Wrightsville Beach & Vicinity
Carolina Beach and Kure Beach
Bald Head Island
South Brunswick Islands
Topsail Island & Vicinity
History and geography have shaped the types of attractions that flourish on the southern coast. The area's rich historical legacy manifests itself in museums, monuments, churches and living structures that speak eloquently of our past. And the proximity to the sea of a culturally vibrant city and its satellite settlements lends a distinct resort quality to the entire region.
Downtown Wilmington's historic attractions might even be called organic because they are so integral to the identity of Cape Fear. Sites such as Brunswick Town, Fort Fisher and Topsail Island's Assembly Building convey specific eras and events as no textbook or commemoration can.
The historic district of downtown Wilmington practically groans under the weight of its history, and it is the most varied single attraction in the area, easily explored on foot, by boat or by horse-drawn carriage.
By 1850 Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina. As a port city, it was on a par with other great southern ports such as Galveston and New Orleans. But when the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad company pulled out of Wilmington in the 1960s, the city went into such a rapid decline that even its skyline was flattened by the demolition of several buildings and railroad facilities on the north side of town. Downtown was all but deserted until a core of local entrepreneurs revitalized and restored their hometown. In 1974, downtown Wilmington became the state's largest urban district listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Many of the images of Wilmington's bustling past are preserved in the North Carolina Room at the public library's main branch at 201 Chestnut Street in downtown Wilmington. Likewise, the Cape Fear Museum and the Wilmington Railroad Museum interpret the region's history in far-reaching exhibits. Together, these places (all listed below) are excellent resources for interpreting what you see today or exploring the history further.
The region is so rich in history, it would be impossible to list every historical attraction in a book this size. So as you travel to such places as Southport's Old Smithville Burial Ground, stay alert for other sites with similar stories to tell, such as Southport's old Morse Cemetery on W. West Street and the John N. Smith Cemetery on Leonard Street off Herring Drive.
Memorials are so abundant you may miss the one at Bonnet's Creek (Moore Street north of downtown Southport), at the mouth of which "Gentleman Pirate" Stede Bonnet used to hide his corsair. (This and many other sites are on the Southport Trail, listed below.) Other memorials also bear silent testimony to the past, such as the shipwrecks that are awash at low tide and may be spied from the beaches (for example, the blockade runner Vesta, run aground February 4, 1864, south of Tubbs Inlet in about 10 feet of water; and the blockade runner Bendigo, run aground January 11, 1864, a mile southwest of Lockwood Folly Inlet in about 15 feet of water).
Many attractions are typical of the seashore: excellent fishing, fine seafood dining, the many cruise opportunities. No beach resort would be complete without water slides, go-cart tracks or batting cages, so take note of these places listed in our Kidstuff chapter -- they are definitely not for kids only. These amusements, as well as miniature golf, movies and bowling, are concentrated along our most heavily traveled routes.
In Wilmington, Oleander Drive east of 41st Street is the predominant amusement strip, having several more attractions than listed here. North of Ocean Isle Beach, Beach Drive (N.C. Highway 179/904) is another strip, with its share of go-carts, miniature golf and curiosities. Near the foot of Yaupon Pier on Oak Island stands an arcade and seaside miniature-golf course. Topsail Beach and Surf City share the limelight as Topsail Island's two centers of attractions. It would be redundant to list every enterprise; you're bound to stumble across them as you gravitate toward each community's entertainment center.
Not all local attractions are summertime flings. The world's largest living Christmas tree is decorated and lit nightly during the Christmas season in Wilmington. Not your average Christmas tree, it is a 400-year-old live oak in Hilton Park, a few minutes north of downtown on N.C. Highway 133/U.S. Highway 117. Another great holiday display is Calder Court, a cul-de-sac in the King's Grant subdivision. To get there, drive north on N.C. Highway 132 (College Road) about 1.25 miles beyond the Market Street overpass. Turn right onto Kings Drive and take the next two lefts, then douse the headlights to witness one of the most flamboyant demonstrations of Christmas illumination anywhere. Cars often line up all the way down the street, not one with its lights on. The show has been catching on elsewhere in the King's Grant neighborhood, with more homes being decorated each year.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the region's gardens, for which North Carolina is rightly famous. The fact that the North Carolina Azalea Festival, in which garden tours are focal, is based in Wilmington makes a strong case for the southern coast's horticultural significance. Annual and perennial plantings are well-supported public works. The gardens at Orton Plantation are simply spectacular in springtime.
What follows, then, are descriptions of the area's prime general attractions followed by a brief section on the southern coast's islands. Wilmington's attractions are grouped into three subsections: Downtown Wilmington, Around Wilmington and Outside Wilmington. Within each section, all attractions are listed alphabetically. At the end of the chapter is a section on air tours of the area.
Information to supplement this guide can be obtained at several locations: the Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 24 N. Third Street, (910) 341-4030, in the 1892 courthouse building; the visitors information booth at the foot of Market Street in Wilmington; public libraries, especially New Hanover County's main branch at Third and Chestnut streets in Wilmington; in Southport, the Southport 2000 Visitors' Center, 107 E. Nash Street, (910) 457-7927; the Greater Topsail Area Chamber of Commerce, 203 Roland Drive in Surf City, (910) 328-4722 or (800) 626-2780. Of course, all the area's chambers of commerce are helpful; our Area Overview chapter for a list.