17:32 PM

Historic highlights from an anniversary trip to Wilmington, NC

Avelo Airlines’ fabulous fares to this Southern City prompted TPA’s Joshua Gillin to take his wife there to celebrate for a long weekend.

Riverwalk WCVB

Photo courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau

Editor’s note: Tampa International Airport Senior Manager of Communications Joshua Gillin and his wife, Stephanie, decided to celebrate their wedding anniversary by taking a trip to Wilmington, NC, purchasing tickets for TPA’s nonstop flight on Avelo Airlines.

To tell the truth, I’d never heard much about Wilmington, NC.

I’ve lived in Savannah and visited Charleston, SC, and have been to other Southern coastal towns like Beaufort and St. Simons many times. But somehow you just don’t often hear about Wilmington, which is a shame, really.

So when Avelo Airlines had an eye-popping sale on fares from TPA to Wilmington, I bought two tickets for a long anniversary weekend with my wife, Stephanie.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Wilmington,” I said. “It’s on the coast of North Carolina, below the Outer Banks.”

“What is there to do Wilmington?” she asked.

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Riverwalk and Battleship NORTH CAROLINA WCVB

Photo courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau

Our pleasant flight into Wilmington’s airport only took about an hour and a half – closer than Orlando! – and the drive to the city’s downtown Historic District, where we would be staying, took less than 10 minutes.

It’s not a big place, with a population of about 120,000 living inside the city limits, but history looms large. It’s been an important port city since its incorporation in 1739, and historic placards and signs on seemingly every house and street corner paint a vivid picture of its citizens and its past.

You can tour architecture from periods ranging from colonial times to the Victorian era and the antebellum south with tours at the Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens, the Bellamy Mansion and the Latimer House. You can also get up close and personal with a World War II-era warship at Battleship North Carolina, a Pacific theater veteran docked conspicuously across the river from downtown.

Some of the history is a little more modern; TV and movie production is a big presence in Wilmington. EUE/Screen Gems Studios, near the airport, is supposed to be the largest filming facility outside of California, although it’s unfortunately not giving tours currently. One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, A Walk to Remember, David Lynch’s 1986 thriller Blue Velvet – all were shot in and around the city. (Paradoxically, the 1991 Martin Scorsese film Cape Fear, named for the river that flows by Wilmington and into its homonymous cape, was filmed almost entirely in South Florida.)

ARRIVE Wilmington Dram Yard

TPA photo

The city’s rich lore even followed us to our hotel, a collection of recycled buildings that have been transformed into ARRIVE Wilmington, a swank boutique hotel complete with a gazebo bar. While part of the small-but-expanding campus (they’re building an addition next door) was a former convent, the most unusual part was the corner lot now housing the Dram Yard restaurant.

The brunch and bar menu may be the focus now, but the lounge once was the Eureka Dye Works, a dry cleaning company damaged (along with dozens of other city sites) by a rampaging circus elephant named Topsy in 1922. Apparently, the carnage included Topsy slurping up a load of fabric dye and spraying it everywhere. The Dram Yard has marked the occasion with an elephant logo and elephant door handles, among other touches.

We went in search of other Topsy tributes during our stay by visiting scads of shops and stores, many of which were packed into the convenient Old Wilmington City Market and the Cotton Exchange. Both shopping centers were filled with locally made wares and sustainably sourced foods. We even ran across some excellent jewelry and clothing made in East Africa at Swahili Coast. There are also some great stops for bookworms, with stacks of used options at Old Books on Front Street and new tomes at Papercut.

Riverfront WCVB

Photo courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau

While we didn’t make the short drive to the Atlantic coast – nearby Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach are big draws for sunseekers – we did explore some of the pirate yarns at Edward Teach Brewery, a sudsmaker named after the infamous Blackbeard, serving its beer in a former firehouse. It was among a throng of local breweries, like stalwart Front Street Brewery, which offered some delicious bites to eat; the more experimental New Anthem Beer Project; and Flytrap Brewing, named after that botanical oddball, the Venus flytrap, which is found within a short range of Wilmington and nowhere else.

We’re big music fans and theater nerds, and there are plenty of live music options across town. But instead of checking into the historic Thalian Hall or the Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College, we followed our ears to the cavernous Ironclad Brewery, which combined our love for brews and tunes with a three-hour show featuring the local School of Rock chapter. We were only going to stay for a few minutes (for the kids!), but the talented teens wrapped us up for hours as they burned through hit after hit from the ‘60s through the ‘90s. Check that: one of the best performers was only 11, and she absolutely crushed the vocals on Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart.

Sorrow Drowner cocktail Wilmington

TPA photos

After ending one evening with an appropriately indulgent fondue dinner at The Little Dipper, we started our last day with a late breakfast at the very creative, coastal-modern-themed Seabird, then set out for more sightseeing. Locals tout the scene at the Cargo District, a trendy eating, shopping and housing destination comprised of repurposed shipping containers not far from the historic district. But we much preferred the vibe about a mile away at The Sorrow Drowner, a rambling tiki bar built inside a former community theater. Filled with movie props and oddball objects, the space pretends to be a 1930s adventurers’ club hangout, complete with staff who often work in character and sling showy cocktails – including their namesake drink for two, served in a custom triple-skull bowl.

Tarantellis spaghetti WilmingtonWe weren’t there on a night with live music or a burlesque show, so we departed to make it back in time for a dinner reservation at Tarantelli’s. The main event at this Italian eatery was Spaghetti al Formaggio Parmigiana, a double portion of bucatini in red sauce stirred tableside in a 150-pound wheel of incredibly salty Parmigiano Reggiano that has been melted with a flaming ladle of whiskey. It’s as showy and as filling as it sounds (although you will definitely want to skip the extra pinch of sea salt).

After taking a couple of laps around the block to settle such a big meal, we hoofed it back to our hotel to casually greet wedding guests who popped in and out from the venue next door, a former Catholic church called St. Thomas Preservation Hall. Another couple had just married, and the entire party was spilling out onto the streets.

My wife and I sat in the rocking chairs outside our room and toasted our own wedding six years prior. Then we went inside to get some sleep. We had a plane to catch in the morning.

Want to follow in their footsteps and book a flight on Avelo Airlines? Click here.