A wary writer discovers the Grand Strand from above
I confess to a lifelong love/hate relationship with flying. As an adolescent I had frequent flying dreams where I’d soar around my environs, Superman style, arms outstretched as wings. I’d wake up freaked out but exhilarated. Though the dreams tapered off and sadly stopped coming altogether, I still fly, though now on a plane, and I still find the view from above to be breathtaking and awe-inspiring, but … the anxiety surrounding flying is there, too. So it was with both excitement and trepidation that I accepted the assignment to view the Grand Strand from a small, single prop airplane, under the control of a student pilot. From a bird’s eye view one recent winter’s day we would discover the ancient and modern of the place we call home, from 2000 feet in the air, at around 140 miles per hour–true freebirds.
Photographer Bobby Altman and I met our student pilot, John Campbell, in Murrells Inlet, and discussed the upcoming trip over lunch. Just before 1 p.m. we drove to meet Campbell’s instructor, Ricky Tyner, of Coastal Aviation. Student pilot Campbell was taking his fifth lesson and had already shown confidence and competence in the basics, which included a smooth takeoff in the four-seat Cessna 172 S.
Within moments we were whizzing over the Sampit River and Winyah Bay, the southernmost point of what is widely recognized as the Grand Strand. From the air, the creeks and branches of the waterways wound around in patterns resembling a Chinese dragon. A few hardy souls in boats below us could be seen leaving their telltale white foamy wake in a long trail behind them. Gradually climbing to around 2000 feet, Campbell took us over countless acres of abandoned rice fields of the Georgetown region. The canals, hand dug by slaves centuries earlier, still cut clean squares in the last vestiges of what was once South Carolina’s most profitable enterprise–Carolina Gold rice, made possible only because of its second most profitable enterprise–slavery. As we flew farther north, the character of the Grand Strand began to come into view; an altogether different view than from out of the windshield of a car. From the air it’s easy to see that the Grand Strand is far more than strip malls and high-rise condos.
To our east the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean, at this altitude, was a blanket of gently rippling blue and gray, reflecting the mood of the mostly cloudy sky above. The mighty Waccamaw River and the Intracoastal Waterway dominated the landscape just inland, and in between the shoreline and the waterways sat the evidence of extraordinary prosperity. Several hundred beach homes, countless housing developments, and dozens of golf courses populated the land between the waters. But easily visible within a few miles farther west, untouched forests and farmland hinted at the agrarian lifestyle that dates back to the area’s earliest settlers. For all of its growth in the last three decades, from the air South Carolina still looks like a wilderness, which was a pleasant surprise.
What had taken us nearly 30 minutes by car had been reduced to five minutes by plane. As we flew over Garden City, the long spit of land looked overburdened by beautifully situated homes. It was almost as if one more house on stilts might sink the entire community. Inland by less than a mile, the creekfront properties of Murrells Inlet, by contrast, were nestled among Live Oak trees and looked to be in harmony with the natural surroundings. Farther west, more golf courses, and more developments with names like Prestwick and Wachesaw offered more evidence of those seeking (and finding) the good life on the Strand.
As we circled wide approaching the Myrtle Beach International Airport, below us we could see evidence of the former Hard Rock Park (later Freestyle Park), which sat as a sad reminder of a nearly $500 million failure and blow to the tourism industry. The park’s once mighty centerpiece rollercoaster, so tall it barely passed FAA guidelines for flight safety, stood as a proud reminder of what was briefly a vibrant theme park upon whose back so much hope had been placed.
Flanking the airport it was easy to see the evidence of an ever-growing retail industry. On either side of the 10,000-foot runway, two massive retail establishments bustled with activity—the Coastal Grand Mall to the north, and The Market Common just to the south. At the ocean end of the runway, just across U.S. 17 Business, the steel and concrete high-rise condos of the Grand Strand started their northern trek to North Myrtle Beach, 25 miles up the coastline. The nearby Springmaid Pier juts 1060 feet into the water, and is the longest of the area’s dozen or so wooden piers. The Second Avenue Pier, with its relatively new restaurant/retail compound, was just a glance away, and dolphins could be seen popping out of the water just off the pier’s end.
We received a low-altitude tour of the heart of Myrtle Beach. The new $6.5 million Myrtle Beach Boardwalk & Promenade highlighted the oceanfront between Second Avenue North and 14th Avenue North. We saw evidence of construction on the coming 187-foot SkyWheel Ferris Wheel. Circling west we flew over the BB&T Coastal Field, home of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans baseball team, and just across 21st Avenue North sat the iconic Broadway at the Beach development. Home of the Hard Rock Café, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Planet Hollywood, IMAX, Wonder Works (opening this spring), and hundreds of retail establishments, as well as dozens of restaurants and nightclubs. The $250 million, 350-acre Broadway at the Beach still remains a popular destination for locals and visitors alike 15 years after its opening.
Our tour of the southern half of the Grand Strand was drawing to a close as Campbell’s lesson was ending. It was time to get back to our earth-bound vehicles, but not before one quick buzz around the Murrells Inlet Marsh Walk where envious onlookers waved and texted to us as we made a close pass, jealously knowing that on that afternoon we were the freebirds of the Grand Strand.