Airlie Gardens is a 67-acre public garden near Wrightsville Beach. The road leading up to the gardens is shaded by long cedar limbs and drapes of Spanish moss. Although the traffic and bustle of people going to the beach (Wrightsville) and the mall (Mayfaire) can become chaotic, Airlie Gardens is an undisturbed oasis of gardens, wildlife, and art. Since the land was bought by New Hanover County and opened to the public in 1998 it has become a favorite place for locals and tourists alike.
The Airlie Gardens of today is a nonprofit organization that maintains the expansive grounds, colorful gardens, and frequently host special events. It is open Tuesday through Sunday most of the year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Tickets are generally $9.00 but there are discounts for New Hanover Residents, Military, and children 4-12 years old have free admission.
The history of Airlie Gardens spans back to the early 18th century and the owners’ names are familiar to those from the area. The land that would eventually become Airlie Gardens was given by King George in February 1735 to the Ogden Brothers. Later, Joshua Wright would buy some of that land for his own estate.
Despite changes from owners and hurricanes, Airlie Gardens has become part of Wilmington. The design of the gardens as we know it today didn’t take shape until the turn of the 20th century. Then owners Pembroke and Sarah Jones hired landscape gardener Rudolph Topel to care for the grounds, a job he would keep for 31 years. During the first annual Azalea Festival in 1948, festival queen Jacqueline White visited the garden. The Queen’s Luncheon remains a tradition during the hugely popular Azalea Festival.
Local folk artist Minnie Evans held her first exhibitions at Airlie Gardens. As gatekeeper from 1948 to 1974, her connection to the gardens is evident in her fantastical, colorful artwork. A memorial sculpture garden was constructed in 2004 in her honor and the Bottle Chapel is a bright ode to her work.
There are tons of events and hikes and volunteer opportunities at Airlie Gardens that can be found in full on their website (http://airliegardens.org/calendar/). If you can’t make any of these, however, don’t worry. Sometimes the best fun to be had at Airlie Gardens is sitting on the lawn with a picnic while listening to the birds and not-so-distant ocean.