For over 60 years, beachcombers walked or drove past the Coral Lee Motel & Cottages on West Gulf Boulevard. on Treasure Island, Florida, with barely if not-at all, for it had looked much as it did forty years ago. You know the image: a one-story, L-shaped, con- crete-block unit surrounding a small courtyard, with names like Sea Breeze, SandPiper, Sea Gull, and, our very own, Coral Lee.
Built in the 1950s, the Coral Lee served as a beach retreat for thousands of families wanting to enjoy the beauty and serenity of Sunset Beach. This charming relic offered a respite from the cold winters in Canada and the Northeast, and a beach get-away in the summer months for locals in the Tampa and St. Petersburg area. Located on W. Gulf Blvd., a few steps from the shore, the convenience and location are hard to beat. But like many vintage motels of that era, she had seenbetter days. Her paint was peeling! and drab, the courtyard was overgrown and prone to flooding, the roof was old, and the interiors were worn-torn and forlorn. Neighbors and longtime residents wondered what would happen to the property.
Sunset Beach is a tight-knit community located a short turnoff of Gulf Boulevard at the south end of Treasure Is- land, where locals bike, walk, wave, and know each other’s dogs by name. This community is also passionate about maintaining the area’s nostal- gic charm. where people In the past decade, there has been tremendous pressure to redevelop beach property and build higher and denser. Fewer and fewer of the vintage beach motels are left. Neighbors worried about what would happen to this historical property.
The Coral Lee owner decided to put the property on the market over a year ago. Many prospective buyers would drive by but keep going, for it would take a special eye and a real vision to imagine what the old girl could become, and few possessed the willingness to undertake such a project.
However, when Michele Smith and Laurie Davidson local residents and avid cyclists, rode down W. Gulf Blvd, one Sunday afternoon, little did they know that they would be making much more important decision that day than where to grab a bite to eat after their ride. When they saw the “For Sale” sign out front, a sense of connection to this special site made them stop immediately to inquire about what might befall this comforting symbol of yesteryear. Unwilling to watch her fade into distant memories, Michele and Laurie became the the proud new owners of the Coral Lee.
A tour of the property revealed that nothing less than a total renovation would suffice. The first step was to remove all the vintage furniture, bed- ding, and linens. A local charity hauled off all the furnishings and Lori Todsen, an interior decorator in the St. Petersburg area, was called to help pull together the new look and design. Colors, fabrics, linens, furni- ture, and wall decorations were chosen.
Then the painstaking work of revitalizing the Coral Lee began.
During the process, Laurie and Michele, were on site from dawn to dusk every day for weeks. With the help of Lori and Phillip Baker, a contractor and all-around ultimate handyman, each room began to emerge as a newly imagined but equally charming version of its former self. Neighbors and beach combers, attracted by the apparent restoration process, constantly popped in for updates on the progress. Community- wide excitement grew in conjunction with each phase of construction, for our locals knowing that this piece of our community’s history would continue to retain its vintage personality while offering an updated and up- graded comfort level for all of her future guests, many of whom were seasonal regulars, having stayed there for generations.
On the punch list for this reconstruction project: digging up the courtyards and redirecting drainage, plowing old plantings, removing pavers, planning irrigation--and that was just outside. Inside, the old stoves and oversized refrigerators were removed and replaced with new microwaves and refrigerators units.
The tired, cracked, and stained terrazzo floors were sanded and restored to their original high- gloss shine. A sound barrier was put up on the ceiling in several units for added privacy. Then the new furniture, bedding, and draperies were introduced, and final touches com- pleted the aesthetic. All of this work was being conducted around several long-term guests who shared in the excitement of seeing their old friend getting a long-deserved re-fresh. Restored by being witness to the process themselves, many have already made reservations for next winter, know- ing what comfort awaits their return.
With a vision and the help of a few good friends, the Sunset Inn & Cottages was able to quickly turn both the interior and exterior around as little as a few months. The land- scaping is growing in nicely and the property now is starting to come into its own. With gas grills and tuscany lights in the courtyard, you can find guest enjoying all that the Sunset Inn offers. The process is, well, a process, and an ongoing one. There are a handful of projects still on the docket and one cottage still to be renovated, but guests are today enjoying the new Sunset Inn & Cottages and the authentic, hands-on ownership of Laurie and Michele. On any given day, you can catch them cleaning, attending the grounds and herb gardens, which are stocked with herbs, such as fresh mint for mojitos. There is a daily weather board in the courtyard that shows the daily tides, the weather for the week at a glance, moon phase, and the pièces de résistance: times of sunrise and sunset. Guests are welcomed to update and add messages.
Sunsets at Sunset Inn & Cottages are a cause for a daily gatherings and parties on the beach. You can catch locals and guests walking down side streets to catch the show. Weddings comprise a special part of the celebrations on Sunset Beach, also. But you don’t need a reason to catch nature’s greatest show, just grab a camera and your beverage and walk across the street to behold the spectacular display.
If you are ready to enjoy a beautiful little property that is only a shell’s throw from the beach, come down and visit. There are beach chairs, umbrellas, beach towels, paddle boards, and fat-tire bikes onsite for guests to rent. Free Wi-Fi and cable TV are avail- able in each room, and cottages offer full kitchens to make your stay more like home. If you drive by, you might find Laurie and Michele serving up their signature drink, The Sunset Salutation, made with local fruits and fresh mint from the gardens. After all, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.
Inn Keepers’ Background:
If she isn’t spraying for weeds at the Inn, you can find Michele traveling the country as an analyst for ESPN. As a 2x Olympic Gold Medalist, she knows what it takes to be successful and to work hard. When asked about the process of rehabbing the Coral Lee into its current fabulous self, The Sunset Inn, Michele states, “this is a new and exciting challenge outside the sports world. I love Pinellas County, Clearwater, St. Pete, Treasure Island and all that this area has to offer. Come see why we fell in love with Sunset Beach and what makes the Sunset Inn & Cottages the best kept secret in the Tampa Bay area!”
Laurie was also a left handed pitcher who finished her collegiate career with an SEC Championship at the University of Georgia. She later went on to play internationally in Perth, Western Aus- tralia, where she helped to further develop the sport with younger players. !
Together this left handed duo has stepped out of the pitchers’ circle and has taken on an old Florida Motel. They promise if you come for a visit, they will not make you step in the batter’s box.