Port City Adventure
The Madcap Cottage gents “arrive” in Wilmington, literally
By Jason Oliver Nixon
John and I moved to North Carolina from Brooklyn, New York, six years ago and, egads!, had yet to visit the North Carolina coast. Over the years, Florida friends had invited us to their retreats in Highlands and Blowing Rock, but a trip to the shore kept getting shelved in favor of somewhere more far-flung — say, Sicily.
And then . . . Hello, pandemic!
Living in High Point, our Emerywood nabes escape to the Figure Eights and Bald Heads, but we are a bit less fancy and more “beach-adjacent” people who like to savor the strands for a stroll rather than loll about shoreside all day. John and I enjoy a view of the water but we don’t really swim — unless it’s a pool. We love history. Sidewalks. Charming residential architecture. Cool restaurants. And a hotel with a real personality that welcomes dogs and avoids trough-style breakfast situations.
John and I polled our style-setting friends, and, eureka!, Wilmington seemed to fit the checklist perfectly.
Hence, we piled into the trusty Subaru with the four-pound rescue pups, and the “circus” set sail for the easy three-hour drive to downtown Wilmington. Home base for the long weekend: The supremely relaxed-chic ARRIVE Wilmington Hotel.
“You will love it — very Palm Springs,” said an in-the-know pal. And we did.
ARRIVE Wilmington, a bold charcoal-and-white brick, cobbled-together group of buildings, is part of a mini hotel group that stretches from Phoenix to Austin, from Memphis to, yes, Palm Springs. Easy, breezy, modern and yet steeped in history: The motel-like structure is actually one part circa-1915 dye factory meets one part former nunnery. On the dye factory front, the hotel has a colorful history: The historic marker outside the hotel’s main entrance trumpets the aptly named Topsy, the circus elephant who somehow escaped from her circus in the 1920s and ran amuck at the factory. Whew, we sighed, knowing that our high-strung pups would fit right in — but what did happen to Topsy après le déluge, we wondered.
Within the ARRIVE complex, 36 rooms look onto a stunning, verdant garden kitted out with Adirondack and French bistro-style chairs and gas lanterns amidst a cornhole course, fire pits and cozy tables. Enjoy nibbles such as fried beets with whipped goat cheese and ginger-marinated beef skewers whilst sipping a vodka- and Campari-laced Drunken Monk cocktail, proffered from the super-friendly team working the Gazebo Bar. Our suite — #16 — was largely proportioned with a vaguely nautical theme: beadboard paneling, leather sofa, cozy kitchenette (aka mini fridge) and spacious tiled bathroom with the sign “Head” above the door. In summary: The ARRIVE’s location at the corner of South Second Street and Dock is perfect for exploring. The staff couldn’t be more lovely and accommodating. And the rates — we feel — are wonderfully affordable (rooms start at $109/night for two adults).
Factoid: The hotel’s nunnery annex houses a kooky “confessional,” a performance-like living sculpture accessed via your room key card — the perfect tonic after a night of too much sinning out on the town.
After settling in with the pups, John and I walked to nearby Manna for a wonderful dinner. The meal was pricey — almost $225 for two — but beautifully crafted and paired with a level of intuitive, thoughtful service that we rarely, if ever, find in the Triad. John savored his half chicken with Carolina Gold dirty rice and kale, and I lapped up the Vichyssoise with trout roe and crème fraîche, plus smoked pork loin with radicchio and peaches.
Next morning, we explored downtown Wilmington and popped into a few of the charming shops lining ever-gentrifying Front Street before grabbing potent coffees at Java Dog.
For lunch we walked to Indochine, a good 3-mile stroll. “You walked?’ our chic-ster friend later asked, eyes wide, grasping her Chanel pearls. But, yes, these former New Yorkers can handle our own and had a blast stopping in at the several antiques outposts and a hipster coffee shop en route on up-and-coming Castle Street.
Indochine is pure bliss. Fun, funky, irreverent, no pretense, bustling, no reservations and housed within a former public library that’s ablaze with color and pattern — so very us. Plus, our 6-mile round trip adventure burned off the glorious dumpling sampler, papaya salad and crispy bird-nest noodles washed down with a cool Allagash beer. After lunching and before hiking back, we explored the numerous buildings next door to Indochine that comprise The Ivy Cottage consignment store and trundled home a Tiffany vase, blanc-de-chine Chinoiserie figures and an Italian ceramic basket filed with ornamental apples. Yes, that was us.
We toured moss-dripping Airlie Gardens, strolled postcard-perfect Wrightsville Beach at sundown, sipped margaritas with friends who arrived by boat at Wrightsville’s Tower 7, and explored downtown Wilmington with the pups who love wide sidewalks and abundant greenery. Oh, the amazing architecture and history in this port city! Sadly, the city’s many house museums were closed due to COVID, but they will be top of our list on our next visit.
And the epicurean adventures continued at full gallop . . .
Ah, Brasserie du Soleil out near Wrightsville Beach where we supped on knockout French bistro fare (think tuna tartare, steak frites and Scottish salmon with mint yogurt) as tree frogs serenaded us from the fountain on the bustling patio. We loved the cooking at True Blue Butcher and Table, but the strip-mall setting (read, primo view of a Chicken Salad Chick sign) left us aesthetically challenged. But, oh!, the terrific, buttery New York Strip with divine Béarnaise sauce and side of mac and cheese that we split with a glass of spot-on, $9 Tempranillo red. A little more ambience, s’il-vous plaît, or take advantage of the to-go option.
Breakfast at the long-running, dive-ish White Front Breakfast House was a blast, and we walked and walked and then walked some more. On our final afternoon, we kicked back at the ARRIVE’s Gazebo Bar with the dogs scampering about. We sipped a cool rosé and took stock.
Noted John, “I think this is the new Charleston but without the hordes. And there’s more of a range of restaurants here — I get so tired of the same Gullah fare night after night in the Holy City.”
And my take?
It’s still very affordable and a little rough around the edges and that’s part of the magic.
John and I definitely need to return — and soon — to this little weekend wonderland called Wilmington. PS
The Madcap Cottage gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.
ARRIVE Wilmington, arrivehotels.com