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Carolina comforts fit everyone in the family

Serene or busy, playful or placid, still a beach town

Family Kingdom is Myrtle Beach’s only seaside amusement park and oceanfront water park. Family Kingdom is Myrtle Beach’s only seaside amusement park and oceanfront water park. (Myrtle Beach Area Convention And Visitors Bureau)
By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2011

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NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — It is quiet, except for the ebb and flow of the surf and the periodic cackle of gulls overhead. Without summertime’s colorful umbrellas and bikini-clad sun worshipers, the golden sand beach is smooth and wide, dotted only with shells and stripes of seaweed. From the porch of our rental cottage, we watch pelicans dive-bomb for fish during the day and heat lightning paint the sky at night. It is a bucolic setting that brings members of my multigenerational family flocking here year after year.

Busy Myrtle Beach may be the undisputed hot spot of South Carolina’s famed Grand Strand, but it is the more spacious, tranquil terrain of North Myrtle Beach that has seduced us for more than a decade. Even after the main May-October tourist season, it can provide a serene escape. The water may be too cold for you, but the January-to-March average air temperature is 61 degrees.

These family reunions are more about connection than excitement and adventure. But in the midst of the porch-sitting, beachcombing, and board games, every lazy day can use a jolt of activity, and the North Myrtle Beach area offers several family-friendly options.

One of our favorites is miniature golf, fondly referred to in parts of the South as putt-putt. The Grand Strand is well known as the “seaside golf capital of the world,’’ with more than 100 courses. However, the area also claims to be the “miniature golf capital of the world,’’ with roughly 50 courses, nearly all beautifully landscaped and adorned with tropical plants and flowers. What makes each one stand out is its theme, which can range from man-eating dinosaurs and lava-spewing volcanoes to high seas adventure aboard pirate ships.

We find ourselves drawn to Mayday, which has a kind of deserted-island “Lost’’ theme. An airplane and helicopter preside over the jungle setting, which is complemented by a soundtrack of birds, bugs, and the occasional drone of a propeller. The hilly landscape is ringed with water, complete with mist-filled grottoes, waterfalls, and frog ponds. On some evenings, the course is dotted with frogs that emerge from the greenery, and for some, hunting amphibians is a highlight of the adventure.

Sunday afternoons find us at the North Myrtle Beach Flea Market and Mall. Open on weekends, rain or shine, it is a fabulous trove of antiques, art, kitsch, collectibles, jewelry, some useful items such as socks, tools, and electronics, and a whole lot of junk. Wandering among the indoor shops and more than 300 shed spaces is a seductive journey from the ridiculous to the sublime.

The “don’t-miss’’ purveyor is Ray’s Unique Crafts. The eclectic Ray Galovich specializes in fantastical junk mosaics. He decorates furniture, lamps, guitars, and boxes with all manner of small paraphernalia — buttons, plastic toys, beads, broken jewelry, mirror glass, hardware. Look for the hubcap banjos hanging by the door. For more traditional crafts, The Starving Artist shop at the back edge of the market’s huge parking lot has a nice selection of jewelry, paintings, textiles, and sculpture by talented local artists.

Another terrific all-ages destination is Alligator Adventure at Barefoot Landing. I’m not sure it’s the “Reptile Capital of the World’’ as touted, but it features a captivating collection of amphibians, reptiles, tropical birds, and mammal wildlife, including monkeys and tigers. The signature draw is Utan, the world’s largest crocodile, a mammoth hulk whose size is truly awesome, though he doesn’t move it much. More entertaining are the hundreds of alligators. At feeding time at the main exhibit pool, 300 alligators vie to be hand-fed as guides explain some of the more fascinating features of the nearly prehistoric beasts. Other live shows let you get up close and personal with snakes, tortoises, and other creatures.

Barefoot Landing on the Intracoastal Waterway offers a wealth of shops and restaurants, from pizza and wing joints to such big venues as House of Blues and Dick’s Last Resort. The Alabama Theatre presents a range of theatrical productions and concerts, including the popular “One,’’ a variety showcase of dance, comedy, and music. The shops at Barefoot Landing range from Chico’s and Izod to specialty stores such as Black Market Minerals, a bead and jewelry mecca. While you’re wandering, stop by River Street Sweets, where you can get melt-in-your-mouth pralines while they’re still warm.

A favorite evening activity is a walk down the beach to the Cherry Grove Pier with its two-story, open-air observation deck at the end. The length of the main level is a favorite fishing spot, day and night.

For the grown-ups, one of the biggest reasons to hit North Myrtle Beach this month is the annual Mid-Winter Break shag celebration Jan. 13-16, which draws thousands to the area for days of music and dancing. North Myrtle Beach is the birthplace of the shag, the official South Carolina state dance, and its long history in the area dates to the 1930s. The Society of Stranders (SOS) hosts three, weeklong “migrations’’ of shaggers in January, April, and September each year. The January SOS Mid-Winter Break takes place in five nightclubs, all within walking distance of North Myrtle Beach’s Main Street.

As expected from any big tourist destination, restaurant options range from high-end to chain to large family-style fish camps with all-you-can-eat buffets. A number of unpretentious North Myrtle Beach places offer homestyle food that is distinctly Southern.

For substantial fare that can feed a family of 10 for a song, you can’t beat K & W Cafeteria. This is stick-to-your-bones, made-from-scratch Southern cooking. Think of it as Carolina dim sum. You can order from a variety of tender meats, including fried chicken. Fresh fish comes fried, grilled, or baked. Veggies include such traditional favorites as collard greens and fried okra, and desserts range from Carolina cut peaches to first-rate pecan pie. It’s an experience as much as a meal.

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Grand Strand Vacations
800-722-6278
www.grandstrandvacations.com
Elliot Realty
888-669-7853
www.elliottrealty.com
What to do
Mayday Golf
715 Highway 17 North
843-280-3535
www.maydaygolf.com
Miniature golf with a castaway theme. Adults $9 or all day $12, children ages 4-12 $8 or $11, 3 and under free.
North Myrtle Beach Flea Market and Mall
Highway 17 North, between North Myrtle Beach and Little River
843-249-4701
Alligator Adventure
Highway 17 at Barefoot Landing
843-361-0789
www.alligatoradventure.com
Amphibians, reptiles, tropical birds, and mammal wildlife. Adults $17.95, seniors $15.95, 4-12 $10.95, 3 and under free.
River Street Sweets
Barefoot Landing
4898 Highway 17 South
843-361-9545
www.riverstreetsweets.com
Don’t miss the warm pralines.
Alabama Theatre
4898 Highway 17 South
843-272-1111
www.alabama-theatre.com
Where to eat
K & W Cafeteria
1621 Highway17 North
843-280-8444
www.kwcafeterias.com
Home-style Southern cooking and a cornucopia of choices.