The Normal Family Masquerade:
Mrytle Beach, August 2001
Last year, my wife and I took our two children and several gallons of shampoo to Cambodia. Since our meager bank account still bears the scars, we decided to do something a little simpler this year. We decided to try to pretend to be a normal family, going on a normal vacation. Where do normal people go on vacation? We settled on Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
On a steaming morning in July, we huddled over the computer in search of manageable airfares. We finally found something we could afford from Spirit Airlines (http://www.spiritair.com). Roundtrip airfare from Chicago to Myrtle beach was $108 (with taxes and the usual add-ons, $121).
Normal trips make for dull journals, so what follows is boring. Very boring. It's boring like a 3AM infomercial. It's boring like Al Gore talking about insurance. It's boring like the fine print of an extended warranty. It's boring like a web site that has sentence after sentence of examples of boring things. However, if you're thinking of going to Myrtle Beach, you might find one or two things that will help you plan your trip. And you might not miss some of the exciting attractions that we missed, such as outlet shopping at Waccamaw Factory Shoppes (http://www.waccamawfactoryshoppes.com, 1-800-444-VALU), an outlet mall with numerous compelling shopping adventures, including the Sox Shoppe, Socks Galore, ProfessioNail, Scents Unlimited, Vitamin World, Fuller Brush, and the Bible Factory. Oh, woe is me, how could we have missed it? Could shopping get any more exciting? But I digress.
On the morning of August 17, our neighbor's son piled our luggage into his car and hauled us to O'Hare airport. There is one wonderful thing about Spirit Airlines which can only be fully appreciated by people familiar with Chicago O'Hare. Spirit departs from the International Terminal, which is roughly one billion times easier to get in and out of than the main terminal.
The flight took less than two hours. Myrtle Beach is renowned for its beautiful beaches and golf courses, and the first indication that we were in a very focused resort town came at the airport. As we waited for our luggage to appear, I scanned the baggage conveyor: Suitcase, golf bag, suitcase, golf bag, suitcase, golf bag, giant cardboard box labelled "Phone Equipment" but clearly containing a golf bag, suitcase, golf bag...
We stepped outside into hot, muggy tropical air, surrounded by palm trees. My wife liked it instantly: the heat felt like Cambodia.
The airport is only about a mile or two from the beach. Through the Spirit web site, we had reserved a room at the Myrtle Beach Ocean Boulevard Super 8 Motel, 1100 S. Ocean Boulevard (843-448-8414, http://www.super8.com). The rate was a reasonable $56 per night.
Our first stop was a nearby ice cream shop, where the kids' meals were served in Frisbees. The next stop was the hotel pool, which we followed up with Chinese takeout from Wok Express (1110 S. Kings Highway and 12th Ave. South, 843-626-1122).
For tourists, the main drag is the aptly named Ocean Boulevard. A trolley runs up and down the boulevard and will take you as far north as Broadway at the Beach; I'm not sure what the southern end-of-the-line is. The fare is $2 for adults, $1.50 for kids under 4 feet tall. You'll need correct change. All right, it's not REALLY a trolley, it's one of those open buses that kinda looks like a trolley.
On Sunday, for no apparent reason, we changed hotels. We spent the night at the Sea Dunes (605 S. Ocean Boulevard, 843-448-7007). The rate was $52 per night, thus saving us an entire four dollars and justifying packing everything up and hauling it several blocks in flaming tropical heat. The room was nice (it was the only hotel room I've ever stayed in that actually had a view of the ocean), and the staff was nice. Buuuuuuut... the nonsmoking rooms were full, and our room smelled like smoke. I mean it REALLY smelled like smoke. I kept expecting to find a pool table and a bartender hiding under the bed.
In the afternoon we visited the fabled Broadway at the Beach (http://broadwayatthebeach.com). OK, it isn't so much "fabled" as it is "hyped." And it isn't exactly Broadway. And it isn't on the beach. Think of it as an amusement park, without most of the rides. You're left with lots of somewhat pricey restaurants, a bunch of gift shops, and a few mediocre tourist attractions. But wait... that's being too harsh, because I have to admit that a couple of those tourist attractions are actually pretty damn cool: Specifically, Ripley's Aquarium (http://www.ripleysaquarium.com), and the Butterfly Pavilion (http://www.butterfly-pavilion.com), which includes the Lorikeet Aviary.
Chicago's wonderful Shedd Aquarium is hard to beat, but Ripley's Aqaurium is a wonderful example of modern architecture at is best. The highlight is a long, curving glass tunnel that takes you underneath a massive "lagoon" filled with sharks, rays, and exotic fish of all types. A moving pedway carries you through the tunnel; sharks swim over your head, and on both sides of you. The effect is dazzling. Climbing up to the upper floors lets you look down into the same lagoon. The mast of a sunken ship pokes up through the surface of the water. If Jacques Cousteau had Bill Gates' money (and if he weren't so seriously dead) he would have an indoor swimming pool that looked like this.
On Monday morning we again migrated a few blocks away, to a hotel right on the beach: the Polynesian Beach and Golf Resort, at 1001 S. Ocean Boulevard (843-448-1781). For $49 a night we got a room with two double beds and a small kitchen. The hotel had a kid's pool with a sort of fountain in the middle, plus a sauna and a full-size pool indoors. On the one morning when it rained, however, they closed the pool, since according to the desk clerk South Carolina law prohibits allowing people to swim during a thunderstorm. Kinda defeats the purpose of having the pool sheltered inside, doesn't it? Never mind... when the weather is good, the ocean is right outside. The beach occupied much of our time for the rest of the week, and that's the way it should be if you're going to travel halfway across the country to get to the ocean.
On Tuesday we visited the Children's Museum of South Carolina (http://www.cmsckids.org, 2501 N. Kings Highway, 843-946-9469). Coolest exhibit: a giant hula hoop, suspended by ropes and pulleys above a soap solution. You stand in the middle, lower the hula hoop into the soap, then pull it back up, and suddenly you're standing inside a giant bubble.
On Wednesday we took the trolley north on Ocean Boulevard, to the Pavilion area. We went through Ripley's Museum, where the exhibits include such fare as a wax figure of the world's tallest man, an actual shrunken head, and a film of a guy attaching a hook to his eyelids and pulling a full-grown woman in a wagon. We also stopped at the oddly named Gay Dolphin Gift Shop (http://www.gaydolphin.com). My favorite bit of merchandise: a full-size Egyptian sarcophagus, just the thing for when a pharoah keels over dead in your living room.
A couple mornings I got up early and walked along the beach. The beach is almost deserted. Here and there a few people are scouring the sand for seashells, and a guy with a metal detector is doggedly pursuing elusive treasures such as gold dubloons or beer bottle caps. A young woman walking in the surf, talking into her cell phone. Surely that is missing the point. Similarly, you'll also see the remnants of burned-out firecrackers and bottle rockets. This, I think, must be the result of a purely American mindset: "Let's go somewhere serene, and then blow stuff up!"
If you get up early enough, you can also see the armies of the dawn: a legion of quiet young men armed with leaf blowers and pool skimmers. They will make Myrtle Beach presentable again, then disappear like the morning mist, to return the next day.
Spend a day on the beach and you'll see lots of people parasailing. It looks like tons of fun, assuming that you've got the nerve. You'll also see lots of planes pulling advertising banners. Lots of them. And they typically have critical messages such as "Pokemon Cards 99 cents" or "End of summer sale at Wings". It's a little odd when you stop to consider that this is someone's job: day after day, they fly back and forth above the beach, informing people of great deals on swimwear and Pokemon cards.
On Thursday we spent the morning on the Carolina Safari Jeep Tour (843-497-5330). It's billed in the local travel brochure as a "3-hour tour". Everyone who has grown up in America knows that "three-hour tours" end with everyone stranded on an island for eternity. Lured by the promise of Ginger, Mary Ann, and coconut creme pies, I decided to go.
It turns out that the name "Carolina Safari" is a little fanciful, since it seemed pretty unlikely that we would be attacked by giraffes or stampeded by rhinos. But I suppose if you wanted to coat your head with fish oil and dangle it in the marsh for a while, you might be able to get it bitten off by an alligator, which is perhaps enough to qualify the venture as a safari. Our guides were Ken and Virgil. Both were knowlegeable and friendly.
In the marsh near Huntington Beach, our guides pointed out cranes, egrets, and even alligators. Nearby Murrells Inlet was once home to other predators as well: a number of pirates frequented the area in the 1600 and 1700s. Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, once landed on one of the small barrier islands with a cargo of hijacked treasure and rum. Their intention was to bury the booty and return for it later. After a night of drunken celebration, they inadvertenly left a crewman named Jack behind. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late to turn back. When they did finally return nearly two years later, they found thirty-two empty cases of rum and a human skeleton picked clean by the gulls and the crabs. To this day, the island is still called Drunken Jack's Island.
A similarly exotic tale is that of Alice's Ghost. Alice, according to legend, was a young woman from a wealthy family who fell in love with a shipbuilder's son. He gave her an engagement ring. When Alice's family learned of the romance, they were furious, and they sent her away to a boarding school hundreds of miles away. There, she became ill with tuberculosis. She was sent home, but fell into a state of delirium. When her brother discovered the engagement ring on a chain around Alice's neck, he was furious. He ripped the chain from her neck and tossed the ring into the marsh. When Alice awoke from the fever, she was distraught to discover that her ring was missing. She died that night, and is said to haunt the graveyard where she is buried, still looking for her ring. Her grave, beneath an old oak tree draped with Spanish moss, bears only the name "Alice"; she was robbed of her last name to protect the family from the "scandal." The legend claims that if you walk around the grave backwards 13 times, the ghost will appear. Apparently that's a pretty popular activity: the area around the grave has been beaten down to bare dirt.
Riding in the safari jeep, it's clear that poverty and wealth still exist side by side: an elegant plantation, hundreds of years old, is nestled among giant oaks, while half a mile away tacky mobile homes nudge up to edge of the same road.
Thursday evening we went to a seafood buffet on Kings Highway. I'm not a food person. As far as I'm concerned there are about a million things more interesting than eating. The point of eating is to get enough energy to do the more interesting stuff. I'm not picky, but I can tell the difference between good food and bad. And buffets are almost always mediocre. They're not about quality, they're about quantity, and variety: you can eat ribs, lobster, crabs, baked fish, steamed fish, fried fish, clams, jams, yams, hams, eggs, ham and eggs, eggs and ham, green eggs and ham, this, that, and the other thing. And all of it will be mediocre. And you'll pay a huge pile of money... which is fine if you intend to eat a huge pile of food. If you don't intend to gorge, skip the buffet and track down a decent pizza joint. Or, if you really want seafood, surely there's a Long John Silvers somewhere nearby.
On Friday, well, we went to the airport and waited. That taught me a valuable lesson: If you're travelling without a car, and with more luggage than you can carry, give some thought to your departure time. We were scheduled to leave at 4PM; but checkout time at our hotel was 11AM. We had more luggage than we could easily carry with us. That wouldn't have been a problem if we had been renting a car, but without it we were stuck: with nowhere to keep our luggage, we couldn't really do anything other than head to the airport, at least three hours earlier than necessary. But our flight left on time, and arrived on time, thereby depositing us in Chicago at 5PM on Friday... the world's worst rush hour. Oh, well. Welcome home.
What should you do if you want to go? A good place to begin might be the Official Welcome Center of the Myrtle Beach Tourist Bureau, at 10th Avenue North and Highway 17 Bypass. I say that "might" be a good place to start, because I don't know for sure... I didn't go there. Their phone number is 843-444-5600, and, according to their ad in one of the free tourist brochures, "Discount show tickets, accomodations, and golf tee times are our specialty."
What did we miss? Probably quite a bit. Scanning one of the tourist magazines I brought home, I see an ad suggesting that you "Take Myrtle Beach home with you" by visiting Tiger Radio Online, at http://www.tigerradioonline.com. Other "recommended" stuff that we skipped: Barefoot Landing (http://www.bflanding.com), which has theatres, restaurants, an "Alligator Adventure," and other such attractions.
A few minor lessons that we learned on this trip:
Pack what you need, not what you think you might need. Yes, you might catch cold, get the flu, have a stomach ache... but why bring your whole medicine cabinet with you? If you're likely to get sick, if you're going to be far away from a place to buy medicine, maybe it makes sense to take all those things. But one a one-week domestic trip? Leave them at home. And remember... it's a vacation, not a fashion show. You don't need many clothes.
Bring the right book. Martin Amis is not the thing to be reading if you're planning to spend the day surrounded by imitations of the Grand Ole Opry.
If you're cheap, do the math. If you have a kitchen in your hotel room (or even just a refrigerator and a microwave) you can save money even when you buy overpriced groceries. Sure, that quart of milk and box of cereal is overpriced compared to what you'd pay at your local grocery back home... but it's still cheaper than going to a restaurant for breakfast.
So what to say about Myrtle Beach? To read this short journal, it sounds like we didn't do much. And we didn't. That's the way a trip to the beach should be. You won't come away from Myrtle Beach with any earth-shattering revelations or any great personal enlightenments. You'll just have a nice time at a beach that is everything a beach should be: warm water, smooth sand, bright sunshine. If you go at the end of August, it's not crowded, and it's not expensive.
Every trip should have a moment that clearly defines its end. On this trip, it came in the early hours of our last day in Myrtle Beach. For several months, I had worn a single loop of string tied around my wrist. The string had been given to me in Chicago by a friend. A Cambodian monk of her aquaintance had brought it back from Vietnam. It was a short section of a long string that had been tied around a new temple during its dedication. Such strings are believed to bring good luck to the wearer. I knew that at some point it would break, and I'd probably lose it. I didn't like the idea of it falling to the ground in some unknown place, some shopping mall parking lot or filthy sidewalk or the floor of someone's car. That small piece of string had come halfway around the world, and it seemed that something once blessed surely deserved a better fate. Standing on the beach in South Carolina, early in the morning, I pulled the string off my wrist, wound it into a tight knot, and tossed it into the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed a fitting end to a long journey.
Bruce Sharp, 2001