The One Hundred Days of Cape Fear Summer

What to do, see, and eat this summer — so you don’t miss a moment

By Jason Frye, Virginia Holman, Mark Holmberg, William Irvine, John Wolfe and Isabel Zermani

There are roughly one hundred days of summer — give or take — but it always seems to go by so fast. From the moment sleeves go by the wayside, flip-flops are slipped on for the season, and the sun suspends high in the sky, way past dinnertime, we think this blessed season as infinite as the horizon. Summer won’t wane for months, but we are going to be ahead of the game, fulfilling all our ambitions and appetites with this list.
You see, the low country heat has a way with ambition. It’s a summertime amnesia that rolls in like an afternoon thundercloud, erasing all ideas for what to do, save go to the beach and crack open another cold one. Which is all well and good, but we decided to put our salty heads together to source ideas (for vacationers and locals alike) of how to live summer to the fullest before it vanishes like an August tan.

Off The Beaten Path

Respect the Hermit

The Hermit of Fort Fisher, Robert Harrill (1893–1972), was a figure of the community who lived in a World War II concrete bunker in the salt marsh near Fort Fisher for many years. After a failed marriage and a string of bad luck, Harrell became a hermit at age 62. He learned survival skills, like how to find oysters and food from the surrounding marshes, and made himself into the area’s second largest attraction (bested only by the USS North Carolina). He’s the seaside version of Eustace Conway, survivalist and reality star of the History Channel’s series Mountain Men. Many visitors flocked to the hermit’s shack for a pearl of wisdom from his “School of Common Sense” musings and a photo. Some visited with ill motives. It was rumored he had thousands of dollars stashed in his shack. A group of these perpetrators were convicted in a trial where Harrill was both prosecutor and star witness. Sadly, he was murdered, a crime that goes unsolved. With a troubled life, he found solace in nature, and after adopting the hermit life, found the peace he sought. You can still visit his bunker from the Fort Fisher Hermit Trail at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, Kure Beach. You can visit his grave at Federal Point Methodist Church Cemetery on Dow Road S., Kure Beach. Bring a seashell with you to leave by his graveside. For more info, watch the award-winning, moving PBS documentary The Fort Fisher Hermit, made by local filmmakers on YouTube. In September, Wilmington actors bring to life his story in a stage play at the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle St. — IZ

Slithering Thrills

You can watch Jaws or, better yet, read it if you want some thrills at the beach, or you could head downtown to the Cape Fear Serpentarium. That’s right, a building chock-full of snakes. And not just any snakes, poisonous ones. Super poisonous ones. Don’t worry, they’re all in glass enclosures, so you can look but neither you nor they can touch. They’ve got 80 species of animals here, including the King Cobra (who doesn’t want to see a King Cobra?), a spitting cobra, a monocle and spectacled cobra, two kinds of bushmasters, black and green mambas, boas and pythons, crocodiles and some really big lizards. At each exhibit you can read a little about the snake — where it lives, how big it gets, how poisonous is it (measured in skull and crossbones) — and a little about what happens when you get bitten. A firsthand account in many cases, as Serpentarium owner Dean Ripa caught many of these beauties and, in his quest to do so, was bitten. More than once. Call ahead to find out when feeding time is and you will get a closer look than you want at the deadliest creatures of the city. Cape Fear Serpentarium, 20 Orange St. Tickets: $9, (910) 762-1669,

Wrightsville Beach Mailbox

At the far north end of Wrightsville Beach — nearly as far north as you can go without getting your feet wet — in the shade of the Shell Island Resort, there sits a mailbox without an address. Open it, and you will find pens and notebooks, letters from past visitors written to the sea and the sky and the future, scrawled as if to say, “I was here, on this shore of the world.” There are always a few blank pages near the end, awaiting your contribution to the conversation. Write a letter to the world while sitting on the sand. Who knows who will read it? Who knows what is on your heart to say?

American Pickers

The Starway Flea Market is like church for collectors, pickers, treasure-hunters, deal-seekers and anyone who wants to see Cape Feartown in the raw. Every Sunday morning we go to this epic yard sale that has been running for more than 20 years at this former drive-in theater. It is a kindly collision of local Wilmington-area culture, largely tourist-free. Rich, poor, black, white all buy and sell, speaking the common language of the deal. It’s all here: live chickens, plants, tools, mattresses, furniture, clothes, fishing gear, books, musical instruments — it’s endless. Give your children $5 and turn them loose. We have found amazing — and in some cases, quite valuable — original art for a few dollars. If you need any little thing — no matter how bizarre or seemingly made of unobtainium — say your prayers and go to the Church of Starway. You might find it for $2, once you dicker a bit. The Starway Flea Market, 2346 Carolina Beach Road. Open Sunday mornings.

The Old Rugged Cross

Downtown’s River Walk is starting to garner national attention, and it’s getting improved and gussied up more and more, but one accidental monument is more “found art” than the pelican sculptures or giant Venus fly trap sculpture that mark the River Walk. The “old rugged cross” can be seen from the River Walk on the low mound of earth to the right of the new marina by the convention center on the north side. It’s a cross-shaped piece of old reinforced concrete bridging or decking that a track-hoe operator dragged out of the Cape Fear River while digging out the marina in 2012. Over the next few years of shifting a half-million cubic yards of swampy muck around, the hard-hat excavation crew always planted the cross on the highest point. They moved it dozens of times. “We were happy to have something to guide us, watch over us,” Tim Folkers told us in 2014. He’s the one who found the cross. At the time we spoke, his Marine Corps son was in Afghanistan and the cross kept Tim strong. Now, all that’s left of the mountains of sopping earth that came out of the big hole that is now a popular marina is that low mound of earth covered with weeds and wildflowers. And the old rugged cross. Give it a rub and say a prayer to keep you strong, too.

Browse a Local Bookstore

What better way to spend a hot, bright, sticky summer afternoon than browsing the cool dark shelves of an air-conditioned bookstore? Old Books on Front Street is a personal favorite, with a piano patrons can play, a plethora of comfy chairs, and miles of shelves to peruse. Let your mind wander through time and space, seeking tales of summers past. With an educated and somewhat eccentric staff, one can get into a literary discussion for hours here. Thank goodness there’s coffee and baked goods for sustenance. Literary walking tours available here, too. 249 N. Front St. (910) 762-6657 or

Gallery Goer

Art in Bloom founder and owner Amy Grant has raised the bar dramatically in the downtown art scene since opening Art in Bloom gallery in 2015. The 110-year-old Princess Street space, a former stable (they found more than 1,000 horseshoes when renovating the gallery) features a sophisticated mix of international and local artists in a variety of media. Small, but mighty. This gallery is the center of the scene. Art in Bloom, 210 Princess St. (484) 885-3037 or

North Carolina Room

History buffs welcome. When it’s deadly hot outside, nothing beats an afternoon in the cool confines of the North Carolina Room, which focuses on the heritage, history and genealogy of Wilmington and the Cape Fear region. The massive collection, most of which is accessible for browsing, was formed from public and private libraries dating back to the original Cape Fear Library of 1760. New Hanover Public Library, 201 Chestnut St. (910) 798-6301.

Eat & Drink

Britt’s Donuts

Beachgoers have been eating Britt’s Donuts by the bagful since 1939 and after one bite, you know why: They’re doughnut perfection. They’re small doughnuts, and salty-sweet, with the perfect texture. Don’t bother getting a single doughnut, go ahead and get a half dozen in a paper bag, then go eat them with your toes in the sand. 11 Boardwalk, Carolina Beach, (910) 707-0755.

Craft Beer at Flytrap Brewery

After a long afternoon of staring at native
carnivorous plants, quench your thirst with a cold glass of Rehder’s Red, a scrumptious Belgian-style brew handmade at our own Flytrap Brewery at the corner of 4th and Walnut. Mike Barlas, owner and brewmeister, studied brewing in Belgium and has brought back his beermaking expertise for us to enjoy. Sit out on the patio and enjoy the open air of the growing Brooklyn Arts District, or step inside and tap your toes to tunes provided by a rotating roster of local musicians. Flytrap Brewery, 319 Walnut St.

Brewskis with a View

Waterline Brewing has a kölsch that’s really a teleportation device in a glass. Sitting outside in their biergarten watching the Cape Fear River flow by, you’ll take a sip and find yourself in Germany, steps away from the Rhine River, Cologne Cathedral towering overhead, glass of Gaffel am Dam kölsch in hand. It’s a subtle beer, soft and malty, lightly sweet, but still crisp and refreshing with a dry finish. On a summer evening it’s ideal whether you’re in Wilmington or Cologne. 721 Surry St. (910) 777-5599,

High Southern Livin’

The secret is out: Smoke on the Water, way down on the new section of River Road, is the finest spot for outdoor riverfront cocktails in the city. And the food (from the guys behind Fork N Cork downtown) is good, too. So order some oysters and smoked-trout-and-jalapeno dip with your martini and watch the boats go by. Smoke on the Water, 3704 Watercraft Ferry Ave., Wilmington,, (910) 833-5069.

Come Hungry

Holland’s Shelter Creek Restaurant is built on the water’s edge with a view of the Holly Shelter Creek. This is a classic, no-nonsense old fish camp with a menu to match. Holland’s is famous for its country-style (think fried) seafood, including excellent catfish and catfish stew, local oysters, deviled crabs and frog’s legs for the intrepid eater. And you can make a day of it — there is a campground directly beside the restaurant with daily rentals of boats, kayaks and canoes. Holland’s Shelter Creek Restaurant, 8315 Highway 53, Burgaw, (910) 259-5743.

A Bucket and a Beer

Finding someplace to go where the kids can eat and you can enjoy an adult beverage and the prices are right and the food and beer are good is a tall order. Except at Bill’s Front Porch. The menu isn’t huge, but let’s save you some time: Order the Southern fried chicken bucket, a family-sized meal of some outstanding fried chicken along with garlic mashed potatoes, green beans and hush puppies. This is a decision you will not regret because the breading has flavor, it’s crispy, and it enhances the moist chicken beneath. Now, you could go rogue and get the individual-human size (which is still a hearty meal) single fried chicken plate, which has all of the above but tosses in some slaw as a bonus. Or you could stay away from chicken altogether and order the fish and chips (a solid choice in its own right), a burger, or their beef brisket sandwich. And that Tater Tot Skillet — think cheese fries but with tater tots — is a table pleaser. For beer fans, sample the menu with a couple of flights, or, if you’re keen on IPAs and hoppy beer, dive right in. There’s a Mosaic IPA showing off the Mosaic hops, and a Citra Pale Ale, which takes Citra hops and stretches them across the palate. The Profusion 2.0 IPA has that big hop flavor thanks to Galaxy, Mosaic and Citra hops. But the porters (Judge’s Choice, in particular) are solid options, as are the Scotch Ale and Honey Pecan Nut Brown Ale. 4238 Market St., Wilmington,, (910) 762-6333, open weekdays for dinner, weekends for lunch and dinner. — JF

Real Southern Livin’

The real South does breakfast at the K & W Cafeteria. From the vintage 1960s décor (think sky-blue leatherette banquettes) to the friendly staff, K & W (since 1937) knows a thing or two about a great Southern breakfast. Eggs, omelets, pancakes, waffles and French toast are all cooked to order. And don’t get us started on the cheese grits, bacon, sausage and homemade biscuits. In short, breakfast heaven. And a price point that can’t be beat. Opens at 6:30 daily. K & W Cafeteria, 3501 Oleander Drive, Wilmington,, (910) 762-7011.

Noteworthy Shrimp Burgers

North of Wilmington, on the Crystal Coast, a pair of drive-ins — Big Oak and El’s — serve the shrimp burger: fried shrimp, slaw and fixings on a steamed hamburger bun. One problem: Those shrimp burgers are three hours away. But there’s a solution: Sealevel City Gourmet. Yeah, Sealevel has some outstanding veggie and vegan dishes, but the shrimp burger is where it’s at. The shrimp are fried just right, the slaw is crispy, and the house-made chips (with kimchi ranch dip) make it a meal to come back for. 1015 S. Kerr Ave., Wilmington, (910) 833-7193,

Good Eatin’

While you’re there, take advantage of Southport’s Yacht Basin Provision Company — aka Provision Company, aka ProCo — that serves up peel-and-eat shrimp, grouper salad, grilled tuna sandwiches, burgers, and a delightful cucumber salad on the Intracoastal Waterway. Beer and wine are on the honor system. Your food comes served on paper plates. The servers yell your name to find your table. It’s dive-y, delicious and perfect for locals and visitors. 130 Yacht Basin Drive, Southport, NC, (910) 457-0654,

More Good Eatin’

For the best ice cream around, head to Flava’s, a Southport fixture. Cups, cones, sundaes, shakes and ice cream sandwiches take a bit of the bite out of even the hottest summer day. Chocolate and vanilla ice cream sit in the freezer case alongside fruit-laced ice cream and specialty flavors. Flava’s, 318 W. Bay St., Southport, (910) 457-5150,

After Dark

How about a little late-night artsy fun? If you’re looking for some spoken word poetry, some drumming, some on-the-edge art, Bottega is where the soul of the Brooklyn Arts District shakes down, offering wine, live poetry readings and music, and local art on display. Pick a warm summer evening and stay until long after sunset, meeting the people who make Wilmington’s art scene what it is — vibrant, alive, and entirely our own. 723 N 4th St. (910) 399-4872

Ghosts of Old Wilmington

This is a spooky city. When evening rolls in on the Port City, the dead roll over. That chill on the back of your neck is no coincidence. Did you find 10 cents in front of the Dime House? Consider yourself flattered; that means Emma likes you. We dare you to stand at the grave of a man who was buried alive in Colonial times and not lean in to listen for his cries. With ghosts of pirates and soldiers and victims of yellow fever up and down these cobbled streets, it’s hard to not make at least one friend from the other side. The tours, penned by a ghost story aficionado and lay historian, stand alongside any ghost tour in Charleston or Savannah. Nightly at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m., the tour is 90 minutes of walking and resting at each stop. You will be transfixed by their talented and witchy costumed guides. Tickets: $13 (Adult) $9 (Children). Call (910) 794-1866 or visit, or stop by the Black Cat Shoppe, 8 Market St.

Front Street Blues

Pick an afternoon or evening to stroll down the pulsing heart-path of our city, Front Street, but this time pause and listen to the music made by our own busking brigade of street musicians. We have real talent on our streets – there’s Clark Anderson, for example, whose golden voice once resonated on albums and in motion picture soundtracks (“Give Me Something Real” was the featured track in the film Living Out Loud). Now he can be heard on the corner of Market and Front, his version of “Amazing Grace” still neck-hair-raising and hauntingly beautiful. Or Glenn, the sad-eyed saxophonist, who blows his horn over near Princess Street. He’s been playing his instrument since middle school, and now makes his living bringing sweet melodic renditions of jazz standards to passers-by. Then there’s Papa Soul, who sits on his amplifier in an alcove across from Chop’s Deli, with a permanent wide grin on his sunglassed face and an electric guitar which sends blue notes soaring into the stratosphere above the sounds of traffic. On rare nights you might hear the Green Roses, named for a certain spy who sank in the river during the Civil War, bringing an eclectic blend of acoustic freedom-fusion-folk to the people of their city. Bring a few dollars to fill up their busk baskets, and pause, and listen to the talent which gives our streets their own vibrant and unique musical life. — JW

Tidal Walk

It’s called a negative tide, when the sun and the moon conspire to pull the ocean’s pants down. Revealed are our glorious sandbars that run practically the entire coastline of our island- and cape-filled state. Our favorite is to walk the sandbars of Wrightsville Beach. You’re 30, 40 yards offshore, walking in ankle- to knee-deep emerald water, right there with the fishes, shells, skates and sand dollars. One of our brave writers did the whole 6 miles once. You can check the paper, the internet or your tide watch or app. Even when it’s just a regular dead low tide, the sandbars are walkable. And P.S.: Low tide is the time to ride your bikes at the water line when the sand is firm and flat.

Sunset Cruise

Finish the day on a slow boat ride through Banks Channel and Motts Creek. If you’ve never seen Wrightsville Beach from the water, this sunset cruise is the place to do it from. Bring your favorite adult beverage (it makes the half-hour ecology and history narration that much better) and end the day (or start the night) the right way. Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, docked at the Blockade Runner Hotel, 275 Waynick Blvd., Wrightsville Beach. $30/person. Call to reserve, (910) 200-4002. Boat departs nightly at 6:30 p.m.

Kick Back Like a Parrothead

Well, almost. The closest thing to an authentic Margaritaville experience is a trip to the Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar. Chill out on the dock overlooking the water, eat a fish taco, sip on a drink with an umbrella in it, and let the ocean breeze take away all your cares. If you time your visit right, you might even see the full moon rise from the horizon. Perfection. Thursday nights from 7–9 p.m. feature live music from local favorite like Benji Hughes, The Dew Drops, Da Howlies, and Onward, Soldiers. Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar, Golden Sands Hotel, 1211 S. Lake Park Blvd., Carolina Beach. Music line-up at

The Big Screen

Take in a free movie at the Carolina Beach Lake Park. Each Sunday from May – August at dusk, the town of Carolina Beach invites everyone to bring a lawn chair and settle in for a free family movie at the lake. It’s the perfect way to unwind after a day of frolicking in the waves. Hungry? Grab take-out at local favorites Uncle Vinny’s Pizzeria or Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn. Movie listings are family friendly, including The Jungle Book, The Sandlot, Finding Dory, Minions, and more. BYOP (popcorn). Listings can be found at

Outdoor Adventure

Call of the Wild

Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve has plenty of room to roam. This 174-acre nature preserve now owned by UNCW was once a family farm, before that a commercial turpentine distillery, and before that, virgin woodlands on Town Creek. All of its history is on display, from the yet-to-be-renovated family home to the fading scars of the turpentine production to the few bald cypress trees towering over the marshy forest. The forest here is a bit of an anomaly for southeastern North Carolina, as the pines fell victim to the turpentine production and to building shelters and structures on the land, so you’ll find more hardwoods here — oak, hickory, maple, gum, the occasional beech tree — and a number of camellias near the homestead. During summer, you might spot a small alligator in the headwaters of Town Creek or in one of the ponds. It’s open daily dawn to dusk, but can be a little tricky to find. That said, when you want a day hike that feels more wild than a park but less involved than a backpacking excursion, head here. 6150 Rock Creek Road NE, near Town Creek,, dawn–dusk daily. — JF

Shark Tank

At the southernmost drivable point of the Cape Fear Peninsula perches a world-class aquarium, surrounded by the waters whose secrets it reveals. Spend a morning or afternoon (we recommend two hours minimum) learning about the life that lives beneath the lapping waters. Fill with child-like wonder as you press your hands against the thick glass. Highlights include an albino alligator named Luna, jellyfish galore, seahorses, sharks, plenty of fish, and a touch tank with horseshoe crabs. The enormous Cape Fear Habitat tank features marine life from our own region. Afterward, head to the beach adjacent to the aquarium and dive into the waters you now know a little more about. Tickets: $10.95 (Adult), $9.95 (Senior and Military), $8.95 (Children). Free for NC Aquarium Society Members and children under 2. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 900 Loggerhead Road, Kure Beach,

That’s a Mighty Big Shark Tooth

Have you been tracking Mary Lee, the great white shark, as she cruises along the Atlantic coast? Take a trip by kayak to Shark’s Tooth Island, a dredge spoil in the Cape Fear River known for its ample supply of shark’s teeth. Who knows, after a storm you might even uncover a megalodon tooth. Put in before low tide at River Road Park. Call Don Harty at Mahanaim Adventures (910) 547-8252 or Angela Marshall at Kayak Carolina (910) 458-9171 to rent boats or take a guided tour.

Fish at the Kure Beach Pier

Few experiences rival the pure pleasure of casting a line in the water and reeling in a fish. The perfect spot is the family-friendly, alcohol-free Kure Beach Fishing Pier, one of the oldest piers, originally built in 1923, that juts out 711 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. Even if the fish aren’t biting, the view is worth it. Stroll inside the gift shop for trinkets, ice cream and a game of foosball on their classic Bonzini table. Open 24 hours a day. Free to walk on, $8 blanket pier license if fishing. One rod per fisherperson, 100 Atlantic Ave., Kure Beach.

Collect Shells on the Beach With a Child

Get a piece of twine as long as a shoelace. Tie a knot at the bottom. Walk along the shore together and find shells with a hole in them. Thread the string through the hole. When the string is full, hang it on the porch as a memento of your time together.

The River Wild

Visiting Wilmington’s River Walk for a meal and sunset on the Cape Fear River is a spectacular way to spend an evening, but a day paddling on it is even better. The protector of this beautiful river, the source of Wilmington’s drinking water, is Cape Fear River Watch. This stalwart team of scientists, educators and environmental advocates hosts numerous community events, runs eco-camps for local kids, organizes monthly cleanups, and hosts a speaker series. One of their most popular events is their third Saturday paddle series. Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear River Keeper, leads these open-to-the-public trips to some of the most pristine and important areas of the river and its tributaries. In addition to having a great day on the water, you’ll learn about the history of the river and current efforts to protect Wilmington’s most important natural resource.

Upcoming trips include an excursion to the Black River, home to some of the oldest living trees on Earth; gentle floats down Rice’s Creek and Town Creek to see water lilies, blue herons, great egrets (and perhaps an alligator); a trip to Wilmington’s Eagle Island via Sturgeon Creek; and a lazy trip down shady Holly Shelter Creek (followed by a catfish lunch at Holland’s Shelter Creek Restaurant in Burgaw — sit near the jackalope).

Visiting from out of town? Cape Fear River Watch will rent you a kayak or canoe and gear when you make your reservation. These trips are popular, so sign up early., choose News & Events, then Saturday Paddle Series. 617 Surry St. (910) 762–5606. — VH

Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjos!

Go for a paddle on the Northeast Branch of the Cape Fear River. Grab your kayak or small boat and head to Lanes Ferry, where you can put in beside Lanes Ferry Dock and Grill and paddle, bird watch, fish, or just waste a little time on the dark waters of the Cape Fear. The boat ramp is small but easy to use, and it’s simple to put in on a kayak or canoe. Plus there’s a little restaurant nearby where you can get a cheap and delicious cheeseburger, a fried bologna sandwich (smothered in Duke’s mayo) that’s to die for, and some iced tea to refresh you after an afternoon on the river, 11016 NC Hwy 201, Rocky Point, (910) 602-7110,, $2-$5.

Chuck ’em

Rather than “ruining a good walk,” as the saying goes, try something different and play a round of disc golf with a few close friends. There are several good courses in the area (Arrowhead Park, 720 Arnold Road, Wilmington, and Castle Hayne Park, 4700 Old Ave., Castle Hayne, come to mind) and a beginner disc will set you back only a few bucks at a used sporting goods store. Give a toss at the chain-trap target. If it’s not for you, at least now you’re equipped for your next game of Ultimate.

Sunrise at the Beach

It sounds like a cliché thing to do, and maybe it is, but rather than hit the gym or run “The Loop” (both clichés in their own right), try a long walk on the beach between Johnny Mercer and Oceanic piers. The rhythm of the waves and sound of your feet in the sand are meditation in motion. As day comes on, the sky brightens, the birds begin to call, and surfers populate the waves. Do this a few times this summer and you’ll find yourself falling back in love with where you live or calling a Realtor to permanently relocate. There’s just something about those early mornings. . .

Feathered Friends

Osprey, great egret, white ibis, barred owl, bald eagle: What do these have in common? Birds you might see on a local birding expedition. Join Wild Bird & Garden’s Jill Peleuses and Dave Weesner on one of their many birding adventures. Upcoming trips include events at Airlie Gardens, Orton Pond, Southport Town Creek and Masonboro Island. Visit for a list of upcoming avian adventures. Or book a birding kayak tour with Mannheim Adventures,

Sunrise Paddle to Masonboro Island

If you’ve never experienced the simple wonder of being the first to greet the new day and the only one around to welcome it, grab your paddle and head to Trail’s End boat ramp off of Masonboro Loop Road while it’s still dark. Splash your kayak and paddle across the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), through weaving corridors of Spartina alterniflora to the barrier island’s back beach. Then raise your thermos of coffee and join the gulls and skimmers in toasting the new day, as the blazing ball rises from the sea to the east. A day rarely begins better than this. Plus, you know what’s jumping on a morning paddle. Dolphins. Keep your eyes peeled! Trail’s End Park, 613 Trails End Road, Wilmington.

Redneck Riviera

We can quibble over whether Carolina Beach deserves the nickname “Redneck Riviera,” or even if that’s a bad thing. One thing is for certain: The essence of this largely lived-on island can be nicely experienced by driving your four-wheeler onto its northernmost beach, Freeman Park. Forget parking meters and those day-wrecking parking tickets. Just load up your surfboards, fishing poles, picnic basket, beer or cocktails (yup, it’s A-OK here), dogs, firewood, sleeping bags, tents and buy your day and night beach pass for $30. ($50 for holidays. Us locals know when to buy yearlong passes for $75.) Just drive right onto the beach and find a spot, dang it!

You can just sit there and unwind (as long as the next truck over isn’t blaring country or hippity-hop), or you can go for a walkabout and meet the wild mix of people who flock to this spot. On a nice summer day without too much wind, it will be packed. You’ll hear a half-dozen languages, although Southern Drawl and Spanish predominate, particularly past the point in the channel. Overall, this is one of the friendliest places on the planet. If you need some bait, fishing advice, a tow or a beer, you’ll find it. When it gets dark the line of campfires makes it feel like an old military encampment. If you walk by slowly and hold your mouth right, you’ll likely be invited inside the firelight for a sampling from the grill and some instant friendship.

But if you don’t hold your mouth right, well, you might find a fist in it. It’s not called the Redneck Riviera for nothing. And don’t expect the porta-potties to be practically perfect in every way, Mary Poppins. The surfing is pretty good by the pier, and the bar on the third floor of that structure — appropriately called High Tide — has a decent pool table, fantastic outdoor seating and a bar dog that licks the salt off your face. If you can’t find a great time here, you need to head north. And don’t come back, dang it. — MH

Garden Life

Garden of Earthly Delights

As locals, we take Airlie Gardens for granted. It’s in our backyard, we drive by it for a scenic distraction on the way to the beach, and my wife and I always say, “We should go to Airlie,” but we almost never do. That changed this spring when we were there for a beer event. That night, the riotous blocks of color on display as gardens and azaleas bloomed; the fresh, salty air; and the way the evening light played on the Airlie Oak told us it was time to join so we could go more often. Airlie’s a special place. Acclaimed folk artist Minnie Evans worked here for years, hanging her drawings and paintings from the gate and selling them to the first interested buyers; there’s a chapel built of bottles in her honor as a permanent art exhibit near the main entrance to the grounds. The gardens as we know them today have been around since the early 1900s, though parts of the garden — the oak, Lebanon Chapel — have been around for longer. That oak is 500 years old (or thereabouts, it’s not polite to ask) and spreads across the lawn like a textbook example of what a live oak should be: glorious. There are miles of walking paths, a cemetery, sculpture, artists (expect to see more than a few plein air painters or watercolor artists while you’re there), a pier on Bradley Creek, and summer concert series that happens on the first and third Fridays of the month, May to September. A gorgeous getaway anytime, Airlie is one of those places you can take the kids, take a hand-holding stroll, take a glimpse at dozens of species of birds, or just take a break from the rest of Wilmington for an hour or two in this sanctuary of beauty. Tickets: $9 (Adult), $5 (Military and New Hanover County residents), $3 (Ages 4-12), 300 Airlie Road, Wilmington, (910) 798-7700, — JF

Outlaw Garden Tour

You’ve likely heard of Wilmington’s Secret Garden tour (each September), but why not enjoy walking the plain-view outlaw garden tour downtown right now? We’re talking right-of-way gardens (or outlaw gardens), those strips of land owned by the city between the sidewalks and the streets. Homeowners are supposed to keep them mowed and raked, but the city unofficially winks and nods at residents who dig in and really beautify. It’s a bright, rich tradition planted and fertilized by the unsinkable Dolly Pearson, who died at age 102 three years ago. She was the one whose go-ahead-and-arrest-me attitude convinced the city that an old lady beautifying the 5th Street median (at Nun Street) might be a fine thing after all. So wander the streets historic downtown and see the love and pride many residents lavish on their right-of-way gardens — flowers, shrubs, herbs, trees, stonework and sculpture. A must-see is the intersection of S. 2nd and Ann streets. It’s largely the work of Joe Pawlick, who lives at 302 S. 2nd. Not only has he done his sides of the streets, he’s crossed Ann Street and beautified the other corners, including a sweet and sunny cactus garden. As Joe will tell you, “It’s harder to be a criminal in a city that’s pretty.” — MH

Old River Farms

This third-generation, 400-acre family farm 15 miles north of Wilmington has something for everyone — a spectacular garden shop with herbs, vegetable plants, succulents and flowers; a fine selection of farm-raised hormone-free Angus beef; and pick-your-own strawberries, as well as educational field trips dedicated to teaching children about North Carolina farming in an outdoor classroom setting. Old River Farms, 8711 Old River Road, Burgaw,, (910) 616-5884.

Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden

The fabled Venus fly trap, a carnivorous plant (don’t worry — they prefer ants and spiders) is unique to this area: They can only be found within a 60-mile radius of Wilmington. Take your kids on a trip to the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden and see them in the wild. And look but don’t touch: In 2014 North Carolina passed a law declaring fly-trap theft a felony. Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, Piney Ridge Nature Preserve, 3800 Canterbury Road, Wilmington. Open daily; (910) 341-7852.

Take a Hike . . .

No, seriously. Pull on your walking shoes and wander down to Carolina Beach State Park, where miles of trails (like Sugarloaf, Flytrap and Oak Toe) meander through cathedral-like stands of longleaf pine and turkey oak, or walk the coastline of the Masonboro Sound. Bring a water bottle and a snack, a notebook or a camera, and let your creativity flourish in this peaceful place of nature. Sketch or capture on film the shimmering shapes light makes when it trickles down through the canopy and spills onto the sugar-white sand of the forest floor, and remember that our whole region once looked like this, not long ago. Summer may offer a chance to see Venus fly traps in the wild; look for white flowers! Carolina Beach State Park, 1010 State Park Road, Carolina Beach, (910) 458-8206,

History Buff

This Old House Museum

You can take your pick of antebellum mansion, Colonial dame or vicky Victorian. The house museums abound. Built on the eve of the Civil War, the Bellamy Mansion and restored Slave Quarters offer a spectacular look at antebellum architecture and gardens. On the corner of 5th and Market streets, you can’t miss it. Time your visit right because this old house also plays host to a variety of upper crust events and weddings. Tickets: $12 (Adult), $10 (Senior), $6 (Student), 503 Market St. (910) 251-3700,

Circa 1770, the Burgwin-Wright House was built in the Georgian style on top of the old city jail! If that doesn’t strike your fancy, the lush gardens ripe with pomegranate and fig trees will. Tickets: $12 (Adult), $10 (Senior), $6 (Student), 224 Market St. (910) 762-0570,

Two blocks south on 3rd and Orange streets is the Italianate Latimer House and home to the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. This mesmerizing example of upper-class Victorian life offers a tour, gardens and the honor of having once been home to the painter Elisabeth Chant. Tickets: $12 (Adult), $10 (Senior), $6 (Student), Passport ticket to all three houses for $28. 126 S. Third St. (910) 762-0492,

Love Is a Battlefield

At Moore’s Creek National Battlefield, take a short stroll in the woods and learn a little Revolutionary War history. By way of a preview, the story goes like this: In 1776, British loyalists were handed a defeat there by the Sons of Liberty. A thousand or so patriots met there to attack the loyalist troops, many of whom were armed with giant broadswords, as the loyalists made their way to Southport to help Gen. Cornwallis quell the rebel activities there. Spoiler alert: The patriots win. 40 Patriots Hill Drive, Currie, (910) 283-5591,

Colonial Ghosts

One of the most interesting drives just out of town is down the Old River Road (Route 133) toward Southport. The road parallels the Cape Fear’s western bank through woods of longleaf pine and ancient live oaks. It is here that you can find the ghostly remains of St. Philip’s Anglican Church (circa 1740), the only remaining structure in Colonial Brunswick Town, a failed but important settlement and the capital of the North Carolina colony for 30 years, until it was burned by the British in 1776.

Laid out in 1726 by Col. Maurice Moore with help from his brother Robert, the owner of nearby Orton Plantation, Brunswick soon became a prosperous shipping port for tar, pitch and lumber for the royal navy. The town was attacked and burned by the Spanish in 1748, but quickly restored and rebuilt. Two successive royal governors moved to Brunswick, and soon an elegant church, St. Philip’s, was under construction. But the growing city of Wilmington upriver soon rivaled Brunswick’s port, and its shipping business declined. The royal governor then moved the courts, council and post office to Wilmington in the late 1730s. The town was abandoned by 1776, when British Redcoats came ashore and burned it to the ground. Only the shell of St. Philip’s church remained. In 1830 the land and ruins were sold to the owners of Orton Plantation. It became a state historic site in 1952.

St. Philip’s remains a magnificent ruin. Built of English brick 3 feet thick, it served as his majesty’s Chapel in the colony. (Royal governors were given elevated pews here.) The tall chancel windows are flanked by doorways, the side walls have four windows each, 15 feet high and 7 feet wide. There are still scars on the walls from the cannonballs of Union ships during the Civil War. Bring bug spray. Listen for the sound of the old church bell; this hallowed ground is notoriously haunted. St. Philip’s Church, Brunswick Town, 8884 St. Philip’s Road SE, Winnabow, (910) 371-6613, — WI

Love is a Battleship

Across the river from downtown rests our most famous landmark: the USS North Carolina, which served in every major battle in the Pacific theater during World War II. What better way to reach a ship than by water? Hop on the Bizzy Bee Water Taxi at the foot of Market Street and be transported across the river that gives this region its name – the largest river in North Carolina, and the only one that touches the Atlantic directly. If you visit in July, lucky you. Stay for a live theatrical production of Mister Roberts on board the USS North Carolina! (Tickets $15–50, Our 4th of July fireworks display is best seen from the battleship or adjoining park. Battleship open from 8 am–8 pm daily; Adult tickets $14 with discounts for Seniors and Military, Child tickets $6. Water Taxi runs daily, 10 am –5 pm; tickets $8 round-trip. If you prefer to drive, cross over the river on one of our bridges to 1 Battleship Road NE.

Legacy Architectural Salvage

Looking for an old fireplace mantel or a pedestal sink? Legacy Architectural Salvage, a shop run by the Historic Wilmington Foundation, offers an ever-changing selection of old-house details, including period window frames, newel posts and balusters — even doorknobs. Proceeds benefit the Historic Wilmington Foundation. Donations are welcome and tax-deductible. Legacy Architectural Salvage, 1831-B Dawson St. (behind Stevens Hardware),, (910) 444-1751.

Poplar Grove Plantation

For six generations (1795-1971), Poplar Grove was home to the Foy family, French Huguenots who came to America in the 1670s. This elegant Greek Revival mansion, a former sweet potato and peanut plantation, offers a compelling glimpse of a pre-Civil War slaveholding family’s working farm life in North Carolina. Meet farm animals and horses at the stables. Tours daily. Special event programming varies. Tickets: $5–12. Stop by during the Wednesday farmers market (8 a.m. – 1 p.m.) to take the tour for free. Poplar Grove Plantation, 10200 Highway 17 North, Wilmington,, (910) 686-9518.

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search