On the Road: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

If you're like me, the very name Myrtle Beach conjures up not especially appealing images of amusement and water parks hard by a beach lined wall-to-wall with hotels, condo towers, noisy bars, Myrtle Beach, South Carolinaand T-shirt and souvenir shops, many of them frankly quite tacky. There is some truth to that characterization, though it applies mainly to the heart of Myrtle Beach proper, which comprises but one segment of a 60-mile stretch of the South Carolina coast known as the "Grand Strand." Not only is that strip easy to avoid, if that's not your thing, but there are strikingly alluring alternatives, including several resorts dedicated to the care and feeding of tennis players. What's more, the region is changing in ways intended to attract a more affluent and sophisticated clientele. If you haven't been there recently, it's worth taking another look, because if the photo above suggests the typical conception of Myrtle Beach, the series below heralds the arrival of new and more upscale developments.

A case in point is Grande Dunes. This 2,200-acre resort/residential development boasts The new Myrtle Beach: Grande Dunes Beach Club, Hard Rock Park, Market Common at Myrtle Beachmulti-million-dollar mansions, an posh hotel called the Marina Inn, two championship golf courses, an Ocean Club—pictured right —with marble floors and Mediterranean architecture, and a complex of 10 Har-Tru courts. This is not just any tennis club, however: it was originally built as the Myrtle Beach Tennis Club by the consortium consisting of Stan Smith, Bob Lutz, Arthur Ashe, Dennis Ralston, Marty Riessen, Roscoe Tanner, Charlie Pasarell, and Tom Gorman. A sepia-toned photo of the group adorns the wall of the clubhouse, which holds the pro shop and a fitness center and has a postage-stamp swimming pool to one side and a broad patio overlooking Court 1 to the other. It is an elegant haven, known for its game matching and run by John Mack, who'd been a partner in the Myrtle Beach Tennis Club and coach at Coastal Carolina College in Myrtle Beach. He has thus been a fixture in the Grand Strand tennis for decades. While Grand Dunes provides a new reason for tennis players to visit the region, Litchfield Beach & Golf Resort in Pawleys Island toward the southern end of the Grand Strand has been luring them for decades. Litchfield Beach & Golf Resort tennis courtsMost of its lodging occupies the lagoon-dotted lowlands between Hwy. 17 and Litchfield Beach, while the resort's three golf courses and its parklike tennis club meander through the live oak and pine forests and former rice plantations on the opposite side of the road. Its complex of 17 clay courts—the largest in the area—is renowned for its show-up-and-play round-robins, which routinely lure a couple of dozen or more players despite taking place from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. The secret is that a member of staff organizes the doubles matchups by level and drafts other staff members to fill in if an odd number of players show up. The atmosphere is further enhanced by tennis director Kristen Prunier and head pro Joy Oyco, both of whom are very personable and have been at Litchfield for more than a decade. The resort itself just reopened its thoroughly renovated Summerhouse suites, which have galley kitchens. They join a mix of low condo towers, villas, and houses ranging in size up to four bedrooms. Also new is a second lazy river swimming pool, this one near Summerhouse, to supplement the one along the beach. This side of the property also has six unsupervised hard courts available free to guests as well a Starbucks and free wireless internet at guest check in, a new chef and menu at its main restaurant Webster's, a fitness center with indoor pool, and a day spa. Also worth checking out are Wachesaw Plantation, a quiet, tree-shaded residential resort whose spiffy tennis club with eight clay courts is overseen by Jimmy Mendieta, who previously helped run a junior academy; Ocean Creek Resort, where longtime pro Del Merchant mixes hotel and condo guests with members in everything from men's and ladies nights to doubles drill sessions; and Kingston Plantation, which boldly drew attention to its tennis complex and the then new beachfront hotel in the late 1980s by hosting an exhibition featuring Andre Agassi against Jimmy Connors. That hotel has since become an Embassy Suites popular with families and the tennis club, which is looking tired, will soon be torn down and replaced with a spa and fitness center. Unfortunately, especially for pro Pat Paggeot, those plans also include downsizing the tennis complex from the current 9 hard and clay courts to as few as four. Just as important as the opportunities for playing tennis are Myrtle Beach's other diversions. Frequently, the tennis players I met on my June trip—variously vacationers, second-home owners, and residents—told me that it was the abundance of other attractions that drew them to the Grand Strand, especially if they had kids. "There's a lot more to do here on a rainy day than there is in Hilton Head Island," one father told me. That includes a new multiplex cinema in the Market Common, Ripley's Believe It Or Not Odditorium, an aquarium, and many of the attractions at the new Freestyle Music Park (formerly Hard Rock Park). Even if you and your kids don't want to go inverted on the park's Led Zeppelin–The Ride, there are such indoor attractions as a pinball arcade, indoor rides like the 3-D Nights in White Satin–The Trip (you're on your own explaining to your kids what all the dancing colors and shapes are about), an Ice Capades-like show with a Country 'n' Western theme, and a Roadies Stunt Show, to name a few. Once the sun goes down, Myrtle Beach keeps on entertaining, offering up family fare like the Carolina Opry (which snagged the America's Got Talent finalists, the cloggers "All That") as well as Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, and the House of Blues, to name only a few of the options. From time to time, Freestyle Music Park brings in headline musical groups to its concert venue. Moody Blues appeared in June and KC and the Sunshine Bad are slated for late August. Another appealing new project is the Market Common Myrtle Beach. This stylish complex opened in April on 4,000 acres of what had been the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base near the airport. Designed as a village, it incorporates townhomes, apartments (some of them overlooking the main street) and rental condos with stylish shops (Tommy Bahamas, Williams-Sonoma, Orvis) and restaurants (P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Travinia Italian Kitchen, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant), a 14-screen cineplex, and office space, all of it a short walk or bike ride from a public park with a ball diamond. Parking is free and abundant, music plays from speakers in the sidewalk gardens, and the whole complex brings a level of stylish charm to a region not generally known for it. Yet Myrtle Beach does have more depth that it is perhaps generally given credit for. The most outstanding example is Brookgreen Gardens, a National Historic Landmark established in 1931. Set on 2,500 acres of a former rice plantation, the gardens showcase the largest collection of American figurative sculpture in the world. But Brookgreen is much more than that. Beyond the sculpture gardens lie grounds rich with Lowcountry history, native vegetation, and animal habitats. Pontoon boats take you into the creeks past abandoned plantations, now home to alligators and waterfowl. Hiking trails wind past archeological digs. Wherever you stay in the region, this is worth the drive to see. And it's evidence that there is much more to Myrtle Beach than ocean, sand, and amusement parks.

For more information about travel to the region, visit the Myrtle Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau website or contact them at 843-626-7444 or toll-free 800-356-3016.

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