Once a crumbling afterthought, Wilmington has experienced a renaissance, thanks to North Carolina’s booming economy and its ongoing evolution as “Hollywood East.” This funky, arty, historically vital port city along the Cape Fear River makes a great day trip if the weather isn’t right for the nearby beaches—or even if it is.
Vibrant and quaint, the historic downtown is known for its mile-long Riverwalk, named 2014’s Best American Riverfront by USA Today. Wilmington’s EUE/Screen Gems Studios is the largest domestic TV-and-movie production facility outside of California. Since it opened in 1984, hundreds of films, documentaries and TV series have been filmed and/or produced there, including Iron Man 3, We’re the Millers, Blue Velvet, Cape Fear, Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill.
Ten miles east of Wilmington is Wrightsville Beach, which is more developed and crowded (in season) than much of the Outer Banks. Yet it still maintains the welcoming, low-key vibe of a town that knows its chief selling point is Mother Nature. Thanks to a bit more love from the Gulf Stream, the Atlantic is noticeably warmer and bluer in Wrightsville than it is off the more rugged beaches of the famed barrier islands to the north. Not surprisingly, major draws include surfing, paddleboarding, boating and fishing.
Drive Time: 8 hours, 30 minutes
Where to Stay
Though it’s part of the national chain, the Holiday Inn Resort on Wrightsville Beach has the comfy, laid-back feel of a family-run operation. Steps away from the water, this tidy, well-managed hotel features well-appointed oceanfront rooms and suites with balconies. Amenities include indoor and outdoor pools, along with plenty of family-friendly options, including a special kids’ suite. Book early for summer weekends.
Rooms and suites $249-$309. 1706 N. Lumina Ave., Wrightsville Beach, (888) HOLIDAY.
Where to Eat
Named after an iconic hotel that was destroyed in the Great Fire of Wrightsville Beach in 1934, Oceanic offers panoramic water views and seafood dishes made with ingredients fresh from local fishermen and fisheries. Specialties include the chipotle Atlantic salmon and shrimp, an ahi-tuna poke plate, and a mixed grill with mahi-mahi, salmon and shrimp.
$8-$30. 703 S. Lumina Ave., Wrightsville Beach, (910) 256-5551.
The Pilot House may be the most consistent of all the seafood-centric spots on Wilmington’s Riverwalk. The menu focuses on traditional preparations (think oysters Rockefeller and shrimp-and-lobster Newburg), with a few regional surprises, including crunchy catfish and Southern pecan chicken cutlets.
$6-$28. 2 Ann St., Wilmington, (910) 343-0200.