September has reached its end, and the colder air of October is here. We just had our annual family beach week a couple of weeks ago to enjoy the last of the truly sunny days. This year we headed to an oceanfront house in Murrells Inlet, an unincorporated town in South Carolina’s Georgetown County. Although I’d never been to Murrells Inlet itself, I’m very familiar with the general area. I’ve vacationed in the nearby Grand Strand cities of Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach at least seven times.
My sister had recommended Murrells Inlet to us, and it did not disappoint. It was beautiful, fun, and very easy to get around. I appreciated how the general September atmosphere was calm and collected. Sometimes you just don’t want a crowd. The beaches, lined mostly with houses on stilts, lacked the overly busy atmosphere of Myrtle Beach, but there was never a lack of things to do. While I saw many a boarded-up business – a stark reminder of the recession – the Grand Strand is still a vibrant area where boredom seems impossible.
At the corner of Waccamaw Drive and Atlantic Avenue, you’ll find a small touristy crossroads with a dash of local thrown in. Here you are no longer in Murrells Inlet, but Garden City – an area of Horry (pronounced “OH-ree”) County. Eric and I walked all the way up there one day and it was quite the hike.
At one side of the crossroads, you’ll see a very small amusement park called Slick Track, which looks abandoned, and a large beach supply chain store called Eagles. Stores like Eagles, Wings, Pacific, and Shell City are EVERYWHERE in this area! Use them to stock up on your rafts, swimsuits, towels and fireworks! (We did!) However, the animal advocate in me would like to kindly discourage you from purchasing hermit crabs with painted shells – the paint can be very harmful to the little crabs and even kill them in a painful way. Not to mention it just looks gaudy and undignified!
Directly across Atlantic Avenue is a little row of shops with Sam’s Corner, the Pavilion arcade (or “distribution center” … haha), a tiny grocery store, and more.
Sam’s Corner, to the far left in the above picture, boasted signs for 5 cent coffee and “world famous hot dogs” so Eric and I tested their claims a couple of times. The inside of this diner was comfortable and friendly and we struck up a conversation with one of the workers while we were there, who teased us in a good-natured manner. (Perhaps Sam himself?) I had a dog with chili and jalapenos and it was indeed delicious, although it can’t compare to a Weenie Beenie half-smoke. (But can anything?) I was disappointed that they didn’t offer free refills on the sodas. The prices were a little high all around, which I think one should expect in a beach town. I thought the 5 cent coffee was surprisingly good. They also serve cocktails and beer including one called “Hugo Revenge”. (Hurricane Hugo hit the town very hard in 1989.) I tried their El Paso sandwich for breakfast one day, which was a grilled pimento cheese sandwich with bacon and jalapenos. Who would’ve thought slapping these ingredients together would produce something so tasty? My verdict on Sam’s is that it’s a cool hangout with some yummy grub for a quick bite or midnight snack, and I want to eat there again. It only accepts cash, so be forewarned.
The Pavilion arcade was exactly what all kids of the 80s used to run around in on any Grand Strand vacation worth its salt. They have every cheesy, silly game you’d imagine with the requisite tokens required to play each game, and the tickets that you redeem for little el cheap-o prizes. Yes! Eric and I shelled out way too many dollars to knock out a dumb metal horse’s teeth, engage in a Wild West shootout, play skeeball, zap some crickets with a lizard’s tongue, and team up to fight off giant flies and spiders on a jungle adventure gone wrong.
If you want to get drinks and/or ice cream, you can traipse across the street to Painter’s Ice Cream, and the Pier at Garden City, both on Waccamaw Drive. Painter’s, sadly, was closed when we had the chance to go there, so I can’t vouch for it, but the handmade signs are cool.
The Pier has an arcade attached with more nutty games, and has karaoke sometimes too. At this point, I think you’re more in Surfside Beach than in Murrells Inlet or Garden City. If you continue through the bar, you’ll find many people fishing off the pier. The number of fish and bait attracts some other types of fishers, too …
Yes, sharks! As we stared into the water, we saw no less than four – two blacktips, and two sand tiger sharks. I can’t even tell you how incredible it is to see such a powerful animal up close in the wild like this. The big swimmers devoured fish left and right and one even chomped the bait right off a lady’s line, taking the line with it. We had a clear view of them the entire time. At one point, a sand tiger was several yards away from a woman combing the shore all the way down at the beginning of the pier, but he showed zero interest in her or any other swimmers. He was merely circling to check out the fish selection. While I wouldn’t recommend throwing yourself into the water to hang out with these creatures, seeing their natural behavior is amazing.
I never remembered the Myrtle Beach area as having much wildlife, but we certainly saw plenty! Gangs of brown pelicans were a constant presence. They really are such magnificent birds. We saw pelicans, terns, seagulls, and sea hawks fishing out of the ocean on multiple occasions. They had a smorgasbord to choose from – huge schools of fish regularly went by. The schools were easy to spot as they looked like dark shadows in an otherwise sparkling sea, with silvery scaly bodies regularly leaping up into the air. It was also not rare to spy a pod of dolphins or some other set of porpoises bobbing in the waves several yards from shore. While in the sea itself, it was very common to see many fish in the breaking waves, and groups of sandy-colored bottom feeders blending in with the ocean floor. Eric thought these “bottom feeders” might in fact be baby sand sharks, which doesn’t seem impossible!
We didn’t encounter any jellyfish on our vacation, but something did give my foot a slight scratch or nibble in the ocean. I wasn’t concerned. It was probably one of the many crabs we came across. Ghost crabs were not as plentiful at night as they were at Hilton Head, but they were definitely out and about. We were a little alarmed to find so many dead ones, however, including three within very close proximity to one another with no noticeable signs of trauma. Some of the live ones we saw were quite large. We found one with a fish he had just caught, and caught others in the middle of digging their burrows. In the morning, crab clawprints dotted the sand.
Little lizards and skinks inhabit the sea oats and grass. A pair of skinks regularly ran back and forth across the path as I approached. I don’t know what they were up to, but they left neat tracks behind.
Eric, admiring the gorgeous sun-sparkled sea, encouraged me to take a beach walk with him every morning. It was very difficult for me to rise out of bed at such an early hour, but the smell of Daddy’s multi-grain pancakes helped.
On a couple of these morning beach strolls, we came across a couple of big light brown crabs with white spots, which my wildlife book identified as speckled crabs. We saw one such fella right where the waves broke one morning. He made it clear that he did not appreciate our peering at him and extended a huge claw out to its full length. As he snapped at us, a smaller crab scuttled out from underneath him! We had accidentally disturbed a fall mating ritual! The angry crustacean grabbed his woman and floated back out into the waves, thoughts of murder no doubt in his mind.
We did have some unwelcome visitors on the shore. Once was that most disgusting of southern insects, the palmetto bug. This moniker is clearly supposed to help you forget that you are really dealing with a giant flying roach. Well, I can’t forget and was repulsed by those that made their way inside our beach house! That will teach me to leave my balcony door open at night (to hear the ocean while I sleep). Eric, on the other hand, is from the Bronx and was completely undaunted. Another pest was the deer fly. These annoying bugs hang out on shore during their mating season, biting any patch of warm skin they can find. You have no idea they are on you until you feel the pain of their bites. Covering yourself head to toe in towels (and subsequently sweating to death) works as long as the deer flies can’t find an opening. They are relentless and forced me onto the porch one day. Jerks. Thankfully, they were absent the remaining days of the vacation so we could enjoy our daily swimming and sunning! Lastly, we encountered some sand burs. These aren’t a huge problem as long as you don’t go tramping around in the sea oats, but some do make their way down to the sand. Eric was annoyed to get some stuck in his feet when coming up the path back to our house. I think he thought he’d left them behind in Texas!
Across the street from our house was a salt marsh, which is the inlet itself. My Uncle Cliff saw an alligator glide by behind some of the marsh houses; sadly I never made the same sighting. But my sister and brother-in-law had the idea to go kayaking there, and Eric and I tagged along. I had been canoeing several times and figured kayaking would be only marginally more difficult. I don’t know where I got this idea. One of the first things we did once in the water was plow into someone’s boat. But we soon got the hang of it and enjoyed a few hours steering around the marsh. It’s a very good workout!
The marsh was teeming with life. Fish were jumping everywhere, including a whole school that I thought might go right in our kayak. Eric and I also witnessed an unfortunate one being fought over by a group of terns. Egrets, ducks, and herons standing in the marsh grasses were so close we could’ve touched them. The blue heron is a gorgeous bird with huge wings, which makes his raspy, throaty call all the more jarring. We also spotted a white heron with what appeared to be a much younger (but still tall in his own right) heron who didn’t know how to fly yet.
The salt marsh is home to another group of animals you might not expect: a family of goats! Do you remember Goat Island from my Lake Martin vacation? Murrells Inlet has its own.
The goats are fed by a local dude named Bubba, who has his own restaurant, Bubba’s Love Shak, overlooking the marsh. I highly recommend trying the spicy Bling Bling shrimp tacos with your cocktail or beer!
Lastly, I can’t close the post without recommending the Gulfstream Cafe on Waccamaw Drive. My very generous Aunt Vinson took us all out to eat dinner here on one of our last nights. The Gulfstream is right over the marsh. The upper deck (which had a three-piece band playing) provides breathtaking views like this:
The drinks are made perfectly, and so is the food. Even the bread and butter are very savory. We ordered a slew of appetizers to pass around the table. I chose the firecracker shrimp, which comes with chipotle sauce and delectable mashed potatoes. We also had others, including onion rings (which came stuck together in a huge block), bruschetta, oysters rockefeller (a new one for me – I loved them), and oyster shooters (another new one for me). Oyster shooters are unbelievable. You get a shot glass with the oyster, tabasco sauce, vodka, and lemon and down it all at once. All of the appetizers alone were so filling and delicious that I had almost no room left for the entree: a pair of heavenly crabcakes and more of those luscious mashed potatoes.
I think Murrells Inlet, and the surrounding areas of Surfside and Garden City, make up one of those places that has something for everyone. Another winning getaway!
If you are interested in learning more about the wildlife and beaches of the Grand Strand area, please read Tideland Treasure by Todd Ballantine, an environmental scientist and Hilton Head resident. The book is a great read with hand-drawn illustrations, and the wring is done in Ballantine’s own hand (not typeface).
I usually avoid typical chain restaurants, whether casual dining or fast food, while on vacation, unless it’s something I can’t get back at home. One of those places is Red Burrito, a Mexican fast food joint you can often find attached to a South Carolina Hardee’s. On the West coast, it’s called Green Burrito and is attached to Carl’s Jr. The Red Burrito menu is small, but you get a lot for your money. Seven bucks got me a bean and cheese burrito, warm tortilla chips, refried beans, and rice in a to-go carton.
And that’s really it. I don’t seem to be able to write a short blog post about anything, I swear. 😉