Though it’s surrounded by the usual miles of highway sprawl, the downtown business district of Wilmington (pop. 106,476) is unusually attractive and well preserved, its many blocks of historic buildings stepping up from the Cape Fear River waterfront. The largest city on the North Carolina coast, Wilmington was of vital importance to the Confederate cause during the Civil War, when it was the only southern port able to continue exporting income-earning cotton, mostly to England, in the face of the Union blockade. Wilmington also played an important role before and during the Revolution, first as a center of colonial resistance, and later as headquarters for British general Cornwallis.
Despite its lengthy and involved military history, Wilmington itself has survived relatively unscathed and now possesses one of the country’s more engaging small-town streetscapes. Cobblestone wharves and brick warehouses line the Cape Fear River, which also provides moorage for the massive 35,000-ton battleship USS North Carolina (daily, $12 adults), across the river. A couple of the warehouses, like the Cotton Exchange at the north end, have been converted to house boutiques and restaurants. A block inland, Front Street is the lively heart of town, a franchise-free stretch of book and music stores, cafés, and other businesses that’s often used by film crews attempting to re-create a typically American “Main Street” scene. Films like Blue Velvet and TV’s teenage soap opera Dawson’s Creek were shot at Wilmington’s massive Screen Gems studio and in surrounding locales.
Thanks in large part to its significant TV and movie-making business, Wilmington has a number of excellent places to eat, like the welcoming Black Sea Grill (35 N. Front St., 910/254-9990), an excellent Eastern Mediterranean bistro serving juicy lamb kebabs and fresh fish dishes. Within stumbling distance are bars like the rough-hewn Barbary Coast (116 S. Front St., 910/762-8996). For a taste of top-quality traditional Southern food—grits with everything—try the Dixie Grill (116 Market St., 910/762-7280), where you can work off the calories with a game of pool.
Rates at Wilmington’s many chain motels and hotels are comparatively low; try the riverfront Hilton (301 N. Water St., 910/763-5900, $122 and up).
South of Wilmington, US-17 runs inland, so if you want to stick close to the coast, take Hwy-179, which curves along the shore past the rambling towns of Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach before rejoining US-17 at the South Carolina border.