I am convinced that someday Wilmington will be listed as one of America's major cities. It is literally growing before my eyes. You might actually already know what the town looks like because the TV series Dawson's Creek was filmed here (on location and in our local movie studio, Screen Gems), and now One Tree Hill is produced here. Guess what that means?Movie star sightings all over town! (I spotted the gorgeous Chad Michael Murray walking down Market Street!) That's not the only thing people like about Wilmington. Where else do you have a historic downtown-filled with fancy old houses and lots of cool shops and restaurants-and a beautiful stretch of sand, Wrightsville Beach, only 20 minutes apart? Everyone here zigzags between the two.
To Do Downtown
On a sunny day, you can catch the free trolley to get your bearings, or you can take a horse-drawn carriage (the guide will tell you all the local history). Or join one of the walking tours. I recommend the nighttime Ghost Walks (910/794-1866; www.hauntedwilmington.com; $10 adults, $8.50 children), which take place year-round. They say that Wilmington is the most haunted city in America-in part because the town used to be a busy port, and there were so many ship-related deaths. I've never had any run-ins with spirits, but hundreds of people have reported seeing the three ghosts that haunt Thalian Hall (301 Chestnut St.; 800/523-2820; www.thalianhall.com), where we go for plays and movies.
Downtown is on the Cape Fear River, and the water taxi—like a ferry—is another fun way to get around. It costs only $3 for a 15- to 30-minute ride to the U.S.S. North Carolina (Eagles Island; 910/251-5797; www.battleshipnc.com), which everyone just calls the Battleship. The tour is self-guided. You get to explore the bunk rooms and mess hall and imagine what it was like to spend months on a huge boat during World War II. On deck, try to spot Charlie, the giant alligator who lives on the riverbank. Yep, he's real.
A great place for lunch or dinner is Front Street Brewery (9 Front St.; 910/ 251-1935; burgers for four $25). My sisters and I love the burgers; our parents love the beer, made right there. Afterward, it's a short stroll to Kilwin's (16 Market St.; 910/772-1298) for ice cream or fudge. You won't believe how good it smells when you walk through the door.
When it rains, there's still plenty to do, especially if you're up for museums. Don't tell anyone, but I still love to climb on the giant pirate ship at the Wilmington Children's Museum (116 Orange St.; 910/254-3534; www.playwilmington.org). If you tour only one of the historic houses, I think it should be the Burgwin-Wright House (224 Market St.; 910/762-0570). It's a plantation from 1770, with seven gardens and, sometimes, open-hearth cooking demonstrations. Then brace yourself for the new Cape Fear Serpentarium (20 Orange St.; 910/762-1669; www.bushmastersonline.com). It contains one man's collection of reptiles from all over, including albino pythons, king cobras, and, my favorite, a creature called Komodo. I think it's a lizard; it's huge!
At Wrightsville Beach
On your way to the beach from downtown, you have to give in and let your kids play at Jungle Rapids (5320 Oleander Dr.; 910/791-0666; www.junglerapids.com). It has mini-golf, laser tag, go-karts and a fantastic water park.
Wrightsville Beach itself is a barrier island; the Intracoastal Waterway runs between it and the mainland. The beach is all public, with perfect sand for volleyball, and great waves. Whatever the season, temperature, or forecast, you can always find a surfer in the water. The Intracoastal Waterway is where everyone kayaks, canoes, and goes tubing, waterskiing, and knee boarding, which is like waterskiing but on a short board (I just tried it for the first time-very fun). Salt Marsh Kayak Co. (222 Old Causeway Dr.; 910/509-2989; www.saltmarshkayak.com) rents kayaks and Hobie Cats and gives lessons.
My favorite place to swim is right around the Blockade Runner, a nice hotel where lots of locals and out of towners go. I like to look at all the people who somehow end up here.
For lunch, surfers get their sandwiches-and their surf reports-at Robert's Market (32 N. Lumina Ave.; 910/ 256-2641); the Trolley Stop (1 S. Lumina Ave.; 910/256-3421) has the best hot dogs around. (It got its name from the old streetcar that once made its way from downtown to the beach, before a lot of people had cars.) Another great place to go is Jackson's Big Oak Barbeque (920 S. Kerr Ave.; 910/799-1581; lunch for four $10), halfway between downtown and the beach. I've heard that North Carolina barbecue is different from any other because of all the vinegar, but I've never tried "imported barbecue," and that's really okay with me.
Three More Must-Sees
Airlie Gardens People mainly come for the plants and lakes. I have to say the azalea bushes are gorgeous, but the most amazing attraction is the new bottle house, made entirely out of-you guessed it! The house was built as a memorial to Minnie Evans, a self-taught artist who was the gatekeeper at Airlie for many years. In the summer, my mom plays jazz concerts here as part of the First Friday Jazz Series. 300 Airlie Rd.; 910/798-7700; www.airliegardens.org.
Greenfield Park My friend Meredith and I come to Greenfield to canoe or ride paddleboats on the lake. It also has a playground, picnic shelters, a skate park, and tennis courts that are free. 1702 Burnett Blvd.; 910/341-7852.
Screen Gems This place is the biggest movie studio east of Hollywood. Firestarter, Blue Velvet, and Hackers were all shot here. You can take a back-lot tour, but it's not exactly like Universal's. Screen Gems is a real working studio, and you get to see movie, TV, and music video sets. They have Dawson's bedroom preserved. Can you believe it takes eight 12-hour days to shoot a single episode of Surface, one of the new television shows filmed here?As you tour, be sure to keep your eyes open-chances are you'll see a famous face or two. 1233 N. 23rd St.; 910/ 343-3500; www.euescreengems.com; tours $12 adults, $5 children.
OUR GUIDE Carter
GUIDE QUALIFICATIONS Fourth-generation Wilmingtonian
IMMEDIATE FAMILY Mom and Dad, both musicians, and two sisters, Annie, 11, and Isabelle, 7
HOME A small farm with 15 goats, two horses, three chickens, a dozen ducks, three dogs, and four cats
FAVORITE FOOD North Carolina barbecue, with a side of hush puppies
TALENT Singing. The whole family performs together at concerts-and on their answering machine
Carter's mom and dad, Julia and Kelly, offer their tips.
When to Come
Spring is ideal because it's not too hot and the azaleas are in bloom. That's a pretty big deal here—the 59th annual town-wide North Carolina Azalea Festival (www.ncazalea festival.org) takes place this year April 5 through 9. We never miss the downtown parade.
How to Get Here
You can fly right into Wilmington International Airport. We're also a two-hour drive from Raleigh.
Where to Stay
Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort
Located on Wrightsville Beach, it has a kids' club, and a costumed parrot who delivers milk and cookies.
1706 N. Lumina Ave., Wrightsville Beach; 877/ 330-5050; www.sunspreeresorts.com; doubles from $179.
Also in Wrightsville Beach, this hotel fronts the Atlantic on one side and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other. In summer it offers a kids' program and a boat outing with a treasure hunt.
275 Waynick Blvd., Wrightsville Beach; 800/541-1161; www.blockade-runner.com; doubles from $139.
One of the nicest B&B's in town-best for families with older kids.
202 Nun St., Wilmington; 910/251-2212; www.verandas.com; doubles from $150.
Best Western Coastline Inn
(503 Nutt St.; 800/617-7732; www.bestwesternnorthcarolina.com; doubles from $109 A fun place to stay because it's located downtown on the river, in a former train station-the Wilmington Railroad Museum is next door.
Wilmington is the land of B & B's. For an overview of the options, see www.cape-fear.nc.us, or contact the Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau at 877/406-2356.