While driving north on Oleander Drive in Wilmington you will cross a bridge and Bradley Creek. Looking to the east is the Bradley Creek Marina and the long Bradley Creek Pier of Airlie Gardens. The salty smell of the ocean tingles in your nose. Depending on the tide, you may see boats skimming across the water in the high tide. Or perhaps it is low tide and you see the oyster beds clinging to the newly revealed mud flats. Take a right on Airlie Road at the next intersection, and almost immediately to your right is Airlie Gardens.
This little gem of a garden is a Wilmington must-see! It’s not a large garden so if you have a couple of free hours you should visit for a spell. I was given a membership as a gift and I’ve used it numerous times already! Each season at Airlie offers something different for visitors, and as a member you are also able to attend concerts during the summer concert series, special exhibits such as Guardians of the Garden, and Enchanted Airlie for the Christmas holidays.
Airlie Gardens is the former garden of the estate belonging to Pembroke and Sarah Jones, who were married in 1884 and eventually built a large home named Airlie-by-the-Sound, and is all that remains of the estate today. It offers historical information regarding the former estate in the welcome center, a model-sized house of the original, as well as beautiful gardens to enjoy. As any gardener knows, gardens evolve over time. Mrs. Jones began with a traditional flower garden and then hired a landscape architect to transform the property into the splendid garden she envisioned. The new gardens featured statuary, camellias, magnolias, as well as azaleas, hollies, and oaks. The large Airlie Oak, a 467 year-old specimen found on the property today had already graced the grounds for a couple hundred years by the time the Joneses build their cottage and set to work on their gardens. Visitors came from up North and Wilmington for lavish parties hosted by the Joneses throughout the year.
One beautiful feature of the garden, although there are many, is the bottle chapel. The chapel is a “room” within the garden built as a tribute to Minnie Evans, the beloved employee of the Mr. and Mrs Jones and fellow garden lover. The chapel itself is a colorful structure constructed of empty glass bottles in a unique pattern. Two large angels trumpet their welcome to this garden niche. My favorite part of the chapel, aside from the colorful bottles, is the Frangelico and Aunt Jemima bottles in the altar, seen from the spiral entrance.
Spring comes alive with trees budding and flowers blooming. Magnolias, camellias, pink magnolias, azaleas, and wisteria adorn the paths throughout the garden. The fragrance from their blooms wafts through the air. The weather is just beginning to warm in earnest and the coastal climate offers weather conducive to plants not easy to grow in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Along several paths are ponds with water fowl and turtles sunning themselves on logs. The Camellia Garden is full of vibrantly colored blooms. Although they aren’t fragrant their blooms are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen!
As the weather warms and the days crawl towards summer, plants continue to bloom and the gardens become a lush oasis. Sprawling magnolias are filled with dinner plate sized blooms, and wood ducks, egrets, swans, turtles and osprey tending to their young are just some of the animals found on the grounds. Weddings are frequently hosted on the grounds either on the lawns or in the Mt. Lebanon Chapel, also found on the old estate.
The Guardians of the Garden exhibit will be on display through the early fall. Although I have yet to take in Airlie in the fall, I visit Wilmington so frequently that I’m sure I’ll see the summer gradually change to fall at Airlie. The winter, especially near the holidays, is really quite beautiful and perhaps my favorite time to tour the garden. Enchanted Airlie is a popular Christmas spectacular visited by many over the holiday season.
If you are planning on attending Enchanted Airlie, you’ll want to make sure you bundle up in scarves and woolen coats before parking the car and beginning the journey down the path towards the big tent and the garden beyond. The temperature outside may be bone chilling at night but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying all the lights and decorations.
Last December the mini Airlie-by-the-Sound house was the first sight on the tour and was decorated with lights and candy and looked like a small candy land castle. In the tent nearby, the path was surrounded with a sea of red, white, and pink poinsettias, a large sleigh filled with presents and other Christmas decorations. Hot chocolate, cider, and popcorn were available to warm you while walking along the decorated paths. Many families with small children, couples, and many others filled the garden paths. Each garden area was decorated in some way such as lighted trees in an open lawn, snowmen driving a boat, and lights in the trees. Santa was there for the children.
Christmas lights always bring a smile to my face, and I was not disappointed by Enchanted Airlie. It was so wonderful, in fact, that I plan on going back each year as a prelude to the Christmas season. There were so many beautiful sights to see and it seems like a fitting ending to a wonderful year of Airlie.