South Carolina’s beach cities offer residents and visitors the opportunity to enjoy the water and sand along its coast most of the year. But a little further into the heart of the state and away from the coast is an opportunity to enjoy the lakes of the area—Marion and Moultrie—and all the fun to be had along the water here, including fishing, boating, kayaking and more.
A handful of counties make up Santee Cooper Country, where the lakes are located and you can enjoy both the natural gems of the state park here and also simple offerings of smaller city charm – locally-owned restaurants, plenty of nature to revel in, and a place where time may slow down a little bit if you are a metro city dweller arriving to these parts of the United States. Breathe in the lake air, rejoice in a fresh catch of the day and several charming venues to break bread with neighbors and friends.
Living the Lake Life
The stars of Santee Cooper are its world-class fishing lakes of Marion and Moultrie that were created initially for a hydroelectric project and consist of anywhere from ponds and shallow swamps to many varieties of underwater structures and stretches of open water.
The diversity in terrain adds to the allure of the land. Lake Marion, in fact, was not completely cleared when the project ended, and as a result, you find thousands of stumps, standing dead tree trunks, and live cypress trees as you head out fishing. These lakes have held the world records for striped bass and Arkansas blue catfish, and other types of fish caught here are bluegill, crappie, catfish and bass (largemouth and striped).
The lakes don’t ice over in winter, so other than for inclement weather, you are guaranteed year-round fishing. No wonder many arrive here with friends and family to share in the fishing experience.
If you are new to fishing as a leisure activity, then a guided fishing trip is your best bet to understand what attracts visitors to the area. No other spot to pursue that than inside Santee State Park, a 2,500-acre natural gem that sits along 110,000-acre Lake Marion, the largest lake in South Carolina.
While camping outdoors by the lake is an option, you can also choose from 30 modern cabins, or rondettes as they are loving called, ten of which sit on piers over the lake, and 20 others on the lakeshore, to spend your stay here. These are in high demand, and rightfully so, putting you right on the lake so you can easily set up to fish any time of day.
Think of it as mountain cabin-style living but close to water. Not many state parks have lakes or cabins on the lake, so this is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. If fishing isn’t an activity you care to participate in, then hiking, biking, grilling, and boating are a few others.
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No Dearth of Activities
Golfers to the area will be happy to learn that there are several golf courses within minutes of each other, including The Palmetto Traverse, a 35,000-square-foot natural grass putting experience open to the public all year. A new 18-hole course is laid out each Wednesday, which welcomes serious putters to test their skills but also provides a fun outdoor experience for families to enjoy.
The Palmetto Trail close to here gives you 500 miles of hiking and biking paths across lakes, mountains, forests, swamps, and big and small towns all along the state. Parts of the trail are also designated for mountain biking and horseback riding.
This is one of only 16 cross-state trails in the country and a federally designated Millennium Legacy Trail, so serious hikers might want to make a note and plan accordingly to spend ample time here. Kayaking along the Lynches River is another way to immerse yourself in the area. And when all that activity brings on the hunger pangs, some of the restaurants along the way can easily satisfy enthusiastic palates. The Lake House gives you a casual lakefront dining experience and is considered a jewel to view the best sunsets.
This is where you know ordering fried green tomatoes and catfish nuggets is the best choice. Tubb’s Shrimp & Fish Co., which has come a long way from being a pop-up seafood market to now a full-service restaurant, will hit the spot for great seafood and Low Country dishes. Whether she-crab soup or a plate of perlau, a Low Country rice dish you must try here.
Over at Victor’s, a staple in the city of Florence for over a decade and located inside the historic Hotel Florence, the dining experience is turned up a notch with upscale menu highlights featuring prime steaks and chops with aptly accompanied sides and toppers.
A Slice of History in Santee Cooper Country
One spot to have on your radar is Cecil Williams’ South Carolina Civil Rights Museum, the first and only civil rights museum in the state established and self-funded by Williams until recently.
Much of the museum’s exhibits also come from his work. “I had one of the largest photographic collections of history here in the area. Beginning at 14 years old, then officially starting at 18 years old in becoming a correspondent for Jet magazine, I had probably collected most of the photographic related events that happened in South Carolina, especially during the period 1950-70, that is approximately the period of what’s called the Civil Rights Movement of America. Those ages where we move from segregation toward an integrated society,” he says.
The museum has welcomed 12,000 visitors thus far, despite not so much as hosting an open house in the little over two years it has been in operation. “I think that is an overwhelming statement that there was a need,” says Williams, who is also the director of historic preservation for Claflin University. He has been fortunate to receive $400,000 in funding since he first started this landmark project.
Contributing was Mr. Chenault, the former CEO of American Express, who happened to visit during a family reunion held on-site. “That is a statement that we have a great history here,” says Williams. “We were the only state in the nation that did not have a civil rights museum. It was something that's needed, was waiting to be done. And I did it.”
Among artifacts found here are the actual shell that came from the weapons used by the gunman in the Orangeburg Massacre and a replica of a car that belonged to civil rights leader Reverend Joseph Armstrong DeLaine from the night when the Ku Klux Klan came firing by his house.
“This is the only museum anywhere that has things like that. These artifacts help us to tell the stories and that's why they're so important,” says Williams. “We want people to contribute to our collection of valuable artifacts. This is something that I have a deep interest in that still inspires me to go further and reach higher. This is a divine mission that I must engage in, and this is what I am trying to do.”