SUNSET BEACH, N.C. -- For more than a quarter century, Sea Trail Golf Resort and Convention Center has been a golf and leisure destination for visitors who want to be within a short drive of Myrtle Beach, S.C., but would rather establish a home base in the more relaxed, idyllic environs of Brunswick County, N.C.
The family-owned resort, which occupies 2,000 coastal acres, experienced some financial problems when the economy nose-dived, but it's now under professional management and is reinvigorating its golf, lodging and recreational facilities.
With three distinct courses by three renowned golf architects -- Dan Maples, Willard Byrd and Rees Jones -- the Sea Trail Golf Resort and Convention Center not only offers a central location for exploring both the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts, but also all the golf you care to play right on site.
Golf at Sea Trail Resort
The three 18-hole golf courses at Sea Trail are all solid resort courses. Despite being surrounded by real estate development (houses and condos owned by members of Sea Trail), the courses provide surprisingly picturesque routings and even a respectable portion of "wow factor."
The 6,761-yard Rees Jones Course, which opened in 1990, is the prettiest of the three but also presents the most challenges around the greens. The par-3 fifth is a real stunner, with a downhill shot over water and gators (there seem to be small gators everywhere on the course) to a wide peninsular green. From the second half of the front nine through the end of the back nine, you may just forget you're surrounded by houses.
Also opened in 1990, the Willard Byrd Course measures 6,740 from the tips. Although not as visually arresting as the Jones, the Byrd is the local favorite, as it is forgiving despite the overall target-golf nature of the layout. The 190-yard seventh epitomizes both the beauty and precision that characterize the course, with a tee shot over an expansive waste bunker to a green encircled by five bunkers.
The 6,751-yard Dan Maples Course is the original track on the property, having opened in 1986. It is arguably the toughest of the three, with a slope of 140 from the tips. A traditional low-country Southern course, water comes into play on 10 holes, and all the fairways are lined by mature, gnarly oaks.
Now that the worst of the resort's financial troubles are receding into the past, management is working to improve conditions and service. The pro shop is getting restocked, and the greens, whose bent/Bermuda grass mix can on occasion get shaggy and uneven, are being groomed back into consistent shape.
Rates and package deals range widely, and, as noted, if you exhaust the golfing options at Sea Trail, some 50 other courses lie within a half-hour drive from the resort.
Lodging at Sea Trail
Lodging at Sea Trail is unique -- or at least, it's like nothing I've ever experienced before. Accommodations consist of condos and villas that are owned by members of Sea Trail. These owners have the option of renting out their units to vacationers for various periods of time. All the units contain amenities and accessories (e.g., kitchen and bathroom items) typical of timeshare-style accommodations, but the decorations, furniture and ambiance in each unit varies according to owner tastes.
This individualized experience lends a certain charm to the rooms at Sea Trail, yet at the same time, there are some drawbacks. For example, in my room, neither TV remote control worked (even though the batteries in each seemed to be functional). Also in my unit, the wireless network was unavailable and the VCR in the bedroom felt particularly anachronistic.
Representatives from the current management company, which is leading Sea Trail out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, assured me that these inconsistencies in the units -- like the inconsistencies on the greens -- are at the top of the priority list and will soon be addressed.
Sea Trail Golf Resort and Convention Center off-course
As the name implies, Sea Trail is just a hop, skip and jump from the sea. If you're looking to get in some off-shore or Gulfstream fishing, shrimping or dolphin watching, Hurricane Fleet (800-373-2004) offers all of these activities. I joined the fleet for a half-day of fishing about 10 miles off shore, and we were busy reeling in sea bass, sea trout, shark and a host of other finned fare the entire time.
For a taste of some of the local seafood, walk inland about 500 yards from the Hurricane Fleet dock to The Boundary House Restaurant. Clark's Combo ($22.95) contains enough delicious fish and shellfish to fill you to your gills. Wash it down with the sneakily alcoholic Carolina Peach Tea.
Sea Trail Golf Resort and Convention Center: The verdict
Sea Trail, a long-time staple of the Brunswick County end of the Grand Strand, is on its way back to the forefront of the collection of north Grand Strand resorts, and it has the pools, land and golf already to compete with the best.
The Magnolia's and Brassie's Lounges offer signature drinks, and a fully revamped menu that contains Southern classics and hearty pub fare with delicious and unexpected twists. Some of the best BBQ I've had in North Carolina was here, in fact.
If you're looking for a home away from home in Brunswick County, at the north end of the Grand Strand golf mecca, Sea Trail fits the bill in more ways than one.