It’s hard to read anything or go online without encountering the touting of Asheville and Charleston as the “hottest” and “coolest” emerging cities in the southeast. Being an Asheville and Western North Carolina based magazine, we are comfortable with our coronation but can’t help thinking that there is a less heralded, less crowded, but equally appealing historic beach/river community right here in North Carolina. We’re talking about Historic Wilmington on the Cape Fear River and its companion beach communities of Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach.
The City & The River
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]nglish colonists began settling the area in the 1720s. The first community founded in 1732 went through various names before becoming Wilmington in honor of Spencer Compton, the Earl of Wilmington, in 1739. Early industries like lumber, ship building, and railroads have gradually been replaced by manufacturing, film making, and tourism. In recent years Wilmington has developed a vibrant restaurant and nightlife segment. Many historic homes and downtown commercial buildings have been renovated and restored. A one-mile-long Riverwalk has been constructed. In 2014 USA Today named Wilmington as “The Best American Riverfront.”
Things to Do
>Wilmington Railroad Museum
I have visited Wilmington many times over the last thirty years, mainly to sail or sit on the beach, so I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the Wilmington Railroad Museum, just north of the Hilton Hotel downtown.
For more than 125 years the railroad was Wilmington’s largest industry. In 1840 the Wilmington & Welden Railroad ran 161 miles from the coast to Welden, close to the Virginia border. It was the longest continuous railroad in the world at that time. As the Confederates’ major port in the Civil War the railroad was dubbed “The Lifeline of the Confederacy.” It was the fall of Wilmington to Union forces and the subsequent loss of access to that railroad that became a major factor in the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, Virginia.
The Wilmington & Welden Railroad merged with others near the turn of the 20th Century to become the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL). ACL was headquarted in Wilmington for over sixty years until July 1960 when they moved over 1,000 employees and their families to their new headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida; a devastating blow to the Wilmington economy.
Founded in 1979, the museum pays homage to the history of ACL and railroading in the Southeastern United States. From the street, visitors are attracted to their collection of a vintage locomotive, boxcar, and caboose, but it’s the contents of the authentic 1883 railroad freight warehouse that will thrill both the “big” and “small” kids in your family.
For the history buffs there is a room full of photos and railroad artifacts, but it is the next two rooms that will be your salvation on those vacation days when it rains at the beach. The Children’s Hall is full of trains for kids to play with and a child-size caboose for them to climb in. They can also look for “Thomas” on a large-scale train layout. The adjoining 1,500-square-foot Model Hall is an HO scale layout that recreates coastal Carolina railroad scenes in the early 1950s as we were transitioning from steam to diesel. Twelve operating trains run in historically accurate recreations of Wilmington and Wilson. Summer hours are 10am-5pm daily and Sundays from 1-5pm.
505 Nutt St, Wilmington
The Gardens feature 67 acres of walking paths, a freshwater lake, formal gardens showcasing seasonal blooms, and mighty live oaks. The summer concert series begins in May the first and third Friday of each month. Open daily from 9am – 5pm, adult tickets are $9.00.
300 Airlie Rd, Wilmington
>Battleship North Carolina
This battleship is moored across the river from downtown and is one of the most decorated ships of WW II. It is two city blocks long and 15 stories high. Two hour self guided tours are available in the summer from 8am-8pm, with adults tickets costing $14.00.
1 Battleship Road, Wilmington
John Knox River Taxi available to the battleship from the foot of Market Street.
Enjoy biking along the River to Sea Bikeway from downtown Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach or take the Gary Shell Cross City Trail.
You can bring your own bike or rent from one of these local companies.
6801 Parker Farm Road, Wilmington
96 W. Salisbury St, Wrightsville Beach
Pleasure Island Rentals:
2 N. Lake Park Blvd, Carolina Beach
A wide selection of boat tours are available. North Carolina’s Largest Riverboat, the Henrietta III, offers sightseeing with lunch, sunset, or dinner cruises.
Check the Cape Fear Riverboats website for days, times, and pricing. The same company also operates a water taxi to the battleship and the smaller Captain J.N. Maffitt for narrated tours and private charters.
101 S. Water St, Wilmington
Wilmington Water Tours also offers Cape Fear River, sunset, and charter cruises.
212 S. Water St, Wilmington
>Cape Fear Serpentarium
The serpentarium is not for the faint of heart. A saltwater crocodile, anaconda, python, Komodo dragon, king cobra, and a large collection of other venomous snakes can be viewed daily from 11am – 5pm. Tickets cost $8 for adults and children over two.
20 Orange St at the corner of Water St.
>Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington
Walk along a 90-minute adventure in the depths of Old Wilmington to the city’s most actively haunted homes and burial grounds.
Nightly at 6:30 & 8pm
Tour begins Riverfront at Market and Water Streets
>Historic Home Tours
Wilmington boasts a National Register Historic District that is among the largest in North Carolina, with 230 square blocks of historic homes from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Tours are available at:
The Bellamy Mansion, 1861
The Latimer House, 1852
Only a few Colonial era homes survive with the Burgwin-Wright House Museum & Gardens open to the public.
Burgwin-Wright House Museum & Gardens
Purchase tickets individually or buy a week-long passport giving access to all three historic homes for $24.
>Hollywood Location Walk
With 500+ film credits Wilmington is known as Hollywood East. This walk is a 90-minute tour of current and past movie and TV locations. It is open at 2pm daily, except Mondays and Fridays, and also 10am on Saturdays. Adult tickets are $13.00.
8 Market Street
>Springbrook Farms Horse Drawn Tours
Enjoy a narrated tour of the historic riverfront and stately mansions of Old Wilmington by a costumed driver. Tours are offered Sunday through Thursday 10am-10pm, and Friday and Saturdays from 11am-10pm. Tickets for adults are $12.00
Where to Stay
>Front Street Inn
If you want to be close to the restaurant and nightlife vibe of downtown Wilmington, the Front Street Bed and Breakfast Inn is the place to lay your head. Each of the twelve rooms or suites is unique with American art and furnishings gathered piece by piece from galleries, fairs, and auctions. The antique furniture is offset by modern, comfortable bathrooms, and some suites have balconies with garden and sunset views. Afternoon tea is served with fresh baked cookies. An above-average Continental breakfast with great selection is included in the room rate.
215 S. Front Street, Wilmington
>Hilton Wilmington Riverside
If you are seeking a more traditional hotel experience, but still want to be walking distance to everything, The Hilton is a good choice. Located directly on the river, this hotel has recently been remodeled and includes a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. You’ll pay more for west facing rooms, but will be rewarded with spectacular views of the river and fabulous sunsets.
301 N. Water Street, Wilmington
Where to Shop
>The Cotton Exchange
Wilmington has an eclectic mix of specialty shops all over town, but you will find a good concentration at The Cotton Exchange across from the Riverside Hilton. Eight graciously restored buildings connected by brick walkways, open-air courtyards, and gigantic heart pine beams house 30 unique specialty shops and restaurants.
321 N. Front Street, Wilmington
>Mayfaire Town Center
Wilmington’s shopping, dining, and entertainment destination features 65 shops, 24 restaurants, a 16 screen movie theatre, two grocery stores, two hotels, condos, and apartments.
6835 Conservation Way, Wilmington
Where to Eat
>Front Street Brewery
The building dates back to 1865 and has served as a variety of retail establishments over the years. In 1995 it opened as a microbrewery and restaurant in the days when taking on the big breweries was an oddity rather than common place like it is today. The restaurant is a casual, comfortable place with an extensive menu of over 25 sandwiches and burgers, and over 35 entrees. Selected appetizers are half price from 4 to 6pm and after 10pm daily.
At any given time there are around ten locally, handcrafted beers on tap. In late 2014 Front Street Brewery named UNC Wilmington graduate Kelsie Cole head brewer. (While she has been promoted as the first female head brewer in the state, she was probably second to Julie Baggett who held a similar position at Huske Hardware House in Fayetteville in 2009.) Kelsie trained under the former head brewer, Kevin Kozak, and at The American Brewers Guild in Salisbury, Vermont. You can meet her in person during three free daily afternoon tours and tastings.
Front Street also has an extensive premium whiskey selection which they claim is the largest in the state. Open daily from 11:30am-midnight.
9 N. Front Street, Wilmington
Enjoy a Parisian-style French bistro from Thierry and Patricia Moity, the previous owners of Patou Bistro in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Cafe de Bruxelles in New York City. The Bistro features excellent French fare with superior service and an extensive wine list, as well as Martini’s, champagne, and classic cocktails. Dinner is served daily from 5pm to 2am.
10 Market Street, Wilmington
Highly rated tapas style dining and wine bar in an historic old bank building in downtown. Sushi and sashimi is also on the menu, as well as an extensive wine list and a good selection of Kraft cocktails. Open for dinner only, daily starting at 5pm.
8 N. Front Street, Wilmington
This classic American fare is found in a contemporary space with picture windows, stacked sandstone walls, and sponge painted ceilings, as well as a comfortable, separate bar area. Located south of downtown towards Carolina Beach, we went at lunchtime and it was packed with locals. Lunch and dinner are served daily 11am to 11pm, with live music on Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:30pm in the bar or on the patio.
2508 Independence Blvd, Wilmingtonz
Exotically decorated, Thai-Vietnamese Asian Restaurant that is a local favorite, and has racked up multiple local restaurant awards for over a decade. Indoor and outdoor dining with private huts, a Tiki bar, and lotus pond. Lunch is served Tuesday through Saturday, with dinner daily.
7 Wayne Drive, Wilmington
Carolina, Kure, & Wrightsville
Wilmington has always been intertwined with its beaches, even marketing itself as wilmingtonandbeaches.com. These beaches include Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach. The most interesting history lies with Wrightsville Beach, a four-mile-long beach island and an interior area called Harbor Island. Heading east towards the beach off Harbor Island, go left at the US 74/76 split and you’ll encounter an easy-to-miss historic cottage on your right just before the final bridge to the beach. Housed in the 1909 Myers Cottage is the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.
Along with period furnishings, historical objects, and photos you’ll find a model of the beach as it looked in 1910. Wrightsville Beach settlement began 1853 with the construction of the Carolina Yacht Club, the brainchild of seven Wilmington businessmen that loved sailing nearly as much as their work.
A rail line linked the beach to town in 1888, spurring development and day trippers from Wilmington. With the advent of electricity the trail became an electric trolley in 1902. The most significant structure, The Lumina Pavilion, with a large dance floor and entertainment complex, was constructed in 1905. The model features these long gone structures, as well as the 1897 Seashore Hotel, the 1905 Oceanic Hotel, and the 1905 Hanover Seaside Club.
303 W. Salisbury St, Wrightsville Beach
Further south you will find Kure and Carolina Beach with the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, including the famous Britt’s Donuts, family owned and operated since 1939.
Kure Beach is also home to the oldest ocean front pier on the Atlantic coast and the nearby North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
Things to Do
>The North Carolina Aquarium
When you are beached out or, heaven forbid, it rains, The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher offers an excellent spot to kill a few hours or entertain the kids. Much of the aquarium and its tanks are correctly devoted to plants and sea creatures found in nearby waters, but more exotic creatures like a white alligator, sea horses, brightly colored tropical fish, large spiny lobsters, jellyfish, lionfish, moray eels, poisonous snakes, and frogs are also on hand to keep everybody interested.
The aquarium is very hands-on with an area where you can touch sea stars, horseshoe crabs, rays, and even sharks. This spring the aquarium will add an interactive Lorikeet exhibit. These medium-sized, brightly colored parrots from “down under” are sure to be a hit with the kids.
The visit can be greatly enhanced by a little advance planning. The aquarium’s website lists feeding times of various tanks by day of the week. You can also see and converse with a diver in the main tank twice daily. Short, engaging, educational films are shown at various times during the day in the auditorium. There is a gift shop and an outdoor snack bar that operates daily during the season. The Aquarium is open 9am – 5pm daily, with adult tickets costing $11.95 and tickets for kids under 12 costing $8.95.
900 Loggerhead Road, Kure Beach
>Boat, Sailboat and Paddleboard Rental
Create your own tour or excursion by way of sailing, fishing, swimming, or sightseeing. Sea Mark 20’ and 21’ boats accommodating up to 10 adults are available for rental.
Entropy Boat Rentals, 7618 Mason Landing Road, Wilmington
The Whipsaw is a 42’ Custom Carolina Sportsfisher, family owned and operated by Captain Robbie Wolf. Half, three-quarter, or full day charters are available with all equipment and ice provided.
Bridge Tender Marina, Wrightsville Beach
>Kayak & Paddleboard Rentals
The Blockade Runner Hotel on Wrightsville Beach
Lessons from Tony Silvagni, who is currently ranked 9th in the world for Professional Longboard. Check out the live surf camera at www.carolinabeachsurfcam.com. Surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, beach chairs, umbrellas, canopy tents, skim, and body boards are all available for rental.
100 Hamlet Avenue, Carolina Beach
>Wheel Fun Rentals
This rental location offers bike, beach, and paddleboat rentals, including beach cruisers, surfboards, boogie boards, chairs, and umbrellas.
Two locations on Carolina Beach
Where to Stay
>The Holiday Inn Resort at Wrightsville Beach
There are just a few full-service hotels and resorts on Wrightsville Beach. The highest rated is the Holiday Inn Resort. For over fifteen years general manager, Anne Marie Hartman, has presided over the original construction, reconstruction after Hurricane Fran in 1996, and recent remodeling. As we tour the hotel it is obvious that she is on top of every detail and knows all of her staff by name. There is not a room with a bad view in the house. Ocean, beach, and sunrise views can be seen over the pool in the front, and intracoastal and sunset views are found in the rear.
The resort is family focused with Kids Club daily activities for children aged four to twelve, that will allow parents some breathing room and personal time. There are also free breakfast and dinner selections for kids dining with their parents in Oceans Restaurant. There is an indoor and outdoor pool, two hot tubs, and a wading pool. They also have a large playground, sand volleyball court, and a fitness center with a beach view.
1706 N. Lumina Ave, Wrightsville Beach
This property offers oceanfront and soundside rooms, as well as activities for kids and adults, including beach rentals and lessons. Oceanfront dining can be enjoyed at East Restaurant.
275 Waynick Blvd, Wrightsville Beach
>Shell Island Resort
All ocean suites at this privately owned condominiums are in a rental program so fixtures and decorations vary by unit. The resort also has a restaurant and oceanfront lounge. Several years ago the resort was seriously threatened by beach erosion, but a federally funded project in 2007 has restored the beach to its former glory.
2700 N. Lumina Ave, Wrightsville Beach
Where to Eat
>Oceanic Seafood Restaurant
The Oceanic is the only Wrightsville Beach restaurant located directly on the beach. The Crystal Pier is attached to the restaurant and has outdoor seating where you can dine over the ocean. There is a bar and two indoor dining floors with a third floor for private parties. Extensive seafood selections are available (grilled, broiled and fried), as well as soups, salads, steaks, and pasta. Lunch and dinner is served daily starting at 11 am. Brunch is on Sundays at 10 am. For a great deal there are oyster specials (raw, steamed, stuffed, or oyster shooters) every Monday and Wednesday from 4pm to close. When the weather permits there is also music on the pier, and the pier is available by reservation for weddings and private events.
703 S. Lumina Ave, Wrightsville Beach
Known as: “The best kept secret on the beach,” this restaurant has a blackboard menu as the selections change almost daily based on the freshest available ingredients. Cape Fear style cooking is featured with French and Creole influences. The night we dined we feasted on Oysters Rockefeller, lobster corn bisque, curried scallops, and porterhouse pork chops. Dinner is served daily from 5pm.
22 N. Lumina Ave, Wilmington
The cafe is a famous Wrightsville Beach breakfast and lunch landmark celebrating its 29th year. Nothing fancy, but beloved by tourists and locals alike. Expect to wait at peak times. The cafe is open from 6am to 2:30pm daily.
114 Causeway Drive, Wrightsville Beach
>Fishbites Seafood Restaurant and Fresh Market
Fresh seafood and a live lobster tank allows you to have your fresh catch prepared pan seared, grilled, blackened, broiled or fried. Steamer platters are available with crab legs, shrimp, clams, oysters, and mussels. This is not only a seafood restaurant, but a fresh market as well. Lunch and dinner can be enjoyed daily from 11am, with brunch on Sundays.
6132-11 Carolina Beach Rd, Wilmington
Over the years this location has evolved from a beach shop with a lunch counter to a full blown restaurant that serves locally sourced, sustainable food at reasonable prices. Open for dinner Thursday through Saturday, and lunch and brunch Friday through Sunday.
604 N. Lake Park Blvd, Carolina Beach
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