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Old is Beautiful

Quiet riversides, beautiful wildlife and historic homes have made Wilmington, N.C., famous — literally.

Hundreds of movies and documentaries have been filmed in this quaint town along the Cape Fear River, as well as a number of well-known television series, including Matlock, Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill. Pay a visit to Wilmington yourself, and you’ll see why the area’s scenery makes it one of Hollywood’s favorite places to shoot on location.

At numerous attractions around the area, groups can enjoy the beauty and history that contribute so much to Wilmington’s charm.

Natural attractions
Wilmington is bordered by the Cape Fear River on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east, giving nature lovers plenty of opportunities to enjoy scenic areas. One favorite of groups is Carolina Beach State Park. This protected area is home to the rare Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant that grows only within a 75-mile radius of the city.

Another great place for scenery is Airlie Gardens, a 67-acre historic garden that features year-round color.

“The garden used to belong to the Jones family, who bought this property in 1884,” said Matthew Collogan, environmental education program manager at Airlie. “They were a very wealthy family, and they used the garden as their winter and spring hangout. So a lot of the plants in the garden bloom in the winter and early spring.”

Among the garden’s highlights is a collection of about 3,000 camellia and more than 100,000 azalea plants. Many of these were planted between 1902 and 1910; the oldest specimen in the garden, though, is a live oak tree that dates back more than 460 years.
Wildlife is also an important part of the gardens. Some 146 species of birds have been spotted on the grounds, as well as numerous lizards, amphibians and other animals, such as foxes and raccoons.

“In the spring, we’re opening a 2,700-square-foot native butterfly house,” Collogan said. “It will have native butterflies from mid-April to November 1.”

Wildlife aquatic
Groups can get a closer look at marine life in the area at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, about 20 miles outside of Wilmington at Cray Beach. The aquarium has thousands of freshwater and saltwater animals native to the area, including octopus, porcupine fish and a rare albino alligator.

One of the highlights of a visit to the aquarium is the public dive show, when divers swim inside one of the main exhibits and use a special underwater speaker system to talk to visitors. Another highlight for groups is a behind-the-scenes tour.

“You can take a two-hour behind-the-scenes tour where we show you the animal holding and life support systems,” said Amy Kilgore, the aquarium’s public relations coordinator. “Or you can sign up to be an Aquarius apprentice, and you get to help prepare the food, clean the tanks and feed the animals.”

The aquarium staff also offers a number of guided excursions for groups, taking them out into the coastal areas that surround the facility.

“We do a salt marsh exploration where we take groups out with a net, and they can catch blue crabs and learn about all the different animals in the salt marsh,” Kilgore said. “Or we can take them canoeing to an estuary that’s about a mile away to see the wildlife there.”

History in focus
The natural surroundings of the Wilmington area have made a beautiful backdrop for its storied history. At the Cape Fear Museum, visitors can learn about the past of the Lower Cape Fear region, an area of about 50 square miles that includes and surrounds Wilmington.

“We’re actually the oldest history museum in North Carolina,” said Jacob Rudolph, public relations director at the museum. “We focus on telling the stories of this region. We tell the topics from the early inhabitants through colonization, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the 20th century.”

A number of dioramas around the museum depict important events, such as the Battle of Fort Fisher. The battle diorama is complemented by a sound-and-light show narrating the event.
Rudolph said that some of the Civil War items are the most valued in the collection.

“Many of our Civil War artifacts are looked at as very interesting,” he said. “People have seen bullets and guns before, but we have some objects from the saltworks, which was a pretty necessary industry. We also have tools of the trade from that time period.”

In the 20th century section of the museum, many visitors are fascinated to see artifacts belonging to basketball superstar Michael Jordan, who grew up and went to high school in the region. Items include Jordan’s high school basketball jersey, gym bag, childhood toys and an early pay stub.

History around town
Around downtown Wilmington, a number of historic buildings give groups a more immersive experience in local history. Janet Seapker, owner of Tours by Degrees, takes groups to a number of favorite architectural and historical sites throughout the city.

“The premier site on our list is the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts,” she said. “It’s what I call our biggest, baddest antebellum building. It’s an awe-inspiring building, and it has an unbelievable urban slave quarters.”

Another favorite historic building is Thalian Hall, a 19th-century theater designed by a prominent New York theater architect. Although it was remodeled several times during the 20th century, the theater still sports many of its characteristic architectural touches.

Seapker also takes groups on tours of historic churches throughout town, showing off neo-Gothic, Moorish-revival, Italianate and other interesting forms of architecture. One of the most notable is St. Mary Catholic Church, which features a tile system that was later used in New York’s Grand Central Station.

“They invented a tile system with very thin terra-cotta tiles, and then used quick-drying mortar so that they could create domes without having to put up scaffolding,” she said. “It’s a huge Mediterranean design with no steel, no wood and no nails in it. It’s all created from these tiles.”

Seeking Guidance
Wilmington/Cape Fear
Coast CVB
(877) 406-2356

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Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.