Living the Dream on Carolina’s Coast

Dave Nelson’s epiphany came to him at age 10.

He was crossing a pontoon bridge in 1965, from the North Carolina mainland to a barrier island called Sunset Beach.

Spread out before him was a thin strip of sand with maybe 10 tiny cottages on it, the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

“The minute I crossed the bridge, I knew this was the place I wanted to be,” he says.

It would take him 35 years to make it his home.  He’d go back to school in Lenoir, N.C. in western Carolina, then to work for Yale Material Handling, a division of Eaton.  There, he’d pull himself up from maintenance to management.

In 1990, he gave up the corporate life, drove east, crossed that pontoon bridge again – and never looked back.

“I’m living a dream – and loving it,” he says.

On Sunset Beach, he’s found his calling as real estate broker, innkeeper and master of design/build.  “I have a drawing board, and I do it the old way, with triangles, brushes, pencils and erasers,” he says.  “I build in my head and put it on paper.  I taught myself, and I’m humble about it.”

He estimates he’s designed and built about 50 cottages on the island, all frame.  His pièce de résistance is his 14-room Sunset Inn – the first building a visitor sees on crossing the new bridge to the island.  It faces the ocean from both the first and second floor galleries – and the salt marshes and Intracoastal Waterway from screen porches attached to each guest room.

“I started playing with the design after I came back from the Caymans,” he says.  “I got it the way I wanted it to look, wrote a business plan and took it to a local bank.  They liked it.”

It opened in July 2000.  Not surprisingly, it’s got a 96 percent occupancy rate during the summer season, partly for its five-minute walk to the beach – and partly for its hospitality.  “We’re a throwback – we’re not modern concrete and steel, but wooden like the 1940s,” he says.  “We want the staff to treat people like they’re at home.”

Then there’s the fetching appeal of the island itself.  “People come here, and they leave their brains on the other side,” he says.  “They walk down the middle of the street, and just kind of let go.”

Dave Nelson knows more than a little about that.

For more on the Sunset Inn, go to

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