I had the opportunity to take a five-day trip through the Carolina’s during the holidays. While you will undoubtedly want to travel at a more leisurely pace, what I saw should give you some ideas for your next trip through the two states.
I began at the southeast corner of North Carolina, at an area that brands itself as the Cape Fear Coast, because it sits at the confluence of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. The beach communities of Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach lie on islands separated from the mainland by a sound. Just south of Kure Beach, at the mouth of the river, is Fort Fisher State Historic Site. Fort Fisher was a Confederate fort and the last major stronghold to fall to Union forces during the Civil War. The Union bombardment of the fort was the heaviest in naval history at that time and the fort was the largest and strongest of the Confederacy. The forts visitor’s center contains a museum and narrative of the battle.
One of North Carolina’s three state aquariums is here. It focuses on the wildlife found along the Cape Fear River, from the Piedmont through creeks, swamps, and beaches, finishing at the oceans salt marshes. The aquarium offers canoe trips, salt marsh exploration, crabbing and clamming with aquarium biologists.
The areas anchor is the charming city of Wilmington, with an historic district comprising some 300 blocks. Downtown is flourishing, with many shops and fine restaurants. Screen Gems Studios here is the largest film studio outside Hollywood, which has led to over 300 feature film and television movies and six television series to have been made here. Area gardens open to the public for the popular Azalea Festival in April and Riverfest in October. Directly across the river from downtown, the battleship North Carolina provides a stunning backdrop. She began sailing in 1941 and was the Navy’s most potent weapon, with nine 16-inch guns and 20 five-inch guns. She served in all the major battles in the Pacific.
It’s about 300 miles south to Hilton Head Island, at the southern tip of South Carolina. The island covers 42 square miles of Low Country land. There is a network of lagoons, creeks and salt marshes, and forests of palmettos, pines and magnolias. Very environmentally sensitive, the area features many resorts, fine restaurants and championship golf courses.
The area really did not begin to develop consequentially until the 1950s, when a bridge was built to the island. That led Charles Fraser to draw up a master plan for the islands development, starting with Sea Pines Plantation and Harbor Town. Today Fraser is buried under a large tree in the middle of Harbor Town.
The Coastal Discovery Museum is a great place to explore the areas ecology. There is a Biodiversity: A Sea Island Classroom exhibit that focuses on local wildlife from the beach, salt marsh and fresh water environments. The Coastal Discovery Gardens include a butterfly garden, perennial garden and a marsh walk and deck.