The Lowcountry’s best-kept secret.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Sincere yet playful, beautiful yet authentic, loaded with everything a vacationer needs yet not overrun with tourist attractions: This is South Carolina’s Hammock Coast.
Located between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, the Hammock Coast is comprised of five communities: Garden City, Murrells Inlet, Litchfield, Pawleys Island and Georgetown. Though each town has its own personality, genuine Southern hospitality and stunning natural beauty are common throughout the area.
The Hammock Coast is a place for adventure and relaxation, romance and friendship, discovery and renewal. Here you can get as secluded as you want to be, whether traveling solo, with a loved one or a group.
What To Do…
If adventure is your goal, start with Black River Outdoors (Pawleys Island, 843-546-4840). Paddle a kayak on a naturalist-guided eco-tour for a mix of challenging physical fun, entertaining information, plus an unpredictable array of wildlife sightings. Several different two-, four- and six-hour tours are available in the salt marsh and cypress swamp. I learned more on each eco-tour I’ve enjoyed with Black River Outdoors than any previous eco-tour, and I’ve had some great ones. This company employs guides who are fun to be around plus offer deep knowledge of the ecosystem as well as local facts, trivia, anecdotes, history and legends.
Keep exploring the Hammock Coast at any combination of these worthy stops:
Brookgreen Gardens (1931 Brookgreen Dr., Murrells Inlet, 843-235-6000) is a designated national historic landmark that offers a sculpture garden, native zoo, and Lowcountry preserve. I spent the morning exploring the sculpture garden and wished I’d have had a whole day to dig deeper into the whole enchanting place. Daily guided tours and programs are offered, though you can stroll and savor the beauty on your own, too. Brookgreen Gardens is impressive: It’s been named one of the Top 10 Public Gardens in the U.S. by Coastal Living, one of the Top 5 Favorite Gardens by Southern Living, and one of the 10 Best South Carolina Attractions by USA Today. It opened in 1932 as America’s first public sculpture garden, and is now home to the nation’s largest and most comprehensive collection of American figurative sculpture. The featured 1,400 works are by 350 sculptors from the early 19th Century to present day. The total property sprawls more than 9,000 acres; over 35 acres combine garden landscape and art in perfectly-manicured, wander-inviting vignettes. The accredited native wildlife zoo houses animals that could not survive in the wild (they’re disabled and/or were bred and raised in captivity), including breeds that are rare today but were common on farms in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The Lowcountry History & Wildlife Preserve offers a glimpse into rice plantations of the 1800s plus the Gullah culture of enslaved Africans who sustained them. From a butterfly house to pontoon boat rides, historic tours to on-site restaurants, there’s more to discover than may be possible in just one visit.
Hobcaw Barony (22 Hobcaw Rd., Georgetown, 843-546-4623) is a 16,000-acre privately-owned reserve for research, education and conservation. On a bus tour of the grounds here I saw longleaf pine trees for the first time—they’re as gorgeous as rumored to be. (Longleaf pines once covered an estimated 90 million acres, primarily in the Southeastern U.S., and now cover less than three percent of that; their once-abundant supply was depleted by early settlers. By the 1920s most of the trees were gone but conservation efforts by Hobcaw Barony and others are helping ensure the tree species survives for future generations.) Trees aren’t the only thing to see here: Every common ecosystem found on the South Carolina coast can be found at Hobcaw Barony, making it an unparalleled and invaluable resource for environmental science study and research. In addition, over 70 cultural sites on the former rice plantation lands can be investigated including cemeteries, slave cabins, and the Baruch family homes—where 20th Century dignitaries including Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt stayed as guests; you can even sit in the chair Churchill favored! Several different themed tour options are offered; choose based on whatever most interests you, such as a hike through the maritime forest to the beach, a net casting lesson, yachting Winyah Bay, cemetery tours, house tours, and much more.
Huntington Beach State Park (Ocean Highway, Murrells Inlet, 843-237-4440) offers such diversity in its 2,500 acres that during my four-day trip to the Hammock Coast I visited it twice. It ranks as one of my personal favorite state parks among state parks that I’ve explored in any state (so far). Hiking trails weave through woods for two miles, numerous boardwalks lead deep into the saltmarsh and freshwater lagoon, and there are three miles of pristine beach to stroll, swim, run, fish or relax under the sun. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted within park boundaries; alligators swim in and congregate around the park’s freshwater lake. The park is also home to Atalaya, a Moorish-style home that belonged to Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington who left the park and neighboring Brookgreen Gardens properties as their legacy.
Guided tours of the Kaminski House Museum (1003 Front St., Georgetown, 843-546-7706) and the neighboring Stewart-Parker House showcase architecture and antiques while explaining the history of Georgetown from the 18th Century though World War II. Both homes were built before the American Revolution; the Kaminski House represents Southern Georgian architecture while the Stewart-Parker House has a Federal style—there’s evidence that George Washington visited the Stewart-Parker home in 1791. Both 18th and 19th Century English and American housewares are on display. A museum store stocks local crafts and books. After the tour be sure to take time to stroll Georgetown’s harbor-adjacent main street lined with intriguing boutique shops.
Shop for more local goods at the Hammock Shoppes (10880 Ocean Highway, Pawleys Island) where you can literally buy a hammock hand-woven by master knotters. Hammocks have been sold here since 1938 and are based on the original design created by Riverboat Captain Joshua John Ward in 1889. Other shops stock a range of temptations and necessities including shoes, cotton candy, olive oil, wine, jewelry, housewares and much more.
Where To Eat…
If there’s a better way to satisfy an appetite than with authentic Lowcountry cuisine, I haven’t found it yet.
Culinary styles grow out of what’s available in a region and who lives there: taste preferences, cultures, cooking skills and recipes are key influences. The Lowcountry (the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina, including the Hammock Coast) was settled by a diverse population of French, Spanish, Scottish, English, African and Native American people with ready access to rice, seafood and abundant produce. That ethnic melting pot of people working with coastal fresh ingredients gave rise to Lowcountry cuisine, one of the nation’s most celebrated food traditions.
Today’s Lowcountry menus serve classics like frogmore stew, she crab soup and shrimp & grits alongside contemporary creations. Prepare to roll up your sleeves, dig in, and say Mmmmmm. Shrimp & Grits is my personal favorite dish and the Hammock Coast is its natural habitat so I ordered it every time possible—I’ve been known to eat it three times a day for weeks at a time and never tire of it because each chef has a different spin on its preparation. Among the restaurant options…
Drunken Jack’s (4031 U.S. 17, Murrells Inlet) offers panoramic views of the water, a casual ambiance, classic salad bar, servers dedicated to delivering food and drink orders as fast as possible, and a classic bar that serves dozens of specialty cocktails. Feel free to imbibe here, the restaurant is happy to call you a cab if necessary. Chef Casey Blake’s award-winning menu is based on traditional seafood dishes. His brown-gravy shrimp & grits is a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs preparation.
Perrone’s Restaurant & Tapas Bar (13302 Ocean Hwy., Pawleys Island, 843-235-9193) is a restaurant and bar that feels like it’s set inside an art gallery: There’s much to look at and admire on these walls. The menu takes a Mediterranean focus and features what may be the best food quote I’ve ever read: “‘Great restaurants are, of course, nothing but mouth-brothels. There is no point in going to them if one intends to keep one’s belt buckled’—Frederic Raphael.” The menu is a dense read worth mulling over, so start with a glass of wine or cocktail, sit back, and peruse it. Quality ingredients are showcased and drive the dishes. Sure, there’s fresh seafood but you’ll also find chops, poultry and just about anything seasonal prepared in a range of ways that start with European influences and meander over the globe. Order whatever strikes your fancy, you can’t go wrong here.
River Room Restaurant (801 Front St., Georgetown, 843-527-4110) is a casual restaurant located in the historic J.B. Steele building in historic downtown Georgetown adjacent to the City docks at Francis Marion Park; the waterfront view lures locals and visitors. The menu offers a range of coastal American dishes with Cajun influences. The brown-gravy shrimp & grits packs a spicy kick.
Rustic Table (10683 Ocean Highway, Pawleys Island, 843-314-0164) is co-owned by Chef Adam Kirby, one of the four South Carolina Chef Ambassadors named for 2017. (Throughout the year, chef ambassadors represent the state by participating in specific state-wide culinary and tourism-related events.) The ambiance at Rustic Table, a personal favorite restaurant, is vibrant and casual. The menu showcases Lowcountry classics as well as Southern and American favorites. The shrimp & grits (my personal favorite dish) firmly ranks among the region’s best. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu of the Western Culinary Institute, Kirby is also the chef and co-owner of Bistro 217 on Pawleys Island.
Wicked Tuna Grill Sushi Bar (4123 U.S. 17 Business, Murrells Inlet, 843-651-9987) offers fresh “from hook to plate” seafood. As explained on the restaurant’s website, “Every week our fishing fleet heads out to the Atlantic ocean sourcing the freshest grouper, mahi mahi, seabass, and snapper off the Carolina coast. Every fish we serve is caught local by our own boats and then cleaned and prepped on-site in our Fish House before bringing it upstairs to the kitchen. From there, our master chefs prepare exciting culinary experiences matched only by our breathtaking views.” I can only vouch for the shrimp tacos, which are excellent. In fact, I wish I was eating some right now. After a meal at Wicked Tuna take time to stroll the celebrated MarshWalk that overlooks the inlet.
@21plusTravel Tip: Take a taste of the Hammock Coast home with you. Before departing, load up a cooler with ice and fresh seafood purchased from Seven Seas (3476 Hwy 17 Business, Murrells Inlet, 843-651-1666). My commute home from the Hammock Coast has ranged from five to 11 hours (depending on traffic) and my purchases have always made the trip safely. I adore Seven Seas’ shrimp, grouper, flounder and sea scallops; I’m confident the other options are yummy, too, I just haven’t tried them (yet). Shop here and you’re buying fresh seafood from the folks who caught it; odds are it is higher quality seafood than whatever you can get from a grocer at home (unless you happen to live on a coast). Also stop at Lee’s Farmers Market (4883 Frontage Rd. off 17 Bypass N., Murrells Inlet) for whatever fresh, imported and/or local ingredients strike your fancy, and don’t miss the “world famous” tomato pie…which may not be as well-known around the globe as the guy who greeted me at the door claimed, but it has a well-deserved loyal local following for sure and tastes delicious at any temperature.
Where To Stay…
The Hammock Coast offers a few hotels; visitors most typically rent vacation homes (B&Bs and campgrounds are also available).
Best Western Pawleys Island (11445 Ocean Highway, Pawleys Island, 843-235-0808) offers a convenient central location. Recently renovated, it is clean and moderately priced. Basic guestrooms offer free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, desks, plus microwaves, mini frigs and coffeemakers with basic supplies; upgraded rooms also offer a pull-out sofa. Amenities include free parking, free breakfast, an outdoor pool, exercise room, as well as a business center and meeting facilities.
When To Go…
Every season the Hammock Coast presents its own natural enticements, such as spring blossoms at Brookgreen Gardens. For the lowest Odds of Encountering Children, plan weekday visits when school is in session. Rumor has it that the winter holiday season is sublime—we plan to check it out! Stay tuned.
– Photo Credits: Chef Kirby courtesy SC Hammock Coast; remainder © HSP Media LLC
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