Fringing the Cape Fear River, Wilmington lies just 8 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby coastal communities include Wrightsville Beach, a tony residential enclave; Carolina Beach, a slice of unabashed honky-tonk, with amusement parks and souvenir stands; and Kure (pronounced "curry") Beach, a low-keyed vacation community dotted with pastel-hued clapboard cottages.
Even if you don't know the area, it's likely you've seen it on TV - Wilmington claims the nation's largest movie-production facility east of Los Angeles. The late-'90s teen melodrama Dawson's Creek, which featured prime-time TV's first guy-on-guy smooch, was produced here. Other TV favorites shot here include One Tree Hill and Matlock. It's served as the backdrop for Blue Velvet, 28 Days, Lolita, Empire Records, White Men Can't Dance, Idlewild, and The Secret Life of Bees, among others. Tours are available of Wilmington's leading film facility, EUE/Screen Gems Studios.
This affordable city of about 106,000 contains blocks of grand old buildings and houses, which in recent years have attracted artists, designers, lesbian and gay couples, empty nesters, and other urban pioneers. The film industry has infused the city with both creativity and celebrity, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington - with more than 12,000 students - helps account for the city's youthful attitude. In a relatively conservative state, Wilmington stands out for its increasing appreciation of diversity in all forms.
Wilmington's downtown historic district takes in some 230 blocks of mostly 19th-century houses, warehouses, and commercial buildings in myriad styles - a handful of them now serve as museums. You can stroll about on foot or see it on a variety of guided excursions, from riverboat rides to trolley tours. Among the city's top sightseeing highlights, the Cameron Art Museum focuses on American art (there's a vast collection of Mary Cassatt prints), with an emphasis on artists from North Carolina. For an overview of the area's history, drop by the expansive Cape Fear Museum, with exhibits on everything from natural history to hometown hero Michael Jordan. Docked across the Cape Fear River from downtown, the USS North Carolina battleship is another favorite attraction.
South of downtown, Greenfield Gardens - the city's gorgeous 200-acre municipal park - encompasses a rippling lake, 20 acres of dramatic gardens, and a 5-mile scenic drive and bike path.
To get a sense of the entire Cape Fear region, plan a day trip through the shore communities to the south, including Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, and eventually to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site), which comprises a Civil War battlefield and an archaeological and history museum. Near Fort Fisher you can also tour the impressive North Carolina Aquarium, an enormous state-of-the-art facility whose most popular exhibit, "Cape Fear Shoals," offers an up-close look at local marine life.
From Fort Fisher, catch the auto ferry across the Cape Fear River to historic Southport, a charming town rife with galleries and boutiques. On your way back to Wilmington, drop by Orton Plantation Gardens, home to some of the most spectacular formal gardens in the Southeast.