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Enjoy a Vibrant Downtown, Riverwalk and World-Class Beaches

Charming Wilmington, North Carolina

By Marguerite Cleveland

Photo by Marguerite Cleveland

Wilmington, North Carolina, is less known as a destination than its more famous Southern neighbors Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, and that is its charm. You won’t find the hordes of tourists; only those in the know about this vibrant city on the banks of the Cape Fear River. Just a short drive from downtown Wilmington you will find some great beaches each with its own unique vibe.

Where to Stay

Downtown has a variety of places to stay, but you can’t beat the Front Street Inn for its location. It is just a short walk to the shops, restaurants and lively nightlife that abounds downtown. This cute Inn has onsite parking—a plus when downtown. There are a variety of rooms, and some are on the smaller size, but there are public spaces you can utilize. This is an historic hotel, so you won’t have all the amenities of a large chain hotel, but its charm and location more than make up for it. Breakfast is included in the morning.

Another option is the Hampton Inn Wilmington-University Area/Smith Creek Station, which has a great location that is close to both downtown and the beaches. Rates include breakfast.

Where to Eat

Wilmington has an eclectic dining scene, with a bounty of local seafood and area farms providing fresh produce to the city’s restaurants. There is also the Gullah Geechee influence from the Africans who were enslaved in the area. If you are new to Southern dining, make sure to try Pimento Cheese. This yummy spread is now featured on many menus as a starter and is served with crisp lavash crackers. The local oysters are so good they even have their own trail. Shrimp and Grits are a staple of low-country cuisine, and just about every restaurant you go to has its own recipe.

PinPoint Restaurant is located downtown and is the epitome of farm to table with the freshest bounty from local farmers, fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers. Their names are on the menu. Speaking of menus, it changes every day to reflect what fresh ingredients are available. You will find a catch of the day, chicken, beef and pork dishes, as well as a vegetarian entrée. Each one is prepared utilizing the fresh produce and herbs. On the menu during my visit was hogfish, which must be spear caught. It eats crustaceans, so the meat has a sweet richness to it. Local Carrots was the name of a shareable plate layered with purple carrot hummus, topped with a variety of carrots, herbs and seasoning. It is a unique dish and highlights the types of food the chef makes.

The Pilot House is one of the oldest restaurants in the downtown area and has a huge local following. Located overlooking the Cape Fear River, it is a lovely venue to dine at. The menu is heavy on fresh seafood and traditional Southern dishes, but the chef’s not afraid to be creative. For example, the Shrimp and Grits include collard greens, and to keep it from becoming a soupy mess, a fried grits cake is the base of this dish. It soaks up the jus from the greens, and with the shrimp and other ingredients is such a unique take on this traditional Southern recipe.

Out on the boardwalk at Carolina Beach, make sure to stop at Britt’s Donuts. It has been a beach staple since 1939. The donuts are simple yeast donuts with a glaze that is not too sweet. They sell so many that your order is hot from the fryer. So yummy! Also in this area is the Fat Pelican, one of the diviest dive bars in the United States. This place is wild at night, but if you stop in when they first open, you will have the place to yourself. It is known for its huge walk-in cooler. You go in and choose your beverage from canned beers and other alcoholic beverages, and the bartender will ring you up.

What to Do

Wilmington, with its surrounding beaches, provides a plethora of things to do. Explore the downtown area and visit the many local shops, restaurants and museums. The newly revitalized Riverwalk is a lovely place to stroll with cute little pocket gardens and views of the Cape Fear River. A one-hour river cruise on the Henrietta is a great way to learn a bit about the history of the area and some fun, local anecdotes. A must stop is Cape Fear Rum Cakes on Front Street. This family owned business is kicking out some seriously good cakes. The rum keeps them moist and helps preserve the cakes in a vacuum seal for six months. There are three sizes available, and the 5-ounce size is enough for one to two people and makes a perfect gift. Nothing on the shelves is older than a day or two because they are selling as fast as they make them.

Plan to spend a full day out at the Fort Fisher area. In the morning, do a beach hike along the Basin Trail with views of the ocean before it gets too hot. Then tour the North Carolina Aquariums with its state-of-the-art exhibits. The otters are always popular, as well as the sharks in the big tank. Don’t miss the outside trails with some beautiful artwork. For lunch, either pack a picnic or dine at the café at the aquarium. After lunch, explore the Fort Fisher Museum and learn about this Civil War site. Then walk around the outside exhibits to see the remnants of the fort.

A beach day is a must while visiting this area. Kure Beach is a quieter beach popular with retirees and families. Wrightsville Beach is bustling and more of a challenge to find parking. At Carolina Beach, you will find the boardwalk with lots of shops and amusement park rides. There is really something for everyone. Each beach also has fishing piers where you can rent fishing equipment.

Insider Tip: Make sure to read the parking signs. The side street parking by shops and restaurants is usually two hours and turns over more frequently. The lots have all-day parking options. All parking is fee based. You can download an app to make the process easier. Some parking meters have swipers for credit cards.

Airlie Gardens is a beautifully landscaped coastal south garden with 67 acres of formal gardens and walking paths. The crown jewel of the gardens is the Airlie Oak, which is a Southern Live Oak tree almost 500 years old. It sits amidst an expansive lawn surrounded by azalea bushes. Pick up a self-guided walking tour brochure at the entrance. Explore more than a dozen gardens including the Pergola, Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel, a seasonal butterfly house and much more.

With its revitalized downtown, Riverwalk, and charming walkable historic district, as well as the spectacular beaches, Wilmington is the perfect vacation destination.

The Specifics

Where to Stay

Front Street Inn -

Where to Eat

PinPoint Restaurant -

The Pilot House -

What to Do

Airlie Gardens -

Wilmington Downtown and Riverwalk -

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher -

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