Road Trip! Destination: Wilmington, N.C.
Wilmington, N.C., is blessed with a pretty amazing combination of advantages for a small American city.
It’s a beach town with a remarkable history, including Civil War battlefields and beautifully restored 19th-century architecture. It has a beautiful riverfront promenade on the Cape Fear River and a memorable skyline dominated by a gargantuan World War II battleship at anchor. It has a thriving economy, with a major college and one of the nation’s largest movie studios, which takes full advantage of the region’s many photogenic locations.
So, why isn’t Wilmington, N.C., better known?
Well, there’s that other Wilmington, the capital of Delaware, which is a big deal if you’re into, uh, the credit-card industry and Vice President Joe Biden. Then, there are the other, bigger coastal cities nearby, Charleston and Savannah, which have pretty much cornered the market on historic Southern charm (and food). For the total opposite of that — beach-sprawl Americana — Myrtle Beach is less than two hours away and exerts a black-hole-like pull on tourist dollars.
Those places cast a long shadow, but Wilmington is there, too — sparkling like freshly washed-ashore sea glass beneath.
Here are some things to check out on a first visit:
Although the city has a rough and frequently ugly history — particularly in terms of race relations and basic sanitation — Wilmington has cleaned up well. Many of the genteel antebellum-era mansions of ship captains and merchants surrounding Downtown have been lovingly restored.
For a taste of life in the old port, the Latimer House Museum (910-762-0492 or hslcf.org) has been restored to its original Victorian elegance, and the Burgwin-Wright Museum (910-762-0570 or burgwinwrighthouse.com) is a time capsule of Georgian 18th- and 19th-century furnishings.
The white-columned Bellamy Mansion Museum (910-251-3700 or bellamymansion.org) and the restored slave quarters next door illustrate the central dichotomy of pre-Civil War life.
Guided horse-drawn trolley rides are a good way to see the historic city core, though it’s small enough to cover on foot, as well.
The old commercial buildings of Front Street and its adjoining thoroughfares now teem with restaurants, coffee shops and upscale nightlife. The historic Cotton Exchange complex (910-343-9896 or shopcottonexchange.com) is full of locally owned boutiques like the Downtown Toy Co. and Fire & Spice Gourmet (spices).
The Front Street Brewery (910-251-1935 or frontstreetbrewery.com) is a good place to stop for a meal and a local beer, but there’s no shortage of other choices (seafood, in particular).
Wilmington Railroad Museum
For a city so closely associated with its port, Wilmington also was crucial hub for railroads — the subject of perhaps the city’s best museum. Inside an Atlantic Coast Line freight warehouse, built in 1883, is a massive collection of railroading artifacts, as well as a model-train layout that re-creates the rail history of the region. Out front are several giant locomotives, boxcars and a caboose that visitors can climb aboard.
Details: 910-763-2634 or wrrm.org
Battleship North Carolina
One of the mightiest warships ever built, the World War II-era U.S.S. North Carolina gives Wilmington an instantly distinctive profile, that its otherwise flat topography and low-rise architecture wouldn’t normally merit.
Commissioned in 1941, the North Carolina and its crew of 2,339 bombarded Japanese-held beaches, sank a troopship, shot down at least 24 aircraft, defended the Navy’s all-important aircraft carriers, and survived a torpedo strike. Plans to scrap the ship in 1958 were thwarted by a statewide campaign. Visitors can tour the vessel, which looks like it’s in good enough shape to set sail tomorrow, if provoked.
Details: 910-251-5797 or battleshipnc.com
Film & TV
More than 400 film and television productions have taken place in the Wilmington area since 1983, including “One Tree Hill,” “Eastbound & Down,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “Iron Man 3.” Screen Gems has had a massive soundstage complex in Wilmington for decades, and shows like “Dawson’s Creek” took advantage of the local setting (Wrightsville Beach, University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and Southport, in particular).
EUE Screen Gems Studios will start hosting tours again in the spring, allowing visitors to walk onto the sets of some of the best-loved shows shot there.
Details: 910-343-3500 or studios.euescreengems.com/nc/tours/
Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach are the most popular — but you’re on the coast, so beaches are sort of everywhere. If you’re used to the kind of beaches we’ve got nearby (Lake Erie), the smooth sand and warm water is shocking, in a pleasant sort of way.
Outside the old parts of Wilmington, southern coastal North Carolina is overwhelmed by the same sort of relentless sprawl and over-development as nearby Myrtle Beach.
Yet, the tiny beach town of Southport somehow escaped this fate, with a small-but-thriving main business district just a short walk from the water. It’s also one of the few places outside Wilmington where you can get a good nonfast-food (or deep-fried fish) meal, before or after catching the ferry to Fort Fisher.
The town has played the setting for dozens of films and TV shows, from “Under the Dome” to “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Nights in Rodanthe.”
The last remaining supply line to the Confederate cause in the Civil War was guarded by Fort Fisher, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. When the mighty redoubt finally fell to the Union via amphibious assault Jan. 15, 1865, the war was all but finished.
Expert guides walk you through the significance of this sandy spit of land, the blockade-runners who used its guns for cover and the blood spilled to secure it.
The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is also fairly involving. Don’t miss the albino alligator.
Details: 910-458-5538 or nchistoricsites.org/fisher/fisher.htm
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7901.