Stop to shop or stay awhile South of the Border: Alan Schafer, beer distributor turned entrepreneur, has created a tourist mecca beneath the sign of the sombrero.

April 14, 1996|By Earl Swift | Earl Swift,VIRGINIAN-PILOT

DILLON, S.C. -- From the highest point on Alan Schafer's spread, the nighttime highway appears as a vein of red and white light.

You can stand up here and look northward for miles, to where the interstate narrows to a twinkling ribbon and disappears behind the rolling Carolina hills, and watch the south-bounders stream toward you as if pulled by a magnet.

All night they come, drawn irresistibly off Interstate 95 and onto the nearby interchange. You can watch as they turn onto U.S. 301-501, numbed by endless miles of tree-lined sameness, eager to leave their cars.

And you can almost see their jaws drop.

Because your vantage point is a mammoth, neon-edged sombrero 200 feet off the ground, overlooking a splash of light, color and mercantile frenzy unequaled on the East Coast.

Below, a sombrero-shaped restaurant serves steak. A 97-foot, sombrero-clad colossus stands guard outside a gift shop, cars rolling between its legs. Motel guests swim in a pool enclosed by a sombrero-shaped solarium.

Neon sombreros and cactuses and rockets light the night. Supermarkets of fireworks and rubber whales and souvenir back scratchers abound.

Even the billboards fail to prepare you for South of the Border.

You know the billboards. Drive the nation's busiest highway between Baltimore and Orlando, Fla., and you can't avoid them: yellow lettering and fluorescent sombreros on fields of black, their messages a mix of pun and guileless outburst.

"Camp Weeth Pedro!" screams one, a half-hour out. "Pedro's Weather Report: Chili Today, Hot Tamale," another advises. "You Never Sausage A Place!" insists a third, illustrated by a massive, three-dimensional kielbasa.

Close to 200 of them straddle Interstate 95, luring the road-weary an exit just yards over the South Carolina line. As you get close, the signs seem to breed, blotting out the roadside's pines and cedars, trumping drabber billboards for cut-rate smokes. On one curve, travelers can see eight of them at once. Still, they understate the place.

You see the sombrero tower first: curving steel legs, a glass elevator, the massive hat. Once off the interstate, you hit gas stations, fireworks stands, arcades. Restaurants slide by -- Pedro's Coffee Shop, Pedro's Pizza & Sub Shop, Pedro's Diner, the Sombrero, the Peddler Steak House, Pedro's Ice Cream Fiesta.

Pig-collector heaven

Dark now, awaiting summer, are the rides at Pedroland Park. Do not fret. All 14 stores are open. You may wander among tiny Buddhas, lewd bowling towels and Pretty Mermaid dolls. T-shirts. Shot glasses and key chains.

You want pig figurines? Here they are: pigs in baskets, in burlap sacks, playing cards. Pigs quaffing foamy mugs of beer. Wearing knapsacks. Slicing carrots.

"I was here when I was, like, 10 years old, I think," says Craig Stoll, a James Madison University psychology major returning from a spring-break trip to Florida and standing in the supermarket-sized Mexico Shop.

He shakes his head, a bit overwhelmed. "It's just a mess," he chuckles. "We had to stop in."

"We're the total tourist stop," Susanne Pelt says, "not a trap."

Ms. Pelt is South of the Border's publicity officer, and she describes her domain with no hint of irony.

"When you think of a tourist trap, you think of price gouging, of things being far more expensive than you'd find them in other places," she says. "And that isn't the case here."

True. Interstate 95's best-known wayside is, in fact, a fine value. South of the Border reckons that 7 million travelers have pulled into the place in each of the last three years -- a figure which, if accurate, places the 350-acre spread among the nation's top tourist shrines.

But each has spent an average of only $4. South of the Border's goods and services aim for the change in your pocket, nothing more.

"We've had people say, 'God, I'd love to stay at South of the Border, but I don't think I could afford the rooms,' " Ms. Pelt says. "And what they don't realize is that the rooms are extremely reasonable."

Also true. Roomy digs at the South of the Border Motor Hotel set you back $42.80, including tax. Twenty dirt-cheap honeymoon suites come equipped with headboard mirrors and Andre champagne. Every room has a carport.

You're buying style as well as shelter. Oversized statues of gorillas, bulls and elephants lurk outside. In neighboring stores, signs push deals like carnival barkers, and at the Little Africa Shop, chunky wooden jewelry and kente cloths sell beneath an illustration of a native with a bone through his nose.

"You have access to all we have to offer," Ms. Pelt says earnestly.

Entire vacations

Most guests make it a one-night stop. Others, she says, "stay here their entire vacations."

True, too. Loiter in the motel lobby and you may encounter them. Perhaps they'll resemble the teen-ager who approached the motel's front desk one afternoon recently.

"Excuse me," she said. "Do ya'll rent bathing suits?"

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