It’s a rite of passage that is right for the Myrtle Beach area and its proponents of tourism.
Each year, shortly after Christmas – sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a bit later -- people from places north and west such as New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ontario, Quebec winterize and close up their houses, and head south to the Grand Strand, a trip that has become as expected as brushing your teeth.
Tourism, the backbone of the economy during the summer, and increasingly into the shoulder season – anything beyond June through August – welcomes the snowbirds, folks who choose to avoid the ice and snow of the north in favor of a more welcoming climate. People who discover the Myrtle Beach area one season, are increasingly calling the area home for three to five months each year.
Restaurants that used to close for a month or two in the winter, now close for just a week or two - - enough time to do the major repairs to be ready for the main season that starts in April and runs through August.
Condos and houses that often were unused in the winter, now are full for three or four months at a time, albeit at a rate for a month that is equal to the weekly rate during the high season.
While the local businesses are seeing a gain, so too are the snowbirds, who make friends and see the area not so much as a vacation place, but as a second home.
Elaine Karpel, who is 94, l has been coming to the area from her New York state home since 1993, gradually increasing her stay from a long weekend to a month and now four months.
“A friend invited me and my husband to visit her for a weekend in 1993,” she recalled. “So we did, and we loved it. We spent a weekend that year, a month the next and the whole winter the following year.”
She could have gone to Florida, she concedes, but she liked the Grand Strand climate. “I call it spring/fall,” she said. “It’s not too hot, not to cold. And the people are warm, too.”
Karpel, who is Jewish, joined Temple Emanu-El her first full season in the Grand Strand, and has been a member ever since.
“I’ve made friends here,” she said. “I go to services, I go to the rabbi’s study group. I’m involved.”
She’s also involved in a knitting group at the Surfside Beach library, plays bridge, is a member of a book discussion group and attends and a morning exercise group in her condo complex.
` She’s missed only one season since her initial visit, and that wasn’t a whole season.
“I had just moved into a new apartment, and I didn’t want to come back to a home that was not set up,” she said. “But Marilyn Minkoff, a temple member, called and said, ‘I have a big house. Come and stay with me.’ So I did.”
Edna Saltzman’s introduction to the area came even earlier than Kapel’s.
. “I grew up in West Virginia, and everybody came to the ‘Redneck Riviera’,” she said. For her husband, Marshall, a Detroit native, Myrtle Beach wasn’t on the radar.
“The people who had money, who left Michigan for the winter, went to Florida,” he said.
As a couple, though, they chose the Grand Strand as the place to avoid the snow and cold. They’re on their second home here – this one in the Bermuda Bay community of Murrells Inlet.
` They return to Michigan in late March or April, and rent out their Murrells Inlet home weekly during the summer.
In the winter, they rent out their home’s lower level, which includes a full kitchen, living space and bedrooms, to other snowbirds – this year to Alton and Joanne James of Alburgh, Vermont, spending their second season as winter residents of the South Strand.
The Saltzmans too are members of Temple Emanu-El, which gives them an inroad into the community.
“I tried to do some volunteer work when I first came down,” Edna Saltzman said. “But it was hard when people can’t count on you past April. Now, I visit some of the temple members in nursing homes, go to temple on Saturday, make new friends.”
She and Marshall are members of a temple in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and Marshall Saltzman points out the differences between the Jewish communities in the Detroit area and Myrtle Beach.
“In the West Bloomfield area, 90 percent of the Jewish community is within a 10-mile radius,” Marshall Saltzman said. “Here, it’s a much smaller community, and it’s spread out 40 miles or more.”
The Jameses came to the area last year to spend time with Joanne’s mother, who has a place in Island Green.
“I’m close to her but not on top of her,” said Joanne James. Neither she nor her husband are ready to retire though. She owns a gift store in Vermont, where she sells her homemade chocolates and cheeses. Her husband owns A.J. Heating, which also offers plumbing and other services.
She credits her trip to the area with prolonging her husband’s working life. He had some rotator issues with his shoulder, but because he had a thriving business in their hometown, which sits on Lake Champlain.
“There, everyone knows everyone,” and you’re constantly busy,” Joanne said. “Here, you can be as busy or not busy as you want.”
The important things are closer, too. Back home, it’s a 25-mile trip to a grocery store. “Here, I could walk to the Bi-Lo.”
The couple tries to walk the beach each day, to read and to just enjoy the weather.
It was the weather that lured Herb and Pat Elderkin, from Walton, New York, who have been Myrtle Beach snowbirds since 2004.
Pat Elderkin is 80, but still works as a home health aide. Her 84-year-old husband, Herb, is a tree surgeon. She’s the more outgoing and talkative of the pairm and seldom sits still. She bakes, she talks on the phone, she visits friends – some of whom she’s known for years, some of whom she has just met.
Most of the people here are from New York, she explains from the living room of the Sea Oaks condo that she and Herb have rented for the past five years.
“I’ve got everything I need here,” she said.
And if it’s not there, she knows where to find it.
She recently bought a crockpot for a friend at Goodwill, she said. “I paid $1.99 for it. But I needed one to can tomatoes – I don’t like the canned tomatoes you buy in the store – so I went back to Goodwill and picked up another crockpot.”
While she may spend time watching the ocean, Herb Elderkin is more likely to spend his time relaxing and reading books on his Kindle.
Together, though, they enjoy socializing with the other New Yorkers, especially with Barbara and Jack Grimmer, from Dolgeville, New York. The couples met four years ago, but now not only socialize in Garden City, but meet at least twice a year in New York for breakfast.
“We’re about two hours apart, so we meet halfway in between,” said Jack Grimmer. halfway between their permanent hometowns.
It was golf that drew the Grimmers south. They originally visited Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina with friends, but found that they liked the golf offerings in Myrtle Beach. While here, they play twice a week or so.
It used to be more, Jack Grimmer said, but the prices put a crimp in that.
“We used to get the senior book, which offered a discount at all the National courses in Myrtle Beach, but in 2013, the Senior Book went belly up,” Jack Grimmer said.
“We used to pay $15 to $20 for a round of golf, including the cart,” chimed in Barbara Grimmer. “Now it’s $40 a round, and with two of us, that’s a lot.”
While golf was their lure, the Grammers have found plenty to keep themselves occupied. They give a thumbs up to Huntington Beach State Park and Brookgreen Gardens, the new Panera on U.S. 17 bypass and Kroger’s.
The Elderkins head to The Golden Egg when they eat breakfast out and have discovered the Pickled Cucumber in Surfside Beach.
Joanne James is contemplating taking back kielbasa and the corned beef hash from Eggs Up Grill, but she hasn’t found a way to export the weather.
But one thing the snowbirds agree on, come January, it’s good to be home.