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South Carolina

Home sweet Myrtle Beach

KEVIN HANN, QMI Agency

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MYRTLE BEACH , S.C. -- Home sweet home.

It seems that way each summer when our family settles in at an oceanfront resort to enjoy a few weeks of sun and surf on the Atlantic.

Myrtle Beach has perfected the family vacation.

Along the 96-km beach strip known as the Grand Strand, resorts have evolved into family friendly facilities, offering up suites equipped with full kitchens and dining rooms, multiple bedrooms and some with washers and dryers.

These self-contained suites afford families the luxury of saving money while vacationing by cooking meals in the rental unit. We've made it a practice to cook breakfast and lunch at the resort and then splurge for a nice dinner. By choosing units that have washer/dryer combos, there's no need to overpack, meaning more room in the van for boogie boards, beach chairs and coolers.

A 17-hour drive will transport the family from Toronto to Myrtle Beach. Our route the first day, with a couple of stops, takes us 14 hours, through Fort Erie, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Virginia into Charlotte, North Carolina. Then it's three hours or a little more to Myrtle Beach the next day.

Two of the top-rated resorts on TripAdvisor are Hampton Inn and Suites Oceanfront Resort and Anderson Ocean Club and Spa.

Anderson is on North Ocean Blvd. in the central area of Myrtle Beach. One of the newer properties on the beach, this upscale resort features Moroccan and Spanish Colonial architectural designs, and the classy suites are styled in deep wood tones.

Amenities include valet parking, several pools and an outdoor lazy river. The Awakening full-service spa is on site, plus there's a business centre, and fitness facility with top-flight equipment. If your package includes breakfast across the street at Magnolia's, you'll love the stewed tomatoes.

Hampton's sprawling oceanfront retreat is located at the south end of Myrtle Beach.

Rocking chairs beckon you to the sundeck overlooking the ocean, a great place to savour morning coffee from the expansive, hot and cold -- and free -- free breakfast buffet. The resort is an aquatic paradise with two lazy rivers, multiple indoor and outdoor pools, hot tubs and kids' waterfall area.

To get the body in shape for beach action, you can train in the Jump-Start Fitness Center with Precor equipment, looking out at the ocean. The resort also employs a convenience store, dry cleaner and business centre.

While there's a free shuttle to and from the international airport, a vehicle is recommended if you want to enjoy all Myrtle Beach has to offer.

If you're looking for a birds-eye view of the coast and the beach, climb aboard the new Skywheel (myrtlebeachskywheel.com), the jewel of a 1.9-km-long boardwalk development on the ocean. At 57 metres, it's one of the largest ferris wheels in North America. Its 42 cars, each seating six, are air conditioned and there's also a VIP ride with glass-bottomed cars.

The most-ettended attraction in South Carolina is Ripley's Aquarium (ripleysaquarium.com) in Myrtle Beach. Located in the massive Broadway at the Beach (BATB) entertainment and shopping complex, the 8,082-square-metre aquarium is a sea-world spectacle.

No surprise, sharks steal the show. Adults and children thrill as they're transport along a 104-metre glidepath beside and underneath the 5.5-million-litre salt water glass aquarium. Giant sharks brush by closely in a surreal setting.

The newest hotspot at BATB is Wonderworks (wonderworksonline.com/myrtle-beach), a fascinating, hands-on science centre. One moment you're in the hurricane shack being blasted by F1 force winds and the next you're commanding a space shuttle simulator or piloting an F18 fighter jet. Or, how about lying on a bed of 3,497 sharp nails in a test of courage.

On a rainy day, just steps away, you can catch an eye-popping feature at the Imax 3DTheater (imax3dmyrtlebeach.com). Bolstered by a 12,000-watt digital surround sound system, Imax employs stadium seating so you're in close to the action.

The highlight of a recent family trek was a night at the Good Vibrations music show staged by Gilmore Entertainment at the Carolina Opry Theater (thecarolinaopry.com). The stellar display of musicianship pays homage to '60s, '70s and '80s musical legends like the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, Boston, Queen and Kiss, interspersed with comedy bits and dancing.

Myrtle Beach is a family playground with more fun and attractions you can fit into a week ... or two. No wonder 14 million people visit annually.

LAND OF MINI-PUTT

Myrtle Beach has long been know for abundant wildlife roaming some of its scenic golf courses. Alligators, osprey, eagles and the odd bear inhabit the vast forests and lakes bordering some of the southland's finest tracks.

But, dragons and pirates and shipwrecks? Welcome to the other side of Myrtle Beach's golf paradise -- the land of mini-putt.

Not to be confused with the average amusement park affairs, Grand Strand mini-golf courses are elaborate undertakings, complete with fire-breathing dragons and active volcanoes.

Take, for instance, Hawaiian Rumble on Hwy. 17. Priding itself as having been selected the No. 1 miniature golf course in the world, Hawaiian Rumble was voted one of the "golfiest, must-see places" in America by Golf Magazine.

The focal point of the track is a towering volcano that erupts and shakes the foundation every 20 minutes. Holes are carved out of lava rock and offer varying degrees of challenge that make it fun for golfers of all ages. And a giant waterfall helps to cool off visitors on those steamy summer days.

Hawaiian Rumble and its sister courses Hawaiian Caverns and Hawaiian Village are members of the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association (USPMGA) and have hosted the tour's versions of the Masters and U.S. Open.

Borroughs and Chapin Co. has developed five themed mini-golf facilities in Myrtle Beach. Jurassic Golf at the south end of the city near the international airport is a dinosaur-themed park. Captain Hook's features pilfering pirates, Jungle Safari is inhabited by wildlife, Shipwreck island is an oasis and Dragon's Lair is shadowed by a fire-spewing dragon in the Broadway at the Beach entertainment and shopping complex.

Whatever your golfing handicap, there's a mini-golf challenge waiting for you.

IF YOU GO TO MYRTLE BEACH

PLAN

To help map out your excellent adventure, check out visitmyrtlebeach.com for maps and lists for lodging, shopping, dining, recreation and watersports, plus valuable coupons for 2012 savings.

STAY

To learn more about accommodation options and packages at Anderson Ocean Club and Spa, visit oceanaresorts.com/hotels/anderson or call 1-866-469-7853. Check out the cool amenities and watch resort promo videos at hamptoninnoceanfront.com. Call the resort at 843-946-6400 or toll-free 877-946-6400. 

HELPFUL HINT

We find the last two weeks of August are the best time to visit as American kids are back to school and the beaches aren't as crowded as May, June or July. Generally temperatures are in the 30 C range.


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