Imagine the cockpit view from 21,000 feet.
Imagine what Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, must have looked like to 1st Lt. Frank Morrison Spillane of Brooklyn, New York, U.S. Army Air Forces, on that first flyover.
It took place some 70 years ago. Lt. Spillane had taken off 700 miles away in Mississippi. As a flight instructor during World War II, his job was to prepare fighter pilots for active duty. Each flight demanded his solemn attention. Yet as he soared above a tiny Lowcountry fishing village 10 miles down the coast from Myrtle Beach, its arresting, unspoiled beauty caught his eye and imagination:
He surely saw a dense, dark green blanket of live oaks, long-leaf pines and loblollies, zippered down the middle by newly graded and paved U.S. 17. He probably saw murky coastal creeks bending around land clusters—islands dotted with tiny wooden-shack homes and “finger docks” splayed in all directions. He couldn’t have missed the two long, thin, beige ribbons of beach parting to form a natural inlet. Perhaps he even saw fishing boats and shrimp trawlers chugging in and out through the aqua-colored inlet, their wakes forming perfect white letter v’s.
Whatever young Mickey Spillane saw that day altered the course of his life. Its pull on him never let go. I’m going to live here someday, he told himself.
Almost a decade later he made good on his vow. By that time, 1953, he’d become a bestselling novelist famous for his detective character Mike Hammer. He’d made friends with movie stars like John Wayne. But this plainspoken, flat-topped tough guy loved his adopted hometown and made friends there, too, with fishermen, crabbers, and shop owners. Spillane lived in Murrells Inlet until his death in 2006. He stayed loyal and rebuilt in his 70s after Hurricane Hugo took his home and his original Mike Hammer first editions. He spoke at schools and leveraged his celebrity to promote tourism. Murrells Inlet had no bigger or more famous cheerleader.
Over the years, the tiny village grew. Once mostly coastal, its population spread inland. New businesses introduced economic diversity. Houses went up. Trees came down. From above, that “green blanket” today looks mostly like see-through netting.
Yet for all the progress, Murrells Inlet has lost none of its unvarnished charm—or its identity. It’s still the Seafood Capital of South Carolina. It’s still quaint, still home to gentle, friendly and sometimes pretty colorful people. And the ecology is unchanged—the river and saltmarshes are still home to herons, osprey and egrets.
This might no longer be Murrells Inlet of the 1940s.Golf courses have proliferated, for example. If a sudden storm interrupts your visit, you can now shop indoors, bowl or see a movie. There’s even an alternative U.S. 17 Business route—renamed Mickey Spillane Waterfront 17 Highway. But if you want to experience Murrells Inlet as Spillane first did, if you want to see something close to the Murrells Inlet he first fell for, there, you still can. Here are a few places to look:
Around the inlet and offshore
The crime novelist was also an avid outdoorsman and adventurer who loved fishing, boating, crabbing and every other coastal activity. If you share that passion, there’s no shortage of inshore and offshore fishing charters and other boating adventures. Research them online to find the best fit for your vacation.
If you enjoy taking your kids along, for example, you might investigate family friendly charters like Catch-1 Charters, which works the jetties and just beyond for year-round prizes like red drum and late-summer seasonal specialties like Spanish and king mackerel.
If you enjoy venturing a little farther offshore, you might look into a party boat such as those that depart from Crazy Sister Marina. The trips range from 4 to 11 hours and from 3 to 60 miles out and depending on the depth, you might catch anything from sea bass to shark.
Along the Saltmarshes
Eco tours like the 2-hour trip boarding at Crazy Sister Marina allow you to explore the marsh ecosystem from up close, and often guided by marine naturalists. This particular expedition includes a live crabbing demonstration.
Along the Intracoastal Waterway
The lower course of the Waccamaw River is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, an inland system stretching around the contour of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from New Jersey to Texas.The lower Waccamaw’s banks and wetlands are home to varieties of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibious life and thick with oaks, laurel and pines. The setting makes the Plantation River pontoon and Air Boat tours that originate from Wacca Wache Marina among the most pleasing experiences for true students of nature. The narrated channel tour takes you past slave cabins from closed rice plantations and offers the possibility of seeing wildlife up close, including alligators and eagles.
And if you like exploring on foot, you won’t want to miss Brookgreen Gardens or overlook Huntington Beach State Park. From above, this area east of the Waccamaw and southwest of the inlet, separated by an undeveloped stretch of U.S. 17, still looks as probably looked to young Lt. Spillane.
In fact, Brookgreen Gardens was created a decade before Spillane’s fateful flyover. Its 91,000 acres of themed horticulture gardens include the 550-acres Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington Sculpture Garden. This garden features almost 1,500 figure statues from leading American sculptors. The property, which encompasses massive former plantations, now also includes the Lowcounry Zoo.Huntington Beach State Park stretches from U.S. 17 to the Atlantic and offers magnificent opportunities for birders and a largely un-crowded shoreline for beachgoers. It’s also the site of historic Atalaya Castle, which was built by the Huntngtons and was where Anna Hyatt Huntington sculpted many of the pieces displayed in Brookgreen Gardens.
Back north of the inlet, “Goat Island” is where Spillane’s love of Murrells Inlet wildlife setting and his affection for the community’s citizenry meet. Also called “Drunken Jack’s Island,” it’s a small island behind a seafood restaurant on the Marsh Walk called Drunken Jack’s. Continuing a tradition dating to the 1980s, employees of Drunken Jack’s transport goats and peacocks to the 20,000-square-foot island every spring and leave them there till fall (barring hurricane emergencies). Besides keeping the island neatly mowed for the peacocks, the goats provide endless amusement for Marsh Walk pedestrians. Their main daily caretaker is Jerome Smalls, a middle-aged kitchen worker at Drunken Jack’s better known by his larger-than-life local cult hero alias, Bubba Love.
If your visit to Murrells Inlet builds your curiosity of how it used to be, your best resource is the Georgetown County Museum. A half-hour south in the city of Georgetown, the museum houses exhibits, photos, artifacts and reading collections including oral histories. You’ll get a clear picture of this history-rich area, from Colonial times through the present—and a greater overall appreciation for Mickey Spillane’s Murrells Inlet.