Like its neighbors to the south — Charleston and Savannah — Wilmington, North Carolina, has become a magnet for tourists and transplants looking for authentic Southern culture, cuisine and climate.
Many boaters are familiar with the area’s barrier islands and beaches such as Topsail, Wrightsville, Carolina, Kure, Bald Head, but not so much the city itself, located about 30 miles upstream from where Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The Eastern Siouan people occupied the area when the first Europeans arrived in the early 1500s and Giovanni da Verrazzano explored the North American coast. His maps and travel accounts comprise the earliest description of North Carolina’s land and people.
The city of Wilmington (then called New Carthage) was founded in 1739 on the banks of Cape Fear River. Its name comes from Sir Richard Grenville’s 1585 expedition when he sailed to Roanoke Island and his ship was stranded behind the cape. The crew was afraid they’d wreck, giving rise to the name Cape Fear.
Also known as the Port City, Wilmington is experiencing a building boom and renaissance, with its well-preserved downtown and a bustling Port City waterfront area augmented by new condos and reclaimed riverside acreage that has been turned into parks, piers and promenades. Across from the city’s Riverwalk you can find the Battleship North Carolina Memorial and tour this famous warship.
Front Street, Wilmington’s thriving commercial thorough-fare, is lined with chic shops, bars and restaurants populated by a mix of locals, UNC Wilmington college students and out-of-towners looking for R&R after a day of shopping, sight-seeing or cooling out at the beaches. Looking for lunch or a light alternative to a full-course dinner? Try Fun Bowl for ramen and poke bowl, Slice of Life Pizzeria & Pub for pizza, wings and subs, or Beer Barrio for Mexican dishes.
Microbreweries and brew pubs are booming here, and two are worth checking out: Front Street Brewery (craft beers and “hand scratched” food) and Pour Taproom & Bar (60+ different craft beers and ciders).
Wilmington’s Azalea Festival in April and October’s Riverfest are just two of the local can’t-miss events, along with other cultural happenings throughout the year. Popular spots include Greenfield Lake Park (check the live music schedule at the park’s busy amphitheater), Arlie Gardens (botanical gardens, trails, birding and events) and the world-class Cameron Art Museum.
For an interesting side-trip, visit Bald Head Island at Cape Fear’s southern tip. The remote village is only accessible by ferry from nearby Southport, and cars are not allowed on the island. The island is nationally recognized for sea turtle nesting activity. Accommodations are available at the Marsh Harbor Inn and the Inn at Bald Head Island. A handful of restaurants serve everything from to-go meals and pub fare to wine-bar and cantina-style cuisine.
Where to Dock
Cape Fear Marina
Part of Off the Hook Yacht Services, this gated 70-slip marina offers water, pump-out and electric hookup at every slip, and the fully equipped dock house has shower and laundry facilities. Repair and refit services are also available.
About one mile north of Masonboro Inlet near Wrightsville Beach, the marina has 180 feet of floating transient dockage and access to shore power, water and wireless Internet. It’s close to local grocers, ATMs, laundries, hotels and marine stores, and the highly rated Dockside Restaurant.
Port City Marina
This full-service marina with 200+ floating concrete wet slips accommodates boats up to 400 feet and is in the heart of downtown. It offers rapid-fill fuel service, electric, free Wi-Fi, gated entrance, video surveillance, pump-out, on-site store and more. Marina Grill is steps away from the docks.
Wilmington Marine Center
Services include gas, water, electric, pump-out, wireless internet and more. The marina is in an enclosed basin off the Cape Fear River, offering 130 slips with fixed and floating docks for vessels up to 120 feet.
Where to Dine
For authentic French cuisine, the chef delivers classics such as escargot, crepes and mussels, as well as boeuf bourguignon, duck confit and lamb shank tagine. Locals flock to this hidden gem that celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.
A lush, romantic spot that sources ingredients for imaginative dishes from local farmers and seafood merchants. Serving a mix of small plates (charred octopus, beef carpaccio, tuna tataki) and classics like paella, scallops and short ribs, the emphasis is on seasonal American fare with a European flair.
This Far East café serves a mix of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine: satay, dumplings, pad Thai, nine different curries, bulgogi and braised catfish in an exotic, art-filled setting. Save room for sticky rice topped with warm coconut sauce and mangoes.
This Wilmington institution serves indigenous seafood and fowl, and the area menu includes everything from down-home cooking to Cajun and traditional Southern fare with a contemporary twist, in a restored 19th century house with a riverside terrace.
Seafood rules at the sleek and chic Seabird, and fish, oysters and shellfish dominate the menu. Try the smoked catfish and oyster pie, or the swordfish schnitzel. Landlubbers can opt for sorghum pork ribs or grilled bavette steak.