The Country’s Biggest Tourist Trap: South of the Border

There is a tourist trap in South Carolina called South of the Border. A combination truck stop, motel, roadside attraction, carnival and snack stand, it’s high kitsch of the first order, bordering on exploitative with its stereotypically Mexican “mascot” Pedro. A couple days before the Fourth of July, when I drove through, it’s also a bonanza for fireworks, all manner of which are legal in South Carolina, even if they’re sold at exit one, just south of the border with North Carolina.

Traveling the American Road – Exploring South of the Border

It started as a half-way point on the haul down to Florida, a convenient place for New York- and Boston-area families to spend the night while driving to Walt Disney World and Miami. But faster speed limits, not to mention cheaper flights, a growing number of chain hotel outposts and the economic downturn, have left South of the Border as more of a curiosity than a much-needed overnight waypoint. It’s hokiness is no longer a draw but rather something to be snickered at after you get back in your car and continue down I-95.

One saving grace is Fort Pedro, an explosives depot masquerading as a fireworks stand. A $699 collection of bombs, mortars and various other sparklers was the most expensive package I saw; simple firecrackers seemed unavailable in any quantity shy of 1,000. Packages as bright as the magnesium blooms they promised went on, row after row, as giddy shoppers stacked their carts. One group had assembled an arsenal so formidable it seemed destined for either resale in a control state or the ultimate end to the chunk of South Carolina in which they’d be ignited.

My friend Rob, who was along for this part of the ride, suggested we buy dozens of sparklers to hand out during the Fourth, the better to make friends with. Our best find were yard-long behemoths, in a pack of eight, for about a buck a pop. We declined to purchase super-light hot air balloon-inspired lamps, like you see in Southeast Asia, for fear that we’d spark yet another Lowcountry brush fire. I did buy a South of the Border bumper sticker for a dime.

The rest of the attractions were by turns unappealing or disappointing. The reptile house didn’t seem worth an outlay of $8. The hat shop had precious few hilarious headpieces. The most that can be said of the ice cream stand is that it serves ice cream.

Visitors can ride to the top of the famed South of the Border sign, taking in the view from the “sombrero.” But the open road was waiting. We didn’t feel the need to hang around any longer: we had real stops to make.

Bigger is better: scout these mega-sized attractions on a cross-country trip

Taking to the roads this long weekend or on a summer road trip? Don’t miss these larger-than-life tourist attractions.

World’s Largest Rooftop Farm
New York City
Brooklyn Grange, is 40,000 square foot elevated garden is located on top of a six-story warehouse, and grows everything from tomatoes to peppers to fennel to salad greens and much, much more. Check out Inhabitat for more info and pics of the rooftop farm.

Largest Tourist Trap: South of the Border
Dillon, South Carolina
Perhaps more famed for the signs up and down Interstate I-95 that lead up to the attraction than for the actual destination, South of the Border has caused many a family carload to play never-ending games of “I Spy,” and, at least in my family, caused an unexpected delay as my childhood self insisted that we stop for a drive-through.

Largest Ball of Twine
Cawker City, Kansas
This ever-growing attraction today weights more than nine tons. Sadly, this is the only “big” attraction we could find in Kansas. Do let us know if we’ve missed anything else in this flyover state.

Largest Hole in the Ground: Grand Canyon
Okay, so it’s way more than a hole in the ground, but it is certainly a destination unto itself. Pause for a day or an afternoon and marvel. Check out our previous coverage on Gadling for more information about what to see and do.

World’s Largest Dinosaur
Cabazon, California
Say hi to Mr. Rex and Ms. Dinny (12 million people visit them annually) or visit this great exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

Should you want to fly to any of these destinations, is offering a great series of travel promotions to all of these destinations, bookable through June 7.


Top 5 favorite roadside stores and attractions

There are roadside stores and attractions that are worth driving to. In some cases towns wouldn’t exist unless it wasn’t for the store. With the bounties of kitsch, confections, food, and often an array of items that offer endless possibilities of items to buy–or wonder who in his or her right mind would buy such a thing, some places are hard to resist.

According to the reader survey conducted by USA Today recently, these are the top five favorite roadside stores in the United States. I’m wondering why the term “store” was used because in two cases stores aren’t involved at all. Bessie the Cow stands where she used to grace the front of a store called Oasis. Oasis was bulldozed under and a Menards was built on the land. If Oasis was great, why was it bulldozed under?

Still, it’s an intriguing collection that offers ideas for places to head, either on their own, or when you’re on the way to somewhere else. You’ll see Bessie is number 4.

The first time we drove to Hilton Head Island, we stopped at a small roadside stand that sold fireworks. Unlike that stand which was a one trick pony, South of Border, is a store and more. Fireworks is only a fraction of the bounty. You can’t miss it if you’re on I-75 I-95. Pedro, a 97-feet-tall statue of a Mexican man in a sombrero, stands by the store’s sign.

Back in 1936 when no one was stopping at the drugstore in Wall as they drove by after seeing the newly finished Mt. Rushmore, owners Ted and Dorothy Huestead began passing out free glasses of ice water to attract customers and be nice. The result is that the store has grown to be an over-the-top, you have to stop to see it type of place.

There is a store at Rock City, but the main attraction, from what I gather is the landscape. Located on top of Lookout Mountain, six miles from Chattanooga, there is a mix of fabricated attractions and ones that nature did on its own. Here you can see 7 states, tour a cavern and wander among rock formations that astound. Plus, buy stuff. Lots of it.

This 20 foot-long, one-ton bovine made out of fiberglass, stands where she used to stand after being refurbished. Here’s an idea. There needs to be a Bessie, the Cow ice-cream stand to highlight Wisconsin’s dairy hertiage. It could be next to Bessie. Here’s an article about Bessie’s return.

The Thing is a tourist attraction that is hard to explain, although there are 247 billboards that over a 200 mile stretch of highway between Deming, New Mexico and Mountain View, Arizona.

One you get to the Mystery of the Desert, you pay a small admission to enter for the chance to solve the mystery. According to the description on Roadside America, there are more than one thing to look at, each as unusual as the next. There are also The Thing related memorabilia to buy. Considering this place has been around since 1950, in today’s economy, that’s a reason to drive there. If you head to Deming, New Mexico, you won’t be far from Silver City, a very cool New Mexican town that is worth a stop as well.

I’ve driven by Wall Drug three times at least and have never stopped. I haven’t been able to talk my husband into it–yet. Next time. I’m determined. I want the cheap coffee at least. I’ve seen a sign advertising it.