Although thousands of visitors flock to Charleston and the South Carolina coastline each year, rural South Carolina tourism is less popular. At first glance, it may seem ho-hum compared to the sandy and sunny coast. But a sojourn in the hinterland of Myrtle Beach can reveal some fun surprises for travellers with an ounce of curiosity. Here are a few things not to miss in Florence, South Carolina.
Visit the Willy Wonky of Botanical Gardens
En route to Florence in the Pee Dee region, my first detour was in Bishopville to see Pearl Fryar’s Topiary Garden — a three acre, visually whimsical garden open year-round. I had seen this unique attraction on a BBC TV documentary years before and forgotten all about it until I spotted the sign off US-15. One huge advantage of traveling in rural areas is, of course, the more interesting roads, peppered with farms, smallholdings, produce stands, eclectic homes, quaint eateries and rural businesses.
An eccentric extravaganza of topiary art, Pearl Fryar’s gardens are a non-profit venture, attracting tourists from all over the world. Funds raised help support local youth in further education.
“I set up a scholarship fund to develop artistic talents that don’t show up on test scores,” Pearl told me. “We lose those students often, they are stigmatized by not being good in typical academic testing.”
For the past 20 years, he has crafted his trees and bushes into hearts, inspirational messages and unique asymmetric shapes. And believe it or not, many of the plants in Pearl’s garden were rescued from the compost pile at local nurseries.
Soak Up Southern Hospitality
Arriving next at the Hotel Florence, I was gratified to discover both a gorgeously renovated boutique hotel and a topnotch restaurant. So often, hotel restaurants are disappointingly bland and lacking in finesse or atmosphere – especially when you’re off the beaten track. But Victor’s Bistro is an oasis of black and white modern décor, fine dining, and polished service.
The shaded and paved patio area serves as both a meeting place for pre-dinner drinks and also an eating area in its own right. With its own outdoor bar and lively music, it serves as a counterpoint to the more refined piano entertainment inside. Professional personnel has been poached from Columbia’s top restaurants including restaurant manager, George Floyd whose background includes Motor Supply Company and Ruth’s Chris.
“We’re getting tremendous support from local towns such as Dillon, Hartsville and Marion,” he said in the bar area which features a re-purposed bank teller façade. “There are business people here, others on staycations and quite a bit of through traffic – travelers off 95, largely from New York going to Florida and Ohio going to Myrtle Beach.”
“It’s really neat the number of local people who come in and say gosh we’ve come into New York City!” says Floyd. “But it really hits home when people actually from NYC or Boston or Chicago say the same thing.”
Along with the upscale décor, the food is city standards fused with South Carolina ingredients — including local farm produce and SC fish and seafood. While maintaining the essence of Southern style cooking, chefs focus on innovation, creating daily sauces for mussels, unique shrimp and grit dishes, Pee Dee spring rolls with beer-braised collards and house made pastas. Other personal touches include desserts made by weekend pianist, Miss Peggy, and eye-catching artwork by hotel owner, Tim Norwood’s wife Anne.
Everything’s Waiting for You Downtown
The Hotel Florence is the cornerstone of a downtown revitalization project, celebrated the last Friday of each month with an outdoor block party featuring local bands, vendors and patio bars. Other area attractions include a new performing arts center, Darlington Motor Speedway, golf (courses include Oakdale, Beaver Creek, The Traces and The Crossing), civil and revolutionary war sites, stockade and cemetery, Hartsville’s Kalmia Gardens, the Egg Scramble Jamboree in Lamar, the Pecan Festival in Florence in November.
Want info or inspiration? Check out the South Carolina Tourism Board’s website for vacation planning ideas.