The southernmost of the three barrier islands referred to as the South Brunswick Islands, which are man made barrier islands formed when the North Carolina section of the Intracoastal Waterway was constructed between 1930 and 1940, Sunset Beach is only 3 miles long. The Township of Sunset Beach, however, is comprised of several square miles of mainland as well. In 2010, a new high-rise bridge was completed. It replaced the swing bridge that historically connected mainland and island. Despite its size this island has a current year-round population of more than 3,700 residents.
Although the island is residential in character, it is a great choice for a vacation. Some of the best bargains in vacation rentals are here, and the visitor who wants a quiet coastal place will do very well to book a house on this beach (see our Vacation Rentals chapter). The island boasts a white sandy beach and undisturbed sand dunes, a natural habitat and nesting ground for the abundant coastal wildlife, including the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. There is a full-service fishing pier on this island, and the mainland portion of the town offers shopping centers, grocery stores, small boutiques, dining, golf and the Ingram Planetarium (see our Attractions chapter). Due to the population growth in Brunswick County, condos and a mixed-use development are springing up on the mainland, especially around the planetarium.
Sunset Beach also offers a special delight — a walk to Bird Island. Once a separate island accessible only by walking through shallow Mad Inlet at low tide, Bird Island today is connected to Sunset Beach since the inlet has closed naturally. However, it is completely untouched by development as its nearly 1,300 acres of beach, marsh and wetlands were dedicated in 2002 as a North Carolina Coastal Reserve after 10 years of work by the Bird Island Preservation Society to protect it. This designation protects habitat used by several threatened or endangered species, including sea beach amaranth, Kemp’s Ridley and loggerhead sea turtles, piping plover, wood stork and black skimmer. During the summer months Wednesday morning bird walks are conducted by persons affiliated with the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. There are also frequent informal guided tours, announced by posters attached to street markers on the beach, so it's easy to hook up with locals who are pleased to share their knowledge of Bird island. The environment is purely natural and deeply comforting, where people of the twenty-first century can experience life as it was before the development of the land. A unique feature to be found on the island is a mailbox where "kindred spirits" can leave inspired messages.