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It doesn't get wilder, crazier, or tackier than this vacation playground, which has been entertaining beachgoers since the 40s with its big-time boardwalk and continuous carnival atmosphere.
These days, you can scream on thrill rides, see alligators, watch live acts, hunt for bargains at the outlets, or putt-till-you-drop at one (or all) of the town's 47 miniature golf courses. There's so much to do, you may never get to the beach.
Most of the attractions are located along Ocean Boulevard (U.S. 17) and the 17 Bypass. And about those 47 mini golf courses -- Myrtle Beach may be the Miniature Golf Capital of the World, but serious golfers will find 110 regulation courses to practice their swings.
So where should you plop your blanket? It's a tough choice, considering that Myrtle Beach is just one of several beach towns along The Grand Strand, stretching 60 miles from North Carolina to Georgetown, South Carolina. Its wide, white sandy beaches are perfect for families who love shell picking, chasing sand crabs, watching pelicans, and body surfing in the big waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
If you're traveling with teens, best bets are the downtown beaches near the Pavilion. They're crowded, noisy, and filled with excitement. For families with toddlers, better to set up day camp at these quieter spots:
Going to the beach is only half the fun in a town with nearly a dozen theme parks.
The Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park is the granddaddy of them all. For more than 50 years, this park has provided a carnival-like atmosphere right at the beach.
There are 40 grown-up and kiddie rides, including the new $5 million Hurricane, the tallest roller coaster in South Carolina climbing 110 feet. The oceanfront arcade has row after row of video games -- and even some old-fashioned pinball. Along the boardwalk, you can play skill games like darts, water guns, and ring tosses, and vendors sell beach stuff like kites and balls.
At Family Kingdom Amusement Park, a mile south, take a ride on the Swamp Fox, a big wooden roller coaster or the state's largest ferris wheel. There are plenty of kiddie rides for toddlers and chicken adults. Across the street on the ocean, the Family Kingdom Water Park has both wild and mild water slides, wading pools, and a lazy river. Parents can hang out in the river while the kids shoot down the slides.
Forget about ever getting the kids to sleep. Two big entertainment centers will keep them wired all night.
At Broadway at the Beach, shopping, dining, and entertainment surround a 25-acre manmade lake. The complex is home to Ripley's Aquarium, brought to you by the "Believe It or Not!" folks, with its tanks of nine-foot sharks and touch pools of hermit crabs and stingrays. A nifty moving sidewalk travels underneath the fish tanks (so you feel like you're under the sea).
Like most entertainment hubs, Broadway includes the requisite IMAX theater, 16-screen movie house, and theme restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe and NASCAR Cafe. More than 100 shops provide plenty of opportunities to part with your money (there's also a Gap, if your kids forgot to pack clothes with the toys).
Other attractions include paddleboats on the lake, fireworks in summer, miniature golf (of course), and loads of nightspots, geared mostly towards adults.
For a more low key evening, try Barefoot Landing in North Myrtle Beach (about 10 miles to the north). It, too, is located on a 25-acre manmade lake, as well as the intracoastal Waterway.
You'll find a family-oriented review show and big-name stars performing at Barefoot's Alabama Theatre, named for the country group Alabama (yes, they're among the regular performers). There are also more than a dozen restaurants including a House of Blues (with live bands), loads of shopping, and 14 factory outlets.
The kids will love 20-acre Alligator Adventure, one of the largest reptile parks in the world. From boardwalks, they can see gators of all sizes, reptiles (including snakes), and birds. On the hour, animal keepers put on shows including hand-feeding alligators. The park's claim to fame? It owns all seven Albino alligators in the world (but you can't see them all at once -- they're loaned out to other zoos).
Mini-golf courses in Myrtle Beach go way beyond the norm. The best include Jurassic Golf with its challenging holes and squawking and spitting dinosaurs (including a rather scary T-Rex).
At Dragon's Lair Fantasy Golf, you swing past a dragon that breathes real fire. And Captain Hook's Adventure Golf serves up Never Neverland complete with roving pirates, animated crocs, and smoking skulls.
Type of trip: Beach, entertainment
Best for ages: All
Ideal trip length: Weekend to a week
Distance: Savannah (199 miles), Charlotte (225 miles), Atlanta (358 miles)
Best time to go: Summer is high season. You can enjoy the same activities and lower hotel rates in the spring and fall.
Weather: Average highs are in the 80s, May through September; high 70s in October.
Lodging: Best (and quietest) family lodging is located beachside, either north or south of the Pavilion, along Ocean Blvd. Look for rooms with kitchenettes to save on meals.
Squirm factor: None
Myrtle Beach State Park. 4401 South Kings Hwy, four miles south of downtown Myrtle Beach on Hwy 17, 843-238-5325.
Huntington Beach State Park. 16148 Ocean Hwy, Murrells Inlet about 17 miles south of downtown Myrtle Beach on Hwy 17, 843-237-4440.
The Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park. Ocean Blvd. & 9th Ave. N., 843-448-6456. Check for opening and closing dates.
Family Kingdom Amusement Park and Water Park. 3rd Ave. S. and Ocean Blvd., 843-626-3447. Check for opening and closing dates.
Broadway at the Beach. Hwy 17 at 21st Ave. N., 843-444-3200 or 800-FUN-IN-MB.
Ripley's Aquarium. Broadway at the Beach, 800-734-8888.
Barefoot Landing. Hwy 17 N., Myrtle Beach, 800-272-2320.
Contact: Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, 800-356-3016.
Favorite local spot: The Sea Captain's House, 3002 N. Ocean Blvd., 843-448-8082. This oceanfront seafood spot is a long-time favorite of locals and visitors alike. Get the crab cakes.
Local food: Calabash-style fried seafood (made with a cornmeal batter), foot-long hot dogs with or without chili, cheese, and onions, at The Myrtle Beach Pavilion.
Best souvenir: T-shirts for kids, locally-made rope hammocks for adults, sand dollars and shark's teeth for everyone.
Annual events: Sun Fun Festival, June, all around Myrtle Beach, 800-7-SUN-FUN. This seaside event celebrates with beach games, parades, family fun nights, concerts, celebrities, and air shows.
If you're headed to Huntington Beach State Park, make time for a pontoon ride at nearby Myrtle Brookgreen Gardens.
Located on the site of four former colonial rice plantations, the park operates one-hour creek excursions aboard pontoon boats, with commentary on rice fields and the plantation days. From the boats, you can see alligators, birds, turtles, and snakes (in the wild), as well as local flora, which includes Mistletoe. Once you're back on land, check out the park's wildlife area, with its Raptor Aviary (hawks and owls), a Cypress Aviary (waterfowl), Alligator Swamp, and Otter Pond.
Myrtle Brookgreen Gardens is best known for its 550-plus outdoor sculptures by more than 240 American artists. But this stuff appeals mostly to adults. There is a special garden with art geared towards kids including a water fountain sculpture called Frog Babies (with a child holding two frogs).
Hwy 17 S., between Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet, 18 miles south of Myrtle Beach near Huntington Beach State Park, 843-235-6000.
Reviewed April 2004.