovation to become a showpiece of history and culture. Fish aficionados appreciate it, too, because of the helical staircase that surrounds and towers above an acrylic tank built by none other than the crew of Animal Planet’s “Tanked.”
The entrepreneurial county staff applied to be featured on Animal Planet and won big, as visitation gets a bump every time the show airs in reruns. Original sweet-gum and heartwood pine flooring flank the lobby-dominating aquarium. Local fish from swamps and rivers make their home in the softly bubbling waters, and nearby, in an operations room often bypassed by visitors, a shy baby eel rescued from a local bait shop swims in isolation until it grows large enough to hold its own against finny roommates.
Some of the rooms feature changing exhibits such as photography. Currently on display is a long-lost collection of Depression-era photographs by one-armed itinerant photographer William Van Auken Greene. At the end of his life he was known as “Uncle Bill” of Aynor, South Carolina. But he had wives and children tucked away in at least two other states. He never would say how he lost his arm.
He was famous for having photographed National Guard shootings of coal miners and railroad laborers in West Virginia, according to museum director Robert W. Hill IV. After Greene died, his house was being dismantled when someone discovered the cleaning crew turning priceless negatives to ash in a fire. The rescued remains were brought to the Horry Museum. Greene’s black-and-white images are both endearing and haunting.
An adjoining downstairs gallery is devoted to textiles made from feed sacks. Brand-conscious manufacturers were savvy enough to print them in vibrant patterns, either geometric or floral, so housewives would transform them to become quilts or piping-lined dresses. Upstairs galleries feature an odds-and-ends room, a paean on to the region’s environmentally sensitive waterways, and much information on the Gullah-Geechee culture.
Back at the Beach
Early on a late-September morning, a couple of hours before the standard hotel-checkout witching hour, the sun begins to peek through clouds, creating a glimmer like silver tinsel on the waves. Swimming sessions make a great bookend to a Myrtle Beach vacation. And those tourism officials are correct – the water is still plenty warm.