You’ve gotta love a roadtrip that includes a car ferry. From Southport, my girlfriend and I got into the traveling mood as seagulls swooped and the ship’s horn droned while we cruised up the Cape Fear River. It was “shoulder season”, before the summer crowds, but plenty goes on along the coast here when the season gets cookin’.
At the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher we watched a scuba diver feed the sharks while “trying not to look like a porkchop” then headed to what everyone kept telling us was Carolina Beach’s best restaurant. It’s even #1 on Tripadvisor with over 250 rhapsodic reviews like: “best in the country”, “a must”, “to die for”. Britt’s Donuts. There’s only one kind: glazed. Cash only. The shed-like building’s floor is dusted with powdered sugar. But, man, they were the epitome of what a donut should be: sweet, hot, soft and greasy. Yum. A nostalgic boardwalk ambles past shops, an arcade, amusements and snack bars. Counter-culture peaks from the corners with art gallery posters advertising an opening reception for “exotica and quixotica” and another featuring “giant woodcuts printed with a steamroller".
The most celebrated natural phenomena of the area is the Venus Flytrap. At Carolina Beach State Park Ranger Jeff Davis led us into the pocosins, a special kind of wetland, and the only area in the country where they are native. His enthusiasm as we crouched and painstakingly searched for the small distinctive sprouts was contagious. Charles Darwin thought so too when one was sent to him. He called it “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.”
The Venus Fly Trap is celebrated in a huge colorful sculpture on the Wilmington waterfront. The city is like a polite child who was raised in the South and has come back to town with a head full of new ideas. Our comfortable bed and breakfast, the Front Street Inn, was in the 230-block historic district of antebellum houses which has been recognized as a “Dozen Distinctive Destination” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Meanwhile the largest movie studio east of Los Angeles is nearby. The Cameron Art Museum hosts world-class exhibits and master potter Hiroshi for whom they built a large facility that attracts hundreds of devoted clay students. The Basics Restaurant prides itself on keeping “authentic Southern Food simple”. But Fire on the Dock touts “what Southern food could be” in a series of cooking contests that pit chefs from across the state in heats with native products. Mystery ingredients are revealed to competing chefs at noon. The night we went they were milk and chocolate. By dinnertime they’d turned them into delicacies like praline crusted quail and sturgeon chocolate cake. Ringmaster Jimmy Crippen rabble-roused the diners and we all cast votes following each course. This town has energy. Style too. The theatrically decorated windows at A Second Time Around are the work of manager Eddie who curates the vintage clothing in the glamorous shop. Not all the citizens resemble polite children though. At the rough looking Barbary Coast bar the sign jests, “We’ve upped our standards. Up yours.”
Outdoors is where the Wilmington area gets exciting. Captain Joe, who claims to have the equivalent of perfect pitch for seeing birds, took us on a blustery scenic water tour out of Wrightsville Beach. His life’s work began at age 17 when “I looked though the binoculars for the first time, right into the eyes of a blue bird.” With undiminished enthusiasm, he tries to see at least seven species on every tour. “Check it out!” he hollers over the sound of the engine. “Some of these birds have flown all the way from South America. Thank you for posing for us birds!”
At the heavenly Arlie Gardens 100,000 azaleas announced the coming of spring. In 1884 rich industrialist Pembroke Jones and his wife Sarah bought the property and transformed it into a picturesque masterpiece. The lavish parties they staged there are still considered the height of high society hosting. Minnie Evans was the gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens from 1949 to 1974 where the lush backdrop inspired her to become one of America’s most important visionary artists. She said, “…We talk of heaven. We think everything is going to be white. But I believe we’re going to have beautiful rainbow colors. Green is God’s color. He has 600 and some shades of green”. Her enigmatic paintings hang in galleries and museums. A magical Bottle Chapel and garden was constructed by local artists in homage to her inspiration.
For an easy adventure, follow the coastline. Like the Venus Flytrap that attracts its prey with a subtle nectar smell, you’ll be drawn to the understated charms along the shores.
If you Go:
For visitor information: www.gowilmingtonandbeaches.com
Airlie Gardens: www.airliegardens.org
Water tour: www.wrightsvillebeachscenictours.com
Cameron Art Museum: www.cameronartmuseum.com
Cooking Competition: http://www.competitiondining.com/events/fire-on-the-dock
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