Discovering an old gem

North Carolina has always been a favorite destination of mine.  I camped in the Smoky Mountains with my parents when I was a child, rented homes in Montreat with our own children, and I hiked alone across the state on the Appalachian Trail.  I have spent considerable time in Charlotte and of course, Rocky Mount, the home of Hardee’s Food Systems for decades.  This week I discovered a gem I didn’t know existed.
Business took me on a quick trip to Wilmington.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know much about the city.  From the map I saw it was situated on the Cape Fear River and adjacent to Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach.  Other than having a friend that talked of spending some time at the beaches, that was the extent of my knowledge of the area.
Mary Lou, who is becoming my travel companion now that she has retired, and I arrived before my meeting and we took a few hours to visit Wrightsville Beach.  It turned out to be a beautiful beach on an island about four miles long.  It has been a destination beach since the 1890s.
Many of the old cottages still exist, nestled between larger extravagant new homes and condos.  The island is just a couple of blocks wide, with views of the ocean on one side and of the river on the other.  It seemed like a perfect family destination and certainly a place I would like to visit when we have more time.
Our hotel is in the historic district near the downtown area.  Once again, I had no expectations of what we were about to see, which made it all the more remarkable.
The city’s historic district encompasses almost 300 city blocks.  Restored homes were everywhere, not just of the museum quality, but homes where families actually work and live.   The meeting I had was held in a home restored as an office in a building built in 1859.
I was struck by two things.  The first is you could drive for blocks without seeing a vacant lot.  How did they manage to keep so many old homes intact until they became popular again?  The downtown appeared to be the same way with dozens of old storefronts remodeled into clever retail stores, offices and restaurants.
The second thing was that even in the outlying districts where newer generations of chain stores and motels had been built, it seemed that everything was being recycled into a new use.  There weren’t many abandoned buildings anywhere, at least along the routes I was taking.
In a city of 109,000, the Wilmington area has over 500 restaurants.  We ate at one ranked #1 by Trip Advisor on the recommendation of a friend.  It was incredible, worthy of any much larger city.  People were strolling the streets on a Monday night in downtown.  There were people of all ages and with obviously different interests and backgrounds.
Museums document the city’s rich history from before the Revolutionary War, with large roles played in the Civil War and World War II.   It is fitting that the battleship USS North Carolina permanently resides along the docks.
Just over 500 miles away from South Georgia, this isn’t a weekend destination.    However, if you have a few days, love history, good food and a positive vibe in a Southern city, you can’t go wrong visiting Wilmington.  For us, it was a newly discovered gem and I know we’ll be back.
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Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]

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