WV Travel Team: Myrtle Beach can be exciting, even in the off-season

Mention Myrtle Beach and the first thing that probably pops into your mind is summer fun on sand and surf. You’d fit right in with the nearly 14 million visitors who drop into town and neighboring beach areas each year, hoping to soak up some summer sun and work on that tan.

Scores of West Virginians make the trek each year.

What many folks don’t realize is that there’s plenty of reasons to visit the South Carolina Beach town in the off season that spills through winter.

High on my list is the Nights of a Thousand Candles at Brookgreen Gardens, named by Travel + Leisure Magazine as “Best Christmas Lights in South Carolina.” The multiday event runs from Dec. 5 to 21 and features the soft glow of more than 2,700 hand-lit candles and countless sparkling lights that give the gardens a magical luster.

Most days, the visual spectacle is enhanced by live bands. Admission tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for children and must be purchased beforehand by phoning 844-271-3410.

The gardens themselves are located on a 9,127-acre property once owned by Archer Huntington — the well-heeled son of one of the country’s original robber barons and founder of Huntington, West Virginia, Collis P. Huntington — and his wife, Anna, a famous sculptor. Besides the gorgeous landscape, the gardens have many of Anna’s works scattered among the horticultural displays and fountains.

Today, more than 2,000 sculptural pieces by over 400 artists make Brookgreen Gardens the biggest repository of American sculptural works in the world.

Just across Ocean Highway (Route 17), Huntington designed and built a 30-room mansion, Atalaya, (a Spanish word that means “watchtower” in English) on the Atlantic. Interested in Spanish history, he constructed the mansion in the Moorish style.

Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the 30-room domicile is open for public touring. Be sure to check out the studio and its outside courtyard where Anna worked on her sculptures, as well as the adjacent animal pens, including one that once housed a live bear she used as a model.

Fans of NASCAR might want to plan an outing to the Myrtle Beach Speedway, where professional drivers zoom around the semi-banked asphalt oval track. But the fun doesn’t stop there. A special adventure lets you drive solo a NASCAR race car for a 5-minute timed racing session.

Following a drivers’ meeting with the crew chief, it’s go-it-alone on a thrill ride with no lead car to follow and no instructor riding along. You do, however, get in-car radio communications with a personal spotter.

Another option lets visitors ride shotgun along with a professional racing instructor in a real NASCAR Race Car for three heart-pounding laps at top speeds. For a less intense experience, you can sit back and hold on tight as you take three laps around the Speedway in the NASCAR Racing Experience Pace Car.

Passengers ride one in the front and two in the back with a professional racing instructor driving. The Pace Car Ride is fast enough to put a little fear in you but safe enough for all ages, weights and heights.

There’s more fun to be had in North Myrtle Beach, which claims to be the birthplace of shag dancing, although the claim is challenged by some. The dance is said to be descended from the Carolina jitterbug and grew in popularity in the 1940s. Today, there are shag groups all over the country who carry on the shag tradition.

Fat Harold’s Beach Club is a shag epicenter, with lessons offered Monday and Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. Other shag hot spots are Duck’s Beach Club and the OD Arcade and Lounge, both in North Myrtle Beach.

Three times a year — in September, January and April, shaggers converge on the beach town for dancing festivals that go on for three to 11 days.

If you’re looking for a bit of relaxation, Conway, one of South Carolina’s oldest towns, is also blessed by numerous old buildings that contribute to its being named on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to tree-lined streets, historic buildings and a revitalized business district, the hamlet features a Riverwalk that skirts the Waccamaw River and leads past rustic wooden buildings; an elegant inn; and, at one end of the trail, an arboretum with a wide variety of trees and plants.

For a memorable adventure, hop on the 200-foot-tall SkyWheel, the only one of its kind on the Grand Strand. Like a giant Ferris wheel, the huge and tall circular machine gives riders a rare bird’s-eye view for miles of the beach town’s breathtaking high-rise hotel skyline and sky-blue Atlantic waters.

A daytime ride gives you details of the town and surroundings, but the nighttime views are even more dazzling.

For a place to stay, the Island Vista Resort is the only oceanfront hotel for nearly a mile in either direction, which gives the resort the feel of a secluded luxury island while being mere minutes from the heartbeat of downtown Myrtle Beach.

Amenities include indoor and outdoor pools; indoor and outdoor hot tubs; a kids area styled in an ancient ruins theme, including a lazy river, tunnel, waterfall and kids splash area; a Tiki bar and cafe; poolside wireless internet (resort-wide); a large grassy tanning lawn; an oceanfront veranda; a Tiki deck; an oceanfront massage cabana; and towel service.

IF YOU GO: 6000 North Ocean Blvd., Myrtle Beach, South Carolina 29577. Phone 855-732-6250 or islandvista.com.

For more information on Myrtle Beach and the surrounding area, phone 800-356-3016 or visitmyrtlebeach.com.

Dave Zuchowski has been writing about travel for 26 years, and his articles have made the pages of many newspapers and magazines across the country, including AAA, Pathfinders, West Virginia Magazine, Southsider, and Westsylvania. He writes for the Herald-Standard Newspaper, based in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

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