Story By Jo Ann Mathews | Photography By Keith Ketchum
“What happens in Sunset Beach stays in Sunset Beach,” says Paula Pritchard to the laughter of the half-dozen family members gathered to discuss their yearly vacation.
This family shares untold experiences and enjoys each other’s company on their annual July vacation when they travel from Virginia and Pennsylvania to Sunset Beach.
“We’re a close family and you become closer when you vacation together,” Paula says. “We know we’ll all be together the third full week of July.”
Ron Hunter started the tradition after his friend, Ken Wiley, convinced him that magic encompasses Sunset Beach. Ken believed this because his family vacationed there, and he thought Ron, his wife, Tricia, and their five children would find it to be a perfect location.
Tricia contacted her two sisters, Cindy Mann and Donna Canada, who agreed that a family vacation was in order. The three families, as well as the Wileys, booked rental homes the summer of 1991 and have vacationed on Sunset Beach every year since.
“Once you come one time, you’re hooked,” Tricia says of the 3 miles of sandy coastline along Sunset Beach.
“The island is so quaint and it’s for families,” Ron says.
“You really feel like you’re getting away when you come to Sunset Beach,” his niece, Paula, adds.
The Hunters’ daughter, Holly Steineke, says her first impression of the swing bridge, the lack of stores and the solitude was, “Oh, my goodness. Where has he brought us?” But her attitude has changed. “We have so much fun, and the kids love it,” she says.
The families bring scooters, strollers, ca r seats, skateboards, long boards, more than a dozen bikes in various sizes and any other equipment they feel they need for the vacation.
“We look like the Clampetts coming down here,” Holly says.
Of all the attractions in Brunswick County and neighboring Horry County, which is the family’s favorite one?
“The beach,” shout Tricia and Shannon Mann, Cindy’s daughter.
“It’s not rocky or shelly,” Ron says. “You have 100 yards of sand before the water.”
“Little kids can play in pools of water left on the sand after the tide goes out,” Holly says.
Shannon adds, however, that shopping at Barefoot Landing in North Myrtle Beach is appealing.
The group finds it difficult to remember activities that interest them away from their spots on the beach and their rental homes.
“We’ve been to attractions — the [Ripley’s] aquarium, [Ingram] planetarium,” Ron says with a shrug and wry smile. “I went parasailing once.”
“I went, too,” family friend Angela Robertson says.
“We walk to the pier sometimes,” Holly says.
Tricia is the only member of the group who sauntered toward Bird Island, although she says she didn’t think she saw any nudists. Rumor is that people who want a full-body tan find hideaways on Bird Island.
“We went crabbing once,” Holly adds. “It didn’t work.”
“We generally stay on the island,” Ron says. “If it’s raining, we’ll go somewhere.”
“And [we like] eating each other’s food,” Tricia adds.
Holly says the families take turns cooking dinner for the entire clan and occasionally eat at restaurants. Cindy’s spaghetti, Donna’s fried chicken and Tricia’s tacos and barbecues are irresistible. Tricia accepts most of the cooking responsibilities because “ her stuff is better,” Paula says.
“They don’t let me cook,” Ron says with a laugh.
The families buy seafood at roadside stands and especially enjoy crab legs and shrimp.
“Everybody loves sea food,” Holly says.
In 2010 the families rented six houses to accommodate the 30-plus vacationing relatives and friends. For 2011 they rented eight.
“Every year the houses get more and more crowded, so we need more houses,” Holly says.
“Pretty soon we’ll have the whole street.”
Holly and her husband, Craig, claim the youngest family member, Lucas, who will turn two years old on July 10. Ron, 64, holds the distinction of being the oldest.
“And there’s almost any age in between,” Paula says.
The family members take their vacation seriously. Ron gets up early each morning and plays golf with Ken and anyone else who is so inclined. Ron prefers the Ocean Ridge courses — “The Cats” — in Ocean Isle Beach. “They’re in great shape and challenging,” he says.
None of the women play. “ It requires you get up early,” Angela says.
“Paula played one summer with us, but she doesn’t like to get up early,” Ron adds.
Ron joins the family at the beach when he finishes his round. When they’re not at the beach, family members organize games such as Cornhole. Other activities are talking and sitting outside.
“We enjoy the noncommercial aspect of the island,” Paula says.
When the family is inclined to eat at a restaurant, Dockside Seafood House in Calabash is a favorite, as is Dick’s Last Resort at Barefoot L anding, where they plan to celebrate Erika Mann’s 20th birthday on July 22. For ice cream treats they like the island’s fare at Julie’s Sweet Shop or Calabash Creamery.
No major mishaps have occurred over the years. One child sprained his foot while skim boarding and needed medical attention three years ago, but he was treated and released.
The weather has caused some problems. Holly remembers Hurricane Floyd in 1999 when they couldn’t get to the island because there wasn’t any electricity.
“It delayed us a while,” Ron says, as if it didn’t interfere with their vacation.
The families have tolerated the swing-bridge breakdowns and the long lines to cross the bridge, but they aren’t irritated by these inconveniences.
“You plan for it,” Ron says about the bridge’s scheduled openings when cars can’t cross. “You know you’re going to be backed up. You get everything you need so you don’t go off the island.”
“I liked the bridge,” Tricia says. Ron thinks it’s sad to have the swing bridge replaced, especially if the new high-rise bridge brings more traffic on the island.
“I don’t want the island to get so busy we can’t enjoy it,” Holly says.
They’ll find out when they arrive in July since the new high-rise bridge opened at the end of 2010.
With their vacation in the near future, what is everyone looking forward to? Ron answers for all of them: “The beach!”