Small Town South Carolina

south carolina

Bruce Leonard
February 27, 2013
Filed under Destinations, Top Stories, Travel

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The outboard roared to life before the first rays of morning cleared the horizon, and the large trimaran pontoon soon parted the smooth water as the boat skimmed through the diversion canal. Pillows of fog hovered above the banks, and cormorants stood sentinel on weather-worn pylons. I huddled against the chill of lingering night as fishing guide Linwood Thornhill deftly maneuvered the boat through the channel, then out into South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie. 

Linwood Thornhill boat

Linwood Thornhill and his fish-catching machine.

The day before, near the bustling resort metropolis of Myrtle Beach, I had played a wonderful round of golf at King’s North at Myrtle Beach National. The spectacular course has been rated among the top 100 courses in the country, and I played this pricey Arnold Palmer–designed track with a guy from Peoria, Ill., and a father and son from Quebec. Myrtle Beach draws tourists from all over, particularly those making tee times, spreading beach blankets or looking to amuse themselves and their children at dozens of family friendly attractions. And although a golfing RVer could literally spend months playing on the area’s more than 120 courses, I was looking forward to experiencing the other South Carolina, the one the upscale glossy magazines rarely feature. Tourism dominates the Palmetto State’s economy, with most travelers spending their money in the high-profile destinations of Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and Charleston. I would, however, explore Santee Cooper Country, Edgefield and Greenwood, communities with lower profiles than their big-name South Carolina neighbors but regions that deliver attractions by the bushel, many at bargain-basement prices. 

Lake Moultrie fishing

A small one by Lake Moultrie standards, but a fine fish.

And so I found myself zipping across the gunmetal-gray expanse of Lake Moultrie, 59,900 acres of water bounded to the southeast by the Francis Marion National Forest and to the northwest by Lake Marion, a 102,400-acre liquid playground. Connected by a seven-mile diversion canal, these two lakes could be mistaken for heaven by freshwater anglers, since white and black crappie, largemouth and white bass, bluegill, shell cracker, and blue and channel catfish can all be boated on both lakes. Striped bass were first landlocked here and have since been exported to other bodies of fresh water, and the clamor for the prized stripers in these lakes can get furious in January and February. Lakes Marion and Moultrie are often referred to collectively as Santee Cooper in honor of the hydroelectric power company that created the lakes. Dozens of marinas grant access along the 450 miles of combined shoreline, providing swimmers and boaters with plenty of variety. 

Yet variety was not high on our list that morning, unless trying to catch big, bigger and biggest Arkansas blue catfish counted as an array. The state record channel catfish was caught in Santee Cooper, and the lake system has historically housed so many monster catfish that poachers have been caught smuggling the whiskered fish from these waters to lakes in their home states. Yet, according to Thornhill, commercial fishing has depleted the fishery, and the abundant cormorants have impacted the number of baitfish enough that an official study is under way to determine how much damage the birds are doing. But I was there to study how best to hook catfish. 

To give me the best chance to boat some Arkansas blues, Thornhill set me up with an 8.5-foot rod, a baitcasting reel spooled with 30-pound test, a 2.5-foot leader, a 2.5-inch cork, a drift weight and a 4/0 hook. He threw three sea anchors off the bow to slow the boat’s drift in the wind, then he proceeded to be disappointed at how slow the fishing was. But slow on Santee Cooper for Arkansas blues isn’t slow by the standards of many fisheries, since two anglers caught six fish — two of which were between 16 and 19 pounds — in four hours. Of course, on Santee Cooper, anglers don’t start bragging about anything smaller than 30 pounds, which makes sense, since it is still possible to catch beasts in the 100-pound range.   

RVers whose passion is to master fairways and greens should book a visit to Santee, a small town that delivers top-notch golf at extremely affordable rates. From Interstate 95, the town looks like not much more than a place to refuel both vehicle and stomach, yet Santee surprised me with its attractions and golfing abundance. Ten courses lie within 20 miles, and 16 exist within an hour’s drive of town. 

But before cynical strikers of Titleists declare that there’s a big difference between quality and quantity, note these courses serve up slopes that range from the holy-smokes 144 from the black tees at Crowfield Golf and Country Club to the 114 slope from the blue tees at Berkeley Country Club. The average slope for all 16 courses is 125, so these are not uninspired municipal tracts that require little more than a drive and a wedge. 

Santee Cooper Country Club

The first hole at Santee Cooper Country Club delivers beauty and challenges.

In Santee itself, Lake Marion Golf Course, Santee National Golf Course and Santee Cooper Country Club deliver challenging, well-manicured layouts that rest a rung or so below the high-end, big-name courses in Myrtle Beach — yet the greens fees are so affordable, especially when booking a golf package, that numerous travelers stay in Santee for a week, then play as many rounds as daylight will allow. Every golfer I met during my visit had driven south from Ohio, and numerous groups of shorts-wearing escapees from domestic obligations do so annually. I only had time to play Santee Cooper Country Club, and I loved the course but felt a little ripped off that I couldn’t sample more of the area’s courses.

As impressive and affordable as the golf options are in the region, Santee State Park is equally impressive. Perched on a peninsula surrounded by Lake Marion, the park consists of 2,500 wooded acres that somehow manage to convey complete remoteness while being just off Interstate 95. Miles of hiking and biking trails wind throughout the park, and the 150 rustic campsites serve up camping the way it used to be — when nature, not technology, prevailed. Lakeshore Campground is more isolated than Cypress View Campground, and the latter sits closer to the park store, the fishing pier, the swamp-tour office, and the pier cabins and shoreline cabins. The pier cabins are so convenient and well-appointed that RVers with boats may consider splurging, since cabin-dwellers can tie up their crafts nightly mere steps from their cherrywood beds.

Lake Greenwood camping

Camping on the shore of Lake Greenwood, west of Columbia, makes for a splendid vacation.

Travelers who couldn’t care less about fishing, golf or tree-shaded campgrounds may still enjoy the Santee Wildlife Refuge, a 15,095-acre respite, filled with hardwoods, marshes and ponds. Ducks, geese and swans winter there, and shorebirds and raptors use the region as a stopover. 

Before their Santee stopover ends, culinary-minded travelers may want to sample the wares at Captain’s Quarters (the crab-stuffed grouper was excellent) or dine in the historic ambiance of Clark’s Inn and Restaurant. After lunch at the latter, I regrettably put Santee in my rearview mirror.

On the western side of South Carolina, not far from Sumter National Forest and J. Strom Thurmond Lake, sits one of the more unusual tourist attractions I’ve encountered. The town of Edgefield is home to the National Wild Turkey Federation and Wild Turkey Center, a complex that so thoroughly conveys the characteristics and inclinations of these birds that, by the end of my tour, I had to restrain myself from gobbling. I will not spoil the numerous surprises that await travelers inclined to peruse this wild turkey showcase. At the behest of the National Wild Turkey Federation, money and science have teamed up to preserve habitat that allows wild turkeys to thrive once again. That the NWTF then promotes the hunting of these birds may offend some people. Most everyone else, however, will appreciate the passion and know-how that went into the creation of and presentations in the nearly 60,000-square-foot facility.

Farm animals at Emerald

Various exotics as well as typical farm animals can be seen at Emerald Farms.

Northwest of Edgefield sits the town of Greenwood, part of the five-county region promoted as the Old 96 District. Consisting mostly of open space dappled with small towns that possess Revolutionary War or Civil War significance, the Old 96 District delivers plentiful fishing, hunting and golfing. Five state parks serve up 569 campsites. The sites in Lake Greenwood State Park are large and well-shaded, and the visitor center imparts a concise history of the region and of the building’s construction. Countless miles of hiking and biking trails in the area allow travelers to get some exercise before they cool off in one of the five lakes. Fine dining exists here, notably in Abbeville’s 101 Court restaurant, which serves “international comfort food.” Families and model-train aficionados should not miss Greenwood’s Emerald Farms. Children can pet the goats and ride on a small train, but no one is allowed to touch the truly amazing O- and HO-gauge railroad — a work of dedication and artistry that everyone can admire. 

Lake Greenwood

Lake Greenwood’s early morning mist creates the perfect tableau for a fishing trip.

As tourist-friendly as the Old 96 District is, however, it seems like a better place to live. Lots along Lake Greenwood that locals considered undesirable a decade ago now sell for $400,000, and they are being snapped up by baby boomers from around the country. Excellent golf courses are only minutes away from productive fishing waters. A major revamping of downtown Greenwood will soon create a new library and significantly upgrade the museum. I found the local people to be friendly and appreciative of where they lived. Owners of Class A motorhomes who visit the region and find it as appealing as I did may want to look into Cane Creek Motorcoach Resort, which overlooks Lake Greenwood. 

I probably will not move to the Old 96 District or to Santee or even to Myrtle Beach, but I plan to return to all three as often as I can. 

Sources:

Discover South Carolina
866-224-9339, www.discoversouthcarolina.com

Myrtle Beach Area Visitor Information
800-356-3016, www.visitmybeach.com

Linwood Thornhill
Professional guide, 843-351-4238

Santee Copper Country
800-227-8510, www.santeecoopercountry.org

South Carolina’s Old 96 District
800-849-9633, www.sctravelold96.com 

National Wild Turkey Federation
800-843-6983; www.nwtf.org

Greenwood Regional Tourism and Visitors Bureau
866-493-8474, www.visitgreenwoodsc.com

Cane Creek RV Resort & Marina
864-992-4700, www.canecreekresort.com

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