Anyone who has never traveled I-95 near the North Carolina/South Carolina border probably thinks I’m going to write about Mexico. They might think I’m going to write about immigration. Or maybe food…which is not a bad idea…but not what I’m writing about today.
In North Carolina, and I presume South Carolina too, South of the Border has nothing to do with the great country of Mexico…well, a little, but not really.
If you’ve ever traveled I-95, especially at night, near the NC/SC border, you have seen the oasis that is South of the Border. Check out their website here. Starting as a roadside beer stand built by Mr. Alan Schafer in 1949, it is now much larger and a roadside attraction in itself…a brief respite from the boredom of interstate travels. Or if you’re traveling to the Carolina beaches, it’s a good place to stock up on some of the things you’ll need…especially Blenheim Ginger Ale…more on that later. It has a Mexican theme.
South of the Border. The first time I saw South of the Border, I was probably about 10 years old. I was traveling with my family up I-95. I think we were going to Wilmington, but not sure. It was nighttime, and as we traveled north, we started seeing signs that said, “Pedro says…” And those signs went on for miles and miles. They were advertisements for South of the Border. According to the website, those billboards were all designed by Mr. Schafer himself. They are iconic. There are about 175 billboards advertising South of the Border. The old billboards of the 70s used a sort of “Spanglish,” which many people found offensive, so they were changed. Even the Mexican Embassy got involved, according to Roadside America, asking Mr. Schafer to remove the offensive signage along I-95, to which he responded by suggesting the Mexican Embassy consider the $1.5 million in souvenirs he imports from Mexico each year. Nevertheless, the billboards were gradually changed to less broken English, but the advertisements are still plentiful.
So, let’s say I was 10 years old. That means the year would have been 1977, so South of the Border was still in its heyday. In fact, according to people who work there (and have been there since 1965), people used to come in by the busloads to visit! It was a destination. There is a motor lodge that appears to have been kept in its original decor.
In 1977, as my family came upon the great neon oasis that is South of the Border, my daddy refused to stop. No amount of begging worked. Usually, he was pretty good about stopping at any roadside attraction, but apparently, it was late, and we needed to get to our hotel in Wilmington that night.
I resolved, on that day, that I would one day visit South of the Border. And I never forgot.
When I first moved to Charlotte and would ask people about South of the Border (SOB), they would laugh and say they knew what I was talking about. Some had funny stories about a visit during college days, and some still had souvenirs they had purchased there when they were kids. Most of them had stopped there on the way to the beach once or twice when they were kids, but none had been in recent years. And they certainly didn’t travel with SOB as their destination.
I spoke with my friend, Sara, who is from Pennsylvania, one day and learned she had never been either. We made a plan to visit.
On October 30, 2014, we loaded up in our Ford Expedition with my daughter, Sara’s two daughters, and a friend of her older daughter, and we set out for SOB.
I had plugged the address into the navigation in the truck. We were getting a late afternoon start, but we enjoyed the drive across North Carolina. We were traveling from Charlotte, so none of the drive was on the interstate highway, but it was mostly four-lane highway, with some two-lane travel here and there.
We drove through small towns and took detours.
We had been driving for a while, and the GPS said we had ten more miles to go, when we rounded a corner and saw the great neon oasis ahead! Somehow, our GPS wasn’t correct, but it didn’t matter at that point. Sara and I audibly gasped at the neon when we rounded the curve. We then laughed at ourselves.
We arrived, and much like the Griswold’s arrival at Wally World, almost everything was closed. We didn’t care. There are all sorts of giant animal figurines around SOB, and we took advantage of the photo ops. A 97-feet-tall Pedro? Photo op! A giant sombrero tower? Photo op. We took lots of photos in the neon lights.
The only thing open was a small cafe called The Hot Tamale. It was late, and most of the place was deserted. It seemed a little sketchy with no one around, so I became the designated person to go in and ask what time all the other attractions would open the next day. The very nice lady inside told me everything would open at 10am, so we drove to our hotel in Florence, South Carolina, for the night. (Interestingly, Bill Cosby was slated to perform at the Convention Center near our hotel on November 4, but I think the sexual assault scandal probably caused the cancellation of the appearance.)
Next morning, we ate a quick breakfast at the hotel and arrived at South of the Border at 10am. We were all excited to see what it would look like in the daytime, and of course, we took more photos.
Apparently, fall is not a busy time at SOB (South of the Border), because it seemed we were the only visitors that day. We actually visited the shops on Halloween, and Sara and I later joked that they would see a sharp increase in revenue for that day, since we bought so many souvenirs! The employees at one of the many souvenir shops told us summer is still busy with beach traffic and people traveling between the northeast and Florida.
There are souvenir shops aplenty…you could stay all day and still not see every single souvenir in the place. We stocked up on lots of SOB merchandise that day. I had to buy things, simply because I knew my 10-yr-old self would have loved to visit! In fact, I’m drinking my coffee from a SOB mug as I type.
We also visited the Reptile Lagoon, which was actually quite intriguing. We saw rattlesnakes (every Alabama girl’s fear), alligators, other snakes, crocodiles, and turtles, up close and personal. It’s worth a visit.
We didn’t stay at the South of the Border Motor Inn, but we did check out one of the rooms. While it had the feel of the 1960s or 1970s, it was clean. Since it is a motor inn, guests can drive right up to the front door and park right outside their suite! We were surprised to find the room had a bidet, and we had to explain that to the kids. They’ve seen (and used) modern Japanese toilets, but they’d never seen a separate bidet. The motor inn also features a “pleasure dome” which houses an indoor pool.
While we didn’t dine at any of the restaurants on site, I am told The Peddler Steakhouse, in a sombrero-shaped building, is very good. Maybe we’ll dine there next time.
And when you visit, don’t forget to purchase some Blenheim Ginger Ale. You can purchase it by the case in some of the souvenir shops or by the bottle (and cold!) in the convenience store near the front of South of the Border. According to their website, Blenheim’s dates back to the 1800s. The original bottling plant opened in 1903, and the Schafer family that also owns SOB purchased it in 1993. It has a spicy ginger taste and is made with mineral water and fresh ginger. Lots of people believe it helps with stomach ailments. I highly recommend you try it! You can see their website here.
We have returned for another visit since that original visit, in February 2016, and again, we had a great time. I’d say we are due for another weekend getaway.
It took me more than 35 years to get to visit South of the Border, but I’m telling you it is definitely worth a road trip if you have an open weekend. It’s not luxurious. It’s kitschy. It’s fun. It’s cheesy. But you can make some fun memories and possibly pick up some fun souvenirs. It’s also worth a stop if you’re driving to Myrtle Beach or anywhere on I-95. Hopefully, the sombrero tower will be open when you visit! Take lots of photos! I hope it will be open for a long time, but you never know when something will disappear. Better make crazy memories while you can!
***If you enjoy reading Kelly Mattei’s Favorite Things, please invite your friends to like/follow the page!***