The sidewalks are filled with people, though Historic Downtown Wilmington is still several blocks away. Dazzling yellows, deep whites, rich, bold reds and pinks fill the air, the spring flowers in full bloom, and the woman on the corner is adjusting her hoop skirt.
The young woman’s sweeping curls and regal attire call to mind a fairy princess, readjusting her magic. It’s the 69th Annual North Carolina Azalea Festival, however, not Cinderella’s ball, and our Belle’s on her way to the Azalea Festival Parade (so is “Abby Cadabby,” the Festival’s premier high-flying helium balloon).
After the parade, her hoop skirt in full swing, our Belle will join the Azalea Festival Garden Tour, courtesy of the Cape Fear Garden Club, welcoming visitors to 13 of Wilmington’s distinguished homes and gardens.
Eventually, our Belle will change into something a little more 21st century and check out the street fair, the arts and crafts, maybe grab some kettle corn. Then she’ll head down to the main stage, across the street from Port City Marina, and catch Snoop Dogg in concert.
With nearly 300,000 festival-goers and a broad range of events, from the Queen’s Coronation Ceremony, to an international boxing tournament, the Azalea Festival celebrates heritage, diversity, and the ways Wilmington continues to bloom.
Over 1000 committed volunteers bring the festival to life, embodying the essence of Southern Hospitality.
“It’s a real community event,” says Executive Director Alison Baringer, “showcasing Wilmington’s friendly, generous spirit.”
Queen Azalea, too, exemplifies this Wilmington spirit. Candidates possess strong ties to the city, and Festival President Robby Collins is thrilled to welcome this year’s queen, Miss Anna Kooiman, back to town.
A UNCW graduate, Kooiman now resides in New York City, where she works for Fox News as anchor and co-host of Fox and Friends Weekend. “She’s a Seahawk alumna,” says Collins, with a smile, “and she got her start right here in Wilmington, at WWAY TV3. We’re excited to see her again!”
For her grand entrance, and the first time in festival history, Her Highness will arrive by boat. Wednesday, April 6, a trusty captain and crew will “sail” Queen Azalea up the Cape Fear River to Pier 33, at Port City Marina, for a very special Coronation Party.
“The Coronation Party provides a warm welcome to Azalea Fest Weekend,” says Baringer, with Pier 33 providing unparalleled views of Wilmington’s fluid front yard.
Free and open to the public, this year’s Coronation Party features meet and greet and photo opps with the Queen and invited VIP celebrities, including bestselling novelist Tony “AJ” Tata, who’ll be signing copies of Foreign and Domestic and the upcoming Three Minutes to Midnight.
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Across from Pier 33, Port City Marina, and the weekend’s main concert stage, Cape Fear Community College’s Schwartz Center is prepping for another festival tradition.
Coach Andre Thompson, of Port City Boxing and Fitness, readies his ring for the Azalea Festival Boxing Tournament, a festival highlight since 1978; in a few days, Queen Azalea and her guests will take their ringside seats and become an integral part of the event.
Coach Andre has been training and coaching for over 30 years. From the 92 Olympic trials, to making a name for himself as a “helluva fighter,” he’s become a well-respected, sought-out coach and trainer. Fighters drive in from New Bern, Rocky Mount, even South Carolina, to work with Coach Andre, while locals enroll in his boxing classes, held seven days a week.
“Fighters come from all over for the Azalea Fest Boxing Tournament,” says Coach Andre, of the amateur boxing event. “Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Philadelphia, Canada…My youngest fighter is 8, and this year, I think we got a 52-year-old.” Boys, girls, retired military, mothers of three—the tournament remains one of Azalea Festival’s most diversified events.
Once Queen Azalea and celebrity guests have taken their front-row seats, a talented local—maybe a friend’s young daughter, who sings in church on Sundays—performs the national anthem. Then the boxing begins.
At some point during the action, a sort of half-time show, the ropes are parted, and Her Highness climbs into the ring. With gloves raised, the day’s boxers—some smiling; some still tough—gather around Queen Azalea, who’s still in high heels, for the weekend’s most captivating photo session.
Coach Andre chuckles, remembering last year’s numbers for the ‘Queen in the Ring’ exhibition. “I was afraid they’d sink my ring!” he jokes. “I may have to change things a little bit this year,” he adds: “That’s a lot of folks in there at one time.”
“Maybe just kids and females, and the rest of the boxers down front?” Whatever the new configuration, says Coach Andre, Queen Azalea stays in the ring.
Celebrating Wilmington’s abundant spring flora, the Airlie Luncheon Garden Party, aka “Garden Party,” brings that signature hospitality to Wilmington’s premier, year-round garden. Dressed in their finest garden chic, nearly 2500 festival flock to Airlie’s Garden Party, followed by “Waterway Parties” at the Dockside, the Bridge Tender Restaurant, and Blue Water Grill. Join boaters and visiting yachts, who’ve sailed to the festivities, for a festive afternoon along the Intracoastal Waterway.
Throughout the weekend, weaving up, down, and around it all, the Azalea Festival Street Fair infuses Historic downtown Wilmington with live music, arts and crafts, kids venues, and plenty of food stops, including gyros, funnel cakes, and that timeless classic: the deep-fried oreo.
Free and family friendly, the Street Fair winds across Water, Front, and Market Streets throughout Azalea Festival weekend.
On Saturday, our Belle, her Queen, and invited celebrities join the Azalea Festival Parade, which remains the centerpiece of the North Carolina Azalea Festival. With 100,000 viewers milling down sidewalks, cheering and waving to floats, marching bands, and of course, Queen Azalea and her court, it’s the most anticipated event of the season.
In keeping with Wilmington’s diverse cultural scene, the Azalea Festival strives to offer music for the diverse music-goer, as well. This year, the music lineup features North Carolina sons the Avett Brothers; rap music’s Mr Snoop Dogg and Doug E. Fresh; and country artist Chase Rice, accompanied by the talented Kane Brown.
Saturday night, festival goers flock to the streets and down to the Riverwalk–as near to the action as dry land permits–for a truly royal fireworks display over the Cape Fear River. (For a First Class view of the brilliant night sky, we recommend sailing into Port City Marina!)
The 2016 North Carolina Azalea Festival comes to Wilmington April 6. For details and comprehensive schedule of events, including Pier 33’s Coronation Party, please visit: www.ncazaleafestival.org.