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JOURNEYS; 36 Hours | Wilmington, N.C.


Published: September 24, 2004

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IN autumn, when the withering tropical heat has faded and the beach crowds have disappeared inland, the storybook oak-lined streets of Wilmington are cool and quiet. Though at night the bars may teem with students from the local campus of the University of North Carolina, the pace is relaxed in the shops and restaurants. Out along the Atlantic, there is plenty of sand between the beach towels even though the waters, warmed by the Gulf Stream, are still inviting. Over 250 years ago, a band of fortune seekers and opportunists braved the un-air-conditioned heat -- as well as the mosquitoes, alligators and bears along the banks of the Cape Fear River -- to create Wilmington, which in time became the northernmost hub of the Southern rice culture. Now it makes its living as a resort, a busy port and an aspiring movie capital. In 1983, Frank Capra Jr. found Wilmington a good place to shoot his film ''Firestarter,'' and now his Wilmington studio, EUE/Screen Gems, says it is the largest film production facility east of California. Downtown this fall, you might find the cast of the WB network's ''One Tree Hill'' among the contented tourists in search of antiques, a night at the theater or a bowl of ground white hominy -- better known in these parts as grits. CHRIS DIXON


7 p.m.
1) Grits, Evening Version
For possibly the best shrimp and grits you've ever tasted (or even contemplated), have dinner at the Pilot House (2 Ann Street, 910-343-0200; entrance on Water Street), an 1870 house on the Cape Fear River. Among the low-country-influenced specialties of the chef Matt Karas is sweet potato grouper ($21.95) with organic greens and mushroom ravioli. For a drink after dinner, walk to Level 5 (21 North Front Street, 910-342-0272), an outdoor heated rooftop bar overlooking the river and a local favorite.


9 a.m.
2) Grits, Morning Version
It's not too early to get started on a breakfast of standards like biscuits, grits and gravy and bacon and eggs at the Dixie Grill (116 Market Street, 910-762-7280), a genuine Southern greasy spoon that was renovated and updated by the proprietor, Brian Mayberry, two years ago. This 80-year-old restaurant is in a 100-year-old building whose grease trap lies above a storied downtown tunnel called Jacob's Run. Whether the run was used solely to carry water from artesian springs or served a part in freeing slaves has never been clearly documented. Also good is the Louisiana hash with Cajun andouille sausage and eggs ($6.50).

10 a.m.
3) A Step Back in Time
Meet Bob Jenkins, your guide, at Riverfront Park at the foot of Market Street for the Wilmington Adventure Walking Tour (910-763-1785, $10). Under his straw hat, Mr. Jenkins's mind probably holds as much living knowledge of the city as anyone's. And with a milewide drawl, he'll tell you about it as he bounds through town, rolling off facts like an auctioneer and stopping all traffic with a lift of his arm and cane. The original settlers were ''Southern second sons,'' you will be told, who made a fortune denuding the longleaf pine forests for wood, rosin and turpentine. Downtown, where he led the charge to preserve historical buildings in the 1970's and 80's, Mr. Jenkins can provide the history of almost every building -- and colorful details about the gentry who built them, like the Wright family, who owned a good deal of land along the coast.

4) Browsing the Old and the New
Look out over the Wilmington RiverWalk as you have lunch on the deck at the George on the RiverWalk (128 South Water Street, 910-763-2052), a new place getting rave reviews from the locals for its crab cake ($12) and pork loin pressed Cuban sandwich ($9). Then stroll out for some browsing. Check out Antiques of Old Wilmington (25 South Front Street, 910-763-6011), whose proprietors, Tom Richardson and Mark Smith, have had the shop for more than 20 years. At J. Robert Warren Antiques (110 Orange Street, 910-762-6077) a high-end shop in the gorgeous 1810 Hogg-Anderson house, look for Carolina antiques like a 1720 Carolina pine side table or latter-day versions of 18th-century cooking utensils from a contemporary blacksmith, Alex Moss. Peek in at Edge of Urge (18 South Water Street, 910-762-1662), featuring handmade clothing and jewelry; and Rare Cargo (112 North Front Street, 910-762-7636), above, a clothing store with a funky streak. Check out the Piggly Wiggly T-shirts.

3:30 p.m.
5) Meet the Bellamys
Free and enslaved blacks built the Greek Revival and Italianate mansion-turned-museum at 503 Market Street (910-251-3700, for Dr. John D. Bellamy, a prominent planter. The Civil War began just after the family moved in, and the Bellamys returned home when it was over to find Yankees in Tara, but they reclaimed it and stayed until 1946. Its former in-town slave quarters are intact -- a rarity.

6 p.m.
6) Lowcountry Meets the World
Deluxe (114 Market Street, 910-251-0333) has a lowcountry-Asian-Italian-influenced menu, a Wine Spectator award of excellence and terrific eclectic décor. Try creations of the chefs, Keith Rhodes and Steve Harrington, like the pan-seared day-boat red grouper, which comes with crab potato hash, asparagus in a fennel-leek-smoked-bacon vinaigrette and béarnaise ($26).

8 p.m.
7) Local Theater
See a show at the restored 1858 Thalian Hall (310 Chestnut Street, 910-343-3660,, the only surviving theater built by John Montague Trimble, a much-favored opera-house architect in his day. It stayed open during the Civil War and has been a fixture downtown ever since. You might see a local production of a well-known play, imported talent like the political satire group Capitol Steps or an indy film.


9 a.m.
8) Beach and Beach Town
In the alternately ramshackle, down-home and upscale town of Wrightsville Beach, start the day with a seafood omelet ($7.95) at the Causeway Café (114 Causeway Drive, 910-256-3730) and a trip to the Redix Department Store (120 Causeway Drive, 910-256-2201), which sells everything from Tommy Bahama clothes, local art and cheesy sculptures to bait, beer and windsocks. Then enjoy the ocean at the wide south end of Wrightsville Beach. The surfers crossing the boating channel are going to Masonboro Island. If you're curious about it, rent a kayak through the Salt Marsh Kayak Company (222 Old Causeway Drive, 910-509-2989) and paddle out to see for yourself.

1 p.m.
9) Grandma's Beach House
The Wrightsville Beach Museum of History (303 West Salisbury Street, 910-256-2569) is set up like a luxury beachhouse of the early 1900's. The displays include a 12-foot scale model of the beach around 1910, including Lumina, a 12,000-square-foot entertainment complex that was built in 1905 but razed long ago.

Visiting Wilmington

Wilmington is at the end of Interstate 40, east of Interstate 95. Wilmington International Airport is served by Delta Connection, US Airways and most major car rental companies.

The French House Bed and Breakfast (103 South Fourth Street, 910-763-3337), which has a sprawling, fern-shaded front porch, has often been used by movie actors while working on films in Wilmington. Rates for its three guest rooms are $85 to $135 a night.

The Graystone Inn (100 South Third Street, 910-763-2000), probably the most sumptuous lodging place in town, has seven rooms at $159 to $349 a night.

The owners of the Front Street Inn (215 South Front Street, 910-762-6442) have taken Wilmington's old Salvation Army building and created a 12-room inn. Rooms, with breakfast, are $118 to $208 a night.


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