Border tourist stop celebrates 60 years

At the intersection of Interstate 95 and U.S. 301-501, a Southern icon has delighted travelers for 60 years.

With its bright lights and nostalgic feel, South of the Border is not your typical highway rest stop.

It truly is a roadside attraction, featuring more than a dozen shops, six restaurants, a small amusement park and a motel with 300 rooms.

But travelers and loyal employees agree: the tourist stop is not what it used to be.

Craig Kilroy, on his way from Newport, R.I., to Beaufort, stopped in with his family for the first time in more than 20 years.

"I remember as a kid, the signs once you hit North Carolina made you so excited. But now it's just different," he said.

Suzanne Pelt, head of public relations and personnel and a 25-year employee of South of the Border, offered an explanation for that change.

"We have lots of competition now that we didn't have in years past. It used to be that we were the only motel between New York and Miami that everybody could stay at," she said.

On arguably the biggest travel day of the year, the day before Thanksgiving, the most popular spot to find travelers was at the gasoline pump, not enjoying all that South of the Border has to offer.

"People are always in a rush now. They just want to fill up with gas, use the bathroom and get where they're going," owner and CEO Ryan Schafer said.

Since its start 60 years ago, South of the Border has seen it all.

The place started as a beer distributor in 1949. Alan Schafer's family business thrived as people traveled from dry counties in North Carolina to fill up on alcohol. The name and Mexican theme came out of its location, just south of the North Carolina border.

With its success, the beer stand evolved into a square-mile-wide, self-sufficient community.

"We're like a city. We have our own fire department and post office," Pelt said.

From the '50s to the early '90s, with the introduction of video poker, South of the Border was a booming business.

The parking lots were packed. People filled the shops and restaurants, and the place was even a popular wedding destination.

But in 2009, when you pull off the exit, you can't help but feel like you were transported back in time.

"Well, lots of things haven't changed, and I think that's some of the charm of South of the Border. We're kind of retro," Pelt said. "We still have old-type cash registers that you still have to punch everything in, and we hand-write sales tickets."

But not making many changes has its price.

Many of the structures are in bad condition, and the legendary motel, coined Pedro's Pleasure Dome, appears run down and deserted apart from the couple of employees at the front desk.

Pelt and Schafer said there is no end in sight for South of the Border, though.

"We're in the process of getting ready to put in scan systems in all our shops, and that's a major undertaking when you have six restaurants, 15 shops and a motel to deal with," Pelt said.

The resort faces many challenges to these kinds of updates, mainly because of its rural location.

"We're out in the middle of the country where it makes it harder to be tech-savvy," Pelt said. "We can't get cable TV, for example. We have to have satellite."

Apart from upgrading technology, they are also performing small renovations like putting a fresh coat of South of the Border's famed neon paint on the walls and cleaning up the place.

"We're trying to fix the problems we have and go from there," Schafer said.

These minor repairs will be coupled with a new, exciting attraction coming this spring to South of the Border.

Schafer said they will be opening a reptile park where children and parents alike can visit with endangered alligators and tortoises, as well as other animals. It will also be open for school tours to try to get the local community back in touch with South of the Border.

With all the new things happening, Pelt and Schafer are set on assuring loyal customers the real essence behind South of the Border will not be lost.

"It's unique. You're never going to find another place in the United States like South of the Border. And you don't want to be cookie-cutter," Pelt said. "You don't want to be like everybody else. I think we're good."