WILMINGTON — It’s the biggest springtime celebration in the southeastern corner of the state. And it’s finally returning in its full glory Apr. 6 through 10.
The official N.C. Azalea Festival gets underway Wednesday after two years of pandemic-altered scheduling. Except for a few virtual events, the committee canceled in 2020 due to Covid-19, and in 2021 there was no parade, street fair or home and garden tours. Other happenings last year were split between spring and summertime, with the concerts and garden party taking place during warmer months, as Covid cases were lower.
This year, as the festival goes into milestone 75, more than a dozen activities are slated across the community for five days and onlookers can see the “city of a million azaleas” come to life again.
According to the Azalea Festival’s “Bloom Report,” the event has a $50,000,000 impact on the community (based on a study from UNCW a decade ago) when around 300,000 people descend on Wilmington. The event is scaled with thousands of volunteers (100 co-chair leaders), three full-time staff members, a five-person board of directors, three interns, and 16 youth committee volunteers.
2022 will see the return of the parade at 9:30 a.m. Saturday along 3rd Street. There is also a shuttle offering service from the mall to downtown (read more here).
The street fair has moved from downtown’s Water, Front, Market, and 2nd streets to the parking lot behind the Wilson Center. The city’s North Front Streetscape and other projects had the festival leaders rethink the best way to keep vendors offering fair food and arts and crafts wares.
“Planning a Street Fair of the Azalea Festival’s size is no easy feat,” organizers explained in an announcement from the festival. “Road closure considerations, health department codes for our food vendors, and public safety are just a few of the top variables. On top of all of these, figuring out the Street Fair layout has been even more challenging the past decade due to continual construction of downtown Wilmington streets.”
The street fair will include a children’s area and a performing arts stage. Though the beer garden is no more, a new event has taken its place: Tunes and Blooms (see #3 below).
Other new events include a volleyball tournament hosted by Captain Bill’s and the Port City Duck Dash, which will have hundreds of rubber duckies floating down the Cape Fear River as a fundraiser for Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity.
The fireworks are also returning over the Cape Fear River at 9 p.m. Saturday, plus the coin show and boxing competition return.
Here are 9 more events to enjoy this week:
Thalian Association Musical: “Little Shop of Horrors”
The Thalian Association is putting on the campy musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” to open in time for Azalea Fest weekend.
The musical follows the love story of Seymour and Audrey, who work in a flower shop. Seymour, secretly in love with Audrey, begins taking care of a Venus fly trap, “Audrey II.” The R&B-singing, carnivorous plant gains local attention for its antics but eventually takes a dark turn as it can no longer survive from the blood of mere flies. Its monstrous growth has it moving on to larger “meals” and eventually world domination.
Tickets are $32 to the musical, which will run Friday through Saturday, Apr. 8-17, at 7:30 p.m. except for matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays.
Music at Live Oak Bank Pavilion
Throughout the years, the festival has welcomed the likes of BB King, Al Green, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Hank Williams Jr., Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Nelly, and Duran Duran. This will be the second year the festival has hosted shows at downtown Wilmington’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion, which seats over 7,000 concert-goers.
Wednesday night kicks off with Girl Named Tom, “The Voice” season 21 winners and the first trio to ever slay the singing competition. The county and city provided $35,000 each to bring in a fourth act, so tickets could be sold reasonably at $5 to $10. The Ohio trio will perform after Nia Franklin is crowned the 2022 Azalea Festival Queen at Apr. 6’s coronation.
On Thursday night, country artist Brantley Gilbert will perform ($48-$64) his blend of country twang, rap and guitar-shredding, followed by ‘70s-‘80s rockers REO Speedwagon on Friday ($39-$79), and on Saturday ‘90s Latin-American hip-hop outfit Cypress Hill ($42-$102).
Tunes and Blooms at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
Also on Saturday, the spotlight will be on local musicians with the first Tunes and Blooms happening at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. The event takes place from noon to 10 p.m. and is free to the public. Bands will take the stage in hour blocks to perform a plethora of sounds — blues, rock, folk, reggae.
Taking the stage will be Delia and Friends, Brown Dirt Cowboys, Hatch Brothers and Signal Fire, among other acts. Concessions will be open for food and beverage purchases. Games will also be set up.
Airlie Gardens Luncheon and Garden Party
Wilmington’s premier garden party brings 2,500 people to Airlie’s 67 acres, all decked out in seersucker, madras and bright floral patterns, not to mention an abundance of hats. Essentially, it’s the biggest day-drinking party of the year.
Though it’s technically private — intended for sponsors and VIPers — there are Bluwater Garden Party VIP packages that can get you in. But there is a waiting list for 2022 (sign up here).
Even for those not attending the garden party proper, Bluewater hosts an After Garden Get Down, with live music from Uptown Easy, 2 p.m. – 6 p.m., and a meet and greet with Queen Azalea and celebrity guests
Motorists can expect traffic on that side of town to be congested more than normal Friday. According to emails from the Azalea Festival committee to New Hanover County, Wilmington Police Department is closing access at Airlie and Military Cutoff from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Friday. Traffic allowed through include residents that live in the area, those with vendor/volunteer passes, and shuttle buses.
Ride-share drop-offs are asked to take Eastwood to Airlie, in order to turn left into Airlie Gardens.
Other road closures are slated to take place throughout the week’s events; catch up on them here.
Queen’s Dinner and Dance Party
Want to meet the queen and her court, including Miss North Carolina Carli Batson? A dinner and dance party is open to the public on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. at Bluewater Grill near Wrightsville Beach Victoria Huggins — the Azalea Queen 2021 — will emcee the event, and the queen and princess courts will be in attendance.
The event is geared toward youth ages 7 to 17, with photographs and autographs available.
Tickets are $65 and include dinner and nonalcoholic beverages.
Historic Wilmington Foundation Home Tour
A dozen homes will be showcased as part of the annual Azalea Festival Home Tour. It’s the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s biggest fundraiser of the year and the first year back following two years of cancellations due to the pandemic.
“It celebrates all that makes southeastern North Carolina special: its natural beauty, hospitable spirit, and of course, our historical significance,” executive director Travis Gilbert wrote to Port City Daily. “The home tour provides an opportunity to explore the indelible architecture that awakens our senses to the past, from the creaks of pine floors, the refractions of wavy glass, and the coolness of porcelain door knobs.”
The ribbon cutting will take place at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at 1709 Princess St., the Thomas Hammer House — one of the stops on the tour. Parked at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church nearby (16 N. 16th St.) will be Boombalatti’s ice cream truck, Sprinkles, serving free ice cream to ticket-holders.
Self-guided tours are open Saturday, 12:30 p.m. – 6 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. The list of homes and tickets can be found here.
Youth Art Show and Juried Art Show and Sale
A youth and adult juried art show takes place every year to celebrate the springtime festival, with both set up at the Community Arts Center/Historic Hannah Block USO Building at 2nd and Orange streets downtown.
The youth show opened Mar. 31 and will be on display through May 1. Contest winners include: second-grader Ava Grace Boysen for her depiction of a young surfer at Wrightsville Beach; fifth-grader Hayden Boysen for capturing the Hatteras Lighthouse; eighth-grader Jasmine Hicks for the illustration of the Airlie Gardens pergola and swans on the lake; and ninth-grader Jay Lancaster for the horse-drawn carriage painting on downtown Wilmington’s Riverwalk.
Annually, more than 100 artists enter the Official Art Show of the North Carolina Azalea Festival, hosted by the Wilmington Art Association. 2022’s event was juried by Beth Handler Riebe of LOCAL: Art + Ideas in Wilmington. She spent 20 years in New York helping curate for The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Paula Cooper Gallery.
Riebe judged the event last weekend and all winners and runners-up can be seen this weekend, Saturday, Apr. 9, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Sun., Apr. 10, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Tour
It’s the first year the Cape Fear Garden Club has relaunched since the pandemic — and without the Azalea belles representing antebellum culture.
Instead, the club has welcomed 17 Azalea Ambassadors — 16 females and one male. Long gone are the hoop skirts, as the high schoolers dress in modern-day button-up shirts and colorful floor-length skirts and hats (or khakis and a bowtie for the male).
They are present at each of the 12 gardens on the self-guided tour and can answer questions for tourists. Most stops on the garden tour are private residences, though two include public gardens, including Airlie Gardens and Harbor Way Gardens in Wrightsville Beach. The theme for 2022 is “Where Flowers Bloom, So Does Hope.”
The club donates money back into the community for various beautification needs and organizations. To date it’s given $1.2 million; tickets to the event support its mission and are $35. They can be purchased in person at the Azalea Festival Ticket Office (5725 Oleander Dr.); a list of other places selling tickets can be found here.
Azalea Festival Porch Parade
Last year, when the Azalea Festival had to shift and pivot because of the pandemic — and in essence canceling its normal parade — the committee came up with a fun alternative for folks to participate in: a porch parade.
“Instead of the spectators being stationary, and the participants moving, you make the participants stationary and the spectators move,” festival director Allison Baringer told Port City Daily last year.
The creative endeavor stuck and in 2022 over 15 porches have signed up as part of the self-guided tour. The map can be found here and participants will have their porches decorated through Sunday, Apr. 10.
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