Nonplayers can have a fine time in golfers' heaven Vacation: Myrtle Beach also offers sunning and swimming, outlet shopping and country music.

June 02, 1996|By Dena Bunis | Dena Bunis,NEWSDAY

If you don't play golf and hate country music, is there any reason to vacation in Myrtle Beach?

This strip of beach on the South Carolina strand is golf heaven. With nearly 100 courses and a cooperative climate, Myrtle Beach draws millions of duffers each year to its fairways.

Even in early May, weeks before the season began, planeloads of weekenders and weeklong visitors emptied out of Myrtle Beach's compact airport to hit the links. More than 30 golf bags rolled off the conveyor belt from my flight alone, and foursomes piled into rental cars for the short drive to the center of town. From the golf-themed cafe at the airport to the electronic billboards along the highways that advertise numbers to call to reserve a tee time, golf is king.

And country music may just be queen. The Gatlin Brothers even have their own Branson, Mo.-type theater.

But there's more to the Grand Strand -- as this strip of beaches is known -- than greens and guitars. Even at the height of summer, the beach doesn't get intolerably crowded, except perhaps close to the center of town. Many of the nicest resort hotels are to the north of the main Pavilion area and offer quieter beachfront sunning and swimming. If you prefer your water in a swimming pool, the hotels and most motels have those too -- some are heated early in the season. Many also have whirlpool spas and kiddie pools.

Myrtle Beach logs an average of 215 sunny days a year, an average air temperature of 88 in June, 91 in July and 89 in August and water temperatures of about 85 in the summer. If it rains you can shop. There's no shortage of restaurants at all ends of the culinary and pocketbook spectrum. Musical entertainment ranges from shagging -- a '50s rock and roll dance supposedly invented in Myrtle Beach -- at Studebaker's to cheering on the Gatlin Brothers.

A good outlet

When a tornado almost touched down during my visit, I headed for shelter at the Outlet Park -- 84 stores in three malls selling clothes, shoes, housewares and gifts.

Anchoring Outlet Park is Waccamaw Pottery. Get a wagon and prepare to walk for what seems like miles through through glassware, dishes, outdoor furniture, wicker baskets, silk flowers, knickknacks and on and on. Then go next door to Waccamaw Linen and continue to load up.

Parallel to Ocean Boulevard in the center of town is the Broadway at the Beach complex. A village of little shops and restaurants, Broadway is a great place to spend a leisurely afternoon. A man-made lake splits the complex in two, and for $3.50 you can rent a pedal boat for a half hour to go up and down the water. If you prefer to stay on land, you can stroll over the wooden bridges, stopping at something that looks like a gum-ball machine but instead is filled with fish food. Visitors can bend over the railing, toss the food into the lake and watch as dozens of carp stick their open mouths on top of the water.

Or you might see some servers from Johnny Rockets, a retro hamburger joint, shagging to "Under the Boardwalk" while patrons sip ice tea and dip their fries in ketchup.

Besides the 80 shops, Broadway at the Beach has 13 restaurants and seven nightclubs. This spring, a state-of-the-art movie theater opened with a screen that's six stories tall.

Eateries include a massive Hard Rock Cafe, shaped like an Egyptian pyramid; a Planet Hollywood is on the way. By next year, an aquarium that developers say will rival the facility in Baltimore will be added to the complex. All these attractions have given Myrtle Beach a sense of activity and robustness that old-timers say it has never had before.

Tucked in among the restaurants and beach stores with $5 towels and buckets of seashells along the main drag are several dozen miniature golf courses. After all, Myrtle has to breed a new generation of golfers to fill its fairways.

Once you've had enough of the sun and have eaten at one of the family-style buffet places or gotten a little fancier at a place like the Crab House -- where the lobster is fresh and sweet, the bread hot and the service great -- the night, as they say, is still young.

All this, and Elvis too

If you do like country music, you're all set. In Myrtle Beach you can go to the Gatlin Brothers' Theater, the Palace, Magic on Ice, the Ronnie Milsap Theater or the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament, all at Fantasy Harbour. Travel up to North Myrtle Beach and you can visit the Alabama Theater.

Or you can go to nearby Surfside Beach and get transformed by the Legends in Concert, where singers do impressions of such well-known artists as Whitney Houston, Conway Twitty or the Blues Brothers. There's no lip-syncing here.

What really got a recent Saturday night crowd at Legends going was the appearance of Elvis.

The hype starts when you walk in. I was greeted by an Elvis in a black leather jacket. He put his arm around my shoulder and said in a throaty voice how glad he was that I had come to see the show. Then someone snapped our picture, which was available later for $8.

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