City Portrait: Wilmington, North Carolina
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You can get to Wilmington three ways: by car, by plane, or by water.
Drive in from the west over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. You’ll see the battleship North Carolina down below on your left, snug in her last berth on Eagles Island. Ahead of you you’ll see the signature waterfront of the city spread out like a postcard: the restaurants of Chandler’s Wharf just north of the bridge; the excursion boat Wilmington and the stern-wheeler Henrietta III, moored on the Riverwalk; the Coast Guard cutter Diligence; the brick Cotton Exchange; the boatbuilding shop of Cape Fear Community College.
Drop in out of the sky and your glide path will reveal a stunning view of the sparkling ocean to the east and then the lovely recursive tea-colored loops of the Cape Fear River, a coastal meander that appears as a work of natural art on a vast scale, bordered by wild lush greenery. But I like coming in from the water the best—the way the early explorers like Verrazano did. The river and the sea define the place.
Ahead of a freshening southeast wind, I sail across the bar hard by Bald Head Island, loop around Southport (scene of Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy), and slide up the long channel another fifteen miles to the city, then tour the whole waterfront in one glorious reeling montage.
A lot of cities in North Carolina were located according to some kind of political calculus. Raleigh, the capital, was plunked down in a central location. But Wilmington is here because of the river.