Historic buildings house restaurants, shops, pubs, and museums. A walking tour of Wilmington reveals historical landmarks such as the Burgwin-Wright House, Lord Cornwallis' temporary headquarters during the final days of the Revolutionary War; the Belamy Mansion; the Thalian Hall Theater; and street after street of Live Oak-laden Victorian homes.
Before Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro emerged as major urban hubs, Wilmington was North Carolina's largest and most productive burg. In fact, until the early 1900s Wilmington was by far and away the largest city in the state.
Today, Wilmington is one of the Carolinas best-kept secrets. With its small town feel and remote location, Wilmington offers visitors all the history and charms of Charleston and Savannah without the congestion and crowds.
Wilmington and Civil War history
Like so many coastal regions in the southeast, Wilmington's history is intrinsically tied to the Civil War and the South's Antebellum rice plantations. In 1725, a cadre of wealthy rice farmers founded Brunswick Town near the mouth of the river, but the threat of hurricanes and constant bombardment by Spanish pirates forced the planters to relocate the settlement further up the river at the site of today's Wilmington. By 1860, Wilmington had emerged as North Carolina's largest city, and the hub of the state's largest slave market. With the onset of the Civil War, Wilmington's safe harbor also made it one of the most important port cities in the South.
The entrance to the river was fortified with six forts, and the Frying Pan Shoals, a series of coastal sandbars, forced Union ships to patrol nearly 50 miles offshore. Confederate blockade runners took advantage of the Federal Navy's loosely knit barricades and slipped into the city's port by night with food, supplies, parasols, hoopskirts, silks and calicos.
As of 1864, Wilmington was the only Southern port to withstand Union attacks and remain a Confederate stronghold. Finally, in 1865, the Union army captured Fort Fisher in the largest land-sea battle ever fought in the U.S. Wilmington Mayor John Dawson surrendered the city on February 22, 1865, but Federal soldiers burned more than 60 plantations.
As the South transitioned from an agrarian society to an industrial-based economy with roots in the textile and tobacco industries, Wilmington gave way to the inland Piedmont cities and relinquished its role as the state's primary urban area.
A new day, a new role
Wilmington, to this day, remains a major international port. You are just as likely to see behemoth container ships cruising down the river as you are recreational boats, and giant loading cranes dominates the city's abbreviated skyline.
However, it is tourism that has emerged as the city's economic mainstay. Most of Wilmington's downtown was spared torching by the Union soldiers, and hundreds of structures were retained via an aggressive historic preservation program.
When visitors get their fill of history in Wilmington's charming downtown, the region's white sandy beaches are just a 20-minute drive to the east. New Hanover County is home to nearly 100 public access points along its shoreline, and the beaches are some of the largest in the Carolinas.
Just minutes south of downtown is the scenic area of Southport. Ferries sail from the Southport marina for Bald Head Island. The Bald Head Island Resort is one of the most underrated, undersold destinations in the southeast, is found on the southern end of the island.
Wilmington "Must-See Capsules"
Chandler's Wharf: A two-block, restored ship chandlers' district on Water Street replete with shops and restaurants serving lower Cape Fear cuisine. The ports facility upriver from the Wharf links Wilmington to over 200 ports worldwide.
Airlie Gardens: Sixty-seven acres of Victorian, European style gardens built in and around the coasts native vegetation. Airlie Gardens are off Airlie Road, two miles west of Wrightsville Beach.
Cotton Exchange: Located right on the riverfront, this historic building houses over 30 specialty shops and restaurants, and is a favorite among tourists and locals.
Cape Fear Museum: The best stop for a comprehensive overview of the region's history. Take in the museum's exhibits and collection of Civil War artifacts and memorabilia from the Blockade Runners Museum. Located just off Market Street.
Thalian Hall: In its hay-day, witnessed performances by Lillian Russell, Oscar Wilde, and Buffalo Bill Cody. These days you can take in some jazz, plays, and musicals.
Poplar Grove Plantation: A plantation home complete with costumed hosts that take visitors around the circa 1850 plantation's main house, tenant house, kitchen, smoke house, herb cellar and gardens. Located north of Wilmington off U.S. Highway 17.
Magnolia Greens Golf Plantation - Magnolia/Camellia Course
|Beau Rivage Golf & Resort||Wilmington||$20 - $56|
Magnolia Greens Golf Plantation - Magnolia/Azalea Course
|Cape Fear National at Brunswick Forest||Leland||N/A|
Magnolia Greens Golf Plantation - Camellia/Azalea Course
|Inland Greens Golf Course||Wilmington||$7 - $9|
|Olde Fort Golf Course||Winnabow||$22|
|Wilmington Municipal Golf Course||Wilmington||$28|
|Cape Fear Country Club||Wilmington||$60 - $150|
|Pine Valley Country Club||Wilmington||$40 - $60|
|Pines/Ocean at Country Club of Landfall||Wilmington||N/A|
|Pete Dye at Country Club of Landfall||Wilmington||N/A|
|The First Tee of Greater Wilmington at Wilmington Municipal Golf Course||Wilmington||N/A|
|The Lakes Country Club||Boiling Spring Lakes||$21 - $40|
|Marsh/Pines at Country Club of Landfall||Wilmington||N/A|
Beau Rivage Golf & Resort is the lone stay-and-play facility in Wilmington. But that's not all that sets it apart. Occupying the highest point (70 feet) in the low-lying coastal city gives Beau Rivage some unexpected elevation change and a major dose of character. Here you'll find a startling variety of holes with narrow, bending fairways, mature trees, deep bunkers, and ample water hazards and wetlands.
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Don't fear the gators, fear the driver at tight, tough Beau Rivage Golf & Resort in Wilmington, N.C.
The alligators at Beau Rivage Golf & Resort -- a tight, tough course in Wilmington -- are a secondary concern. With homes, bunkers and overhanging trees lining many of the narrow, bending fairways, use of a driver is as perilous as venturing into the wetlands in pursuit of a lost ball. Intimidating water hazards and surprising elevation changes amplify the difficulty at Beau Rivage. Make no mistake, this is a shot-maker's course that plays long.
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