A big thank you to the Wilmington and Beaches CVB for hosting this trip so I could provide this detailed review of my experience. 

I first visited Wilmington, NC in 1999 in travel writer mode when the still sleepy town was just beginning to awaken from a long nap. Twenty-five years later, the resurrection is complete, as it surely did rise and shine. Historic Downtown Wilmington is a medley of English-colony-inspired brick streets and buildings, with block after block of handsome, protected mansions. Its charming grid has many old-timey nooks and alleys to match. Simply put, this walkable village is now a full-blown trendy and happening place. Its neighbor, Wrightsville Beach, is a mere eight miles away yet a world apart. This dynamic pairing makes visiting here a fantastic foray of unexpected finds in what has become an international foodie intersection. The region boasts endless enthusiastic ambassadors—typically people who visited for college or otherwise and never left. It isn’t hard to see why.

Wrightsville Beach, NC

My tale-of-two-towns odyssey started in Wrightsville Beach, a four-mile-long Atlantic Ocean barrier island, where I immediately encountered a message in a bottle—beached! The Wrightsville Beach Mailbox awaits the sharing of anyone’s soul with other open-minded strangers via handwritten undelivered-yet-shared letters that range from prayers to confessions. All are encouraged to contribute to and mine this goodwill landmark that’s always stocked with paper, pens, and journals. This spiritual postal outpost upon a silky-sand beach is tactile proof that this bicycle-friendly haven is the perfect place to reflect on your destiny and manifest your dreams.

For more than a decade, a local couple maintained the mailbox, preserving more than 200 journals filled with letters ranging from love stories and prayers to confessions and secrets. The old mailbox and capsule were relocated to the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, where visitors can learn more about the beach community’s past through exhibits and self-guided walking tours. Today, the mailbox’s legacy lives on with a new box placed in its original location that’s also managed by the museum.

The Blockade Runner Resort, a sage grand-ole-dame of a beach resort hotel since 1964, has big-time generational loyalty as it makes reimagining retro-chic look easy. One way this laid-back landmark—151 rooms on five acres from surf to sound—achieves oceanfront mastery is its perfect position set back from the shoreline. It not only respects the width of Wrightsville Beach but also leaves room for a massive landscaped front lawn that teems with bunnies, huge wooden hammocks, lawn games, outdoor movies, and hula-hoop sessions. Its ultra-casual ocean-view restaurant has a piano as its centerpiece.

This legacy beach resort, the prologue to Wrightsville Beach’s eventual fame, hosts vintage pool parties every summer Tuesday at its outdoor pool bar. Amenities include dozens of watersport activities, a hot tub, sauna, and endless options to relax. There’s also a 13-bedroom beach cottage that can accommodate up to 26.  Hire their professional photographer to capture these memories.

Exploring Wrightsville Beach by bicycle is a cinch made even easier with South End Surf Shop’s bike rentals. The barrier island is pedestrian friendly, as cars give a big-berth courtesy to cyclists and walkers. The Loop, a 2.5-mile fitness trail for running and walking, is enhanced by 25 unique signs with vintage photographs and informative history tidbits and trivia describing the significance of the area. The Wrightsville Beach Museum of History (free) is located along The Loop. This intimate museum is in a historic beach cottage that was relocated to Wrightsville Beach Park. Exhibits include a chronological journey of the island’s history through images and artifacts, and the Wrightsville Beach Waterman’s Hall of Fame. It’s also where The Wrightsville Beach Mailbox entries—a guest-bookish compendium—auspiciously ended up. Amusing, and otherwise, entries included: Who killed the Kennedys? and I don’t think I love Brian.

Ceviche’s is an inspired Panamanian restaurant and bar where its Central American tropical zest enlivens fish, cocktails, and more. This ain’t a fried food joint. The fresh twists include G.O.A.T guacamole (with goat cheese) and blackened scallops paired with chimichurri slaw & guajillo cream. Here you’ll find generous portions of Pacific meets Atlantic Ocean-inspired fare in North Carolina’s low country. Ceviche’s buzzing bar is only 20 feet away (down a narrow hallway) from the calmer dining room. Panama Painkiller anyone? Maybe better to stick with a pure, smoky tequila.

Another beachy highlight was riding our bikes to board a birding cruise with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours led by Captain Joe Abbate, a Cape Fear naturalist and guide extraordinaire. Joe, an ornithologist, freelance oyster-bed investigator, and maritime wizard attended college here and never left. His three tour boats, the Clover, Leprechaun, and Shamrock, explore the Banks Channel with a twist—his unyielding passion for Mother Nature.

Steps away from the cruise dock is a lunch spot, the Intracoastal Waterway-facing Bluewater Grill. This fun multi-level hangout—two bars, one in, one out—serves nicknamed cocktails, all the seafood faves, and a harissa roasted butternut squash salad. At sunset, this place becomes a thumping party for 500 or more. Cycling back to the oceanfront, we got a kick out of the warehouse-resembling Redix Department Store, an old-style haunt offering everything from bait to beachy baubles.

The Druids were onto something. Historic Airlie Gardens is a century-old botanical and sculpture garden where the star is a 500-year-old mighty live oak tree draped in Spanish moss. Live oaks grow two feet per year and were worshiped by the Druids (ancient Celtic VIPs) who deliberately left no written accounts. What other continuously living shrines have been (literally) hanging around in America since the 1500s? This ultra-green 67-acre walkabout refuge of seasonal blooms is a very special place as well as a dandy exhibit and event venue. The self-guided walking experience allows visitors to explore more than a dozen gardens and several historic structures. It also features a butterfly house and a colony of live oaks!

You surely won’t go hungry here. South Beach Grill is a casual, sunset facing indoor-outdoor restaurant where Argentinian malbecs meet low-country calamari enhanced by traditional southern pepper jelly. Their “short rib, long story” means painfully slow-braised beef and the Grouper Linda is a house specialty referring to one of their regulars since they opened in 1997.

After a few days on the beach, it was time to hit downtown’s festive main drag, Front Street, which has an amazing array of creative, culinary, and bar offerings for what is, essentially, a big, small downtown comprised of mostly historic brick buildings and streets. This former English colony boasts 230 blocks of antique-house grandeur in eight historic districts. Hats off to the visionary 1970s hippies that insisted on preserving most of it. You could certainly say this is a classic example of a destination taking a long time preparing to become an overnight sensation. Wilmington’s beauty is not lost on the film and television industry, as this place is the natural movie set of U.S. movie sets. Relaxing is easy here. I didn’t hear one car horn for all the days I was in town.

As a veteran New York City walking tour guide, I know a good tour when I experience it. The Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tour is one of the best food tours I’ve ever taken—an incredible value that includes alcohol. My guide Briee, a local, has enjoyed every facet of the food industry from chef to professor. A consummate foodie pro and historian to boot, Briee clarifies how this port city, beginning in 1739, shaped a spectacular food scene that continues to evolve. The stops, always inside historic buildings, included shrimp and grits with sausage and collard greens paired with delicious wine, a fine-wine bar paired with truffle mushroom pizza, more wine paired with truffle mac-n-cheese, a premium margarita paired with a yellow-fin tuna tostada, a rum cake stop, and a finale serving up imported gelato. This is a true bargain for a top-notch three-hour foodie tour. The next day, I returned for a full meal at the yellow-fin tuna stop, Savorez, a made-from-scratch Latin fusion hideaway where I dug into their pan-seared Scallopagos Islands entree. Every stop on this tour was worth a repeat.

The Wilmington Riverwalk, a nifty riverside boardwalk lined with many woody buildings, is where we boarded our Eagle Island Cruise with Wilmington Water Tours alongside the Historic Downtown and Eagles Island. We witnessed the Cape Fear River’s past come alive via a highly informative narrator and captured unique views of the Battleship North Carolina; learned about rice plantations; and viewed shipwrecks, flora, and fauna on the 50-minute adventure. It was a nice mix of town lore, wildlife, and shipbuilding and settler history—a float into the region’s watery wild side, and back.

Oyster culture reigns supreme at Seabird, where chef Dean Neff, a 2024 James Beard Foundation Finalist for “Outstanding Chef,” is a seafood historian with a keen eye on aquaculture sustainability. “Were all about low-tide forager delights,” explains Neff, who also owns this spacious open-kitchen hotspot. Neff relies on his local “seasonal-forward experts” to harvest whelk snails, fan clams, conc, and sea beans (dead man fingers), to name a few. All this intel immediately shines through on its menu, where baked oysters include broiled Hollandaise (crab, spicy fried oyster), BBQ (Worcestershire butter, lemon, breadcrumbs, roasted shrimp), and Rockefeller (Benton’s bacon, Pernod, spinach, corn breadcrumbs). Yup, this is the Napa Valley of oysters.

Seabird trusts female-owned and operated Shellem Seafood to respect the seasons. The boutique shell-fishing company based out of nearby Wrightsville Beach, NC, harvests and delivers wild shellfish per order directly and proudly provides the tide-to-table experience. Unexpectedly, the cheerful-n-comfortable vintage atmosphere in this rising star on a downtown corner means all-day dining, casual attire, generous spaces between tables, and relaxed-pro servers. Otherworldly hand-crafted cocktails include bright mezcal sours and Spanish-style G+T’s. Add: savvy international wine list.

North Carolina’s coastal bounty inspires their eastern cioppino entrée, a West Coast-style seafood medley melded with low-country delights: mussels, wild striped bass, shrimp, scallops, andouille, potato, and charred bread with rouille. The vegan stuffed cabbage dazzles not only vegans with mushroom-leek farce, spring pea salad, soubise, and apple agrodolce. Ps, Neff’s wife, award-winning pastry chef, Lydia Clopton, wows with both evening and morning desserts.

Dreamers by DW is a shingle-style Queen Anne luxury boutique inn designed to blend in with its lush landscaping. At first, the five-guestroom lair seemed like an ultra-elevated Airbnb with fabulous vegan breakfasts, but this backstory goes deeper. Dreamers was founded by a real estate entrepreneur and a self-taught artist who began their journeys in Germany and Puerto Rico. Upon meeting they realized their shared passion for curating unique designer rentals in beautiful locales. Well, they nailed it in Wilmington. In addition to art and design flourishes, this inn breathes life and movement into every space, gracing the floors, walls, kitchens, and hallways with striking artwork, warm textures, and delicate detail. Ps, we signed up for yoga on the porch with Captain Joe’s wife Alexis Abbate, who co-owns Terra Sol Sanctuary.

Arrive Wilmington inhabits several adjacent historic buildings on the main drag. The feasting continued in one of them, Dram Yard, a trendy corner spot next to the ARRIVE Hotel’s courtyard. Dinners feature locally sourced Southern coastal flavors pizazzed with a global spin served tapas style. Many portions were entrée worthy. They do it all, from charred Brussels sprouts to beef tartare. Dine indoors or out at its Gazebo Bar with a fire-pit-friendly patio. There’s no shortage of craft cocktails or carefully curated wine and beer offerings.

This is a fine part of the world to let choice and chance dance. We rounded off our itinerary by attending the Feast Wilmington Craft + Cuisine Event by the riverside for microbrew-restaurant pairings in two long rows of adjacent tents. Add: live music, jovial mixing. And then, why not, a couples massage at Shine on Massage Therapy.

Wilmington rookies? I highly recommend starting your visit with a fabulous 90-minute Wilmington Walking Tours for a Wilmington History 101 foray. Your dynamic and entertaining guide, Amanda Leese, takes you from 1585 to the present and leaves you informed and wanting more. I sure did.

*For more information on these memorable and adjacent regions, visit WilmingtonAndBeaches.com. The Wilmington International Airport enjoys 17 direct flights, including nonstop from LGA; similar to NYC’s direct flight to Roanoke, VA, where only 75-minutes in the air reveals an absolutely relaxed Southern otherworld.

P.S. My Wrightsville Beach Mailbox notes: Measure your wealth by how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money… and… NOW YOU TELL ME? (I plan on being cremated, but if I had a headstone, that’s my epitaph).

*Some photos courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches CVB

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