Wilmington, North Carolina is a ‘not so sleepy hollow’.
Meander 12 miles up the Cape Fear River from North Carolina’s ICW and a massive gray battleship from World War II looms off port, the USS North Carolina. A sternwheeler riverboat appears to starboard, the Henrietta II. Welcome to the historic port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, a major shipbuilding center during World War II that still supports a number of boatbuilders.
Historic Sites and Sights
These maritime icons reside in a city full of historic homes, cobblestone streets, art galleries and shops, fine seafood, and beckoning beaches. Even if it’s your first time visiting, you may find the scenery familiar from its many silver screen and television show appearances, an important part of Wilmington’s more recent history.
This area’s early history is commonly known for the first Europeans who traveled Cape Fear’s waters, Spanish settlers who lived at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in the late 1400s. Their colony—like the one at Roanoke, Virginia—strangely disappeared and was replaced by English colonists. In the 1700s, pirate ships of Blackbeard and Bonnet hid behind island grasses. Their topsails were only seen when they went to sea, the reason behind its current name of Topsail Inlet.
Bonnet met his end when the armed sloops of Colonel William Rhett forced him aground at the mouth of the river. Confederate blockade-runners once filled the river attempting to deliver supplies past enemy ships. In 1865, Forts Fisher and Anderson fell to a Union armada at the river’s mouth, the Confederacy’s last holdout and the most intensive naval bombardment at the time. Hundreds of shipwrecks—many Confederate blockade-runners, including the famous General Beauregard—rest off of Cape Fear. Its remains can still be seen from the Carolina Beach Gazebo overlook at low tide. The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Southport houses relics from Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge and more.
Today Wilmingtonians proudly share their big “boat,” Battleship North Carolina with visitors. It was the first ship to aid the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and was brought to the city years later when schoolchildren raised necessary funds. Self-guided tours of all nine decks are offered every day of the year. River tours are available on the river taxi Captain J.N. Maffitt, a WWII Navy launch, during the summer months, as well as the riverboat Henrietta III (cfrboats.com). On land, several guided tours of Wilmington are offered on trolleys, horse and carriage, Segways, and on foot.
One of North Carolina’s largest historic districts with its antebellum architecture comes to life with lifelong resident Bob Jenkins on his Adventure Walking Tour (910-763-1785). The man with the straw hat and walking cane whisks you through two and a half centuries of Wilmington’s history in a few hours. Ghost tours, movie locale tours, and haunted pub-crawls are all available. The Visitors Bureau also offers a self-guided Hollywood Location Walk.
Wilmington, North Carolina is often called Hollywood East; more than 400 films and TV projects have been shot in the area since the early 1980s. A few years ago, Frank Capra, Jr.—then head of EUE/Screen Gems Studios of Wilmington—explained the city’s rise to stardom to a group of writers while enjoying The Oceanic Restaurant’s famous crab dip at Wrightsville Beach. After reminiscing about days on his father’s set of It’s a Wonderful Life, he explained how Dino De Laurentiis built studios in Wilmington in 1984, which in 1996 became EUE/ Screen Gems Studios. Several well-known projects shot in the area include Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, and recently, Under the Dome and Sleepy Hollow.
One location used for Dawson’s Creek was the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Kure Beach (pronounced “curry”). A journey from a freshwater conservatory to a quarter-million-gallon ocean tank with 2,600 creatures is like a trip down the Cape Fear River. If you’re lucky you might see the changing colors of a cuttlefish’s electric skin or feed horseshoe crabs.
Eat and Stroll
If you’d rather eat fish than observe them, the Wilmington area has plenty of seafood eateries. Ancient dock pilings of Eagle Island on the Cape Fear River can still be seen at The Pilot House. Dining on Henrietta III is another possibility, and the ICW in Wrightsville Beach is lined with an abundance of restaurant choices. An after-dinner stroll leads to unique shops and galleries. The Nautical Hangups in the historic district is full of artistic nautical charts. The nearby Cotton Exchange shopping center offers unheard-of free downtown parking, and the mile-long Riverwalk is fringed with shops as well.
Away from shopping and civilization, the waterways of Wilmington and the Cape Fear Coast offer days of exploring inlets, sounds and barrier islands along the ICW. Suggested resources for the area include the North Carolina Boating Guide, Cape Fear Coast Pilot , and Claiborne Young’s Cruising Guide to Coastal North Carolina. Note that heading across the ICW and up the Cape Fear River toward Wilmington is a major shipping lane to the State Port and is near the route of the Southport-Fort Fisher ferry. A three-knot current may be experienced at ebb. Also, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is a bascule bridge with a 65-foot clearance. Oh, and be on the lookout for a sandbar with an artificial palm tree and parking meter on it!
With over 40 marinas and boatyards in the area, mariners have their choice of facilities. Additionally, the new Port City Marina is scheduled for completion in early 2014 in the Riverwalk area. More than 200 boats up to 250-feet LOA will be accommodated at docks along the Cape Fear River and in a controlled 10-foot basin with state-of-the-art floating concrete slips. The development is designed with a 10-story hotel, condos, offices, and restaurants; marina amenities include fuel, pump-out, airport shuttle, and loaner cars. Presently, the city of Wilmington provides docking services at Hilton Docks, Coastline Docks, and Market Street Landing Docks.
The Wilmington, North Carolina area has much to offer whether you’re a casual cruiser, film aficionado or history buff. But if you’re cruising on North Carolina’s ICW and rush past the Cape Fear River, you’ll miss it all.
By Nancy Spraker, Southern Boating November 2013