The N. C. Azalea Festival in Wilmington, that takes place in April, marks the beginning of Spring. In 1948, the Festival’s founder, Dr. W. Houston Moore, told the Chamber of Commerce that this fete “would celebrate the beauty of Greenfield, Orton, Airlie, and other gardens around town.” The Azalea Festival has grown a lot since its early years. Today there are many garden tours as well as many other activities, such as concerts, art shows, culinary demonstrations, fun runs, and other events throughout the week.
David and I have always wanted to attend the Azalea Festival and we almost did this year. Even through we missed it, we were able to visit several of the lovely gardens where the azaleas were still in full bloom.
The Airlie Gardens date back to 1884 when Pembroke and Sarah Jones purchased land along Bradley Creek. By 1901, they had developed a beautiful garden estate there. The original Airlie house was dismantled in 1958. Later, in 1999, New Hanover County purchased the 67 acre estate and gardens. After some restoration, the County opened Airlie Gardens to the public.
Over 75,000 azaleas, thousands of tulips, and a host of camelias herald the arrival of Spring. Along with the abundant flora, we spotted many native birds and turtles throughout the formal gardens. In addition, there are historic structures, sculptures, a fresh water lake, and views of the salt water tidal creek. The Lebanon Chapel built in 1835 is the oldest building still standing.
Near the church there is a beautiful pavilion jutting out into the lake. There sits a pergola structure made of tabby covered with jasmine. It also has a fountain with steps that lead down to the lake.
Other structures in Airlie Gardens include a Butterfly House (open May-October) and the Bottle Chapel which is made of over 2,800 bottles.
Spending some time strolling through Airlie Gardens under the shade of the large live oak trees was well worth our time.
The New Hanover Arboretum is located across Bradley Creek from Airlie Gardens. Dr. Charles E Lewis, the County’s Extension Director, and a group of residents had a vision for this unique “horticulture laboratory.” After a fire that destroyed the Bradley Creek School in 1982, the County decided to locate the Arboretum and Extension Service on this site. After much work, the Arboretum with its collection of 33 different gardens opened in 1989. While it boasts only 7 acres, it has a variety of coastal region plants on display. Most notable among the various gardens are the colorful Aquatic Garden, the peaceful Japanese Garden, the welcoming Rose Garden, and the whimsical Woodlands Garden.
The Rose Garden welcomes you to the Arboretum. Awakening your senses with both their color and aroma, these roses bloom here year around.
The large Aquatic Garden area centers around a waterlily pond. There are some unique sculptures located in the middle of the pond and a bright red footbridge across the water. The pond is stocked with gold, black, and white koi fish which fascinate the children. We have to admit that these large fish fascinated us too.
The Japanese Garden section is in the back part of the Arboretum and it is a very tranquil place to spend some time. The trickling water features and lush green plants seem to beckon you to stop and enjoy a few moments of the beauty and the quietness of this oasis. The tea house and assorted benches located in this area allow you to tarry here for as long as you would like.
The Woodlands Garden area features colorfully painted gnomes and toadstools. They can be found hiding among the trees that surround a large open green space. We saw numerous people picnicking and gathering together either on blankets or in the large Adirondack chair nearby.
The Children’s Garden which features a small cottage and playground area was also very popular.
The works of well-known artists are often on display throughout the gardens at the Aboretum. When we visited, the featured artist was Dorothy Gillespie. Her enamel paint on aluminum sculptures graced five of the gardens. Her works have also been exhibited at Rockefeller Center in New York.
Fantastic flora, cool ponds, open green spaces, unique sculptures, and colorful fish make the Arboretum an inviting place to visit. Another bonus is that it is open daily and it is free to the public.
No trip to Wilmington, no matter the season, would be complete without sampling the area’s great seafood. The Oceanic Restaurant at Crystal Pier on Wrightsville Beach is one of our favorites. Built in 1939, the historic Crystal Pier was, at that time, the longest pier on the eastern seaboard. Not long after the pier was constructed, they also started serving seafood there at the Fish House. Over the years, however, the pier fell into disrepair but it was rebuilt in 2013 and it is now a public fishing pier.
The Oceanic Restaurant opened in 1990. Unfortunately, in 2018, Hurricane Florence damaged the seafood establishment and it had to close for repair and remodeling. They reopened in April of 2019. This casual restaurant is very popular because of its food and because you can dine outdoors on Crystal Pier or in the restaurant itself. No matter where you are seated, you will have panoramic views of the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. We had a great meal there and what made it even more special was the fact that we got to enjoy it with Celia’s mom. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!
We thoroughly enjoyed our Spring visit to Wilmington, NC!
Bonus feature: While traveling through S.C. on the way to Wilmington, we visited the birthplace of sweet ice tea, Summerville, S. C. The town has the World’s Largest Iced Tea on display next to Town Hall in the historic section of downtown. This mason jar is over 15 feet tall and can hold 2,524 gallons of sweet tea, also called “The Champagne of the South.” Per the town’s website, “The Town of Summerville made it’s [its] way into the record book by setting the Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest (Sweet) Iced Tea on National Iced Tea Day, also known as June 10, 2016.”