MENTION SOUTH Carolina, and most people conjure up only a few, stereotyped images: the brooding antebellum homes of Charleston; the vast stretches of Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island -- or, more likely, flat, pine-bordered I95, which whisks vacationers through the state and on to a Floridian mecca.

But there's more to South Carolina than meets that blinkered eye -- Revolutionary War Battlegrounds, mountains, deep lakes, elaborate gradens, historic wayside towns and bustling "New South" sprawl.

And don't forget hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, sailing, clogging and sampling such heloved native dishes as chickea bog (a spicy melange of chicken, smoked sausage and rice), catfish stew, she-crab soup (made with crab roe and cream) and fried chitterlings -- or, as most South Carolinians say it, "chit'lins."

Beyond sampling these simple pleasures, why would a vacationer feel lured to the Palmetto State? For on thing, it's closer than Florida. Most of the state is approximately a 10-hour drive via I95 or I85 from the Washington area. From a purely practical standpoint, you'd save at least a day of vacation if you stopped in South Carolina.

For another thing, South Carolina, especially "upcountry," remains relatively undiscovered. You're likely to be the only out-of-stater at some hamlet's "okra strut" or hog-calling contest. If that thought makes you nervous, take heart that even the most strident South Carolina xenophobe is quickly disarmed by a virtue that is almost sacrosanct around the state: hospitality.

Most importantly, but perhaps most difficult to express, is the sense a visitor has that South Carolina is different from anywhere else. There's a calmness, almost a placidity, in the air that carries over into the way people talk, walk, even drive. There's also a burning devotion to the state that prompted the anonymous author of the Work Projects Administration guide to South Carolina (published in 1941) to comment: "South Carolinians are among the rare folk in the South who have no secret envy of Virginians."

Columnist Ellen Goodman remonstrated recently about what she termed a "national style" that has acted like a giant Cuisinart to comingle -- and ultimately obliterate -- regional differences of speech, dress and cuisine. Perhaps she should stop in South Carolina, where "sandlappers" might show her a separate people does exist -- generally warmer, more conservative, and, yes, more innocent than people either to the North or South.

To broadcast the joys of the state, the South Carolina Division of Tourism, operating on a $3 million annual budget, plans to increase its television advertising this spring in a wide range of markets -- including the Washington area. Division directors also are casting their nets far afield. For the last two years, they have focused on the northern European market. As Division Director Robert G. Liming explained in an interview recently, northern Europeans make welcome guests because they travel more -- and spend more -- than other foreigners. Liming had just returned from a year's-end visit to travel agents in England, Belgium and Switzerland to convince them to include his state in their spring and summer tours. The foreign effort, which cost $95,000 last year, is paying off reasonably well. Liming estimates 12,000 foreigners (not including Canadians) visited South Carolina between summer 1980 and summer 1981. The division plans soon to publish a state travel guide in German.

This European offensive comes at a time when a building block of South Carolina tourism, the Canadian business, has declined 4 to 5 percent in the last year, "probably because Canada's economy was in worse shape than ours," Liming says. For two decades, Canada and South Carolina have enjoyed a mutually rewarding relationship -- Canadians soaked up the semitropical sun nearest to them, and South Carolinians soaked up the dollars. The Grand Strand puts on an annual "Canadian-American Days" festival in late March (scheduled for March 20 through 28 this year), which includes parades, fishing contests and one commodity in short supply in Canada's early spring: sunshine. Last year, the festival drew 200,000 to 250,000 people.

Despite the drop in Canadian business, Liming professes to see only sunny skies ahead. Tourist officials can point proudly to two relatively new attractions: Charleston's Spoleto Festival of the Arts and the Greenville County Museum of Art's extensive Andrew Wyeth collection.

Overall last year, according to Division of Tourism estimates, tourist business was up 5 percent in the mountains and 12 percent along the coast. More than 38 million people visited the state in 1980 (up slightly from 1979), and about 60 percent of them headed for the Myrtle Beach Grand Strand, Charleston and Hilton Head. About 11 percent were from Virginia and Maryland; the division has no statistics on visitors specifically from the Washington area. Tourism in 1980 brought in more than $2 billion (a 21-percent increase over 1979) and provided jobs for almost 66,000 workers -- facts that make it, after manufacturing, the second largest state industry.

Those planning a trip to South Carolina should be warned that mid-March to mid-September is the busiest season. Especially for the coast, reservations should be made well in advance for the best rooms, villas or campsites. In addition, summer on the coast is humid (even worse than Washington), marred by hordes of mosquitoes bred in nearby swamps and temperatures that can reach beyond 100 degrees.

Those caveats aside, however, South Carolina's 31,000 square miles do offer both unusual and downhome treats for the traveler. Spring flowers burst forth in full force in early March and stay that way well into June. You can view Japanese irises at Sumter's Swan Lake Gardens and a riot of roses at Orangeburg's Edisto Gardens. Other gardens open free to the public include Hartsville's Kalmia Gardens, Rock Hill's Glencairn Gardens and Aiken's Hopeland Gardens (which has a trail for the visually handicapped).

Hunting over much of the state's 12 million acres of forests offers exceptional opportunity. In addition to such game as wild turkey, bobwhite quail, duck, pheasant, ruffled grouse, dove and Canada geese, deer hunting is a favorite sport. (In South Carolina, deer hunting is said to be a conservation measure because deer tend to overpopulate and thus deplete their food supply.)

Deep-sea fishing for mackerel, bonita and bluefish, and tidal sound fishing for channel bass and winter trout are generally excellent. Several world record catches have come from the inland Santee Cooper lakes.

History buffs will be pleased that in South Carolina, as in any other tourist area with a positive self-image, a dizzying array of "firsts" and "mosts" and "onlys" gets trotted out. For example: More Revolutionary War battles, including the battles of King's Mountain and Cowpens, were fought there than in any other state. And Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was born on the northern border -- although North and South Carolinians, when not debating the relative merits of respective football or basketball teams, still can work up a sweat over which of the states "Old Hickory" actually was born in. South Carolina's answer to the dilemma: "Andrew Jackson State Park," north of Lancaster, containing "reminders of the area where Jackson... was born."

Thirteen of the 40 state parks provide cabins ($66 to $300 per week), campsites ($6 to $9 per night) and an assortment of activities that vary from park to park and include fishing, boating, swimming, horseback riding, archery, hiking trails, tennis and golf. (South Carolina State Parks, 1205 Pendleton St., Columbia, S.C. 29201; 803 758-3622.) Privately-owned campgrounds also are located in most areas.

NEXT SUNDAY: A Tour of the Best.