Just Like Coming Home
The Sunset Inn celebrates 20 years of welcoming guests into their family fold.
There’s something special about driving over the Mannon C. Gore Bridge connecting Sunset Beach’s mainland to island. The salty sea air entices hearts and minds to relax, while the sky skips delicately in cornflower and cottony white hues. Great blue herons and wood storks forage in marsh grasses. Suddenly, you realize, you’re on vacation.
Nearing journey’s end, a majestic, plantation-style structure complete with a white fence, a grand staircase and stately pillars comes into view, like an old friend ready to welcome you home. This is The Sunset Inn.
The charming inn, owned by local Realtor Dave Nelson, was inspired by a visit in 1995 to Morritt’s Tortuga Club in Grand Cayman. The Sunset Inn will be celebrating its 20th anniversary on June 30, 2020. The story of how the inn came about is an interesting one.
Back in 1965, with few homes on the island, Nelson (age 10) fell in love with the coastal town while on holiday. His father worked alongside a fellow who purchased one of the island’s original homes. Nelson, at such a young age, knew he had to figure out a way to leave the mountains behind and call Sunset Beach his home.
After both of his parents had passed, Nelson’s dream of a life in Sunset became a reality. His left his corporate job and moved to Sunset Beach in 1990, working in real estate. In 1997 he formed a construction company and soon after began building single-family beach homes.
Around 1993, a couple visited his office stating they acquired five lots in Sunset Beach from at a land auction, at $400 a lot, and were eager to sell.
“The property was covered with shrubs and vines and was a mess,” Nelson admits.
There was no central sewer system and they were not even sure it would perk (when a septic system can’t be installed because of soil conditions). Machete in hand, Nelson hacked his way through the property. Good news: The ground was dry.
Nelson agreed to help sell the couple’s property, but over the next couple of years had no luck. After speaking to an acquaintance, who was president of a Shallotte bank, he presented a business plan (with vision and personal sketches of the inn) on what would be good for the property. The bank’s board of directors agreed to assist in funding the project. Suddenly, Nelson was in the inn business.
In the early stages, Nelson recruited Andrea Ward (formerly from Sunset Vacations) to help and now she’s the innkeeper. In a construction trailer, the two mapped out policy, procedures and mission statements on legal pads. Their goals were that quality needed to be off the charts and that it needed to be run simply and implemented optimally.
“I am so appreciative for Andrea and so proud of her, Nelson says. “She is truly amazing and a dear friend. She has really made The Sunset Inn what it is.”
According to guests, the sweet retreat “leaves no stone unturned.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the inn opened,” Nelson says. “When you walk through the front door, it smells right, it looks right and it feels right. It feels like you’re at home; it’s comfortable.”
Over the years, the inn has evolved, taking on a distinct personality. Small things are never overlooked, especially the gorgeous landscaping and hanging baskets. Groundskeeper Kelly Clemmons selects plants for the baskets that include colorful mandevilla, sweet potato vines, dragon wing begonia, petunias and other flora. Working close by, Nelson plants countless hibiscus throughout the grounds, creating lovely eye-candy.
“Around 2014, we started doing all the landscaping ourselves,” Nelson says. “Drip irrigation reaches all areas. Doves love to nest in the hanging baskets, laying their eggs directly in the flowers. Guests really love that, and the flowers.”
In addition to the stunning scenery, the view from the inn is spectacular.
“Sitting on the porch or overlooking the balcony, you’ll view the changing tides, salt marsh, Intracoastal Waterway, bridge and beautiful homes,” Ward says. “Egrets and great blue heron in the shallows, crabs scurrying through mud flats, deer and even an occasional bobcat are just some of nature you’ll observe. And, of course, the sunsets!”
Guests see the same familiar faces every day. They like that the rooms are updated and clean, breakfast is simple but great, and popcorn is available all the time.
“They love the fact they can walk to Bird Island from the inn,” Nelson says.
With all of these wonderful amenities, the quaint respite welcomes many repeat guests. Ward reminisces about a few that are extra special.
“Keith and Elaine from Ohio, on a cruise down the Intracoastal Waterway, passed by the inn. We saw the boat go by, but didn’t see them. Turns out they were waving at us from the boat! David and Tracie from Wilmington, enjoy helping folks when they arrive — carrying groceries for staff, grilling out (and sharing food). They come for good old-fashioned R&R. Helen, from the mountain area, stays every year for her birthday. She travels the world and sends postcards from her many adventures in New Zealand, Iceland, Australia and more.”
Since 2005 the inn has hosted a writing retreat with Maureen Ryan Griffin. The workshop, limited to eight people, includes lodging and Saturday lunch. Many of the writers attending sign up for the next year’s workshop when they leave.
“Maureen likes to tell the story of how I found her online through a N.C. writers website,” Ward says. “I thought she looked sweet, so I called to see if she’d be interested in holding a retreat.”
Because the employees truly care for each other, they feel like family. Ward has been with the inn since its inception. Other long-time employees include housekeeping manager Yesenia Rivera (16 years) and Clemmons, the groundskeeper (15 years).
“We’re all in this together,” Ward says. “It’s a great place to work, a beautiful environment. Each winter, we paint, replace flooring, and do any other work to be done. Dave is a great boss!”
“You can have a beautiful building, but the staff makes it,” Nelson says. “I have a great, great staff. Second to none. They are my family members. I’ve been very blessed by the good Lord. He’s allowed me to live at the place that I love, where I’ve met many wonderful people and have lasting friendships.”
The Sunset Inn pays it forward by donating two-night stay gift certificates for charity fundraisers and silent auctions for organizations such as the American Red Cross, Play for Pink, Blooming for a Cause, Paws-Ability and Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce. Occasionally staff collaborates with the local Tourism Development Authority, comping travel writer stays whenever possible.
Nelson finds inspiration in Tom Peter’s book In Search of Excellence. A quote from the book states “If you take your seat on an airline jet, and there’s a coffee stain on your seat-back tray, chances are the thought of improper engine maintenance will pop into your head.”
Nelson assures there are no “coffee stains” anywhere at The Sunset Inn.
Ward agrees. She likes the quote, “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who does it. Autograph your work with excellence.”
Want to go?
You can find Ward, Nelson and the rest of the family at The Sunset Inn, 9 E. North Shore Drive E., Sunset Beach. Call them at (888) 575-1001 or find them online at thesunsetinn.net.