It's nearly midnight, and we're leaving for the beach in just three hours. I should be sleeping, but instead I'm running the vacuum. My husband has learned not to question what I'm doing — it's a quirky tradition, a gift I give myself each time we travel. First of all, there's nothing quite like returning home at the end of a vacation to a spotless house. Second, if something untimely should happen to me while I'm gone, it gives me a morbid thrill to know that when my mother shows up to collect my personal effects, she'll pause — mid-sob — and marvel at my excellent housekeeping skills. Ordinarily, we'd be headed to Destin, Fla., for our vacation, but worries about my kids decorating their very first sandcastle with tar balls made us rethink our plans. Instead, we've booked an oceanfront condo at Garden City Beach.
"Where?" people inevitably ask when I tell them about it.
"It's in South Carolina," I explain. They still look confused. "Near ... uh ... Myrtlebeachugh," I say quickly, coughing into my hand. If they're kind, they don't press for more details.
Everyone knows Myrtle Beach is sort of trashy, but Garden City Beach is actually 15 minutes away, so I'm hoping the distance will mean a significant reduction in tobacco chewing, clothing with slogans that reference unmentionable body parts and skin tanned to the color and consistency of beef jerky. It takes us a lot longer than we'd planned to find out whether my hunch is correct.
Somewhere around Columbia, S.C., we encounter bumper-to-bumper beach traffic, and from then on we inch our way to the coast, arriving nearly 13 hours after our departure. Once we finally get to Garden City Beach, there's a line at the realty office where we pick up our keys. And there's a line at the condominium for a parking pass. There's even a line for the elevator. Late that night, when we head to a nearby Kroger for supplies, it's pure pandemonium. Hundreds of families are snatching up bottled water, beer, cereal and chips, and we wait in another endless line to pay for our groceries. By the time we crawl into bed, we've been awake nearly 24 hours.
Strangely, it doesn't matter. There's something about the ocean air that relaxes me, no matter our circumstances. My joints instantly loosen, my muscles unkink and the minor asthma that's been plaguing me ever since the temperatures skyrocketed in Nashville mysteriously disappears. As the sun rises the next morning, I'm thrilled to see that Garden City Beach is, in fact, filled with families — plus the occasional hoochie on the sidewalk in thigh-high boots and plunging halter top, just to keep things interesting.
Within a day or two, we decide that this unfashionable beach might just be the best one we've ever visited. We're only a few minutes from Huntington Beach State Park, which we visit almost daily for salt marsh kayaking, beachcombing with a naturalist, crabbing, hiking, and a ghost tour of the park's historic Atalaya Castle.
We discover that we're also just 20 minutes from Georgetown, a historic coastal town reminiscent of Charleston that's almost entirely tourist-free. There, we eat seared scallops and shrimp on the water at a fantastic (and nearly empty) restaurant that came highly recommended by locals.
We find a seafood market a few miles away from our condo and dine each night on local fish that swam in the Atlantic only hours earlier. We visit Myrtle Beach one hot afternoon and walk in a huddle down its dirty sidewalks lined with tacky T-shirt shops, henna tattoo parlors and greasy spoons. We stop in Litchfield Beach for amazing almond lace cookies and buttermilk bread from a local bakery, and we're happily suckered into buying a couple of paintings from an artist/diving instructor peddling his wares at a nearby coffee shop.
And of course, we spend hours on our own beach, building sandcastles, collecting seashells, walking along the shoreline and playing in the waves. I watch my children discover the wonders of the ocean for the first time, and marvel at how quickly time passes. It sounds trite, but it doesn't seem like all that long ago that I was a child on this same coast, making the same discoveries my own children are making now. So much has changed from the time that I was a child. And so much has remained the same.
We decide in the end that we love Garden City Beach far more than Destin or the pseudo-quaint beach villages that border it. We love it for its state parks. We love the history of the towns that are within easy driving distance. We love the fact that everything seems to cost at least 25 percent less than it does on the Gulf Coast, from restaurant menu items to lodging.
We love that no one's ever heard of Garden City Beach. It feels like it's our little secret.
And now it's yours, too.
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