Located near Wrightsville Beach on the shady banks of Bradley Creek, Airlie Gardens are one of North Carolina’s historical coastal treasures. Trails span the garden’s 67 acres, and visitors can view azaleas, camellias and other flowers, shrubs, natural life and their ancient Oak tree, which dates back to when Willem of Nassau was the Prince of Orange (look it up). It’s a marvelous place to sit on a bench, take an afternoon stroll, or watch the clouds pass by; the peace it exudes truly is magnificent. Yet, during the holidays when tinsel and garland gets strung on every bow, Airlie becomes another attraction entirely. And one that is in its seventh year of making family traditions and memories last forever.
Enchanted Airlie becomes a slew of sparkle and shine every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through December 22nd. The century-old gardens—having changed owners several times—was originally deeded to the Wright family (of Wrightsville Beach fame) by King George. Yet, it sold to Pembroke Jones’ wife Sarah in the late 1800s, and again to the Corbett family in the late 1940s after World War II. Home of renowned African-American artist Minnie Evans, who worked as a gatekeeper at the gardens from 1948 until 1974, Airlie was privately owned until 1999.
New Hanover County purchased the property and converted it into a park before adding the to the gardens’ appeal in 2005 as a holiday spectacular. “I think they were looking for another way to showcase the gardens,” Janine Powell, director of donor relations, says. “It’s nice to be able to add the lights. The park is not normally open at night, so this is a way to celebrate the holidays and start a Wilmington tradition.”
This year the gardens will luminate with over 300,000 lights. There will also be a tent filled with over 400 winter-flowering poinsettias, as well as an outdoor train. Vendors will sell hot chocolate for the kids and wine for the adults. Additionally, folks will be able to walk around and view several vignettes scattered throughout the garden’s grounds.
“This year, one of the new things we’re adding is coordinated areas with lights and sound,” reveals Powell. The lights will cue to the music being played, presenting a dazzling display that will be an all-encompassing sensory thrill for all ages.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects about the event gets showcased in the annual LEGO display, made possible by volunteers from the North Carolina LEGO User’s Group (NC LUG). The versatile blocks will be present for their third year, and the display will feature trains, a monorail and numerous tableaus built by the volunteers. The display consists of an astounding 250,000 bricks. “We have a street scene, a little alpine scene and also a special Wilmington attraction that we’re not revealing yet,” Powell says.
Of course, a visit to Airlie during Christmas is not complete without the guest of honor sitting front and center. Traveling from the North Pole, Santa will be taking Christmas wishes throughout the event.
“The kids can meet him and tell him what’s on their list,” Powell says. “It’s a great way for people to come out, be outside, and enjoy the holidays.”
Tickets must be pre-purchased at the gardens’ website, www.airliegardens.org. Individual tickets are $5 for adults and $4 for children aged 4 to 12, but require the purchase of a $5 parking pass. Alternatively, folks can buy the “carload pass” for $22, which grants access to the event to as many people as can legally fit inside the vehicle and does not require the purchase of a parking pass. There are two show times each evening, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. A walking experience, guests to the gardens should dress accordingly: bundled up and in comfortable shoes.
Holding three signature fund-raising events throughout the year—such as their summer concert series and annual oyster roast—Airlie is able to sustain itself with community sponsored functions which welcomes all ages to its luscious, natural surroundings. The ticket funds for all events go directly back into the garden.
“[The monies raised] support operations at the garden, and particularly our environmental education program,” Powell confirms. All in all, it helps ensure future generations will have a shady place to stroll around, delight in and carol through for many more years to come.