When I tell people that I'm headed for the beach in North Carolina, the response invariably is something like, "Oh, I just love the Outer Banks -- such a wonderful place." When I explain that no, I'm headed farther south, to the Wilmington area, the reaction is just as predictable: a blank look that suggests at best a vague idea where Wilmington is, and no image of what it is like.
That's too bad. For I have found, after more than 25 visits to the Wilmington area, that it's the best-kept secret in North Carolina.
Not that Wilmington wears its charms easily.
Once the largest and most important city in North Carolina, and a major shipping center in the South, it lags substantially behind Raleigh and Charlotte as a metropolitan area in the state: the city's population is a modest 62,000 and the metropolitan population is 152,000. Although Interstate 40 now connects the Wilmington area with the rest of North Carolina, it's still a bit out of the way, located in the southeast corner of the state almost to South Carolina.
So what's to like? Try a city with real history, dating to pre-Revolutionary War days. Try wonderful beaches nearby and
a variety of outdoor activities (fishing, boating, surfing) that, because of the subtropical climate, can be enjoyed eight to nine months out of the year. Try food -- copious amounts of freshly caught seafood, some of the best barbecue served in a barbecue-loving state -- that is often terrific.
And try a quiet, stress-free ambience that helps you remember ** why you take vacations to begin with.
The key is to take the place on its own terms. If you accept that Wilmington will not overwhelm with trendiness and a lot of glitz, that most of its pleasures are simple ones, such as a quiet day at the beach and a tasty plate of barbecue, you'll get a sense of what it is all about.
Let's talk first about the beach life, which for many Wilmingtonians becomes a raison d'etre. There are a number of fine oceanside resorts within a short drive of the city, and their proximity helps give the Wilmington area its decidedly casual ambience.
Probably the best-known is Wrightsville Beach, a mere 20 minutes from Wilmington by car. It gets quite crowded in summertime and attracts a generally upscale, family-oriented clientele, as well as large numbers of college students. Lounging on the beach is the favorite activity, of course, but boating, sailing, surfing and fishing are popular as well. In summer, Wrightsville gets a little too hectic for my taste, but it's a good place to hit for dinner or a drink, or a walk along the beach.
Those wanting a quieter beach experience might try Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, located about a half-hour south of Wilmington on Route 421. They are established resorts that cater primarily to working-class vacationers, although Carolina Beach, the larger of the towns, lately has attracted a more affluent crowd.
What I like about Carolina Beach is that it has a real beach-town feel: a slightly tacky boardwalk with amusement park, arcades and rides; T-shirt shops; and a large municipal marina that is home to several charter boats. The Wilmington area offers outstanding saltwater fishing, and Carolina Beach charter boats ply the Gulf Stream waters from April to November. Some boats offer non-fishing cruises.
But for the ultimate in a restful stay on the water, head a few miles farther south on Route 421 to Kure Beach, a veritable spot on the map. It has but one stoplight and a few restaurants and shops, but most of all Kure Beach offers peace. This is the place to put down the beach blanket, open up that novel you've always want to read, and hear not a sound except the crashing of waves and the shrieking of sea gulls.
I would suggest getting an oceanside room at one of the many modest motels right on the beach. It's a setting that's hard to beat: watching the dawning of the day as the sun comes up over the Atlantic, then, as night falls, the moon rises splendidly, orange and huge, over the horizon.
In the evening, you might walk over to Big Daddy's, the top restaurant in Kure Beach, for a a delicious meal of fried shrimp, hush puppies and cole slaw (with iced tea, of course). Then, almost certainly, it's time to head across Route 421 to visit the wonderful old Kure Beach Pier, which was built in 1923 and has survived, though not without cost, numerous hurricanes.
It's a gathering spot for residents and visitors alike: a place to fish around the clock if desired (night fishing on a pier is a singularly satisfying solitary pursuit), a place to throw away your money on pool and arcade games, and to check out the goofy, sometimes outrageous knickknacks and other items on sale ("Daddy's Little Stinker" T-shirts and the like).
But, at some point, you might want to experience some civilization. If so, Wilmington is the perfect place to spend a few days soaking up history and catching a few good meals -- again, with a minimum of stress and fuss.