The Cape Fear region of southeastern North Carolina offers three centuries of nautral and cultural history. It is filled with natural beauty, picturesque buildings, and an undisturbed ambience. Here you may walk along tree-lined streets, stroll through colorful gardens, browse in unique shops—or just lie on the beach and enjoy the ocean breezes.

For more active sorts, the region offers golf, fishing, kayaking, windsurfing and tennis without equal. The historian in you will enjoy learning how the region blended European, Native American and Black cultures into its fabric of life where natural history, archaeology, architecture and industry gave the area a prominence that developed over many generations and is carefully preserved today.

Wilmington

The city’s 250 block National Register Historic District contains colonial buildings from as early as 1738, but the prevailing architectural style is the Italianate. Wilmington’s important shipping and naval stores industries began in the early eighteenth century. By 1840 Wilmington was the largest city in the state, a position it held until 1910. The completion of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, turned the city into a transportation hub. During the Civil War, Wilmington benefited from being a favorite blockade running port. Sleek, fast Blockade Runners brought up the Cape Fear River from Europe, war supplies, plus an array of domestic goods making Wilmington a boom town. In the post-Civil War era, cotton superseded naval stores as the economic base. The railroad that became the Atlantic Coast Line, had its headquarters in the Port City until 1960; following their abandonment, preservation of the city’s historic buildings began and has enlivened downtown. The city now forms a backdrop for many feature films and TV movies.

Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville Beach is a special place for both the resident and the visitor and is quite unlike the commercial beaches. Wrightsville Beach is an affluent residential community with its roots in Wilmington. For over a century, the 5-mile-long island has been a retreat from the summer heat for Wilmington residents whose families have owned beach homes there for generations.

Wrightsville Beach was incorporated in 1899 as a resort community by the Tidewater Power Company that built a trolley system from downtown Wilmington to the beach, providing the only land access to the island until 1935. The power company constructed several of the early houses that they sold to families. Before 1940, gentleman would ride the trolley, known as the beach car, to their jobs in town and back in the evening. The tracks were removed in 1940.

Wrightsville Beach is well known for the beauty of its houses, which are considered to be prime examples of contemporary beach architecture. Many of the classic, old-fashioned beach cottages have been renovated or replaced over the years. The oldest cottage dates to 1897. Construction, renewal, and renovation are constantly occurring on the beach, even among houses built in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bald Head Island

Four miles off the coast of the mainland, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River (and at Cape Fear) where it meets the sea, is Bald Head Island. A destination for Native Americans, explorers, pirates, soldiers and sailors; fishermen and farmers for hundreds of years, Bald Head Island’s pristine environment offers a hideaway for vacationers, historians and artists. The developers of the island have taken careful steps to protect treasured landscapes. The island only can be reached by ferry or by personal boat and no cars are allowed on the island; transportation is by golf cart, bicycle or walking.

Bald Head Island is the most unspoiled beach and maritime forest in North Carolina. It presents a stunning variety of natural environments, including 14 miles of ocean beach, river beach, and 10,000 acres of salt marsh, tidal creek and rare maritime forest dense with live oaks, dogwoods, sabal palms, cedars, yaupons, wax myrtles and junipers. Turtle nesting on Bald Head Island accounts for 50 percent of all turtle eggs laid in North Carolina. The island's natural beauty is protected, despite residential development.

Visits include a ferry ride to the island, a narrated tour which takes visitors to the museum and the “Old Baldy” Lighthouse. Built in 1817, and retired in 1935, “Old Baldy” is North Carolina's oldest standing lighthouse. A replica of the 1850s keeper's cottage adjacent to the lighthouse serves as the museum which includes a display of artifacts, many uncovered from archaeological excavations on the island.

Southport

Southport, a quaint, historic seaport, is situated at the junction of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Cape Fear River where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It's a casual community that invites visitors to pause and savor a slow pace of life that is fast disappearing in nearby areas. Once known as the best kept secret in North Carolina, this lovely little village with its live oak–lined streets is now being discovered. New shops, restaurants and hotels are springing up in the town, affording residents and visitors an array of choices.

The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and history buffs will especially appreciate its beautiful old homes and historic cemeteries. Across from the mighty Civil War Fort Fisher, blockade runners steamed past the town on their way into Wilmington. Author Robert Ruark lived as a young boy with his grandparents in Southport.

Duplin County

Rural Duplin County offers a variety of traditional experiences. Settled in the 18th century by Welsh, Scotch-Irish, French Huguenots, and enslaved African-Americans, who used the Cape Fear River and the larger creeks for transportation. The county has a large number of colonial and antebellum plantation and village buildings. A splendid antebellum plantation house, featured in the movie The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” invites visitors to tour its Greek Revival property. An Elizabethian restaurant serves traditional English pub fare for lunch and the Town of Kenansville gives tours of the property built by the county seat’s namesakes, the Kenan family. The county’s rural setting includes a winery that produces traditional Muscadine wine from the scuppernong grape.

Beaufort

The old, historic town of Beaufort (pronounced Bow-furt not Bew-fort as in SC,) one of the four oldest towns in NC and seat of Carteret County, sits amidst water on all fronts, so much so that when it was settled in the 18th century it was known as “Fishtown.” The distinctive coastal, vernacular architecture of Beaufort is unique. Shaded by old, wind-swept live oaks and bordered by white picket fences, the regular streets are lined by a remarkable collection of wood-frame houses with endless porches. The waterfront was transformed in the late 20th century from the warehouses and docks of the old fishing town into a retail center catering to the tourist and boating crowd.

Its unassuming architectural character and quite ambience give it a simpler charm than the wealthier and more fashion-conscience ports. Beaufort’s architecture spans the years from the 18th through the 20th centuries and ranges from tiny cottages to imposing Queen Anne style residences as well as a series of stylish churches.

A maritime museum interprets the state’s coastal natural history and maritime heritage including the pirate Blackbeard and artifacts from the underwater excavation of his flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Beaufort is home to a number of historic and natural attractions, including the Rachel Carson Reserve, part of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve. Rachel Carson was trained as a marine biologist and had her early career working for the "Bureau of Fisheries" which later became part of the NOAA fisheries laboratories. It was during her employment there that she came to Beaufort as an aquatic biologist and science writer. Carson wrote about Beaufort in her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Morehead City and Bogue Banks

Morehead City is Carteret County's largest town, was the latecomer among the state's port towns, being developed in the mid-20th century. Though nearby Beaufort had long enjoyed one of the state's best inlets and harbors, its growth was restricted for want of river connections into the interior. In 1853 John Motley Morehead, governor of N.C. from 1841 to 1845 and an avid proponent of railroads and internal improvements, purchased a strip of land by Bogue Sound at the mouth of the Newport River, opposite Beaufort, in anticipation of its becoming the eastern terminus of the Atlantic and NC Railroad (later named the Atlantic and East Carolina), which linked Beaufort Inlet to the state's major east-west and north-south railroads at Goldsboro. Morehead's vision of a major Atlantic port for NC was only partially realized, and then only in the mid-20th c. The town's development was interrupted by the Civil War, and subsequent growth came slowly, though the rail connections eventually boosted the new town beyond its older neighbor in population and commercial activity. Today Morehead City is the state's only deepwater port north of Wilmington, with a sprawling, state-owned port facility. As a place of predominantly simple 20th-c. architecture, it presents a different personality from Beaufort. It is a pleasant town with an interesting mix of maritime commercial and summer resort elements.

On the east end of an outer bank, Bogue Banks, is Fort Macon, built in 1826-1834. It is known for its beautifully laid brick exterior and spectacular interior vaults. General Robert E. Lee was stationed at the pentagon-shaped, masonry fortress as a young army officer. Occupied by Confederate troops, Fort Macon fell under a Union artillery siege in April 1862, giving Northern forces complete control of the mid-North Carolina coast. The fort is in a 398-acre state park and includes exhibits and audio-visual displays.

New Bern

New Bern is a unique town—founded in 1710 by Swiss immigrants, on a point of land between the Neuse and Trent rivers. The town long thrived on the richness of its waterways and the fertile soil surrounding them. In the 18th and 19th centuries, West Indian and European cargo vessels would dock here to trade merchandise. The river led inland retrieving lumber, naval stores—tar, pitch and turpentine—and tobacco for trade.

The name New Bern came from Bern, the Swiss capital. New Bern’s history contains chapters written by Native Americans, Swiss, British, Colonials, Yankees and Rebels. With each influx, the city moved forward. Because of its close proximity to the coast and a railroad, New Bern was a valuable asset to the Union Army until the end of the Civil War, which resulted in preserving New Bern’s architecture and way of life. In the 1890s C. D. Bradham, a New Bern pharmacist, invented Brad's Drink, now known as Pepsi-Cola. The resulting microcosm of American history today flourishes along New Bern's tree-lined streets, creating a picturesque town proud of its rich history.

New Bern's centerpiece is Tryon Palace, the lavishly reproduced Georgian style brick mansion named after a British Colonial governor who had it built in 1770. After the Revolutionary War, the palace served as the home of the state capital until 1795. The original palace burned in 1798. The current compound is a 1950s reproduction. New Bern has four historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places with homes, stores and churches dating back to the early eighteenth century. This river town maintains its heritage of Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian architectural styles.

The downtown area fell upon hard times in the 1970s due to the development of suburban shopping areas. A nonprofit corporation of civic leaders resuscitated downtown encouraging art galleries, specialty shops, antiques stores, and restaurants to locate downtown and along the waterfront.