Sunset Beach is really two towns, one on the island and one on the mainland, with completely different vibes, but the sense of community crosses the waterway and pulls the two together.
Located about 32 miles north of downtown Myrtle Beach, just across the North Carolina state line, this tiny island, only three miles long, is the southern-most of a string of barrier islands that forms the southern tip of the state. Known as the Brunswick Islands, these narrow spits of land are technically east of U. S. Highway 17 but are geographically south-facing so that both sunrises and sunsets can be enjoyed by anyone who happens to be there at the appropriate time of day.
Originally called Bald Island, perhaps as a nod to Bald Head Island located about 30 miles to the east, Sunset Beach was named by developer Mannon C. Gore, who purchased the property from the Brooks family in 1955 for the tidy sum of $60,000. Soon afterward, Gore purchased another 500 acres of mainland property along the Intracoastal Waterway from International Paper Company with the intention of creating a resort town.
At that time, the only access to the island from the mainland was by boat, so Gore set about designing and building a bridge across the waterway. In 1958 he installed a one-lane, floating pontoon bridge that was operated by a system of cables and hydraulic motors (see Old Sunset Beach Bridge for more) and which served the town for over 52 years. Today, the sleek 21st Century Mannon C. Gore Bridge soars 65 feet above the waterway and over the spot where the old bridge once stood.
In 1960, Gore also built the original fishing pier on the island called the Vesta Pier. It was named for a Civil War era blockade runner, the Vesta, which ran aground on a sandbar in 1864. Most of the cargo was unloaded and the steamer set on fire to keep it out of Union hands, but the skeleton of the ship remained in the shallow waters. When the present pier was built in 1976, its 900-foot length extended out beyond the Vesta, so the pier was built over her. Today the ship’s remains still lie buried in the sand beneath the pier.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the town grew as local developers purchased more land from International Paper Company. Several golf courses were built during the Grand Strand golf heyday of the 1980s and 1990s and they remain today as part of the town's recreation scene.
Because of the limited access for so long, the island itself saw little development. Clusters of wooden beach cottages dotted the island and there was no commercial development. Even today you won’t find any high rises here and the community is mainly residential. There are only a handful businesses that include three vacation rental companies and a couple of general stores. There only two restaurants, one on the pier and one at the Island Market.
There are 32 public beach access walkovers on the island going both east and west of the pier. Next to the pier is a pavilion and a handicap accessible walk over with 57 spaces of public parking in the lot.
On the eastern end of the island, Main Street ends at private gated development, but you can cross over a public beach access to reach the beach and then walk to the tip end of the island where Jinks Creek separates it from Ocean Isle Beach. For birders, this is one of five local birding spots on the North Carolina Birding Trail, and you’re likely to see lots of skimmers among others.
Go west on Main Street and you’ll come to the end of the road overlooking the marsh. A few public parking spaces are here and you can use the public beach access to reach the beach.
Walk westward to Bird Island. Once separated from Sunset Beach by Mad Inlet, the inlet filled in some 20 years ago extending the island beyond the South Carolina state line to Little River Inlet. Bird Island is a North Carolina Coastal Reserve, so you’ll see many kinds of birds in this protected bird sanctuary. You’ll also come upon the Kindred Spirit mailbox where you can write down your thoughts and dreams and leave them for fellow travelers to read.
Gore’s vision of a resort extended beyond the beach to the mainland where restaurants, shopping, and recreation could be found. Today that’s still true. There are three golf course communities offering recreation/residential living and a shopping and residential community called the Village at Sunset Beach that is similar to Myrtle Beach’s Market Common, but on a smaller scale. It includes townhouses, restaurants, shops and the Ingram Planetarium, a top-notch science center.
The Town of Sunset Beach has a population of just under 4000, but they are an active community interested in quality of life. A town park, community history museum, festivals and events keep residents busy when they aren’t beachcombing. It’s all part of living in an island paradise.
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