Atalaya Castle and Brookgreen Gardens are two gems of the South Carolina Low Country. Both date to the 1930s and are the stunning creations of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington. Archer, a railroad heir, purchased four former rice plantations along the coast. Their romantically named home, Atalaya Castle, came first and is designed in a Moorish style favored by the well-traveled Huntingtons. Now in ruins, it is nestled within the lovely Huntington Beach State Park. Brookgreen Gardens, though, is the true star. A sculpture park of unprecedented beauty, it showcases the work of Anna, one of the most prominent sculptors of her era. You won’t want to miss either of these incredible attractions when visiting South Carolina!
Open to the public since 1932, Brookgreen Gardens is one of the finest botanical gardens in the United States. Expertly curated flower beds and ancient Live Oaks dripping with moss create a stunning backdrop for the sculptures made by Anna and other American artists. A large team of gardeners and mild winters ensure flowers are blooming year round. Fountains and reflecting pools are spread throughout the gardens, with one of the largest fountains housed within the brick foundation a former plantation house.
Brookgreen Gardens Creek Excursion and Low Country Zoo
Brookgreen Plantation was the estate of Joshua John Ward, who holds the nefarious title of largest slaveholder in the United States. At the time of his death in 1853, he owned more than 1,000 enslaved Africans whose forced labor made him a very rich man. To better understand this dark history, I recommend going on Brookgreen Garden’s Creek Excursion. It’s a 45-minute boat ride through the old rice fields, now overgrown with sawgrass and teeming with alligators. Guides explain how the slaves planted and cultivated rice under extremely harsh conditions and turned it into a commodity that was so profitable it was known as “Carolina gold.”
You can find domestic animals from the plantation days in Brookgreen’s Low Country Zoo. These historic rare breeds include Marsh Tacky Horses, Red Devon Cows, and Tunis Sheep. Be sure to ask a park ranger how these animals came to be here. The stories are fascinating! For instance, Marsh Tacky Horses accompanied Spanish settlers in the 16th century and were used to outrun British cavalry during the Revolutionary War. The rest of the zoo is home to native Low Country animals, including foxes, deer, owls, and bald eagles, many of whom are rehabilitating from injuries and unable to live in the wild.
Brookgreen Gardens has several dining options for lunch. The Old Kitchen café is located down the avenue of Live Oaks near the foundations of the former plantation house. Selections here are limited, but the sandwiches are consistently good, and the porch is a great spot to relax if you can snag a table. The Courtyard Café offers more variety in a shady setting near the boat launch for the Creek Excursion.
Atalaya’s origins lie in Anna’s tuberculosis diagnosis. The Huntingons lived in New York City at the time, and Anna’s doctor recommended warm salty Southern air to treat her illness. Anna survived to the age of 97, so the advice definitely paid off. Archer designed the home and employed local laborers to bring his vision to life. He drew inspiration from Atalaya Castle in southern Spain. That 12th-century Moorish fortress features a central watchtower, which Archer mimicked in miniature. His 40-foot tower conceals a large tank that once supplied all the fresh water on the property.
The mansion had 30 rooms surrounding a palm tree-lined courtyard. A covered walkway leads to Anna’s massive studio where she spent most of her time. The now-empty stables once held the animals she used as live models for her sculptures, including horses and bears. Park rangers lead guided tours through the ruins, which look more like a prison thanks to the wrought iron bars on the windows. (These are original to the house and offered protection against hurricanes.)
Follow the sandy path from the backyard to the ocean to revel in the beauty of the unspoiled shore. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a loggerhead turtle or two. The dunes here are a nesting area for this endangered species.
Tickets and Visitor Information
Atalaya Castle and Brookgreen Gardens are easy to visit as a day trip from Myrtle Beach or Georgetown. The parks are located on Highway 17 just south of Murrell’s Inlet. The entrance to Brookgreen Gardens is well marked with signs and a gleaming silver sculpture of horses prancing in an elaborate floral display. Atalaya Castle is a little trickier to find. You enter through Huntington State Park, which is directly across the road from the gardens. Facing the ocean from the parking lot, Atalaya will be on your right. You will need to pay to enter the park, and there is an additional small fee to tour the castle. You can find all the details here.
Tickets to the Brookgreen Gardens are valid for one week, so you don’t have to cram everything in a single visit. It also hosts special events throughout the year including artistic light installations and colorful lantern festivals. The most famous is Nights of a Thousand Candles, in which the gardens are transformed into a magical wonderland every December.
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