I wrote recently about how a boat can help you get to destinations that would be impossible or inconvenient to reach any other way. Today I’d like to talk about a place that’s readily accessible from dry land, but that presents a unique and charming face to the water, and to the water-borne visitor.
In other words: This is a place you really should consider getting to know from your boat.
I’m talking about downtown Wilmington, which in recent years has become more and more accommodating to boats and boaters. A major tourist attraction in its own right, downtown now boasts two miles of Riverwalk, right on the shore, lined with restaurants, bars, hotels, vacation rentals, parks and other attractions.
Increasingly, downtown and other locations along the Cape Fear River are becoming “home port” for pleasure boaters as new private marinas open and offer up-to-date services. Transient boaters are also welcome to stop in for a few hours or a few days at both the private marinas and at the City of Wilmington’s public docks.
Wilmington exists because of the Cape Fear River and sea-borne commerce. It was founded almost 300 years ago where the river’s two main forks divide. Many signs of our “Port City’s” maritime history remain just steps from the river. Cobblestone streets with remnants of railroad tracks and former warehouses remind us that where pleasure boats now tie up, ocean-going freighters once docked, unloading cargoes from around the world.
When you’re tied up at one of the wharves along Water Street, enjoying a refreshing beverage on your own deck or at a shore-side watering hole, you’ll notice picturesque ruins lining the far bank, the Cape Fear River’s west side. Rusting boilers and steam engines and slowly rotting hulls mark the remains of old tugboats, abandoned during the Great Depression and left to sink in the shallows. That whole expanse of riverbank is a marine archaeological district, which protects relics from as far back as the Civil War, and before.
Many aspects of that history can be seen at museums and preserved historic homes that are an easy stroll from the waterfront. The Burgwyn-Wright House, three blocks from the river, dates to Colonial times. It was famous as headquarters for the British general, Lord Cornwallis, during the Revolution. It’s open for tours daily. The Bellamy Mansion, two blocks farther up Market Street, captures life as it was lived in Wilmington just before and during the Civil War.
It seems like every block has a historical marker, about everything from George Washington’s visit to Wilmington’s role as a haven for Civil War blockade runners.
Historic Thalian Hall, three blocks from the river, remains a showplace for theater, cinema, music and other entertainment, 160 years after its curtain rose for the first time. Something is playing on its stages just about every evening.
Plenty of other entertainment venues are even closer to the waterfront. Wilmington’s lively nightlife scene offers music and comedy in dozens of establishments. And just the pedestrian life on downtown’s sidewalks, and the Riverwalk itself, is friendly and fun most any time.
Some folks who are unfamiliar with downtown may ask about safety. The fact is that the downtown district has Wilmington’s lowest crime rate. Boaters visiting during the warm-weather months will find its busy street scene welcoming and comfortable well into the evening.
A good way to get introduced to downtown from the water is to arrange transient docking at the city’s public docks. The part-day fee for up to six hours is a flat $5; overnight rates are $1.25 per foot per day. Electric service is available, too. Contact the city’s dockmaster at (901) 520-6875 or online at www.wilmingtonrecreation.com.
Private marinas offer similar services and rates can be found online.
For boaters based at or near Wrightsville Beach, getting downtown involves following the Intracoastal Waterway south to Snow’s Cut, where it joins the Cape Fear River. A sharp right turn, heading north, takes you up the river, which has a broad well-marked channel, past the commercial wharves at the State Port, and under the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
Those with boats on trailers may find it worth launching from the city’s ramp at the foot of Castle Street, right under the Memorial Bridge.
From downtown, boaters can explore the beautiful, uncrowded waters of the Cape Fear’s upper branches. Once past the industrial area just north of downtown, the Northeast Cape Fear River goes through beautiful wooded country, where you’re likely to spot ospreys and even bald eagles searching for fish. The river is broad and deep and uncrowded, well-suited for such sports as water-skiing and wakeboarding, as well as for fishing. (A state freshwater license is required above downtown.) The main or west branch of the river meanders through salt marshes and former colonial rice fields, and also leads into wild, remote and beautiful waters well worth exploring for nature-lovers, fishermen and adventure-lovers.
As much as we love the beach and the ocean, we also love living in a place where our scenic and easily accessible river takes us to such interesting and fun destinations just a short distance inland.
Thom Cross is the general manager of MarineMaxWrightsville Beach. Headquartered in Clearwater, Florida, MarineMax is the nation’s largest recreational boat and yacht retailer. Focused on premium brands, MarineMax sells new and used recreational boats and related marine products and services as well as provides yacht brokerage and charter services. For more information, visit www.marinemax.com, find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MarineMaxWrightsvilleBeach or call (910) 256-8100.
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