Road Trip No. 2

Road Trip on the Kings Highway From Charleston to Wilmington

The King's Highway, today known as U.S. Highway 17, is a gorgeous, fun route to explore on a road trip from Charleston, SC to Wilmington, NC.

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Written by Jason Barnette
on July 3, 2018
| Last updated on January 27, 2021
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COVID is surging again across the United States. I continue to share articles to inspire travel – but please don’t travel at this time. Bookmark the articles, check local businesses and attractions to confirm hours and operation, and be safe.

The locals call U.S. Highway 17 around Myrtle Beach Kings Highway. In fact, the order to build a 1,300 mile route connecting Charleston and Boston — the two largest seaports in the colonies — came from King Charles II. It was the King’s Highway. Today, it is an exciting road trip route through the coastal Carolinas.

The route between Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina is just 200 miles long. It would be easy to drive that entire route in a single day. But after reading through this road trip itinerary, I think you’ll discover a few reasons to stop and enjoy the attractions, state parks, and small towns along the way.

Rainbow Row is one of the most iconic and popular places to visit in Charleston.

No. 1

Charleston, SC

Charleston is the most historic city in South Carolina — and almost impossible to fully explore in a single trip. But with a couple of nights and the will power to do quite a bit of walking, it is entirely possible to get a good feel for the city in forty-eight hours.

Get started with a walk through the Charleston City Market — two outdoor buildings are chocked full of locally made arts and crafts, while the indoor climate controlled building has more shops and two to-go eateries. One of those eateries, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, serves one of the most amazing breakfast sandwiches in the state.

READ MORE: First Timer’s Guide to Charleston, SC

The Charleston Visitor Center is just a few blocks away on the other side of Marion Square. Park on the top level of the parking garage next door to admire the view of nearby Citadel Baptist Church — the tallest church steeple in Charleston — and the old train depots across the street. Across Meeting Street from the visitor center is The Charleston Museum, the oldest museum in the country, filled with exhibits and artifacts from throughout Charleston’s history.

Liberty Square on the waterfront is home to the Fort Sumter Monument Museum, a free museum to learn the history of Fort Sumter and the Civil War, and the South Carolina Aquarium. From the concrete pier on the water you’ll catch a view of the USS Yorktown, a World War II-era aircraft carrier across Charleston Harbor at Patriots Point.

Charleston has become a foodie destination that has reached beyond she crab soup and local seafood. If you’re still keen on the seafood, though, try Fleet Landing Restaurant with fresh catch everyday. Poogan’s Porch has become one of the most popular restaurants downtown, serving southern food with a twist. Benny Ravello’s is the only place in the city where you can get a slice of pizza as long as your arm and The Griffon is known for their fish and chips.

READ MORE: How to Visit (and the History Behind) the Iconic Rainbow Row in Charleston, SC

Where to Stay in Charleston

Hotels in downtown Charleston are pricey. Sometimes it’s worth the expenditure because of the location and amenities. I have always recommended Belmond Charleston Place, HarbourView Inn, and Embassy Suites because it’s a pink castle (seriously). The Hotel Bennett is the latest addition to the Charleston skyline overlooking Marion Square.

A little further up the peninsula along upper King Street is the Hyatt Place that is a really great place to stay for the money. I also recommend the Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn nearby.

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Fishing boats docked on Shem Creek — when they’re not out to sea collecting fresh seafood.

No. 2

Mt. Pleasant, SC

Mount Pleasant has a small “downtown” but the real heart of the coastal town is Shem Creek. Here you will find massive fishing boats docked along the wide creek with a long row of restaurants on one side and the Shem Creek Boardwalk on the other. At almost any point during the day you are likely to see kayakers and paddleboarders gliding across the water, pelicans gliding just above, and dolphins popping up every once in awhile. There are a few restaurants to choose from but Shem Creek Bar & Grill is a bit quieter with a covered bar on the creek.

The Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum has long been a staple of any visit to the Charleston area. The attraction features self-guided tours aboard the World War II-era USS Yorktown, the USS Laffey destroyer, and the USS Clamagore diesel-powered submarine, and the outdoor Vietnam Experience Exhibit.

If you want a fantastic photo opportunity drive over to the Mount Pleasant Visitor Center and Fishier Pier. This complex sits on the site of where the former bridge came ashore. The pier extends out across the Cooper River directly beside the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge. You’ll get a lot of pretty pictures from that vantage point and if you’re lucky there will be a massive container ship passing underneath.

READ MORE: 10 Thrilling Things to Do in Mount Pleasant, SC

Where to Stay in Mount Pleasant

Just fifteen minutes from downtown, Mt. Pleasant hotels are within easy striking distance of Charleston and will save considerable money. I recommend the Best Western, Hotel Indigo, and Holiday Inn Express. Each of these is located along Highway 17 near the end of the Ravenel Bridge.

No. 3

Sullivan’s Island, SC

This little island in the greater Charleston area has some of the best food and an historical fort to explore.

One of the best places on the island to enjoy scenic coastal beauty is the Station 12 beach access. There are only a few parking spots, and a couple marked for handicap visitors, so you may not be able to park here. During high tide the small beach here is practically gone but at low tide you can walk across a wide beach. There are several large wooden blocks, remnants of the time when this end of Sullivan’s Island was used as battery defenses for the harbor.

The “main street” on the island is Middle Street. Along this two-lane street are many great places to find something to eat. The Obstinate Daughter and Dunleavy’s Pub offer a variety of great meals throughout the day with very different environments. One of the more surprising places is Poe’s Tavern; it’s surprising because most people do not know Edgar Allen Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie during his short military career.

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No. 4

Fort Sumter & Fort Moultrie National Historic Park

Fort Moultrie is part of the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historic Park. This fort became instrumental at the start of the Civil War and served as an important coastal fortification during World War I. Today visitors can explore the depths of the fort’s munition rooms, climb the staircase to the highest point in the fort, and enjoy a view of Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter in the distance.

No. 5

McClellanville, SC

Location about halfway between Charleston and Georgetown, McClellanville is a small fishing village and an excellent place to take a break from driving.

Take a short drive along Pinckney Street to find the few public buildings of the town. TW Graham & Co is the best place to get something to eat in town — and just about the only place. At the end of the street, a small public boat landing is a great place to watch boats coming and going on the small inlet.

No. 6

Hampton Plantation State Historic Park

Before arriving in Georgetown you might want to visit Hampton Plantation State Historic Park just off Highway 17 near the Santee River. When President George Washington took a grand tour of the country in 1791 he spent a night at this plantation before arriving in Charleston the next day. The state historic site has a gorgeous plantation house to explore that is one of the most original in the country.

READ MORE: Why You Need to Visit the Six Coastal State Parks of South Carolina

No. 7

Georgetown, SC

There are only three things you need to know to get your way around Georgetown: Highway 17 cuts straight through town, Front Street is the “main street”, and on the other side of the buildings along that street is the Harborwalk. Free parking is available along the streets in downtown Georgetown. Try to start at one end of the Harborwalk, walk the scenic wooden boardwalk along Winyah Bay, and then return along the street for a complete tour of the old city.

There are always dozens of sailboats bobbing in the calm water of Winyah Bay. Most of these boats are anchored permanently and only used every once in awhile. Most of the docks are private but at the end beside the Rice Museum is the public boat dock; walk out to the end to get a good view of the entire bay. The boats always make for some pretty pictures.

The Kaminski House Museum, South Carolina Maritime Museum, and Rice Museum tell the interesting history of the small city that was the largest port in the state at one time. Hop inside Buzz’s Roost or the River Room for a great meal with equally great views of the sailboats bobbing in the calm water of the bay.

No. 8

Huntington Beach State Park

Just before arriving in Murrells Inlet, you will pass the entrance to Huntington Beach State Park — one of my favorite state parks in the country. The main road passes between a saltwater marsh and brackish pond — on one side, you’ll see dozens of birds feeding and on the other, alligators bathing in the sun.

Atalaya Castle — built by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington as a southern retreat from their New York residence — is open to the public for self-guided tours. Pick up the audio tour to learn about Anna’s sculpting studio and the reason why the Huntington’s built the Moorish style mansion at the beach.

The Marshwalk is certainly the most scenic thing to do in Murrells Inlet.

No. 9

Murrells Inlet, SC

It’s easy to continue driving along Kings Highway and miss the quaint, exciting part of this little town. When you approach the edge of town you will see a sign welcoming you to Murrells Inlet and a road forking off to the right; take this road. Enjoy the drive along Highway 17 Business into the small seaside town.

Similar to Georgetown, Murrells Inlet’s Marshwalk is a wooden boardwalk along the waterway with gorgeous views on one side and restaurants on the other. The long fishing pier is a frequent place for fishermen and tourists alike. Book a sunset tour with Blue Wave Adventures for a chance to see dolphins swimming in the late evening hours. If you’re up for some unique shopping head over to Lazy Gator Gifts, a business that features a variety of gift items and some from local artisans.

When you get to the point you want dinner there is no wrong place to visit in Murrells Inlet. Dead Dog Saloon and The Claw House are under the same local owners, one featuring burgers and sandwiches while the other offers seafood and lobster. Drunken Jack’s Restaurant & Lounge has a nice outdoor seating area with views of Goat Island (you’ll have to ask your wait staff about that story).

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No. 10

Myrtle Beach, SC

The Grand Strand is a 90-mile stretch of pristine beaches from the North Carolina border to Pawley’s Island. The heart of this region, Myrtle Beach, has been a beach destination for generations of visitors. Similar to Charleston there is more to do here than a single night could ever achieve, but here are a few highlights to get you started.

Myrtle Beach has long been a family-favorite destination and even after changing much over the last decade it is still a place to bring the kids. Family Kingdom Amusement Park has plenty of rides from a gentle train ride to a thrilling wooden rollercoaster. Myrtle Beach is known as the Unofficial Miniature Golf Capital of the World; seriously there is a putt-putt course on every corner. One of the best is the multi-level Mount Atlanticus Mini Golf with a shooting flame, suspended bridges, and loads of excitement.

If you want to experience the best of Myrtle Beach head down to the Boardwalk at 9th Avenue North. Here you’ll find the iconic The Bowery, the bar where Alabama got their start in music decades ago. Places like Peaches Corner and Oceanfront Boardwalk & Grill have been there since forever, offering great views and fantastic food. Just around the corner the relatively new Dirty Don’s Oyster Bar offers some pretty good seafood at even better prices.

Shopping in Myrtle Beach must be done at the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove. This business has been here literally since the beginning of the town. The iconic tower rising above the local buildings draws your attention just as much as the items inside. The Bargain Basement is literally bottom-dollar items for cheap but there’s also a $1500 dolphin water statue in the lobby. You’ll find everything from home decor to clothing and jewelry in this multi-level shopping venue.

The SkyWheel Myrtle Beach is one of the newest icons of the beach town. Glass-enclosed gondolas on a massive observation wheel carry visitors about two hundred feet above the sandy beach for stunning views of the coastal landscape. If you need a drink once you get off the ride (or maybe before you get on) LandShark Bar & Grill has got you covered.

Shag dancing lessons are taught at Fat Harold’s Beach Club — just like they have been for decades.

No. 11

North Myrtle Beach, SC

North Myrtle Beach is the quiet end of the Grand Strand and the antithesis of Myrtle Beach. The wide streets are usually quite empty, music rarely blares from car speakers, and families are free to meander the sidewalks peacefully.

While Myrtle Beach has grown as a metropolis for towering resort hotels, North Myrtle Beach has kept much of its low-rise condo units and beachfront homes. Main Street is short, but packed with places to visit. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to shag you can visit Fat Harold’s Beach Club, or maybe you’ll just be a fly on the wall during a dance class as you enjoy some good food and cold drinks. Flynn’s Irish Tavern and Duffy Street Seafood Shack are a couple other places to get some good food.

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No. 12

Ocean Isle Beach, NC

The North Carolina Brunswick Islands includes several islands and beach towns just across the state border from South Carolina. Ocean Isle Beach is one of the bigger barrier islands with plenty of rental homes, local eateries, and scenic beauty. The Museum of Coastal Carolina is a neat place to explore if you want to escape the summer sun, or you can head across the street to the Ocean Isle Beach Pier. If you’re getting a bit hungry Pelicans Perch and Ocean Isle Fish Company are two great places to satisfy almost any craving.

If you’re up for a little walk there is a somewhat hidden boardwalk on the backside of the island. It’s not marked on maps and there are no street signs, but almost any local will know exactly where to send you. The boardwalk meanders through the marshes with stunning sunset views and, every once in awhile, a wildlife encounter with a great egret or tiny crabs.

No. 13

Southport, NC

The small seaside town of Southport has been a frequent filming locations for Hollywood movies and a favorite destination of mine. Home of the largest Fourth of July celebration in the state, this small town is just busting with great local food, shopping, and coastal vistas.

Bull Frog Corner is a great place to do some shopping to find clothing, children’s games, and local artwork. Just down the street is Waterfront Park with a concrete fishing pier stretching out over the Cape Fear River. From here you can see the nearby Oak Island Lighthouse and the frequent cargo container ships that make a port of call in Wilmington.

The Moore Street Market is near the middle of town and offers fantastic sandwiches in a cozy little shop. But if you want more room to spread out and a fantastic view try dining at the Frying Pan or Fishy Fishy Cafe. While there find the wooden boardwalk beside the marina with a covered shelter and enjoy the view looking back at the restaurants.

When you’re ready to leave the quiet town of Southport behind you get to enjoy one of the more exciting moments of travel on this road trip: a 30-minute car ferry to Fort Fisher. The terminal is just a few minutes from downtown through several beautiful neighborhoods. On the way you’ll pass the massive terminal for Bald Head Island, a destination all its own that doesn’t allow personal vehicles on the island.

Sunset is my favorite time to ride the North Carolina Ferry between Southport and Kure Beach.

No. 14

NC Ferry to Kure Beach, NC

From Southport you could easily drive straight to Wilmington, but then you’d be missing one of the most exciting moments of this road trip: a ride on the North Carolina ferry.

During the summer months the ferry boats run frequently between Southport and Kure Beach. Each boat carries a few dozen vehicles ranging from small passenger cars to massive RVs. The ride is about 30 minutes along which riders will see flocks of seagulls, pelicans, and the occasional dolphin sighting.

The Rocks, a seawall jetty protecting The Basin from the Cape Fear River — and it’s entirely walkable at low tide.

No. 15

Kure Beach, NC

After exiting the ferry all signs will say turn left toward Wilmington, but instead turn right. A large parking area allows access to a beautiful area — officially known as Federal Point — where visitors can go fishing, hiking, or swimming. A rocky jetty extends nearly half a mile across the water and at low tide it’s possible to walk to the other end. The jetty protects The Basin from the currents of the Cape Fear River.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a great place to spend a few hours. The two levels of the aquarium features a towering glass wall in the shark tank, dozens of smaller fish tanks, and an on-site restaurant. A hidden feature of the aquarium is a hiking trail leading to a wooden observation deck with an awesome view of The Basin.

Fort Fisher State Historic Site tells the story of Wilmington’s role, and eventual capture, during the Civil War. A large portion of the earthen fort remains with a trail around it and a couple of cannons on top. Across the two-lane road is a small beach area and shaded forest to relax on comfortable days.

No. 16

Carolina Beach, NC

Carolina Beach is most known for Freeman Park — a public beach access at the north end of the island where visitors can drive four wheel vehicles onto the beach. But back in the middle of town, the most exciting place to visit is the Carolina Beach Boardwalk.

The boardwalk is only a couple of blocks long, but in that short space there is more than enough to keep visitors busy for half a day. A small amusement park with outdoor rides and an indoor arcades are perfect for keeping kids happy. The Fudgeboat is a great place to do some shopping and take delicious, homemade fudge on the road with you.

Nauti Dog and Silver Dollar are two of the places to get something to eat along the boardwalk. Carolina Smokehouse has a larger indoor seating area. Finish the day with Island Ice Factory with homemade ice cream and frozen treats.

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The iconic Cape Fear Memorial Bridge stretches across the river near downtown Wilmington.

No. 17

Wilmington, NC

I have never seen the downtown area of a small city as vibrant as Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s a small downtown area surrounding Market Street and Front Street, but within those few square blocks are plenty of places to shop, eat, drink, and enjoy your time in this “big city at the beach”.

Park at the towering parking garage at 115 Market Street and drive to the top floor. From here you get a vantage point to see all of downtown. To the left is iconic Cape Fear Memorial Bridge spanning the wide river. Straight across the river is the USS North Carolina, a World War II-era battleship that is open to the public. To the right you can catch a narrow glimpse of Front Street with the old, rustic brick buildings and beautiful decorated street.

If you only walk one street make it Front Street. From one end near Orange Street to the other at Walnut Street you’ll find just about everything. The Cotton Exchange is a series of buildings that have been opened and connected with hallways and staircases, allowing visitors to meander from one to the next while browsing the art, clothing, jewelry, and gift items from local artisans. Paddy’s Hollow and The German Cafe are two fantastic places to get something to eat and if you want dessert look no further than The Scoop.

Front Street Brewery has become its own destination over the years. Wilmington’s original brewery has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years in a beautiful setting inside an old building. Sample the craft beer but also enjoy a full meal. If you want some great food in a little bit of a quieter setting try Reel Cafe; they have outdoor seating along the street at one end of the downtown area. Right in the middle of these two is Kilwins, one of the best places anywhere to get a scoop of ice cream (you’ll know you’re there by the smell in the air).

When the sun starts getting low head down to the end of Market Street to Riverfront Park. The battleship is almost straight across the river at this point and makes a great location to watch the setting sun. The Cape Fear River Walk is a boardwalk/sidewalk that stretches from Nun Street to the Wilmington Convention Center. From Market Street turn left to visit shops and eateries along the waterfront, or turn right to enjoy a peaceful walk past the waterfront hotels.

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2 Responses

  1. What a fun trip Jason. I used to head to Charleston with my fam decades ago. We’d spend summers on Folly Beach. My cousin just moved to Wilmington last year. I could head down to C-ton again and do this road up to visit cuzzo. So many great stops along the way too.

    1. I went to college in Wilmington and have called Myrtle Beach and Charleston “home”, so I’m pretty fond of this area. There is so much to do here! I hope you enjoy the trip if you get a chance to drive it.

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