An insiders guide to all thats wonderful about a weekend in Wilmington
BY LYNN SELDON
Special to the Observer
What makes Wilmington a hit with the film industry also makes it popular with in-the-know weekend visitors. The locations that Hollywood honchos love are often tourist attractions for good reason including historic homes and plantations, museums, inns, restaurants, and many waterfront locations along the Cape Fear River.
Star-Studded Downtown Hits
*Bustling downtown Wilmington is a great place to start. Horse-drawn carriages, walking tours, and trolley rides can all be arranged at or near the corner of Water and Market. Its possible a visiting star will even be along for the walk or ride.
*Walking tour guide and Gene Wilder look-alike John Hirchak from (highly recommended) Hollywood Location Walk of Old Wilmington ($12; www.hollywoodnc.com) has hosted lots of stars on his tours over the years, including Dakota Fanning (in town to film Hound Dog and again for last years The Secret Life of Bees) and Chad Michael Murray and Sophia Bush of One Tree Hill. He also operates Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington (www.hauntedwilmington.com). Info/reservations: 910-794-1866.
*Water Street runs right along the Cape Fear, as does the Riverwalk a boardwalk paralleling the river with great views (including Battleship North Carolina), shops, and restaurants
*Located between the Hilton Wilmington Riverside and the Cotton Exchange (great shopping and dining in a renovated grain mill and cotton warehouse), the Wilmington Walk of Fame features stars for luminaries with local connections including actor and Carolina Beach resident Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon in the "Batman" movies), who died in January; the late Frank Capra, Jr., who many credit for bringing Hollywood east (his father, Frank Capra, was the famed director of Its a Wonderful Life); tennis pioneer Althea Gibson; football star Roman Gabriel; author Robert Ruark; musician Charlie Daniels; and broadcaster and journalist David Brinkley.
*Market Street runs north of Water and serves as the citys main corridor. The antebellum Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts (503 Market Street) feels like the set for Gone With the Wind and has served in many made-for-TV movies it was also the location of the wrap party for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
*Diagonally across the street (past the bubbling Kenan Memorial Fountain that has also been in many films), view the Carolina Apartments (420 Market Street), the building where Isabella Rossellinis character lived in Blue Velvet. Nearby, Thalian Hall/City Hall (310 Chestnut Street), a combination local theater and government building, has been used as a theater in many films and TV series.
*Linda Lavin (of TVs Alice) liked downtown Wilmington so much that she moved to the citys 230-block National Register Historic District. She and her husband, Steve Bakunas, have renovated several historic buildings and are credited with helping revitalize the area. She occasionally takes a turn on the local stage or in a directors role (Wilmington has a very strong theater community). Their undertaking, Red Barn Studio, is a great place to catch a local production.
Get Out of Town
Wilmington is a water-oriented city, thanks to the Cape Fear River and the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
*Wrightsville Beach is a classic Carolinas beach getaway. With a five-mile white sand beach, a popular fishing pier, and a wide variety of accommodations, dining, and shopping options, Wrightsville Beach is a destination in its own right. Sandra Bullock stayed along the oceanfront during the filming of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
*Situated in a traditional beach cottage (that was moved inland), the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History provides a perfect introduction to the storied island. Its actually quite reminiscent of the cottage in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (Wrightsville Beach portrayed Nantucket in the films sand castle contest).
*Back on the mainland, gardening buffs will want to visit Airlie Gardens (300 Airlie Road; www.airliegardens.com). With close to 70 sprawling acres along the water, Airlie Gardens has been featured in Dawsons Creek, Martin Lawrences Black Knight, and Sandra Bullocks 28 Days.
*Down past Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher features lots of aquariums, live animal demonstrations, a touch pool, surf fishing, and much more. It was used for the one-season run of NBCs Surface.
*A number of productions have also used locations at Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher, including Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Bedroom Window, Lolita, and many scenes from Dawsons Creek.
*The Fort Fisher-Southport ferry leaves from the tip of Fort Fisher, transporting cars and passengers to the town of Southport (Demi Moore boarded it in The Butchers Wife, as did Bruce Willis in The Jackal). Its a half-hour ride along the Cape Fear River to Southport.
*Oozing with small town southern charm, Southport is a great place for a seafood meal, some shopping, and an excursion up to Orton Plantation--where Frank Capra, Jr. filmed much of Firestarter (he had originally seen a picture of the plantations mansion on the cover of Southern Accents magazine). Along with providing a classic plantation setting that welcomes visitors, Orton has since hosted many films, including A Walk to Remember.
Sleep like a star
*The Wilmingtonian (101 South Second Street; 800-525-0909; www.thewilmingtonian.com) is a perfectly appropriate place and base for a Wilmington visit. Long a favorite of visiting stars, directors, and producers, The Wilmingtonian features a total of 40 large one- and two-bedroom suites in five buildings dating from 1841 to 1994. Built in 1994 to specifically accommodate the film industry (with some stays of two or three months), the 11 spacious one-bedroom apartment-like suites in the Cinema House are all based on a classic movie or star and include full kitchens, washers and dryers, and separate bedrooms. Production people from New York City have been known to say the Cinema House suites are larger and nicer than their New York apartments. Some of the sweet suite options include: Marilyn (vintage Marilyn Monroe posters); Music Man (original costumes in glass cases); Around the World (posters from Around the World in 80 Days); and Oklahoma (saddles and more). May rates begin at $145; rates vary by season.
*The Verandas Bed & Breakfast Inn (202 Nun Street; 910-251-2212; www.verandas.com) is another accommodations option with film connections. The upscale inn (and its ever-so-southern front porch) made its film debut in The Chester Story. Rates start at $169.
Eat like a star
*Downtown Wilmington also features many restaurants with star attraction. For instance, before it became a casual bar and eatery, Hells Kitchen (118 Princess Street) was a major set for Dawsons Creek and remains more than three-quarters the same as it was when the series stopped filming. A few blocks away, The Reel Café (100 South Front Street) features lots of movie props, posters, photos, and other memorabilia.
*Deluxe (114 Market Street; 910-251-0333; www.deluxenc.com) remains a favorite with locals, star-struck visitors, and visiting stars including John Travolta, Vince Vaughn, Ashley Judd, Louis Gossett, Jr., and many others.
*Along with Deluxe, Frank Capra, Jr. loved frequenting Caffe Phoenix (9 South Front Street; 910-343-1395; www.thecaffephoenix.com), Circa 1922 (8 North Front Street; 910-762-1922; www.circa1922.com), and Port Land Grille (at 1908 Eastwood Road, in Lumina Station, on the way to Wrightsville Beach). Port Land Grille owner Ann Steketee says Katie Holmes, Dawsons Creek regular and future star (and Mrs. Tom Cruise), became a huge fan of the locale and the food even slipping a personal thank you note under their door before she left town for the last time. She says the restaurant (910-256-6056; www.portlandgrille.com) is now a big-time favorite with One Tree Hill cast and crew. Be sure to check out the signed pictures on the restaurants Wall of Fame.
*The Italian Gourmet Market (22 South Front Street) is also a favorite with snacking stars. John Travolta reportedly loves their offerings when in town and the executive director of Nights in Rodanthe enjoyed their cannolis so much that he ordered 50 of them for the cast and crew party.
Here's your script
Wilmington is about 200 miles (three hours and 45 minutes) from Charlotte via U.S. 74 East.
See the key sites. "Film Junkies Guide to North Carolina" ($16.95; John F. Blair), is an incredibly helpful and enjoyable resource for film buffs visiting the Cape Fear region (or anywhere in North Carolina). Authors Connie Nelson and Floyd Harris provide detailed information about anything and everything youd want to know about film locations. The book includes a list of film festivals in the Wilmington area and elsewhere.
See what's being filmed. Find out all about current Wilmington-based production locations: www.wilmingtonfilm.com (click "Intro," then "Current Productions").
General information. The Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast CVB visitors center is in the old 1892 New Hanover County Courthouse downtown at the corner of Third and Princess streets (24 North Third Street; 866-266-9690; www.gocapefearcoast.com). John Travolta spent an entire day in this stately building filming scenes eventually cut from Domestic Disturbance.
An EUE Screen Gems feature Presentation. Over the years, EUE Screen Gems has welcomed feature film productions like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Lolita, A Walk to Remember, Blue Velvet, Black Knight, and 28 Days, as well as major television series including Matlock, Dawsons Creek, and the current hit, One Tree Hill.
One-hour studio tours year-round on Saturdays (and Sundays May through September) are very popular, with as many as 75 people getting an inside peek at the set of One Tree Hill or maybe a feature film thats in production.
Plan your visit. Tours of EUE Screen Gems Studios (1223 North 23rd Street; www.screengemsstudios.com) are at noon and 2pm Saturdays year-round; noon and 2pm Sundays May through September (no tours May 30-31). Admission: $12; $10 for students/military with ID; $8 for 65 and older; $5 for ages 5-12; 4 and younger, free. Its definitely best to call in advance 910-343-3433.