A wash of colors overtake this town's azalea festival.

Bloom Town
The festival's tour of private gardens has become the colorful high note for the weekend event

This coastal city sure looks pretty in pink. Spring's azaleas gush all over Wilmington come April, spilling onto wrought iron fences and porch rails with gentle waves of soft, soothing colors. Flowering cherries, tulips, wisteria, dogwoods, and other botanical wonders join in the beautiful displays that dazzle visitors.

Henry Rehder considers his porch to be one of the best places to see the North Carolina Azalea Festival, scheduled for April 1 through 4 this year.

We think so too. This 92-year-old gardener righteously asserts his opinion. "My garden was part of the first festival back in 1948," he says. "The official portrait of every Queen Azalea has been in my garden, and I've kissed every one of them."

Romantic thoughts do come to mind when roaming around his garden on Oleander Drive, as well as those surrounding other homes downtown. No wonder the months of April, May, and June form a trifecta of trysts: The number of wedding licenses issued peaks during this flower-filled season.

Wilmington gives visitors coming to admire the azaleas lots more to do when they're in town. There's a proud parade through downtown on Saturday morning. Get there early: We'd suggest finding a parking space around 7 a.m. for the parade, which starts at 9 a.m.

Then there's the street fair, spread out on Water Street alongside the Cape Fear River. With arts and crafts vendors, food, music, and a play area for children, it's the place to be after the parade. Concerts, art shows, homes tours, a designers' showcase home, and the coronation ceremony for the Queen Azalea fill out the four days.

Still, azaleas are the reason for the season, and the city never loses sight of that. You shouldn't either, and another fabulous place to see these shrubs in all their glory this month is Airlie Gardens, a 67-acre public garden a few miles east of downtown. Massive, moss-draped live oaks serve as giant sentries over this paradise, featuring 10 acres of lakes, a fantastic wisteria arbor, and, of course, azaleas.

If you have time to see only a couple of gardens during the festival, Airlie and Henry's should be on your list. Airlie Gardens shows what wonders can be created when you have acres of land, lots of water, and a dramatic setting on a grand scale. Henry's garden shows what you can do when you have lots of love, a few years under your belt, and an adoration for azaleas.

Editor's Note: Henry Rehder passed away February 16, 2004, at his residence. Mr. Rehder was an avid gardener and earned many honors for his civic and horticultural accomplishments and leadership. After press time, Henry Rehder?s garden was taken off the North Carolina Azalea Festival tour. Contact the festival for more information.

Where To Stay
For distinctive lodging downtown, we love the Front Street Inn. The location can't be beat: You can walk to restaurants downtown and stroll the sidewalks in the historic neighborhood. Rates start at $110; 1-800-336-8184. Book early; rooms go fast in this prime property. You'll get a good rate ($77-$89) at the Holiday Inn Express; (910) 392-3227 or 1-800-465-4329.

Where To Eat
Downtown Wilmington abounds in great places to dine. Tops on our list is Circa 1922, a restaurant with a tapas-style menu, great atmosphere, and sensational scallops ($9). We also love Deluxe for dinner (their steaks are superb), and enjoy watching the sun set over the Cape Fear River and enjoying a glass of wine at Le Catalan.

Other Great Gardens To Visit
Orton Plantation Garden: 9149 Orton Road, Winnabow, NC 28479 (about 18 miles south of Wilmington); (910) 371-6851. This former rice plantation features 20 acres of patterned formal and informal gardens. Admission is $9.
Greenfield Park and Gardens: South Third Street; (910) 341-7855. A 5-mile drive curls around Greenfield Lake, with 250 acres filled with flowering azaleas. Admission is free.
The Arboretum at New Hanover County Cooperative Extension: (910) 452-6393. Close to Airlie Gardens, the 7-acre arboretum features aquatic, vegetable, fruit, and flower gardens. Admission is free.

This article is from the April 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.