Although I can’t recall much about staying in my grandmother’s outdated bungalow in an area of Carolina Beach full of stumbling drunks and cigarette butts about six years ago, I do recall, quite vividly, our one day trip to Wilmington, about a half an hour drive north.
I remember strolling through the residential historic district, and, even though I couldn’t have cared less about what the tour guide had to say about iron gate styles or wraparound porches, I do recall feeling pretty mesmerized by these stately, colorful homes full of personality and bursting with history, intricate details, elaborate flowers and a deep, cool shade.
I also remember making our way to the commercial historic district, where we flitted in and out of niche boutiques and wandered throughout the cobblestone streets. For someone well acquainted with busy, modern cities like New York, I was pretty enamored with true-Southern Wilmington and its ancient charm at a time when I had yet to visit any other Southern destination.
I’ve always enjoyed trips to the South since for these small details. A sucker for vibrant and exquisite architecture, I find New Orleans’ grime endearing and Savannah’s troublesome history lovable. And, even though it certainly lacks the fame that Savannah and New Orleans share, Wilmington has always held its own, in my mind, as the original Southern city stuck in time.
So, when my mother invited me to visit my grandmother in Wilmington (who has since aged past the owning of her several Carolina Beach bungalows and motel rooms) of course I said yes. I wanted to give Wilmington another shot – a full trip spent in the little city rather than the few hours I had been given six years ago.
Although the journey to get there was the stuff of travel nightmares, I was pretty psyched (yet sleep deprived) to finally arrive at the Hilton Wilmington Riverside at 301 N Water St. The hotel, which has a modern, relaxed feel that overlooks the Cape Fear River, was in a perfect downtown location and didn’t feel crowded or hurried like other downtown hotels I have stayed at seem.
I knew that, from North Water St., we were right in the heart of the Wilmington historic commercial district. I couldn’t wait to finally see what I had missed.
On our first full day in the city, I wanted to get a lay of the land and just do some wandering. So, we started out walking through Grace St., Chestnut St., Princess St. and Market St. which house historic and authentic buildings that are now where souvenir shops, specialty shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes now conduct their business.
Although I had aimed to do a haunted tour, one of my guilty pleasures when traveling (and if you’re in New Orleans, don’t miss French Quarter Plantoms Ghost Tours, the best haunted tour I have ever been on which still gives me the creeps), we didn’t make it this time around.
There’s a lot of history to see just strolling through the city, however. Throughout Wilmington, trolley and horse-drawn carriage tours are conducted through the streets, only adding to the historic charm of the place. We passed by Bellamy Mansion, the Cape Fear Museum and the USS North Carolina, famous historic sites that tourists frequently flock to.
This time around, I definitely wanted to get a closer look at the residential historic district that I had loved so much. Instead of taking a trolley tour, we simply parked the car across from the First Baptist Church at 411 Market St. and walked up and down the side streets, which contained historic homes such as the Latimer House, as well as those without historic plaques but still had lovely charm in their plethora of bright flowers, lively colors and antique styles.
In between nights spent at our hotel pool or at Wrightsville Beach, which is about 20 minutes away from Wilmington and is a pretty, relatively undisturbed beach with just a few cafes and restaurants, we also stopped at the Poplar Plantation, which is right between Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Poplar Plantation was a peanut plantation owned by the Foy family which now operates as a museum.
The Poplar Plantation offers tours daily by volunteers but apparently the volunteer slotted for 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday was a no-show, so we did a self guided walking tour through the property, including the authentically-decorated rooms of the home, the slave quarters, a basket weaving building and a farm area filled with animals.
Although we didn’t get much time to explore the Wilmington historical sites in debt, finally, I was able to spend a few days in the city that unearthed the charm of the South for me some time ago. And with its cobblestone streets, old buildings, horse-drawn carriages and quiet beauty, it was all I had imagined it to be on that afternoon spent in the trolley during my very first visit.