A weekend trip in the off-season reveals excellent cocktails, great food and plenty of cultural opportunities.
Words and photographs Ayn-Monique Klahre
Last weekend, I was invited out to Wilmington by the Wilmington and Beaches CVB. I’d been through before, on trips to the beach with the family and taken a spin through town to hit the The Children’s Museum of Wilmington and some touristy shops one rainy summer day.
But this visit was different. My husband and I went without the kids, and we were encouraged to visit in the off-season to get a different vibe. So on Friday afternoon, we hopped in the car for the easy, 2-hour drive. Here’s what we did.
Friday: First tastes of Wilmington
We were set up to stay at The Cove Riverwalk Villas, a collection of houseboats docked on the Cape Fear waterfront. Ours was a two-story, two bedroom rental with a kitchen, dining area and indoor and outdoor living areas to relax. There was even a washer and dryer! It would have been plenty spacious for all four of us, had the kids been invited on this trip.
The Cove was great, location-wise — about a 10-minute walk to the heart of historic downtown Wilmington, but also, in the opposite direction, an easy walk to the convention center and the Live Oak Pavilion amphitheater.
Our Friday afternoon activity was a tasting tour of Wilmington through Taste Carolina. Our knowledgeable guide, Courtney, was a chef who’d worked on the local food scene for a while. She walked us around downtown, pointing out places to try, and stopping for small bites at a few favorites. Some highlights:
- Carolina Pulled Pork Tacos and a La Surfeza, a Mexican-style beer from Salty Turtle Beer Company, at Beer Barrio, a casual, energetic spot on Front Street.
- A Seared Tuna Tostada (topped with pineapple, pickled shallots and japaleño) at Savorez, a small restaurant fixture on the corner of Chestnut & N. 4th Streets. Chef and owner Sam Cahoon is a born-and-bred Wilmingtonian, and we snuck in just before the line for this nine-table restaurant started to build up.
- An artisanal gimlet at Ernest Money & Sons, a members-only bar tucked behind what looks like a lawyer’s office on Princess Street. Courtney ran out and brought back a tasting of appetizers from Fox’s Hole in the Wall down the street — highlights included the Fried Cheese and the Big Papi’s chopped roast beef empanadas.
- Salted Caramel Lattes at Hidden Grounds Coffee, a tiny coffee shop with a big, Instagram-worthy back courtyard.
- An Arancini Ball and cider at Floriana, a classic Italian restaurant on the water.
- Delicious gelato (lemon for me, rum raisin for my husband) at Gelarto in the historic JW Brooks Warehouse Building on the water, imported direct from Italy!
Courtney also pointed out a few places to put on our list to scope out that we didn’t get to this visit, including farm-to-table restaurant Manna Ave. 123, French bistro and martini bar Caprice, and Dean Neff’s Seabird, which is known for its NC seafood.
Towards the end of our food tour, we learned that Wilmington is known as the “Hollywood of the East,” on account of the fact that so many movies and TV shows are filmed there. Lucky for us, our visit coincided with the Cucalorus Film Festival, one of the largest film festivals in the South.
So Friday evening, we headed to Historic Thalian Hall, one of the oldest theaters in the country (165 years old in 2023!) for the premier of the independent film Sisters, directed by Mar Novo and written by three women, Marta Cross, Virginia Novello and Valeria Maldonado, who also played the namesake sisters. It also starred Cristo Fernandez (best known as Dani Rojas in Ted Lasso). The director, along with actors Fernandez and Maldonado (!) hopped on stage after the screening for a lively Q&A with the audience.
After the film, we stopped for a drink at Banter, a tiny watering hole on S. Second Street, before heading home.
Saturday: Culture and Cuisine Around Town
Saturday morning dawned clear and warm (a full 5 degrees warmer than Raleigh!). We walked downtown to pick up breakfast at Drift Coffee + Kitchen, a breakfast spot with a killer avocado toast and pretty blonde wood and sea green decor.
Then we hopped into the car to visit the Cameron Art Museum, about a 15-minute drive. I was particularly excited to see Stephen Hayes’ Boundless, a recently-installed outdoor sculpture commemorating the contributions of the United States Colored Troops to the Civil War. Though we’d written about Hayes’ work, I hadn’t yet had a chance to see this sculpture in person. The scale, detail and siting are powerful.
Inside, there were two main exhibitions to explore. Monument explored how contemporary artists engage with the Civil War and its aftermath, and featured work by Hayes, Kara Walker, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Sonya Clark. Place of Encounters/Lugar de Encuentros featured work by Southern artists of Latinx descent, with vibrant paintings, though-provoking sculpture and immersive video from artists including Nico Amortegui, Rodrigo Dorfman, Mario Marzan and Rosalia Torres-Weiner.
After visiting the art museum, we drove over to chef Bobby Zimmerman’s True Blue Butcher & Table, a restaurant and butcher shop, where we had a delicious brunch. My Crab Cake Benedict was delicious, and my husband had a pretty amazing Bloody Mary.
Next, we drove to the Cargo District, an area just outside of historic downtown Wilmington that features shops and restaurants made out of repurposed shipping containers and Quonset huts. We grabbed coffees at the Blue Cup Roastery, then browsed the goods at Crafted Outpost, Threads by Sydney, Shark Bite Jewelry, Last Stop and The Plant Outpost.
After a quick trip to our houseboat to drop off our goods and freshen up, we walked back downtown in time for a horse-drawn carriage tour of the historic parts of downtown. Our guide took us through both commercial and residential areas, pointing out some of the oldest buildings and homes. We saw some great examples of Victorian architecture, as well as some of the classic Sears catalog homes from the early 20th century.
When we finished the tour, we had time for a drink at The Blind Elephant, a speakeasy down an alley off of Front Street. My drink, the Uncle Frank, was a foaming concoction topped with rose petals. Delicious!
For dinner, we went to Olivero Kitchen + Cocktails, a new restaurant from Raleigh chef Sunny Gerhart (St. Roch), which has another Raleigh chef, Lauren Ivey, at the helm. We sat at the bar to watch the action, and enjoyed a delicious meal that included warm dates, savory beignets, grilled Brussels sprouts and butter bean agnolotti (for me) and a pork shoulder (for my husband).
After dinner, we stopped by the Gazebo Bar at Dram Yard, outdoor bar on the grounds of the ARRIVE hotel. The night had just a bit of a chill, but we were cozy next to a fire pit in our own little nook of the garden.
Our last stop was a nighttime tour of the Latimer House Museum, a home built in 1852 by Zebulon Latimer and his wife, Elizabeth. Under dimly lit chandeliers, we learned about the rituals of Victorian times, how technologies like gas changed how they entertained in this well-preserved historic home.
Sunday: Quick Coffee and Views
We slept in and woke up to another beautiful, sunny day on Sunday. We took our time strolling along the Riverwalk to ease back into town, taking a moment to admire the sculpture Southern Hospitality — actually a giant metal-and-glass Venus Flytrap — and getting a glimpse of the Battleship North Carolina across the river.
We popped in for lattes and pastries at Bespoke Coffee + Dry Goods, a cute craft coffee spot at the corner of Princess and N. 2nd Streets. We took them to go so we could hit the road and get back to the kiddos, but I’m pretty sure my scone tasted almost as good out of a brown paper bag as it would have sitting on one of their barstools, looking out into downtown.
On the drive home, we agreed we could have used one more night. We would have liked to have walked along The Loop on Wrightsville Beach or visit the Wrightsville Beach Mailbox, and maybe checked out a few more places to eat and drink. We’ll just have to go back!
Thank you to the Wilmington and Beaches CVB for sponsoring our trip. This article originally appeared on waltermagazine.com on November 22, 2023.