Sea Trail at Sunset Beach: The golf enclave is the story of four local boys who made good
By Bill F. Hensley
Sea Trail Plantation at Sunset Beach has been one of my prime travel destinations for more than a decade, and it has been a thrill to see the resort grow from its modest beginnings into a cozy home for more than 400 families and thousands of tourists. Founded by four Brunswick County business men in 1977, Sea Trail, at North Carolina’s most southern beach, has become a swanky, self-contained year-round resort for the traveling public. Spread about the 2,000-acre complex, which is a short walk from Sunset Beach’s quaint swinging bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, are enough rental condos and villas to accommodate nearly a thousand guests.
There are three 18-hole golf courses, two restaurants, two clubhouses, a large conference complex, tennis courts, swimming pools, a shopping center and a medical center. On the drawing board are a planetarium and an assisted living center. Last year the three courses — designed by Dan Maples, Rees Jones and Willard Byrd — hosted 128,000 rounds of golf.
“I never dreamed the development would be this big and this successful,” said Miller Pope, one of Sea Trail’s four owners.
I asked Pope, a longtime friend who lives just up the beach at Ocean Isle, to tell me the story of this unusual property. He said that in 1976 he had just sold some property in Texas and was looking for a local investment. “I mentioned that to John Williams, a local realtor, and he asked me to consider joining Ed Gore, Paul Dennis and himself in a project they were considering developing. He said it would center around golf and resort-style living and would be a badly-needed facility for this area.”
The four purchased 625 acres from International Paper Co. as a starter. More land was acquired after Sea Trail began construction.
“Because of the golf craze in nearby Myrtle Beach,” Pope said, “we thought that golf would be an attractive feature.” Sea Trail’s first course was designed by Dan Maples and opened in October 1986. The Jones course followed in 1988 and the Byrd course a year later. The 54-hole complex is open all year. If golfers want to test their skills at other courses, there are 20 within five or six miles of Sea Trail. In the past decade, Brunswick County has become one of the state’s major golf hubs with more than 30 courses.
As the demand for permanent homes and more rental condos increased, the development company added to its inventory. And that meant more recreational facilities such as tennis courts, swimming pools and restaurants. And it also necessitated the medical center and shopping center.
In order to keep up with its Myrtle Beach competition, Sea Trail completed a 30,000-square-foot conference center at the end of 1999 that is attracting large and small groups. A 10,000-square-foot ballroom can seat more than 700 at a banquet, and there are numerous “break-out” rooms for smaller meetings. Sea Trail now has more than 70,000 square feet of meeting and function space.
“This, along with our other facilities, puts us in the big leagues as a full-service resort,” said Pope. “I’m told that we are now the largest meeting facility on the North Carolina coast. And we can compete successfully with resorts in the Piedmont and mountains, too.”
Pope is still active in Sea Trails’ management, as well as his own popular hotel, The Winds, at Ocean Isle Beach. Paul Dennis, one of the original partners, died recently.
“We look back with pride at Sea Trail,” Pope said, “yet we know the project probably will never be completed in our lifetime. Our planetarium, enlarged shopping mall and assisted living center will keep us busy. And we also have plans for a couple of small hotels or inns.”
For more information, call Sea Trail Plantation at Sunset Beach, at 800-408-7245.