From Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head, the Carolina coast has something for everyone. So why not see it all with a South Carolina getaways road trip?
The coastal region of the Palmetto State is filled with white-sand beaches, charming historic towns, freshly caught seafood, and a plethora of outdoor activities such as kayaking in the marshes, golfing, hiking in state parks, crabbing, and even ziplining.
How long does it take to see the coast? That depends…how long do you have? You can easily spend a weekend in each of the major cities, or weeks exploring every little nook-and-cranny.
This guide starts at the northern point of Myrtle Beach and meanders south to Hilton Head, but could easily be reversed. There are five major stopping points, each of which could easily lend itself to a romantic weekend for couples in South Carolina, a fun-filled girls getaway in South Carolina, or a memorable family vacation in South Carolina.
Whichever South Carolina getaway you choose, you are sure to have a wonderful time!
EDITOR’S TIP: If you want to see more of America’s beautiful south, check out Deep South Road Trip!
1. Myrtle Beach
Myrtle Beach is one of the best-known tourist destinations in the Carolinas. In addition to the white sand beaches, balmy climate and excellent culinary scene, it’s also popular due to the wide range of attractions and activities to suit every age and lifestyle. It’s identified for the heavily touristic beaches and boardwalk, but there are plenty of things to do for those who are seeking a respite away from the crowds.
With over 60 miles of beautiful beaches on Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand, there are a variety of beaches to choose from, to suit different styles. During the summer, many of the beaches are crowded but offer a fun, festive vacation vibe. Myrtle Beach is one of the best family beaches on the East Coast, but for those looking for more seclusion, there are other beaches located on the intercoastal or in the small fishing villages that are unspoiled and quieter.
The place to be on the northern South Carolina coast is the spectacular Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. Opened in 2010, the festive promenade is the highlight of Myrtle Beach. It spans a length of more than a mile, from Pier 14 to 2nd Ave Pier. All along the way are colorful trinket shops and ocean view eateries beckoning visitors to stop and take a look… or taste.
The Skywheel is located on the Boardwalk. At 200 feet high, it’s the highest Ferris wheel in South Carolina and was the first observation wheel of its kind in the United States. Its enclosed gondolas not only offer stunning 12-minute panoramic views over the ocean, boardwalk, and city, but it’s an enjoyable ride on its own.
For more family fun, the Boardwalk area also has the Sling Shot thrill ride, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and arcades.
Festivals take place on the Boardwalk throughout the year, such as the Hot Summer Nights, the Seafood Festival, Native Sons Salt Games, Holidays on the Boardwalk, and the Carolina Country Music Fest.
Broadway on the Beach
Don’t miss a fun night out at House of Blues, an eclectically fitted-out venue that serves up favorite Southern grub such as po’ boys and jambalaya, plus live music. It’s located in the Broadway on the Beach entertainment area. When we were there, we were treated to a fabulous concert by South Carolina’s own hometown hero, Darius Rucker.
Thinking of a couple’s weekend in Myrtle Beach? Click here for the 12 most romantic things to do in Myrtle Beach.
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2. Hammock Coast
As you continue your drive towards Charleston, stop in the area known as the Hammock Coast. Even if you don’t stay overnight, there are plenty of things to do to fill the day.
Located in the amiable fishing village of Murrells Inlet, the MarshWalk is a half-mile wooden boardwalk perched above the wetlands. Along the MarshWalk are several restaurants and shops overlooking the waterfront with live music nightly.
Brookgreen Gardens is the jewel of the South Carolina coast, boasting to have something blooming all year long. It’s the perfect place for a leisurely stroll to take in the plethora of sculptures, reflection pools, and flora and fauna in the botanical gardens and wildlife preserve. Scattered throughout the 9,127-acre property is the largest and most comprehensive collection (over 2,000 works) of American figurative sculpture in the country.
One of the highlights is Live Oak Allée which contains 250-year-old Live Oak trees that were planted in the early 1700s when the property was divided amongst four prosperous rice plantations.
Located within the grounds of Huntington Beach State Park, Atalaya was once the winter home of industrialist and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington and his world-renowned sculptor wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington. Archer was a noted scholar of Spanish culture and art and it is said that he designed the now long-vacant and empty 30-room Moorish mansion from just his imagination. Appropriately named, Atalaya means “watchtower” in Spanish, and the courtyard is dominated by a 40-foot tower, which housed a 3,000-gallon water tank. The Huntington’s chose the location for the milder winters as a retreat from New York for Anna, who was afflicted with tuberculosis.
South of Murrells Inlet, the next town is Georgetown, the third oldest city in the state of South Carolina. Named after King George II, this small coastal town of only 9,000 people is brimming with personality with more than 50 historic buildings and lovely antebellum homes dating back to 1737. Spend an afternoon walking around historic oak-lined downtown and Harbor Walk along the waterfront.
Before you get to Charleston, make some time for a nature exhilaration experience. Charleston Zipline Adventures gives visitors an opportunity to fly through the trees from one tree platform to another on seven zipline cables. The canopy adventure is set in ten acres of forest in Awendaw, just 15 miles from Historic Downtown Charleston.
All training and equipment are provided and they even take videos – yes, they will catch that scream!
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Ah, Charleston. Often listed as one of the world’s best cities to visit by some of the big-name travel magazines, the smallish southern metropolis lives up to its name. The location on the coast could not be better — it’s approximately halfway between Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, and also an easy day trip to Savannah, Georgia which is just a 2-hour drive.
You’ll want to explore Charleston by foot with a tour such as Bulldogs Walking Tours. Be forewarned, once you enter the historic downtown, you may not want to leave. Here are the highlights:
Rainbow Row is arguably Charleston’s most Instagrammable spot. It’s a series of thirteen bright pastel-colored townhouses, lined up one-after-another opposite the waterfront. It’s the longest cluster of Georgian row houses in the United States.
Waterfront Park offers 10 acres of fantastic views of the Charleston Harbor and the Cooper River and is the site of the Pineapple Fountain landmark. The park received the 2007 Landmark Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Colorful and sprawling, the Charleston City Market complex, established in the e1790s, is one of the nation’s oldest public markets. Displays of good by local artisans line the Great Hall, and there are also places to grab a bit to eat. The market is a great place to find the sought-after sweetgrass baskets – a handmade tradition of the Gullah culture originally made to winnow rice on local plantations.
The Battery is one of the most popular spots in Charleston. Originally a defensive seawall, it’s now a gorgeous promenade stretching along the southernmost tip of the Charleston peninsula. Across the water are views of Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney and opposite the walkway is an impressive lineup of gorgeous antebellum mansions.
Built in 1771, the Old Exchange Building is one of the most historical buildings in the city, dating back to colonial Charleston. In 1788, South Carolina ratified the U.S.
Constitution in this building, becoming the 8th state to join the union. An even darker past reveals that the dungeon was used as a prison during the Revolutionary War, as well as to hold notorious pirates.
For history enthusiasts, just outside of the city are a selection of expansive plantations, dating back as early as 1676. Palatial homes, picturesque gardens, working farms, Spanish moss oaks, and costumed interpreters can be found at Boone Hall Plantation, Magnolia Plantation, and Gardens, Middleton Place, or Drayton Hall.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Boone Hall Plantation is one of America’s oldest working plantations, with continuous crop-growing for over 320 years. Boone Hall claims to be America’s most photographed plantation, and the long passageway of centuries-old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss as you approach the mansion are easily recognizable.
The Black History in America exhibit in nine of the original cabins of the plantation’s former enslaved people is impressive and heart-wrenching at the same time. Through the use of videos, photos, audio, and exhibits, each cabin tells a different story of the struggles in history up to the present day.
Magnolia Plantation is also a stunning historic house with extensive gardens located on the Ashley River near Charleston. Like Boone Hall, it’s one of the oldest plantations in the South and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Founded in 1676, Magnolia claims to be Charleston’s most visited plantation and was named one of “America’s Most Beautiful Gardens” by Travel + Leisure Magazine.
In Mount Pleasant, just outside of Charleston, Shem Creek offers picturesque waterfront dining serving traditional Lowcountry dishes and drinks. There are a park and a 10-foot wide boardwalk for a stroll with panoramic views of the marsh and Charleston Harbor and even the occasional dolphin viewings.
Also in Mount Pleasant is Patriots Point, the best place to catch a vibrant sunset over the Charleston cityscape across the Cooper River. There are restaurants there with huge floor-to-ceiling windows where you can dine while being mesmerized by the ever-changing brilliant colors. Before the sunset, visitors can spend some time at the maritime museum, a haven of American History. Tour the World War II aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown (you can sleep on board!) – one of the main attractions at Patriots Point. There’s also a golf course and Waterfront Park and Pier.
On Johns Island near Charleston is the Angel Oak – a 400 to 500-year old Southern oak. The sprawling, live tree is quite a sight to behold, standing 66.5 feet tall, 28 feet in circumference, with shade covering 17,200 square feet. Note: this gem is protected and it is prohibited to climb any part of the tree.
Charleston is foodie heaven. It’s been said that you can eat in a different restaurant every night, and every one of them will be spectacular. The seafood is incredible. My favorite place, however, was much unexpected. It was a small roadside restaurant set right on the marsh between Charleston and Folly Beach called LoLo’s. I had the best She-Crab soup there that I’d ever tasted, bar none.
Beaches near Charleston
For Bohemian, at times raucous, beach fun, head south of Charleston to Folly Beach. The fishing pier extends more than 1,000 feet into the ocean, and the strip is crammed with restaurants, souvenir shops, and beach rental homes. If you’ve ever wanted to learn to surf, there are several shops that offer lessons.
Isle of Palms
For a more upscale, relaxing place beach, away from the crowds, both visitors and locals alike head to the nearby barrier island of Isle of Palms. It’s known for its pristine beaches, nesting sea turtles, and lavish condos at Wild Dunes.
Located at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, Sullivan’s Island, only 3.3 miles long, is considered a very affluent suburb of Charleston. The sleepy beach community consists mostly of private oceanfront homes. Although the beaches are public, they are usually uncrowded, except in the very height of summer.
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I have to confess and apologize to Savannah, Georgia because Beaufort just may be my new favorite city in America. It’s the epitome of (cliché) Southern charm with the addition of local hospitality, great dining, history, and culture. Picture those same massive old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss but in front of stunning antebellum mansions lining the oceanfront boulevard. The appeal is almost too much to take in. But I suggest that you do.
First, on the way to Beaufort in your South Carolina getaways, make a stop at Edisto Island, one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. It’s virtually un-commercialized and protected. Botany Bay Plantation has over 4,000 acres of woods, wetlands, and fields that can be explored.
There is a beach….visitors can walk along a dirt path through the marshlands to get to Edisto Beach – a stunning photo op with driftwood scattered along the sand. Use extreme caution and be sure to check the tide schedule because when the tide comes in, the path disappears, creating a dangerous situation.
Downtown Walking Tour
The walking tour brings Beaufort’s 500-year history to life, from where pirates and Indians once roamed all the way to modern movie filming sites such as Forest Gump, The Great Santini, and GI Jane and more than a dozen more. Beaufort played an important part in the Revolutionary war, slavery, Secession, Civil War, and a catastrophic hurricane.
Located on St. Helen Island, the site of the former Penn School was one of the country’s first schools for formerly enslaved individuals. The grounds are lovely and walking through the gardens, historic structures and museum of the Penn Center provide a fascinating and important peek into African American history and Gullah culture.
Beaufort lies within the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a federal National Heritage Area established by the U.S. Congress to recognize the unique Creole culture of the descendants of the enslaved West African people. The Gullah Geechee have a rich heritage of cultural traditions in art, food, and music that makes them distinctive among African Americans. I had a cherished and unique opportunity to attend a performance of the Gullah Kinfolk. The singing and dancing told the story of their heritage, coming from Eastern Africa to the Carolina Sea Islands. It was superb.
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5. Hilton Head
Named after Captain William Hilton, who founded the island in 1663, Hilton Head has been a national vacation destination since the late 1960s. Consistently named as one of the top islands in the United States, it’s a quiet, picturesque beach town, known for luxury beaches and golf resorts.
Hilton Head has many beaches to choose from. You can find a secluded hammock in a resort, or head to a busier beach. Coligny Beach Park is one of the most popular because it has so many nearby amenities, such as restrooms, showers, picnic tables, and vending machines. Beach equipment is available for rent during the tourist season.
Even in the winter, the weather is moderate enough for strolling along the 12 miles of white hard-packed beaches. The island has more than 60 miles of scenic bicycle trails that are easy to navigate. Paths lead to the beach, through the woods, to the marina, with lots of great spots to stop for a picnic lunch.
Nature lovers can enjoy kayaking in the eco-protected salt marshes and the sound, where spotting wildlife such as turtles, herons, and wild dolphins are commonplace.
Sea Pines Forest Preserve
The winter climate is also perfect for hiking. Sea Pines Forest Preserve is home to a number of nature trails and Jarvis Creek Park Nature has a 1-mile loop that’s a great option for walking, jogging, or event alligator spotting. You can also walk the Shell Ring Trail, a pathway that meanders through pine forests to a 4,000-year-old shell ring said to be evidence of early American Indians.
In spite of its relatively small size, just 42 square miles of semi-tropical landscape, Hilton Head is famous for a large number of championship golf courses, 24 at last count.
Harbour Town Lighthouse
The red-and-white candy-cane-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse is the area’s major landmark. Visitors can climb the 114 steps of the Lighthouse for a panoramic view of the marina and marshes of Calibogue Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse also has a museum and sits in the middle of a small community of boutique shops and cafés.
Hilton Head Distillery
Of course, any cool place has their own on-location spot to make craft spirits, and Hilton Head is no exception. You can tour the Hilton Head Distillery and taste some of their run and vodka.
As part of the U.S. Lowcountry region, dining on Hilton Head is wonderful. Don’t miss the opportunity to indulge in fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, crab cakes, BBQ, and other southern specialties.
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More Places to Visit in South Carolina
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Discover South Carolina during her stay on the coast, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.