With the ocean, rivers, and marsh ecosystems all located within minutes of each other, opportunities for recreation and wildlife encounters along the South Carolina’s Hammock Coast are never in short
With the ocean, rivers, and marsh ecosystems all located within minutes of each other, opportunities for recreation and wildlife encounters along the South Carolina’s Hammock Coast are never in short supply. Here are just a few of our favorite ways to get waterside in this coastal community.
Many come to the Hammock Coast for our pristine beaches, but beyond the surf and sand, visitors discover rich American history, award-winning golf, world-renowned Brookgreen Gardens, beautiful Huntington Beach State Park, and myriad outdoor adventures. Your perfect Hammock Coast vacation awaits!
The natural estuary of Murrells Inlet provides an ideal setting for a kayak excursion, suitable for novices and experienced paddlers alike. Express Water Sports rents kayaks in the inlet by the hour and the half-day. “We recommend going early, when it’s cooler,” says Jennifer Jones-Poore, who owns the business with her husband, Jonathan Poore. “And wildlife is more active in the morning.”
After working up an appetite, pull ashore and check out the many restaurants on the MarshWalk, a half-mile-long boardwalk with some of the best dining — and views — in Murrells Inlet. For breakfast, have the lobster home fries at Dead Dog Saloon, which got its name from the photos of diners’ beloved former pets that cover the walls. Lunch and dinner options at the nautical-themed Creek Ratz include steamed snow crab legs, oysters on the half shell, or, if seafood isn’t your style, pizza and burgers. In the evenings, Wahoo’s Fish House and Wicked Tuna’s Tuna Shak host live music.
For those who want to get on the water but prefer to let a motor do the work, Express Water Sports offers relaxed boat cruises. The hour-and-a-half ocean sightseeing and dolphin watch cruise heads out of Murrells Inlet into the open ocean, where a naturalist from Coastal Carolina University shares information on the species encountered — including dolphins, sea turtles, stingrays, and cannonball jellyfish.
Leaving from the Harborwalk in Georgetown, Cap’n Rod’s Lowcountry Boat Tours take passengers to Shell Island, where they can see the North Island Lighthouse — built in 1811 — and search for whelk shells, sand dollars, and shark teeth. “That beach collects more whelk shells than any other place I’ve ever seen,” says John Bentley, who owns the business with his wife, Monika. On the Pee Dee River tour, passengers learn about 18th-century plantations. “It’s like a step back in time,” John says. “Everything is unchanged since the 1700s.” The Bentleys’ tours also offer the opportunity to spot alligators, bald eagles, ospreys, and other wildlife.
If there’s one thing the residents of Pawleys Island are proud of, it’s the Pawleys Island shell. Also known as the Imperial Venus clamshell, this small gray, brown, or orange bivalve with pronounced ridges is a treasure to locals. “People are obsessed with them,” says Angela White, vice president of the Grand Strand Shell Club. “People go hunting on the beach for hours looking for these shells.” If you can’t find one on the beach, pick up a Pawleys Island shell charm at Whitmire Fine Jewelry, where owner John Henry Whitmire (who owned the shop until his death in January at age 71) created sought-after replicas in silver and gold.
White says that the best time to go shelling is after high tide as the tide is going out, or when low tides are lower than usual. The relative seclusion of Litchfield Beach and Pawleys Island means that fewer people are on the beach hunting for rare finds. Beachcombers should be on the lookout for the lettered olive shell — the state shell of South Carolina — which is smooth and cylindrical with brown markings. Jingle shells are another great find: These small, shiny bivalves make a jingling noise when strung together for a necklace or a wind chime. Elephant tusks, wentel traps, channeled whelks, ark shells — there’s so much waiting to be discovered here.
Running along the waterfront in Georgetown’s Historic District, the Harborwalk connects municipal parks, dining, and museums in a serene setting on the Sampit River, one of the five rivers that flow into Winyah Bay.
At the Rice Museum on the southeastern end of the Harborwalk, learn how these five river systems contributed to the growth of the rice industry in Georgetown County. You can also check out the South Carolina Maritime Museum to learn about the seafaring history of Georgetown and South Carolina. Items on exhibit include megalodon teeth — a big draw for kids — and the original Fresnel lens from the North Island Lighthouse.
After exploring the museums, it’s time to relax over a good meal overlooking the water. Try the shrimp and grits with smoked sausage and tasso ham at The River Room, followed by a Winyah Breeze cocktail at Between the Antlers. While sipping your martini, watch as the sun sinks lower and the sky becomes painted with colors. “We have some gorgeous sunsets here, so you always see someone on the Harborwalk taking pictures of the sky and the water,” says Hope McFadden, administrator for the maritime museum. “The colors that are created in the sky throughout the year are phenomenal.”
There are plenty of ways to view the abundant wildlife at Huntington Beach State Park, including a stroll along the park’s causeway, but don’t miss the ADA-accessible boardwalk behind the Nature Center, which extends into a salt marsh, where mudflats and spartina grass provide a habitat for countless species of birds and crustaceans. Low tide, particularly a late-day low tide, is the best time to go to see the most activity.
Watch closely as tiny fiddler crabs scurry across mudflats, waving their fiddle bow-like claws up and down to attract mates. Clapper rails, a wading bird that’s rarely seen but often heard, like to chow down on these crabs while stalking the mudflats and calling out a clapping sound to mark their territory to others of their species. “One will [call out], and it’ll set off all the other clapper rails,” says Mike Walker, an interpretive ranger at the park. “That’ll roll for miles across the marsh as each successive clapper rail is marking its territory.”
Other wading birds in the marsh are more easily spotted. Great blue herons and great and snowy egrets feed on fish and shrimp with their sharp, pointed bills. The pink-plumed roseate spoonbills swing their heads side to side as they hunt for prey. And white ibis probe in the mud for their dinner, using long, downward-curving bills.
There’s no better place to reel in a catch than off the coast of the historic fishing village of Murrells Inlet. Leaving from the MarshWalk, Outlaw Fishing Charters offers private inshore and nearshore fishing excursions captained by owner Tommy Werner and Scott “Sully” Sullivan. With years of experience, the captains know just where the fish are biting and can teach novices everything they need to know or sit back and let experienced anglers do their thing. Inshore waters are ripe with flounder, red and black drum, and trout, while nearshore is perfect for catching king and Spanish mackerel, sea bass, and sheepshead. While you’re waiting for the fish to bite, Werner and Sullivan can regale you with fishing tales: (It was this big!)
If you’d rather keep your feet on solid ground while casting a line, the 700-foot Veterans Pier at the southern end of the MarshWalk welcomes anglers with a valid South Carolina saltwater fishing license free of charge. Will Tayloe, manager of hunting and fishing supplier Pawleys Island Outdoors, says that cooler months are best for catching trout and redfish, but warmer months are better for flounder. “When the temperature rises, they start to bite,” he says.
In the tidal creeks of Pawleys Island, blue crabs are just waiting to be caught and boiled to steaming perfection in a pot. Tayloe says that the best spots to crab are off the North Causeway Bridge or on the creek side of the parking lot on the south end of Pawleys Island. Crabs love to snack on chicken necks and fish heads and usually come up the creeks with the tide.