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Sweet Carolinas

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Southern States Offer Recreation for Winter-Weary Vacationers

It’s April and the long winter days are over. Time to think about a holiday—but where to go? Check out the Carolinas, which offer abundant recreation, including golf on challenging courses, as well as spectacular scenery and historic sights that are only a short drive away. And, if you simply want to relax and do nothing, what better place to unwind for a few days than at these destinations under the spring sun.

Pinehurst, N.C., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Hilton Head Island, S.C., form a trio of world-class travel destinations that command the attention of any discriminating traveler. Each is known for its distinctive atmosphere and style, but there are several commonalities they share: amazing golf, dining to match, and a host of other amenities and attractions to suit the taste of every vacationing visitor.

Ain’t Nothing Fina Than Golf in Carolina The patriarch of this distinguished group is Pinehurst, famously known as the “Home of American Golf.” Pinehurst is the name of both the quaint New England-style village and the adjacent resort, which encompasses eight magnificent golf courses, including Pinehurst No. 2, host of the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Open.

There has been much growth in golf and development over the years at Pinehurst, but the greater Pinehurst area that includes the villages of Southern Pines and Aberdeen has lost little of its rustic charm and leisured pace. The atmosphere is informally elegant, and the traditional dress is white cotton flannel on the tennis courts and bowling lawns.

There are older golf courses in the United States than those at Pinehurst, but this locale has such a rich history and golf heritage that it’s easy to see why it is recognized as the Home of American Golf.

Pinehurst No. 2, the world-famous masterpiece of Donald Ross, and many of the other 30 courses in the region fit the landscape as naturally as the towering longleaf pines that backdrop them. A good walk among the region’s sand hills is anything but spoiled when the pine-scented air is so fresh and the turf underfoot is as soft as a sponge.

To create such a setting, nature began her work long ago. Throughout much of its geologic history, what is now the U.S. East Coast was under sea. With continuous advances and retreats, the sea’s alluvial deposits formed sand hills. Marked by rich, porous, sand-based soil, the sand hills supported lush vegetation, including the longleaf pine. At one time, nearly the entire East Coast was covered by longleaf pine forests that were harvested for multiple uses, including shipbuilding and the manufacture of turpentine.

Today, most of that ecosystem is gone, but its remnants have remained remarkably intact in the North Carolina sand hills that are sandwiched between the coastal plain and piedmont. Here, in 1895, Bostonian James Tufts, searching for a place to establish an affordable health spa for New Englanders, found ideal conditions among the area’s fresh pine air, fecund soil and clean aquifer.

Tufts bought 5,000 barren acres for class="import-text">2007April.Sweet Carolinas.txt an acre and hired famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who planned New York’s Central Park, to lay out a New England-style village that would be named Pinehurst.

By 1897, visitors had begun to bring their golf clubs and use Pinehurst’s open fields for practice. As the story goes, golf balls frequently strayed into the pastures, disturbing cows and stunting the village’s milk production, which resulted in the decision to build a golf course. Tufts also saw an opportunity in the budding popularity of golf, and in 1900, he convinced Donald Ross to oversee the development of golf at the resort.

In a few short years, the Scottish architect designed three resort courses, including his most famous achievement, Pinehurst No. 2, which subsequently hosted dozens of major tournaments. Every legendary golfer from Sam Snead to Arnold Palmer has competed here. Ross continued to live at Pinehurst until his death in 1948, after designing more than 300 courses nationwide.

To support the interest in golf, the resort added the Pinehurst Hotel (later named the Carolina) near the village. The hotel supplemented this lodging with other town offerings that included the Holly, Manor and Pinecrest—inns noted for their home-style cooking, cozy fireplaces, wooden floors and iron bedsprings.

The 230-room Carolina, complete with a renowned restaurant and meeting rooms, has been visited by untold dignitaries and legendary golfers over the years. In its early days, the resort added other activities beyond golf. Lawn bowling played by enthusiasts dressed in customary cotton whites became very popular—to the point where the resort began hosting major tournaments, a practice that continues to this day. Tennis, biking, horseback riding and boating on a 200-acre lake are also available. And in 2001, the resort opened a state-of-the-art fitness center and health spa, which, at 31,000 square feet, is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world.

Today, there are no fewer than 46 golf courses within a 25-mile radius of Pinehurst, which is now marketed in association with the region’s two other villages, Aberdeen and Southern Pines. In addition to the Ross-designed No. 2, the region’s courses have been designed by a virtual who’s who of golf course architects—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ellis Maples, his son Dan, Tom Fazio, and Rees Jones. Fazio, widely regarded as one of the best living architects, redesigned Pinehurst No. 4 into a spectacular gem that will host the 2008 U.S. Amateur golf competition.

Aside from golf, the sand hills region is best known as an equestrian and pottery center. The Pinehurst Harness Track hosts polo matches, harness races and carriage competitions throughout the year. The Carolina Horse Park hosts horse trials and the nationally known Stoneybrook Steeplechase Festival each April. Olympic equestrian events are also scheduled throughout the year.

Well before golf was established at Pinehurst, potters from Britain settled in the northern part of Moore County, N.C., where they found ideal pottery clay conditions along the area’s creek beds. Drive along N.C. Highway 705 just north of Pinehurst and you will still see the artists at work on their potters’ wheels, creating wares that are available at local shops.

It’s fitting that the region is also an epicenter for gun enthusiasts. Legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley came here in 1916 to give shooting exhibitions and teach marksmanship at the Pinehurst Gun Club. Oakley was also an avid foxhunter, a sport popularized in 1914 when James and Jackson Body formed the private Moore County Hounds. Every year at Thanksgiving, the club still launches the hunt season with a holiday hunt.

As for Pinehurst’s atmosphere, it can perhaps be summed up by white cotton, a mint julep on the verandah, a fabulous round of golf, a stroll along a shady lane, or a drive through spectacular horse country. With the exception of a few signs in Aberdeen, the region is entirely without neon lights. Instead, you will encounter a charm and slow pace reminiscent of the Old South. And thanks to wise growth policies, in which development is compatible with environmental preservation, Pinehurst today is not much different from when Tufts arrived here more than 100 years ago.

Myrtle Beach: Golf Is King On Bustling Grand Strand If Pinehurst is a mint julep being sipped in white cotton on a shady verandah, Myrtle Beach, S.C., is a beer quaffed in a tee shirt inside a loud tavern. Myrtle Beach, at the northernmost end of the South Carolina coast, lies at the heart of the Grand Strand, which stretches some 60 miles from Sunset Beach, N.C., to Georgetown, S.C. Here in “South Carolina Low Country,” the living is high.

Thanks to phenomenally successful marketing pioneered by local visionaries in the 1960s, the Strand has become “America’s Strip Mall of Golf.” The Strand’s 110 public-access courses, whose fees range from to more than 0, combined with its many other attractions, make Myrtle Beach the most popular golf destination in the United States. Indeed, Myrtle Beach proves that if you build it, they will come, and come they do, in droves—some 13 million visitors a year, of which 1 million are golfers, especially during the peak seasons of fall (September-November) and spring (March-May).

The age of Myrtle Beach’s golfing market is younger than other travel destinations. Myrtle Beach is also a big hit with families whose requirement for golf is a little more leisured. With kids in tow, moms and dads won’t have to worry about entertaining them. Myrtle Beach is one big neon-sign entertainment parlor.

But it wasn’t always so. Before 1950, Myrtle Beach was a coastal backwater of quiet streets, moss-draped oaks, a few restaurants, businesses, guesthouses and just two golf courses. The first of these was opened in 1927. Called the Ocean Forest Country Club, it was connected to the old hotel by the same name. The hotel is now gone but the classically designed course, renamed Pine Lakes and nicknamed “The Granddaddy,” remains as one of the best golf courses on the Strand.

Scotsman Robert White, a friend of Donald Ross and the first president of the PGA of America, designed the course, which was originally served by staff dressed in tartan kilts. In 1954, Time magazine’s Henry Luce brought a group of colleagues down to play the course and discuss the launch of a new sport magazine. Those meetings gave birth to a new publishing venture, Sports Illustrated.

In 1948, the Dunes Club course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, was completed along the salt marshes just north of the center of town. The Dunes Club—founded by lawyer and real estate baron George “Buster” Bryan—is without question one of the best courses on this southern swing. “I played the course right after it opened,” said longtime resident and retired Air Force Gen. James Hackler, “and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The marsh, the ocean view were fantastic.”

Hackler teamed with Bryan to build the Caravelle motel in the early 1960s, which is now a popular high-rise accommodation. Hackler had once gone to Pinehurst on a package plan with a group and was intrigued by the promotional effect of stay-and-play packages, which were not yet in vogue on the Strand.

In 1964, the pair partnered to build two courses on the north end, Robber’s Roost (now gone) and Possum Trot, which they packaged with the Caravelle and a few other motels. “Our plan took off like wildfire and fueled the need for more courses,” Hackler recalled, noting that the Caravelle nearly doubled in size to accommodate the demand.

In 1967, Bryan, local advertising executive Cecil Brandon, and hotel owner Clay Brittain Jr. took their idea to a small group of golf course and motel operators and a collective marketing effort was launched with an initial budget of ,000. That was the start of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday (MBGH), which helped to accelerate a boom in Myrtle Beach golf in the 1990s when a new course opened virtually every month. MBGH has evolved into a highly sophisticated marketing management association of 93 golf courses, 64 accommodations, four golf schools and three real estate groups with an annual marketing budget exceeding million.

After the last putt is dropped, the dilemma for today’s Strand visitors is what to do among the plethora of other amusement and recreational options. This family-style destination with its many pubs and taverns also has world-class theater and other entertainment, thousands of restaurants for all palettes, and enough diversions to satisfy the most finicky youngster.

One can start with Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum or experience the area’s aquariums, alligator adventures, roller coasters, horse shows, rodeos and motorcycle races, or even drive simulated racecars on two “NASCAR” speedways. Baseball fans can check out the stadium near the beach, home to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.

For water-related activities, there are cruises and deep-sea fishing. The Gulf Stream is only 50 miles out, and the fish, including swordfish and tarpon, are biting. Bathing couldn’t be better on some of the best beaches along the East Coast. For the landlubbers, there are tours of southern mansions, parks and beautiful gardens, including the spectacular 9,000-acre Brookgreen Gardens.

For shopping, dining and nightlife, Broadway at the Beach is the place to be. This 350-acre multipurpose mall has 15 restaurants, live musical revues, sports bars and dozens of specialty shops. On the north end, the sprawling complex of Barefoot Landing features fine restaurants as well the Alabama Theatre, a wildlife sanctuary around a 23-acre lake, and the House of Blues, which offers casual dining and some of the best blues acts you’ll find anywhere.

Hilton Head: Superb Island Golf Located at the southernmost end of South Carolina, Hilton Head Island is a largely high-end residential-resort maritime jewel that boasts some 30 terrific golf courses, led by Harbour Town. Only 12 miles long and five miles wide, Hilton Head has been blessed with beautiful white sandy beaches, lush forests and an old-style southern charm, making it one of America’s leading vacation resorts and places to live.

Here, like at Pinehurst, environmental preservation goes hand in hand with smart development, and because of its limited space and preservation ethic, Hilton Head is devoid of large malls. Instead, pines and oaks grace this small piece of golf heaven, where elegant homes, resorts and nature coexist in perfect harmony.

Island visitors enjoying this beautiful scenery might be pardoned for thinking it has always been a peaceful haven, but in fact, this tiny island had a contentious history long before golf came to Hilton Head in the 1950s.

In the 1500s, the Spanish drove out the Native American Indians, but not without fierce resistance. In 1663, Capt. William Hilton discovered the island and claimed it for the British crown. During the Civil War, 50,000 Union troops garrisoned on the island to protect trade routes and plan attacks against the Confederacy. After the war, former slaves who had worked on the island’s plantations remained on Hilton Head, preserving their unique Gullah culture and language even to this day.

More recently, in the 1940s, Hilton Head was rediscovered as a hunting ground for wealthy sportsmen who later saw the commercial potential in the mature pine trees that covered the island. As the timber industry grew, electricity came to the island for the first time in 1950. Six years later, the bridge connecting the mainland to the island was completed, and Hilton Head stepped into the modern age for good.

Golf was introduced to this thickly forested barrier island in 1956, when the Ocean Course opened. The course is part of Sea Pines Resort, a 5,500-acre residential and recreational development pioneered by Charles Fraser, son of a timber magnate who is heralded as modern Hilton Head’s founding father.

Fraser had the vision and planning acumen to create a very progressive legal template under which the island could be developed without destroying its rich natural heritage, and his smart-growth ethics have served as a model for community planners everywhere. Sea Pines Resort is a prime example of this wise planning. Clean roads snake through a forest of pines and hardwoods that drape like huge umbrellas over widely spaced luxury homes and condominium rental complexes. The resort includes Harbour Town, a village of restaurants, shops and a circular yacht basin.

Sea Pines also has a large tennis complex and four other golf courses, led by the world-famous Harbour Town Golf Links. Created by Pete Dye with Jack Nicklaus consulting and opened in 1969, the course is a favorite among PGA Tour professionals.

Towering directly over Harbour Town is a 200-foot-tall candy-stripe lighthouse, the island’s most visible landmark. Just to the southwest is Daufuskie, a sparsely populated island accessible by ferry or private helicopter that reflects a bygone era. There are no traffic lights or grocery stores on the island, but it does have three of the best golf courses in the Hilton Head area.

In fact, some 2.5 million visitors flock to Hilton Head’s 24 golf courses each year. The island is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has an average temperature of 70 degrees, which assures a year-round golf season. Another 40 courses lie just west of the island in and around Bluffton, S.C.

But beyond golf, there is no shortage of things to do on Hilton Head. The island has more than 200 stores, some of which are at Shelter Cove, the island’s lone shopping mall. There are more than 250 restaurants on the island serving every type of cuisine, especially fresh seafood, and Hilton Head is also getting a reputation for its vast arts and cultural offerings, with dozens of great galleries as well as the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, which showcases original Broadway productions.

But nature is the main attraction. The island is rich in abundant tree species and marshland species of flora, as well as fauna such as marsh hawks and deer. In addition to boat tours, biking is very popular on the miles of trails and hard-packed beaches.

Visitors to this scenic getaway will quickly notice the absence of billboards and other intrusive features of commercialism. Hilton Head’s nightlife is somewhat tame, as it is primarily a family destination. A couple of popular dance spots and sports bars are sprinkled throughout the island. Traffic, particularly in high season, can be a headache on this island of few major roads, but these minor modern-day inconveniences aside, Hilton Head offers a one-of-a-kind respite from a frenzied world.

About the Author

Alan B. Nichols is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999