Wilmington and Beaches
When it comes to convincing families to travel for the holidays, it can be difficult to find somewhere that meets a variety of preferences, expectations and needs.
Wilmington, N.C. combines a 230-block historic district, a lively arts scene, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Battleship North Carolina, nearly 50 downtown restaurants, an award-winning riverfront plus miles of nearby unspoiled Atlantic beaches to create a something-for-everybody destination suitable for families of every description.
Background: Although original exploration of the area dates to the early 16th century, the town wasn’t incorporated until 1740, when it was named in honor of Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington. For the next century, Wilmington’s economic growth was fueled largely by port business. Still a thriving hub of marine resources (academic, governmental and industrial), North Carolina’s eighth-largest town (population 120,000, including beach communities) is also home to global corporations like GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Corning, Verizon Wireless and PPD, Inc.
Why go now: Holidays sparkle throughout Wilmington’s historic district and on surrounding beaches at more than 50 special events. Two of the most popular celebrations are colorful nighttime flotillas, which illuminate area waterways to the delight of locals and tourists alike. On Nov. 30, see the Annual North Carolina Holiday Flotilla at Wrightsville Beach. The following weekend – on Dec. 7 – see the Island of Lights Holiday Flotilla at Carolina Beach. Each dazzling boat parade features brightly lit sailing vessels, ranging from tiny rowboats to luxury yachts.
Spend your day: Start your morning across the river from downtown Wilmington at Battleship NORTH CAROLINA to appreciate the sacrifices made by her crew in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. (www.battleshipnc.com)
Afterwards, take a stroll along the nearly two-mile Riverwalk, recently named America’s Best Riverfront in the 10 Best Readers’ Choice travel award contest sponsored by USA TODAY. From here, you’re within easy walking distance of additional attractions, more than 50 downtown restaurants and 200 shops, including The Cotton Exchange, a historic complex comprising eight buildings dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (www.shopcottonexchange.com)
For the best overview of Wilmington, choose from a variety of guided tours—available on a Segway, aboard a trolley, horse-drawn carriage, catamaran or riverboat — to discover the best of Wilmington — including historic homes, filming sites, ghost haunts, craft breweries and foodie favorites. Feeling independent? Download the free Wilmington History Tours app to explore at your own pace. (www.wilmingtonhistorytours.com)
Must do: For its size, Cameron Art Museum is a shining example of how to do museums right: an engaging staff, vibrant programming, intriguing temporary exhibits, a substantial permanent collection, a thoughtfully curated museum store and a foodie-heaven café. (www.cameronartmuseum.com)
Interestingly, Wilmington has several nicknames (Filmington, Hollywood East, among others) because since 1983, more than 400 projects having been filmed in Wilmington’s historic river district and island beaches. Go behind the scenes for a weekend tour at EUE/Screen Gems Studios, the largest independent film studio east of Los Angeles to see where the action happens. The studio’s most recent credits include Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 3,” “We’re the Millers” and “The Conjuring.” (http://studios.euescreengems.com/nc/tours/ )
Don’t bother planning to snow ski in Wilmington, where the humid, subtropical climate at 26 feet above sea level produces fabulous landscaping, but an average annual snowfall of only two inches. Golf is a good option; choose from dozens of courses in the area.
Where to eat: Manna puts big city swank in downtown Wilmington. Creative bartenders like Ian Murray serve their patrons in the finest historic traditions. And the menu of New American cuisine is a feast for the eyes, a banquet for the palate and an altar for the soul. (http://mannaavenue.com $$$)
My two favorites for Asian food are Saigon Bistro for lunch — intimate downtown dining, French-inspired Vietnamese cuisine — (http://saigonbistrofs.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/saigon-bistro $$), and Indochine for dinner — wildly popular Thai-Vietnamese dishes served in artsy environment (http://www.indochinewilmington.com $$$).
For seafood, try Catch, owned by James Beard Foundation award-winning chef Keith Rhodes. His passion for surf-to-table offerings shows up in dishes like cast-iron blackened N.C. catch cradled in hoop cheddar-stone ground grits, served with spicy collards and a splash of Texas Pete aioli. (http://catchwilmington.com $$$)
Where to stay: To get a genuine taste of Wilmington’s authentic-but-not-syrupy hospitality, cozy up to locals who run some of the best bed and breakfast accommodations in the Southeast.
At the 1854 Verandas, innkeeper Charles Pennington will immerse you in history and luxury. And if you’re agile enough to climb his spiral staircase to the cupola, your reward is a stunning view of the riverfront two blocks away. Sunset heaven! (www.verandas.com $$$)
Another option is the 1893 C. W. Worth House, the longest continuously operating B&B in Wilmington, known to tour operators as “the wedding cake house,” where innkeepers Margi and Doug Erickson marry their casual style with formal Queen Anne architecture. (www.worthhouse.com $$)
Getting around: Wave Transit provides a variety of public transportation options for the Cape Fear region: fixed bus routes, shuttles, and a free downtown trolley. (www.wavetransit.com)
The downtown historic district is fully walkable, but to reach outlying areas, including the beaches, you’ll need a car. Economic downtown parking is readily available in lots and garages.
So you know: On-street parking is considered prime real estate in downtown Wilmington. City officials are serious about how long you park, which direction you park and where you park. Fines range from $20 (expired meter or facing opposing traffic) to $250 (parking in handicapped zone).
For more information: Wilmington and Beaches Convention Visitors Bureau. Toll free 866-266-9690. (www.wilmingtonandbeaches.com)