Wilmington, N.C., ranks up there with the best

Johnny Mercer's Pier, the only concrete fishing pier in North Carolina, extends 1,200 feet into the ocean at Wrightsville Beach.
Johnny Mercer's Pier, the only concrete fishing pier in North Carolina, extends 1,200 feet into the ocean at Wrightsville Beach.

My sister and I have an ongoing argument as to which gracious southern city — Savannah or Charleston — is the more charming. She gives an edge — a very slight edge — to Savannah, and I give the edge — also, very slight — to Charleston.

However, after a recent visit to Wilmington, N.C., I'm beginning to wonder if maybe there's a third city that should be in the running for "most charming" honors. I'd been to Wilmington years ago on a brief visit, and my memories of ancient oaks draped with Spanish moss, white columns, cobbled streets, splashing water in ornate fountains and mounds of azaleas had faded over the years.

Fortunately, this trip filled in my shadowy memories. Despite unseasonably cool weather for the end of April, the azaleas (Wilmington is North Carolina's azalea capital) were a riot of color — blush pink, deep crimson and purple, and the oaks in their moss beards resembled wizened wizards.

The white columns, cobbled streets and splashing fountains were on ample display in the 230-block National Register Historic District, one of the largest in the United States. Everything about Wilmington whispers genteel elegance, and whispers it in the softest of southern drawls.

Situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, Wilmington has been a magnet for a varied cast of characters — soldiers and soldiers of fortune; cavaliers and charlatans; planters and pirates — Blackbeard and his Queen Anne's Revenge may have terrorized the Outer Banks, but equally notorious Stede Bonnet found the quiet inlets of the Cape Fear River much to his liking.

Begin your exploration of the city with a 30-minute carriage ride through the heart of the historic district. The elegant mansions, shaded by palms, banana plants and Carolina jasmine, are a rainbow of colors (the only requirement being that the color selected come from one available during the Civil War years.)

Take a walk through Wilmington's history at the Cape Fear Museum, North Carolina's oldest. Start with the indigenous people who lived here 10,000 years ago and move on to the first settlers who came to the Lower Cape Fear in 1722, and made their fortunes extracting tar from the longleaf pine forests. The museum also traces Wilmington's prominent role in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

Lovers of beautiful mansions have their pick from antebellum (Bellamy Mansion) and Victorian (Latimer House.) The former, built by a prominent physician/planter on the eve of the Civil War, is a mix of Greek Revival and Italianate styles, and remains one of the state's premier architectural and historical treasures.

The latter, with its gas-lit ambiance and aura of upper-class gentility, is typical of Wilmington during the post-Civil War era.

For sheer beauty, however, nothing surpasses Airlie Gardens. Located on land deeded by King George III and named for Castle Airlie in Scotland, they encompass 67 acres of Gilded Age gardens and ornamental lakes.

Designed by Rudolph Topol, who achieved notoriety as one of Adolph Hitler's landscape architects, the gardens are a blaze of color nearly year-round, but are especially vibrant in spring when 100,000 azaleas and 5,000 camellias are in bloom.

Wilmington's sunsets are justifiably lauded and the best place to catch one is on a stroll along the Cape Fear boardwalk, extending for several miles from Chandler's Wharf, home of seafood restaurants, to the Cotton Exchange, now a cornucopia of specialty shops.

Hit the Beaches

Within a half-hour drive of downtown Wilmington are three beach communities — Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach — each with its own personality.

Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, Wrightsville Beach is the most upscale — a fashionable resort as far back as 1853 when the construction of the Carolina Yacht Club lured high society pleasure-seekers from Wilmington.

In 1905 the Lumina Pavilion opened, and for nearly three-quarters of a century, until closing in 1973, was the center of island entertainment. Today, Wrightsville's pristine beaches are lined with summer homes, both magnificent and modest, including remodeled cottages dating to the 19th century.

Add high end shops, restaurants, accommodations and a colorful marina, and you have the ultimate beach resort.

If Wrightsville is a good choice for those who take a little nightlife with their beach days, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, located respectively at the northern and southern ends of Pleasure Island, are its family-friendly alternatives.

These are the beach towns of our youthful fantasies; The places for collecting seashells to be lovingly polished during the gray days of winter, places to take a walk on a moonlit beach or — armed with flashlight — search for ghost crabs on the sand.

These are the beach towns where the corn dogs taste better, the salt spray feels better, and everyone wishes the smell of the ocean could be bottled to dab behind our ears when we are land-locked.

Two attractions are not to be missed:

■ The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a wonderful journey through the waters of Cape Fear, from freshwater streams and swamps to coastal habitats and open sea. Be sure to look for Luna, the albino alligator who is one of the aquarium's star attractions.

■ Fort Fisher itself is a must. The first National Historic Landmark in North Carolina and the state's most important Civil War site occupies a spit of land between the Atlantic and Cape Fear. The fort was so well defended that it was the last port of the Confederacy left open to trade after the others had been blockaded.

In January, 1865, the largest naval bombardment of the 19th century occurred here and led, in domino effect, to the surrender of the fort, the occupation of Wilmington and the collapse of the Confederacy.

So crushing was the loss of Fort Fisher that less than 90 days after the battle, Robert E. Lee surrendered and the war ended. Today, visitors can follow a trail, shaded by live oaks, which wends its way past huge earthworks to Shepherd's Battery, where a reconstructed 32-pound sea gun is trained on the river approach.

A glimpse into history combined with the halcyon days of an endless summer make Wilmington and its beach communities the perfect travel destination.


Wilmington and the Beaches:

Where to stay:

■ The Graystone Inn, 100 S. Third St., Wilmington. Elegant Victorian mansion turned AAA 4-Diamond inn, the Graystone is an ideal location for exploring both the riverfront and historic downtown.

■ Blockade Runner Beach Resort, 275 Waynick Blvd., Wrightsville Beach. Stylish property facing the Intracoastal Waterway and backed by the Atlantic Ocean. Chic accommodations and public areas and landscaped pool gardens.

■ Courtyard by Marriott, 100 Charlotte Ave., Carolina Beach. Beachfront location and friendly service backed by the reliable Marriott brand make this a good choice.

Where to eat:

■ Circa 1922, 8 N. Front Street, Wilmington. Popular spot known for Sunday brunch, and with dishes like Low Country Benedict (fried green tomatoes, crab and pimento Hollandaise), it's easy to see why.

■ The Pilot House, 2 Ann Street, Wilmington. The place to go for seafood, from catfish to crab. Located at Chandler's Wharf, it has a large deck for catching sunsets over Cape Fear River.

■ Oceanic Restaurant, 703 S. Lumina Ave., Wrightsville Beach. Views of the Atlantic complement a menu heavy on seafood dishes such as sunburned shrimp and Carolina crab cakes.

■ Kate's Pancake House, 102 S. Lake Blvd., Carolina Beach. It's all about pancakes here — from Sweet Potato to Death By Chocolate.

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