A funny thing happened on our Southern road trip: we got distracted—for a week—by Wilmington, North Carolina. Hoping to explore some historic Southern towns, historic homes and Civil War sites, maybe with a little beach time thrown in, my husband, Michael, and I began our sojourn at the city on the Cape Fear River.
To our delight, we discovered a city rich in history, with wonderful colonial and 1800s architecture and military sites, funky shops and cafes, all only a jaunt from sparkling sand beaches. While Charleston and Savannah have long been popular Southern destinations, Wilmington has been quietly aging gracefully, waiting to be discovered by discriminating travelers.
Founded in 1740, Wilmington’s location near the juncture of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean has made it an important port along the Southeastern seaboard for over 200 years. The city’s strategic setting during the Revolutionary and Civil wars, coupled with its rich shipping heritage, brought a level of wealth and sophistication to a beautiful section of Carolina coastline.
Today the Port City, as it’s known, is a size that Goldilocks would proclaim as “just right.” The downtown is large enough to offer big-city amenities, while everything is still within walking distance. We enjoyed an alfresco lunch at Elijah’s on Wilmington’s waterfront Riverwalk, sampling beers from some of the city’s craft breweries—my favorite was a Belgian from the wonderfully named Flytrap Brewing (named for the Venus flytrap, the quirky plant that is indigenous to the region). Watching marine traffic peacefully glide by, it was the perfect setting to take in the skyline and plan some touring.
My husband is a military history buff so the minute he saw the silhouette of the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA berthed across the river, it was obvious what was on his itinerary. I’m more interested in old homes and gardens, and Wilmington has several to explore, so we decided to branch off and explore on our own for the afternoon.
Stepping back in time
I could have spent days simply strolling through Wilmington’s historic residential district. Block after block of brick-paved streets are lined with houses from the Colonial, 1800s eras. Peeking through the sun-dappled live oaks dripping with Spanish moss at genteel porches and tidy city gardens, I felt as though I was glimpsing a quiet afternoon from centuries gone by.
Fortunately, several significant historic homes are open to the public, each depicting a different era of Wilmington’s prosperity. The circa-1770 Burgwin-Wright House provides a window to the refined side of life in Colonial Wilmington (even if it was built on the foundation of the former jail!). Latimer House is an over-the-top Victorian contrivance—with its very own ghost—built by a wealthy shipping merchant, and the Bellamy Mansion could have been purloined from the pages of Gone with the Wind.
Meanwhile, my husband was happily dashing along gangways, exploring every nook and cranny of the historic Battleship NORTH CAROLINA. The most-decorated battleship of World War II, the National Historic Landmark is easily accessible via a short ferry ride that departs throughout the day from the Riverwalk.
An evening of culture
We met up again following an afternoon pursuing individual interests, and discovered that evenings provide an array of cultural activities from which to choose. Our visit coincided with a film festival at Thalian Hall, which we just couldn’t miss. The city’s showpiece theater, which hosts cinematic and live performances, was completed in 1858 and is one of the oldest in the U.S. The opulent chandeliers and architectural ornamentation on this lavish auditorium reminded us of a European opera house.
The atmosphere of Thalian Hall put us in the mood for an après theater supper, so we indulged our palates at Caprice Bistro just a few blocks away. Dabbing our baguettes in the garlicky sauce from our moules frites as Edith Piaf fluttered her little sparrow voice through the restaurant made us feel like we’d traveled to France. To experience true local Southern flavors we dined another evening at Rx Restaurant. The shrimp and grits were “down-home” in title only. Plump Carolina shrimp served over creamy polenta with house-made bacon was just the right combination of nostalgia and fine dining.
Laid-back beach time
After this city sophistication we craved a little casual beach time, which is easy to indulge in greater Wilmington since the ocean—and three different beaches—is only a few miles away. In 20 minutes we were crossing the bridge to Pleasure Island, the small spit of land where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The laid-back beach communities of Carolina Beach, with its nostalgic Boardwalk (and world-famous Britt’s Donuts!)—and Kure Beach, the perfect place for shelling and long beach walks—make up most of the island, while Fort Fisher anchors the southern tip. During an afternoon at Wrightsville Beach, we enjoyed the retro vibe, watching surfers catch the waves—it was here that the sport first came to the Atlantic.
My husband was delighted to amble along the earthen ramparts of Fort Fisher, which occupied a strategic waterfront location during the Civil War. The fall of the Confederate fort to the Union Army in 1865 was one of the pivotal battles of the war. The adjacent visitor center provides an excellent historical context of the events, including the contribution of the renowned 27th U.S. Colored Troops. I’m more of a “nature gal,” so my Fort Fisher time was spent at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, where I learned about all the magnificent sea creatures swimming beneath the surface of the aquamarine Atlantic just out front.
After searching for shells on the sugary sand beach neighboring the fort, we strolled out to the end of the Kure Beach fishing pier, which extends over 700 feet into the Atlantic. Facing back toward sunset on the shore, a pod of dolphins provided our evening entertainment. We reflected on our visit to Wilmington: instead of a long road trip, we had discovered big-city sophistication, centuries of history and relaxing beaches all in one tidy destination. Dolphins are considered the most intelligent of sea creatures; as we watched them frolicking in the waves, we realized they must have known Wilmington’s secrets all along.
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