Just south of the bustle of Myrtle Beach, the roads start to thin into winding two-lanes, high-rise hotels are replaced with single-family rental homes, and the pace slows way, way down.
The laid-back communities here, along the southern stretch of South Carolina's storied Grand Strand of beaches, don't draw as many tourists as their neighbor to the north, but that's proven to be a big part of this area's appeal. The beaches are less developed, the restaurants and inns more often family-owned and cozy. Even at the height of spring break season here, you're more likely to hear the crashing waves at night than a band of rambunctious vacationers.
Driving south of Myrtle Beach, you'll first come across tiny Surfside Beach, a family-focused town tucked along a two-mile-long strip of white sand. Next up is Garden City, famed for its popular fishing pier, followed by Murrells Inlet, widely considered the seafood capital of South Carolina. Finally, there's Pawleys Island, a less than four-mile-long barrier island that's been attracting visitors since the early 1700s, when Charleston rice plantation owners would vacation here to escape the muggy, mosquito-filled summers back on the river. If you're looking for a quiet respite along the sea, follow their lead: This part of greater Myrtle Beach remains one of the most peaceful stretches along the Atlantic.
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Readers of the local Myrtle Beach newspapers typically vote the Pier at Garden City the best fishing spot on the Grand Strand. The 668-foot-long wooden boardwalk comes alive each spring, when the Pier Cafe opens up again after winter and starts hosting nightly concerts featuring local bands.
Marlin Quay Marina, in Murrells Inlet, has a long lineup of fishing charters, from half- to full-day excursions — even a shark-fishing trip! But the most adventurous option is a 12-hour boat ride 55 to 70 miles offshore to cast a line in the Gulf Stream, the fish-rich, warm-water current that flows up the Atlantic coast. You'll troll for tuna, dolphin (mahimahi), king mackerel, and marlin, and the summer season, from June through September, is your best window for landing all four.
The gorgeous Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club — all 200-year-old, moss-draped oaks and neatly manicured lawns — is home to the Ritson-Sole Golf School, a one- to three-day primer program designed to turn newbies competitive and fine-tune regular players' games. No matter how well you swing, you'll be in good company: Mel Sole, the director of instruction, played on South Africa's PGA Tour, and the Pawley Plantation course was designed by Jack Nicklaus.
Garden City's most recent addition is a 1,250-foot-long creek walk, an elevated wooden path above the marshes that's perfect for fishing, crabbing, birding, or even bicycling. If you're a fan of blue crabs, plan your visit in the early winter, in late November and December, when your chances are best for catching large, heavy crabs.