For being as small as it is, South Carolina packs a punch. It is 40th among the 50 states — smaller than Maine, bigger than West Virginia — but it is steeped in history, and its variety of topography is delightful. In this one state are beautiful beaches, mystical marshlands, rolling hills and a slice of the Appalachian Mountains.
Here are four regions to consider for your group’s next tour through the Palmetto State.
You could launch a South Carolina tour anywhere, but Charleston has been in the spotlight since its founding in 1670. So many church steeples grace its downtown skyline that it earned the nickname of the Holy City. A carriage tour or a walking tour provides numerous photo opportunities of impressive churches reaching high into the blue Carolina sky.
Charleston lists six pillars of its visitor industry, and history is at the top, according to Doug Warner, director of media relations at the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau. He is quick to point out that while history itself doesn’t change, there are always more ways to look at history, one factor that keeps visitors coming back.
The International African American Museum will add multiple perspectives to the history of the city and the nation when it opens in early 2022. Its location is strategic: on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, the very spot where 40% of all enslaved Africans set foot in America.
Its objective is to illuminate the often overlooked history of African Americans in the South Carolina lowcountry and their ultimate impact on the whole country. It will illustrate South Carolina’s role in the international slave trade and the Civil War and explore the critical role of enslaved people in the nation’s agricultural, technical, culinary and artistic heritage. One element will be the Center for Family History, which will help visitors trace their genealogy.
A visit to the new museum can be a springboard to other cultural experiences; many of these are the focus of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which protects and promotes the traditions of the Gullah Geechee people in coastal South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Adding an authentic Lowcountry restaurant experience to a tour itinerary is a dividend of exploring the corridor.
Handmade Charleston and lowcountry items are the purview of the Charleston Night Market, held on Fridays, Saturdays and most Thursdays. All vendors are locals and are masters at their individual goods.
“The Night Market is authentic,” said art photographer Joe Benton. “We want visitors to enjoy Charleston’s creativity and to find items that remind them of us when they get home.”
A Charleston event to anticipate in 2022 is the world premiere of “Omar” during the Spoleto Festival USA, according to the CVB’s Warner. It is a full-length opera by MacArthur Fellow and Grammy Award-winner Rhiannon Giddens. It is based on the life of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim African brought to Charleston in 1807.
Carriage tours, seafood dinners and harbor tours remain Charleston group favorites. Also gaining popularity is the Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery at the South Carolina Aquarium. The aquarium, highly popular itself, got a boost in 2017 when its sea turtle hospital was completed. It is designed so visitors can see the patients, whose average stay is nine months, and the veterinarians and technicians who nurse them back to health.
The aquarium, by the way, is on the edge of the harbor and offers a good view of the famous Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River. When opened in 2005, it was the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America.
Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand
Rolling south from Charleston takes you to coastal towns such as Beaufort, with its photogenic lighthouse, and the resorts of Hilton Head Island; rolling north takes you to Georgetown and the South Carolina Maritime Museum and on to the Grand Strand. The Grand Strand is an arc of beautiful beaches more than 60 miles long that contains Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. Most visitors don’t realize the vibrant area is two municipalities.
While Charleston’s strong suit is history, the Myrtle Beach region hangs its sunhat on sand and surf — even if some groups want only to see the waves and enjoy the salt air — and entertainment, according to Sandy Haines, group tour sales manager at Visit Myrtle Beach.
“Our climate is mild, and we’re an easy multiday destination,” Haines said, noting that there are numerous large-scale entertainment theaters in Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, and many present multiple productions. The newest is the 370-seat Broadway Theater at Broadway at the Beach.
Waterborne entertainment is available via the Barefoot Queen, a 70-foot wooden riverboat that can carry 130 passengers on Intracoastal Waterway excursions. There are concessions and cocktails available on all trips, and two-hour dinner cruises are also offered.
Golf, not normally part of group tours even though the Grand Strand has approximately 100 tempting courses, can still be a group activity because the area also has approximately 50 miniature golf courses. Some are extraordinarily themed and challenging, and staging a tournament at attractions such as Captain Hook’s Adventure Golf, Mutiny Bay Golf or Jurassic Golf is sure to keep clients talking.
Old 96 District
A completely different side of South Carolina awaits when you head inland. You can get into lovely Appalachian Mountains territory within a few hours of leaving the Atlantic coastline. The five-county Old 96 District and the six-county Upcountry South Carolina tourism areas each have enough to build interesting itineraries.
The Old 96 District is in western South Carolina, and several of its small towns are group-ready. Abbeville, for instance, shines with a downtown full of colorfully painted buildings — perhaps a hint of Charleston — that house distinctive local shops, restaurants and bakeries. You may recognize Abbeville because parts of the Julia Roberts movie “Sleeping With the Enemy” were shot here.
Nearby Greenwood, once a railroad town, is said to have the widest main street in the world. Barbara Ware, executive director of the Old 96 Tourism Commission, says it certainly is the widest in South Carolina. The Greenwood Railroad Historical Center’s collection includes a 1906 Baldwin locomotive and a classic Pullman sleeper car.
History takes center stage at the childhood home of Benjamin E. Mays, who rose from being a sharecropper’s son to president of Morehouse College. Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse at age 15, and King later called Mays his spiritual mentor.
Earlier history is the focus of the Ninety Six National Historic Site. It was here in 1781 that the longest field siege of the American Revolution took place. Continental Army forces from Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, along with North Carolina militiamen, engaged British and Loyalist troops.
The best-known artistic product from this area is Edgefield pottery. Abner Landrum is credited with establishing the Edgefield pottery tradition in the first decade of the 1800s. Most famous of the Edgefield potters was Dave Drake, born enslaved at the turn of the century. Some of his jugs and vessels are in the Smithsonian Institution, and Justin Guy is the contemporary potter who continues the tradition at the Old Edgefield Pottery in the town of Edgefield.
The six counties of upcountry South Carolina in the northwest corner of the state have an alluring mix of attractions: natural, historic and human-made. It surprises many first-time South Carolina visitors that the state has some of the prettiest mountain scenery in the South. The 120-mile Cherokee Foothills Scenic Byway proves that. Tucked up in those mountains are cool trout streams and the famous whitewater rafting on the Chattooga River.
Greenville and Spartanburg are modern, medium-size cities whose friendly rivalry means groups have plenty of entertainment and dining opportunities while exploring the region. Greenville in particular has developed a reputation for having a walkable downtown highlighted by Falls Park on the Reedy, a remarkable transformation of an abandoned mill area now adjacent to shops, restaurants and craft breweries and accented by the 345-foot-long, pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge.
Trips into history lead to Cowpens National Battlefield and Kings Mountain National Military Park for more aspects of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson said the battle at Kings Mountain was “the turn of the tide of success” for the war. It marked the first major American victory after the British invaded Charleston in May 1780. The Patriot victory at the Battle of Cowpens in early 1781 was in the chain of events that led to eventual overall victory at Yorktown.
There’s a more modern focus in Greer, home of the BMW Zentrum, a state-of-the-art visitors center and museum next to the only BMW manufacturing plant in the U.S. Plant tours are not always offered, but the free-admission Zentrum always tells the story of BMW, which began in aviation and became famous in motorsports. Among the many vehicles is the famous — and tiny — Isetta “Bubblecar.”
Every state needs a somewhat peculiar landmark, and South Carolina’s is at Gaffney. You’d have to be unconscious to miss the Peachoid as you zip along Interstate 85. It’s a 135-foot-tall, million-gallon water tank that promotes the absolutely huge peach industry in this corner of South Carolina.
If you make a stop at the nearby Gaffney Outlet Marketplace, pull into the Fatz Café. The restaurant, a regional favorite for group visits, provides a great perspective for a photo of your group with the Peachoid in the background.