Hidden Sanctuaries & Gems
Stray Off the Beaten Path
From the river to the sea, Wilmington is known for its hidden gems and sanctuaries. Visitors can stray off course and explore areas of this coastal town that might be unexpected, from quiet gardens to historic sites, whether they are first-time or repeat visitors. Find your special oasis in Wilmington at one of these local spots.
Airlie Gardens is home to more than 67 acres of formal gardens and walking trails, 10 acres of lakes, the majestic Airlie Oak (which sprouted in 1545), and hundreds of species of local flora and fauna. Open year-round, Airlie Gardens features a number of hidden oases and structures like the Minnie Evans Glass Bottle House. The whimsical “chapel” is made up of hundreds of colored glass bottles, butterflies and Buddhas with a tree sculpture in the middle. From May through October, visit the Butterfly House in the Tranquility Garden. Species like Monarch, Giant Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary and hundreds of other types of butterflies – all native to North Carolina – can be found flying around inside this open-air structure.
Tucked away along the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail, the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden features a concrete walking trail, wooden observation decks and a collection of native carnivorous plants such as Pitcher Plants and Venus flytraps, which only grow naturally within a 75- to 100-mile radius of Wilmington. Within the ADA-accessible passive park, the garden is open each day and is protected by a conservation easement held by the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust.
Thousands of visitors flock to the New Hanover County Arboretum to enjoy seven acres of community gardens that are replete with lush landscapes, flowering plants and bushes and one of the largest water gardens in the state. Stroll along paved pathways to discover unique vignettes including a water garden with hundreds of colorful Koi, catfish and lilies, a Japanese garden with an authentic tea house and numerous Japanese maples. Little ones will enjoy a children’s garden and cozy cottage. The Contemplation Garden honors the five branches of the military. The Ability Garden is specially designed to provide opportunities for people of all levels of ability to enjoy gardening. The arboretum is free to visit and open from 7 a.m. to dusk 365 days a year.
Take a step into the past with a tour of the Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens. A superb example of Georgian architecture, the circa-1770 residence is graced with seven separate Colonial-style garden areas, including an orchard with figs and pomegranates, a crabapple espalier and a parterre with trimmed boxwood. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy self-guided tours of all the gardens, which are open year-round to the public.
One of the most beautiful theaters in America, Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts is home to the oldest painted stage curtain in the country. Now hanging in the ground-floor lobby of Thalian Hall’s main stage, the original drop curtain was painted by Russell Smith and hung onstage when the historic theater opened in 1858. The facility, which has been in continuous operation for more than 160 years, hosts more than 500 performance events annually and conducts weekly behind-the-scenes tours featuring the stories and history of Thalian Hall.
Visit North Carolina’s oldest rural cemetery, Oakdale Cemetery, located nearby historic downtown. The eloquent epitaphs and symbolic funerary art tell stories of those who lie beneath and bring them to life for the living. The cemetery is resplendent with blooming plants all year, but especially so in the spring. Self-guided tours will take visitors to a number of historical sites including a Confederate Mound where more than 367 unknown Confederate Soldiers who were killed during the Civil War are buried and the graves of North Carolina’s first governor Honorable Edward B. Dudley, and Confederate secret agent Mrs. Rose O’Neal Greenhow. You’ll also find the grave of a pioneer of broadcast journalism David Brinkley, best known as co-host for NBC’s nightly Huntley-Brinkley Report.
The Battle of Forks Road in February of 1865 marked a pivotal moment in Wilmington's history. Fighting on the current grounds of Cameron Art Museum, the United States Colored Troops (USCT) successfully defeated the Confederate Army, leading to Union control of Wilmington. To commemorate the USCT troops who fought in this battle and in the Civil War, Cameron Art Museum worked with North Carolina artist Stephen Hayes to create Boundless, the centerpiece of the museum's USCT Park, the nation's first park honoring the USCT and their fight for freedom. The life-size bronze sculpture features 11 USCT soldiers, and Hayes cast USCT descendants, reenactors, veterans and local community leaders to create the likenesses and bring the bravery of the USCT troops to life.
Wilmington’s nearby island beaches are also abundant with hidden gems. From serene oceanfront parks to barrier islands and reserves, visitors can explore hidden sanctuaries at Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach.
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