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The Myrtle Beach area offers a beach vacation at its best. The famed South Carolina Atlantic Ocean destination has matured into a popular spot for sand, sun, golf, and music lovers, as well as much more.

The Spanish were the first to drop anchor in these charmed coastal waters. Spaniard Lucas Vasques de Allyon and a group of pioneers founded the first colony in North America here in 1526, but the settlement was ravaged by disease and all the inhabitants perished within a year.

But the word was out and, today, visitors from around the world receive a much warmer welcome to the Grand Strand. More than 12 million people annually come to swim, sunbathe, retire, fish, boat, golf, eat, shop, and, more recently, enjoy music.

The wide sandy beach and sparkling Atlantic Ocean have drawn visitors for years. A strong tourism infrastructure lures sun- and saltwater-starved beach-goers with a good airport, varied accommodations options, hundreds of dining choices, and a wide variety of activities on and off the famed beach.

Many pursuits have become Myrtle Beach vacation traditions, making any visit much more than a day at the beach. Along with sun-drenched days, Myrtle Beach moments can also be filled with golf, shopping, dining, sightseeing, music, and many other enjoyable possibilities.

Golf has become a year-round attraction in the Myrtle Beach area. More than 100 championship courses are available to golfers on the Grand Strand. Designers include the famous names of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Ross, Dye, and Fazio, as well as many more of the world's best-known players and architects. British Open champion John Daly designed his first course, Wicked Stick, for Myrtle Beach.

Variety is a major factor contributing to the success and popularity of Grand Strand golf, which comes in many shapes, sizes, and degrees of difficulty. Local courses feature such unique attractions as a private airstrip adjoining a clubhouse, a cable car that crosses the Intracoastal Waterway to the course, and alligators lurking in water hazards. Many golf packages include accommodations and green fees. All of these factors mean more than three million rounds are played every year in this golf mecca.

Shopping is another "sport" that has a passionate following in Myrtle Beach. Shoppers flock to popular treasure hunting sites like the Waccamaw Outlet Park. Barefoot Landing at North Myrtle Beach is an unusual outdoor mall on the waterfront that features an assortment of shops and boutiques. At the Hammock Shops down on Pawleys Island, shoppers can see and buy world-famous hammocks and much more.

There are many other exciting Grand Strand options. Some possibilities include: several amusement parks and attractions for kids and kids at heart; outdoor adventures along the coastal waters; the newly-opened Oceanic Adventures aquarium; many historic museums; quiet Huntington Beach State Park; restored rice plantation homes; and quiet little communities like historic Georgetown, Murrells Inlet (the "seafood capital of the state"), and peaceful Pawleys Island, mentioned above for its hammocks. Wealthy planters and their families once spent summers at Pawleys Island to avoid malaria and other deadly fevers that infested the swampy coastal region, turning the island into one of the first summer resorts on the Atlantic coast.

Busy Ocean Boulevard is the base for many pursuits. The options include Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, the Myrtle Beach Memorial Wax Museum, and the Motion Master Moving Theater. Whether you're learning to shag to "beach music" or riding the historic Merry-Go-Round, you'll enjoy a blast from your beach past at the Myrtle Beach Pavillion and Amusement Park.

Many people are surprised to find one of the world's finest sculpture collections at Brookgreen Gardens. This National Historic Landmark and the first public sculpture garden in the U.S., Brookgreen has more than 500 19th- and 20th-century sculptures, beginning at the front gate with Anna Hyatt Huntington's The Fighting Stallions.

Surrounded by rivers and marshland, Georgetown became the center of America's booming rice trade in the 1800s, with a rich plantation culture flourishing along the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, and Black Rivers. Hopsewee Plantation, birthplace of Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Lynch, Jr., is one of the many historic rice plantations that lend a Colonial flavor to the Georgetown countryside. Hopsewee is open to visitors from March through October. Georgetown's Rice Museum tells the colorful story of the crop that made plantation life possible.

On a more modern note, the Myrtle Beach area has also emerged as one of the nation's leading destinations for live family entertainment in just a few short years. Nine theaters now entertain thousands every night, with the best in country music and much more.

Missouri-born musician and entrepreneur Calvin Gilmore initiated the trend in 1986, when he opened The Carolina Opry in Surfside Beach, just south of Myrtle Beach proper. In 1992, the original Carolina Opry moved into a new 2,200-seat Myrtle Beach facility, complete with its own recording studio. The hugely popular show offers a wide variety of music, including country, bluegrass, Western swing, big band, patriotic, and show tunes, as well as comedy. Last spring, Gilmore assisted in bringing another show, Legends in Concert, to his original Surfside Beach theater. The already-legendary show features impersonations of the biggest stars in show business.

Country music supergroup Alabama, which got its start playing for tips in Myrtle Beach, opened its theater in 1993. Located at Barefoot Landing, a large waterside shopping complex, the 2,200-seat Alabama Theatre features three different kinds of shows: Alabama performs at least 10 shows a year; celebrity guests, including such stars as Marty Stuart, Patti Loveless, Lorrie Morgan, and many others, perform at least 20 shows a year; and "American Pride, the house show combining Opryland-style singing, dancing, and music, plays on the remaining nights.

After years on the road, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers settled down to make Myrtle Beach their musical home. The 2,000-seat, $7.5 million Gatlin Brothers Theatre opened in 1994. Known for hits such as "All the Gold in California" and "Houston," the Gatlins perform nightly most of the year, except when guest stars like Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, Lee Greenwood, and others take the stage for special engagements.

The Palace Theater, the 2,700-seat theater which opened last October, is part of the new $250 million entertainment complex, Broadway at the Beach. This entertainment/theater complex on a 350-acre tract in Myrtle Beach combines The Palace Theater with 80 retail stores and 12 restaurants (including a Hard Rock Cafe and Mickey Gilley's Texas Cafe). Future plans for Broadway at the Beach include the Ripley's Sea Aquarium, a hotel, and a 25,000-seat amphitheater. It is already the largest festive entertainment complex in the state.

This past fall also saw the opening of the Ronnie Milsap Theatre at Fantasy Harbor. The six-time Grammy winner started regular performances this spring and he's playing to rave reviews.

A giant new theme park is currently planned for the site of the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. The Isle of America, scheduled to open next summer, will offer 10 musical variety shows, incorporating live actors, animation, film, and computer-controlled robots, as well as a 20,000-seat concert amphitheater, a 27-hole Hale Irwin-designed golf course, and a resort hotel and conference center.

The remaining theaters in Myrtle Beach offer other forms of entertainment, with music often included in the mix. Magic On Ice, a high-tech ice skating, magic, and laser show, was the first theater to open in the Fantasy Harbour--Waccamaw entertainment complex. The show stars Sandy Lenz, a two-time U.S. National Champion who was with the Ice Capades and Disney On Ice. Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament is featured at Fantasy Harbour, with an entertaining look at the Middle Ages, complete with jousting, knights on horseback, and a medieval banquet.

The Dixie Stampede, owned by Dolly Parton's Dollywood Productions, opened during the summer of 1992 in an ornate 80,000-square-foot showhouse, next door to The Carolina Opry. The Stampede features a rodeo with a Civil War theme and a four-course southern dinner (designed to be eaten with your fingers--no silverware needed). Patrons sit in either the Southern or Northern section of the arena and take part in a friendly rivalry by cheering for their side in a number of animal races and participatory contests.

Along with the theater engagements, the area also hosts more than 40 annual events and festivals. The Sun Fun Festival is one of many summer highlights, kicking off the season with parades, beach games, concerts, and celebrity guests.

Area resorts, hotels, motels, condominiums, and cottages provide more than 55,000 rooms sure to fit any lifestyle or budget. Kingston Plantation, with oceanfront hotel suites or romantic clusters of lakeside villas and townhomes, is indicative of the variety available. Also known as the "Camping Capital of the U.S.," the area features 10 privately-owned campgrounds and two state parks, adding up to more than 6,000 sites.

With almost 1,500 restaurants to choose from, dining is an adventure along the Grand Strand. Known for great seafood, the area also offers the best in domestic and international cuisine. In fact, the Myrtle Beach area has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, making it a real treat for eating out.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Info Center represents the entire 60 mile stretch of South Carolina coast, including North Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach, Little River, Atlantic Beach, Garden City Beach, Murrells Inlet, Litchfield Beach, and Pawleys Island. Write them at P.O. Box 2115, Myrtle Beach, SC 29578-2115, or call (803) 626-7444 or (800) 356-3016 (brochures only). You can also visit the Myrtle Beach area internet site at http://www.myrtlebeachlive.com.