South Carolina is one of America’s most popular holiday playgrounds. Falling in love with its heady mix of warm sunshine, southern hospitality, golden beaches, compelling history and food to die for, is all too easy.
Sand, sun and sea - and greens
We arrived bleary-eyed and jetlagged to be met by the forest of neon known as Myrtle Beach.
South Carolina’s answer to Orlando, entertainment such as the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, is up against the likes of Encounters UFO Experience and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, promising an action-packed adventure for the young and young at heart. Little wonder that it is one of the USA’s most popular beach resort destinations.
The next day, we headed for the Grand Strand, a series of beaches sprawling 60 miles along the north coast of South Carolina. Punctuated by piers and backed by boardwalks, shops and outlet malls, along with theme parks and hundreds of restaurants, it provided the perfect place to start our holiday adventure.
Soaring to new heights above the strand, the giant Skywheel offers a bird’s eye view, and down below there was plenty of opportunity for people-watching, keeping us entertained between serious sunbathing sessions.
And then, of course, we had to decide which of the 100+ golf courses in the area to play!
A carriage ride round Charleston
A few days later, we headed south to Charleston, voted America’s best small city for the last six years in a row.
It’s also one of the oldest, founded in 1680 and named after Britain’s King Charles II. The city is elegant and understated, filled with pastel-shaded historic houses dipped in colourful wisteria and fragrant honeysuckle.
Hop on a horse-drawn carriage tour, and clip-clop past the residential homes and boutiques, before heading back to the central market to shop.
And of course a shopping expedition wouldn’t be the same without finishing up with cocktails on the waterfront.
A dark past
Just south of the city, Boone Hall Plantation is just one of the many plantations that made South Carolina, and America, rich.
Slave cabins still stand in rows at the end of the grounds in plain sight of the great house - a gracious antebellum mansion.
Now, in the dirt patch theatre between the rows of huts, a storyteller with a voice of honey tells tales and sings songs of life in the cotton, indigo and pecan fields.
Her language is that of the Gullah people (short for Angola). Collected from across West Africa, her rhythms are among the earliest, rawest, and raspiest ancestors of the Blues. It was hypnotic.
We spent the whole day there, touring the great house and the slave quarters, then taking an open coach tour of the estate and walking in the gardens. Even now, as I’m writing, the storyteller’s voice transports me straight back to the avenue of oaks, dripping with Spanish moss.
Earth, wind and water
Hilton Head Island, south of Charleston, is the quieter version of Myrtle Beach. A leafy green, low-rise holiday playground, the island has been carefully developed to preserve the environment. It too has miles of beach, with 24 golf courses, plus plenty of water sports and boat trips to entertain.
I found a different take on the coast at the wonderful Coastal Discovery Museum, which offers wildlife tours of the beaches and lagoons, evening turtle talks and dolphin watching trips, many of them with scientists from the center.
For a little more action, ZipLine Hilton Head offers two options - one swinging across the marshes and lagoons, the other a tangle of lines and bridges high in the forest treetops. Inspiring panic and peace all at once, it’s a strangely exhilarating mix, but not one for the fainthearted!
Eat until you drop
“What’s wrong with fat?” one local waitress asked, indignantly, when I asked if a new, leaner version of traditional southern favourites might be developing (the answer was no). Southern fried cooking isn’t healthy, but it is utterly delicious, and borrows ingredients, flavours and techniques from across the world.
Deep-fried and drenched in butter and cheese, this is a world of barbecued pulled pork and spicy southern fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, grits (maize meal porridge) and black-eyed peas (known as cowpeas), followed up with a generous slice of pecan or sweet potato pie.
We overindulged from one end of the state to the other, with Sunday brunch and gospel music at Myrtle Beach’s House of Blues to drowning in hickory-scented heaven at One Hot Mama's barbecue restaurant on Hilton Head.
And as for Charleston, well, it is quite simply a foodies' paradise, filled with magnificent restaurants, bars, food shops and even culinary tours, so you can experience it all mouthful by mouthful.
I’m going on a diet - and then I’m going back. I’ve only just scratched the surface of this amazing state and there’s so much more to do, to see - and to eat!
If you're a member of the RCI Holiday Exchange programme and want South Carolina to be the destination for your next fantastic holiday, there are 139 RCI-affiliated resorts to choose from there. To see where you could be staying, check out our Resort Directory below.
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