Quiet Wilmington offers a range of seaside pleasures

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When I tell people that I'm headed for the beach in North Carolina, the response invariably is something like, "Oh, I just love the Outer Banks -- such a wonderful place." When I explain that no, I'm headed farther south, to the Wilmington area, the reaction is just as predictable: a blank look that suggests at best a vague idea where Wilmington is, and no image of what it is like.

That's too bad. For I have found, after more than 25 visits to the Wilmington area, that it's the best-kept secret in North Carolina.

Not that Wilmington wears its charms easily.

Once the largest and most important city in North Carolina, and a major shipping center in the South, it lags substantially behind Raleigh and Charlotte as a metropolitan area in the state: the city's population is a modest 62,000 and the metropolitan population is 152,000. Although Interstate 40 now connects the Wilmington area with the rest of North Carolina, it's still a bit out of the way, located in the southeast corner of the state almost to South Carolina.

So what's to like? Try a city with real history, dating to pre-Revolutionary War days. Try wonderful beaches nearby and

a variety of outdoor activities (fishing, boating, surfing) that, because of the subtropical climate, can be enjoyed eight to nine months out of the year. Try food -- copious amounts of freshly caught seafood, some of the best barbecue served in a barbecue-loving state -- that is often terrific.

And try a quiet, stress-free ambience that helps you remember ** why you take vacations to begin with.

The key is to take the place on its own terms. If you accept that Wilmington will not overwhelm with trendiness and a lot of glitz, that most of its pleasures are simple ones, such as a quiet day at the beach and a tasty plate of barbecue, you'll get a sense of what it is all about.

Let's talk first about the beach life, which for many Wilmingtonians becomes a raison d'etre. There are a number of fine oceanside resorts within a short drive of the city, and their proximity helps give the Wilmington area its decidedly casual ambience.

Probably the best-known is Wrightsville Beach, a mere 20 minutes from Wilmington by car. It gets quite crowded in summertime and attracts a generally upscale, family-oriented clientele, as well as large numbers of college students. Lounging on the beach is the favorite activity, of course, but boating, sailing, surfing and fishing are popular as well. In summer, Wrightsville gets a little too hectic for my taste, but it's a good place to hit for dinner or a drink, or a walk along the beach.

Those wanting a quieter beach experience might try Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, located about a half-hour south of Wilmington on Route 421. They are established resorts that cater primarily to working-class vacationers, although Carolina Beach, the larger of the towns, lately has attracted a more affluent crowd.

What I like about Carolina Beach is that it has a real beach-town feel: a slightly tacky boardwalk with amusement park, arcades and rides; T-shirt shops; and a large municipal marina that is home to several charter boats. The Wilmington area offers outstanding saltwater fishing, and Carolina Beach charter boats ply the Gulf Stream waters from April to November. Some boats offer non-fishing cruises.

But for the ultimate in a restful stay on the water, head a few miles farther south on Route 421 to Kure Beach, a veritable spot on the map. It has but one stoplight and a few restaurants and shops, but most of all Kure Beach offers peace. This is the place to put down the beach blanket, open up that novel you've always want to read, and hear not a sound except the crashing of waves and the shrieking of sea gulls.

I would suggest getting an oceanside room at one of the many modest motels right on the beach. It's a setting that's hard to beat: watching the dawning of the day as the sun comes up over the Atlantic, then, as night falls, the moon rises splendidly, orange and huge, over the horizon.

In the evening, you might walk over to Big Daddy's, the top restaurant in Kure Beach, for a a delicious meal of fried shrimp, hush puppies and cole slaw (with iced tea, of course). Then, almost certainly, it's time to head across Route 421 to visit the wonderful old Kure Beach Pier, which was built in 1923 and has survived, though not without cost, numerous hurricanes.

It's a gathering spot for residents and visitors alike: a place to fish around the clock if desired (night fishing on a pier is a singularly satisfying solitary pursuit), a place to throw away your money on pool and arcade games, and to check out the goofy, sometimes outrageous knickknacks and other items on sale ("Daddy's Little Stinker" T-shirts and the like).

But, at some point, you might want to experience some civilization. If so, Wilmington is the perfect place to spend a few days soaking up history and catching a few good meals -- again, with a minimum of stress and fuss.

At first glance, there's not much to offer. Wilmington has but a single top-flight hotel -- the Hilton -- and, by big-city standards, possesses only a handful of really good restaurants. The city is filled with gas stations and fast-food places, and it should surprise no visitor that a survey last year named Wilmington residents as the greatest consumers of fast food per capita in the United States.

Perhaps the best way to get a feel of Wilmington is to head downtown toward the water -- in this case, not the Atlantic Ocean, which is about a 20-minute drive to the east, but the Cape Fear River, on whose banks the city was founded in 1740. The river flows into the Atlantic about 20 miles south of Wilmington, and was a major factor in its emergence as a shipping center.

Because of Wilmington's importance as a port, it grew into a prosperous city by the 19th century and its citizens built fine homes near the water. Today, many are preserved in the downtown Historic Area. This collection of 18th and 19th century homes exhibits a variety of architectural styles -- Greek Revival, Queen Anne -- and a number are available for tours. I like the Zebulon-Latimer House, a four-story, 1852 Italianate Revival building located on South Third Street, and the Bellamy Mansion, built in 1859. This house, at 503 Market St., combines Greek Revival and Italianate styles and was used as Union headquarters after the fall of Wilmington in 1865.

Also worth a visit is the imposingly columned Thalian Hall, a nearby opera house built in 1858. Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill Cody and Lillian Russell were among the performers who graced its stage; nowadays, you might see a revival of "A Chorus Line" or "Annie."

Many Wilmingtonians end up lunching or shopping at the Cotton Exchange, a complex of restored buildings on the waterfront a few blocks away. The 30 buildings formerly were used by one of the largest cotton-exporting companies in the world; now they house a variety of boutiques and restaurants. It's a good place to get a drink or a light dinner while taking in the cool evening breezes off the Cape Fear River.

A popular diversion in Wilmington, in fact, is taking a cruise on the river. Sightseeing and dinner cruises are offered year-round on the Henrietta II, a sternwheel paddleboat. The Captain J. N. Maffitt, a restored riverboat, features cruises from May through September. Many visitors opt for a look at the USS North Carolina, a battleship built in 1941 that is permanently anchored on the Cape Fear River. A self-guided tour of the ship takes about two hours.

Outside Wilmington are several well-preserved plantations and mansions. Orton Plantation Gardens, located across the river and south of Wilmington, was built in 1925 as a rice plantation. The house itself now is a private residence, but the splendid gardens and impressive trees -- the live oaks and magnolias, especially -- situated on the 20 acres of grounds are open to the public.

As a matter of fact, because of the area's variety of locales -- beachy-town, Old-South, etc. -- many people have seen more of Wilmington than they realize. That's because film producer Dino De Laurentiis opened a studio there in 1984, and churned out a host of mostly forgettable movies shot primarily or entirely in the Wilmington area -- "King Kong Lives," "Raw Deal," "Maximum Overdrive," "Tai Pan," "Cat's Eye" and "Crimes of the Heart," filmed in neighboring Southport.

The thriller "Bedroom Window" was shot primarily in Baltimore but had many Wilmington-area scenes. Remember the old apartment building that Steve Guttenberg shows up in at the end of the movie? It's located in downtown Wilmington, and sharp-eyed filmgoers also might remember it as the site of one of the more memorable scenes in David Lynch's eerie "Blue Velvet" -- the one in which Dennis Hopper pays a visit to the helium-inhaling character played by Dean Stockwell.

All of "Blue Velvet" was filmed in the Wilmington area, which made it uncomfortable for the many residents who, for civic pride's sake, habitually see whatever movie was shot locally. I sat behind two proper old Wilmingtonians during a screening of "Blue Velvet." The first 15 minutes of happy chatter -- about whose house was used in that scene and "Isn't that so-and-so's car?" -- turned into complete and horrified silence once the many F-words began to mount.

Remember, though, that La-La Land this isn't. You might see Jason Robards or Julia Roberts gadding about town while filming a movie, but it's considered bad form to make a fuss over them. Movie stars come and go, but the easygoing Wilmington way remains.

If you go . . .

Spring and fall are the best times to visit the Wilmington area. Summers are hot and steamy, but mid-April and late October are especially nice, as the weather and sea water still are warm but the crowds (and various insects) are gone.

Eating well is a way of life in Wilmington. Many restaurants offer "all you can eat" meals, though lately the more refined are terming them "all you care to eat" or "family style." Whatever these buffets are called, they usually are cheap -- $10 or less -- and often memorable. Northerners, in particularly, can hardly believe they can stuff themselves with unlimited amounts of oysters, shrimp, scallops and fish for the price of one entree back home.

One especially good seafood restaurant that recently opened is Something Fishy (not related to the Baltimore establishment), at 3436 S. College Road; telephone (919) 395-0909. On the waterfront, the Pilot House, located in the restored Chandler's Wharf, features Southern regional cooking.

There are several good barbecue places in the Wilmington area. Remember that this is Eastern North Carolina, and as such features primarily pork barbecue served with a vinegar-based sauce (Western North Carolina's barbecue sauces tend to have a tomato base). One local favorite is Flip's Bar-B-Que House, at 5810 Oleander Drive; telephone (919) 799-6350. The ribs,

chicken and picked-pork sandwiches are outstanding.

Tours no longer are offered at the North Carolina Film Studios, but movies still are being filmed in Wilmington -- among the recent ones were the Julia Roberts star vehicle, "Sleeping With the Enemy," and "Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles." In driving around, it's not uncommon to come upon a film being made, and the local papers give frequent updates on which stars are in town and where they have been seen.

For information on taking a cruise on the Henrietta II call (919) 343-1611. For information about a river tour on the Captain J. N. Maffitt call (919) 343-1776.

In Kure Beach, the Docksider is a fine, family-oriented motel with several oceanside rooms available; telephone (919) 458-4192.

If you need a break from the beach life in Kure Beach, there are two good side trips only a short drive down Route 421. The Fort Fisher State Historic Site, located near where the Cape Fear River empties into the Atlantic, was a major Confederate military establishment. Telephone: (919) 458-5538. Nearby is the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher; telephone (919) 458-8257.

For more information write the Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 24 N. Third St., Wilmington, N.C. 28401; telephone (800) 222-4757.

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