Our first guest blogger is here! Fellow globetrotter, Catherine O’Mara shares her experience in North and South Carolina during and after the Great American Eclipse.
We all looked up. We had all been looking up for hours, stealing glances at the sky, waiting for the celestial spectacle to start. But in that moment, all eyes were on the sky, and not one of us could keep the cheers and gasps from escaping our lips.
I could’ve seen the Great American Eclipse of 2017 in my home state of Missouri, but it just so happens that my trip to the Carolinas overlapped with this momentous occasion. There was no way I would let myself miss this item that had been taking up real estate on my bucket list for years. So, that’s how I found myself driving from our condo in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, down south to Georgetown with three of my best friends.
We camped out in a park where many families, spectators, and photographers had taken up residence, and we all began the long wait. It was a simmering day and I almost swore the humidity was worse in South Carolina than it was back home, which is an impressive feat. But the wait was well worth it. The slow progression of the moon across the sun was tedious but we were all there for the main event: the moment of totality. I could see the darkness creeping toward us on the horizon. Eager cheers began bubbling out of the crowd as the crescent of sun got smaller and smaller. With our glasses smashed to our faces, we carefully bided our time till the perfect moment to remove our glasses and stare bare-eyed at the eclipse. We held our breath as the moon slinked in and slipped over the last sliver of blazing light, immediately plunging the day into dusk. Street lights flickered on. And then came the cheers, rising between the trees as everyone removed their glasses and saw what hasn’t been seen in nearly a century: a coast to coast total solar eclipse.
While the total solar eclipse was by far the highlight of my Carolina trip, it wasn’t the only thing I experienced on the East Coast. We had originally planned the trip around a different bucket list item of mine. I wanted to see Linkin Park, my favorite band, in concert for the first time and decided I would pick a state I had never been to and travel to see them. Unfortunately, the concert was cancelled shortly before we left after the tragic death of the band’s lead singer. Despite this, we decided to make the most of the trip, and so my friends and I set out on our 14-hour road trip to our first stop: Wilmington, North Carolina.
I had always loved the idea of North Carolina. I think it’s entirely possible to fall in love with a place before ever seeing it with your own eyes. I was not disappointed by the way the Appalachian Mountains rolled across the state and faded into the quaint coastline. It was every bit as beautiful as I dreamed it would be. Part of the draw for Wilmington and our day trip to Southport the next day was that Nicholas Sparks often set his novels in those areas. The hopeless romantic in me could see how a place like the Riverwalk along the Cape Fear River could be the perfect place to fall in love.
When we arrived in Wilmington, it was pouring down rain, so like the excellent adventurers we were, we decided to order pizza and wait out the storm in our hotel room. Once the rain cleared up, we were chomping at the bit to finally get out and see the town, so we headed straight for the Riverwalk, which a friend had recommended we check out. We strolled up and down along the river, admiring the cute waterfront homes and stores, and checking out boutiques. It was so charming and vibrant. If you find yourself on the Riverwalk in Wilmington, I highly suggest ducking your head in the River Sea Gallery which features work from local and regional artists. Being obsessed with ocean-themed paintings and other seaside crafts, I dragged my companions in to take a look. There were so many prints and paintings to lust over, not to mention other beautiful crafts like a seashell with ribbons of welded metal fused along its broken edges.
We still had plenty of daylight to burn so we figured we would take a quick tour of the Battleship North Carolina, rumored to be haunted. Unless you’re a big history buff or into mechanics and engineering, I would suggest a pass on this particular excursion. While the ship was impressive, our one-hour visit turned into an unwanted three-hour tour. We didn’t stay that long because it was a fascinating place, but because we unintentionally acquired two tour guides who enthusiastically went over every detail of the ship’s internal structure. And I’m sad to report that during our lengthy stay on the ship, we did not experience a single paranormal incident (though my friends theorize the two men giving us the tour were actually ghosts trapped on the ship).
By the time the tour wrapped up we were starving and the sun was divebombing the horizon. So we hightailed it back to the riverfront to check out a restaurant we had seen earlier during the day: Anne Bonny’s Bar and Grill. The restaurant is very casual and right on the water. It was packed with people, many of whom had already snagged tables with prime views of the sunset. We were grateful to snag a table near where the band was performing covers of country songs. While my friends and I took turns ogling the lead singer, we ordered drinks and some much-needed food. The food itself was unremarkable (though we wasted no time scarfing it down), but it was really the atmosphere that made it an enjoyable place to eat. It was open-air which let us enjoy the evening weather while we listened to the live music and even at the back of the restaurant, we still had a view of the water and cotton candy sky.
The next day we drove south through Southport, and then on to Myrtle Beach. This was my first trip to the beaches of the East Coast. As a frequent visitor of the sugar white sands of the Gulf of Mexico, I was eager to see how the East Coast beaches measured up. It became obvious why Myrtle Beach, and the “Grand Strand” as a whole, is a popular vacation destination. The water was familiar but not because it reminded me of the waters of the Gulf, but because they were reminiscent of lakes back home. The water was murky, but litter and seaweed free, which is really all I need. The pull of the current was strong and the waves a bit rough (RIP sunglasses) but all in all, I was happy with my experience soaking up rays and people watching there. If we walked long enough along the shore at night, we could almost reach the neon Ferris wheel known as the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel.
The Myrtle Beach Boardwalk is the place where everything happens. Aim for the SkyWheel and you will find yourself at the center of the action. We spent most of our evenings investigating the boardwalk. It’s the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs and have a casual dinner with a view of the sea. One night, while strolling around the boardwalk, we stumbled upon Mad Myrtle’s Ice Creamery. The ice cream joint had a retro feel with vintage Coca-Cola signs hanging on the walls. I got my Moose Tracks ice cream in a large cookie cone and my friend got a cone stacked so high with cookie dough ice cream, we decided it would be a hazard to take it walking with us. For the 21 and over crowd, you won’t find better (or stronger) frozen drinks than those at Hurricanes Daiquiri Bar and Grill. While the food selection is your standard beach fair (hotdogs, burgers, and hushpuppies of course!), Hurricanes is best known for their selection of flavored daiquiris which you can have by themselves or mix to create your own flavors. I had a raspberry lemonade which is a sweet combination of their raspberry flavor called “Eye Candy” and lemonade. While the menu also includes your standard, no-fuss daiquiri, you’ll also find ambitious drinks like the Category 5 which contains a “190 proof grain alcohol.” Can’t say any of us were brave enough to try that one.
One of our more touristy moments included a leisurely ride on the SkyWheel one moonless night, during which we got a cool view of the strip below. The boardwalk was a stark dividing line between the blinking signs of the florescent shops and the dark mass of the ocean. While that view was pretty amazing, we decided we wanted to take our tourist status to new heights. After all, you can’t get a better view than the bird’s-eye view from the backseat of a helicopter.
We finally gave in to the marketing schemes of all the billboards along the highway advertising $20 helicopter rides. I started questioning this decision as we rode a golf cart out to the little red bulbs that were the helicopters sitting on their landing pads. I figured if my friend who was afraid of heights was relatively cool with this, I could get through this just fine. As I walked beneath the blades of the aircraft and buckled myself in, I started to feel more excited than nervous. I never realized how sensitive helicopters were. Lift off was instantaneous. Every minute movement of our pilot’s hand would swing us in a new direction. While I adjusted to this constant flitting about, I took in the view below as the pilot pointed out sights. Toward the end of our journey, our pilot entertained us with a nosedive toward a baseball field where he managed to pull up at the last second to our fright and delight. It took a while on the ground for my heart to stop its frantic beating. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend an overpriced 5-minute helicopter ride, but the view from the sky was one of a kind and now I can say I’ve flown in a helicopter!
There’s no shortage of things to do in the Myrtle Beach area, and to my delight, no shortage of mini golf adventure courses. I’m a bit of a mini golf geek which is how our group found ourselves at Mt. Atlanticus Minotaur Golf one humid evening. The place was one of the most elaborate courses I had been to with a path that wound through caves, tiki huts, and lakes, all leading to the pinnacle of the course: The bright fire at the crown of Mt. Atlanticus. While each hole had a line five parties deep, the experience was a blast, and at least we got to sprinkle a few drops from the Fountain of Youth on our foreheads mid-course.
Our last stop of the trip was in Asheville, North Carolina, on our way home. We spent an afternoon at the Biltmore Estate nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. The elegant mansion and sprawling grounds belong to the Vanderbilt family. My first impression was that the estate looked like an American version of Versailles. When we pulled up in front of the house, it took my breath away. To me, its crowning feature was the loggia built into the backside of the house with a gorgeous view of the mountains. It felt like something out of a fairy tale. There were at least six gardens surrounding the house, the rose garden being my favorite. The perfume from the flowers filled the sultry afternoon air and I wanted to wander around endlessly with my camera. There was a large glass conservatory at the edge of the gardens where plants I had never seen before crowded each other for space.
We finished our time at the Biltmore Estate at the estate’s winery where we enjoyed a complimentary wine tasting. The zinfandel blanc de noir was the perfect way to unwind after a day on the road. It wasn’t long before we contorted ourselves into our overpacked car and were back on the highway, chasing the sun west toward home.
As I sort through my hundreds of photos from the trip, I can’t stop thinking about what I want to do on my next trip back. I definitely don’t plan to stay away for long! Till next time, Carolinas!
Catherine O’Mara is a YA book lover and poetry connoisseur. She graduated from Truman State University with her BA in English and shortly thereafter received her Certificate of Publishing from the University of Denver Publishing Institute. She currently works as a marketing associate for Amphorae Publishing Group and a bookseller for Barnes & Noble.