One of our most memorable adventures over the years was in Onslow County NC. The outdoor adventures, the food, the adorable rental…every single item on our itinerary was stellar.
Onslow County? It’s on the northern coast of North Carolina and encompasses several towns – all covered here. For the best things to do in Jacksonville, NC to how to explore Swansboro (on the water) and the other gems here….we’ve got you covered. Read on!
Lejeune Memorial Gardens
Lejeune Memorial Gardens encourages visitors to come and remember those who have fallen in the act of US Military Service. You’ll find a number of memorials, including Beirut Memorial, the Onslow Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Montford Point Marine Memorial, and the 9/11 Memorial Beam from the World Trade Center.
The first of the memorials to be erected was the Beirut Memorial. It’s the largest 100% privately-funded military memorial, and remembers the 273 Marines who lost their lives in the 1983 Beirut Bombing.
Above, the boys are sitting in front of a statue that is located at the entryway to the future Museum of the Marine. It is the largest Eagle, Globe and Anchor statue in the world!
I think the most touching part of the Memorial Gardens, for me, was the Montford Point Marine Memorial. From ’42- ’49, the first Black Marines, had to “fight for the right to fight” while serving in a segregated Marine base (now named Camp Johnson.)
While no official record exists of all the Marines who served during this time, the wall of more than 20,000 stars pays homage to those who fought.
There is also a statue of an African-American soldier, putting down his artillery box and picking up a rifle. The men of the 51st distinguished themselves as the finest artillery gunners in the Marine Corps, breaking almost every accuracy record in training.
In June 2012, a Congressional Gold Medal was awarded collectively to the Montford Point Marines in recognition of their personal sacrifice and service to their country during World War II. If you know a Montford Point Marine that has not been recognized, contact the National Secretary, Montford Point Marine Association, Inc
Visit Walton’s Distillery for a not-your-run-of-the-mill tour with not-your-run-of-the-mill spirits. We’ve been on a few distillery tours in our day and we’re always looking for that extra something that’s sets one establishment apart from another. With Walton’s, the distinction is clear.
It’s a fairly informal place, and we appreciated that. Just show up between 10 and 4:30 Monday through Saturday – the tours run every 30 minutes. They’ve got an interesting story. Located about 15 minutes west of downtown Jacksonville, an area in Onslow county that used to contain a number of stills during prohibition that weren’t quite as “public”, Walton’s Distillery seeks to combine current best practices with wisdom of distilling forefathers of old. Or as we like to call them, heroes.
When you taste the spirits that Walton’s produces you can taste this history, and the distinction that comes with it. Take Junior Walton’s Premium Select, for instance. Barrel-aged moonshine. I, for one, had never heard of such a thing. It was unique and delicious. They also have straight moonshine, as well as a number of flavored varieties from peach to salted caramel. Their spirits are all distilled five times which makes for a clean taste with no hangover. (To this I can attest)
On our tour they saved the best for last. Walton’s will soon release their very own bourbon, and we got to sample some. I’m a big fan of top-shelf bourbon, and Walton’s was right on the “Mark”. It’s not available for sale quite yet, but look for it in the coming months. I predict a big winner in competition!
PS – we may have purchased a few bottles before leaving….that’s the rich glow coming from our glasses in the photo above. Pick up a bottle after your tour and enjoy it later.
The Milk Road
As a veteran-owned and -founded company, The Milk Road‘s coffee was first roasted and sold in the barracks of Camp Lejeune; now it’s available to the entire community. Drop by for a cuppa and a Liège Waffle is Biscotti. You can get it to go, or stay a while during one of their live music or comedy evenings.
One of the highlights of our stay in Onslow was experiencing a yacht cruise on New River with Bayonet Enterprises. Here are three reasons we think you need to try this on your Onslow visit!
The Best Way To See The River
The Bayonet is a 46-foot luxury cabin cruiser with all of the amenities necessary to make your adventure a special one. It has two beautiful guest staterooms – yes, you can book an overnight adventure – a kitchen and dining area, TV and stereo, and plenty of space below and on deck to kick back and relax.
Many guests enjoy riding topside towards the front of the boat. It’s very spacious up there with bench seating for two or three, and the entire bow can probably comfortably accommodate six or seven people. It’s a wonderful place to take in the surrounding views. For a more relaxing “comfort” kick back with a drink in the stern.
An Amazing Captain and 1st Mate
If you’re wondering what it’s like to be on a romantic or family water escape with two strangers, don’t even give it a second thought. Lance and Marilyn are the kindest, sweetest, most down-to-earth couple you’ll meet.
After 18 moves (including three tours of duty right at Camp Lejeune in the same city) they decided to retire in Marilyn’s favorite place – Onslow County. This is their 7th year cruising and sharing New River with locals and visitors, alike.
They were great with our kids (it helps that they are grandparents!) and made them feel safe on the boat…and also welcome. Captain Lance even let Elliot drive the boat for a bit, and gave him a few tips to take with him! Such a fun day!
Marilyn served us delicious snacks, and gave us the scoop on the local areas that we could see from the River. She was also attentive enough to see when the boys were chatting with us or having a “relaxing” moment…and gave us ample space to enjoy alone time together.
We visited with Lance and Marilyn a little differently that most because of our work, but we recommend the Family Picnic Package. It most closely resembles how we explored – which was awesome. You’ll get a 4 hour cruise that includes beverages, lunch, snacks, dessert and anchorage time with a 2 person kayak and water toys. At just over $400 for 4 people, that’s a steal.
You can also pick a shorter 2-hour lunch cruise with drinks and snacks…or a romantic Sunset Tour with a cheese and fruit board.
If you take the Dinner Cruise (or something longer) then you can experience their outstanding chef skills, with steak or salmon cooked right on the boat!
Old Train Depot
This Old Train Depot was once used to bring Marines into the area. Today the train doesn’t move but the building and green space behind it are popular for Onlsow’s many festivals.
The Kettle Diner
It might look like a typical diner, but the food (and desserts) at Kettle Diner are unmatched. It’s a locals-favorite, but the staff is always warm and inviting to newcomers, also.
I had the manicotti special while Dan opted for one of their more popular meals – friend chicken with mashed potatoes and greens. And they boys? They had pancakes for breakfast!
If The Kettle Diner has a long wait – or you need another fast-casual locals-pleaser then head over to Jeff’s Burgers, Dogs and Shakes. The fries are perfect, and we love that they use fresh ingredients all the time!
Mike’s Farm in Beulaville, NC
Mike’s Farm draws people seasonally for hay rides, strawberry picking, and Santa festivities. You might also find yourself here during a spectacularly gorgeous barn wedding, or when on a petting farm field trip with the kids.
But the best part of a visit to Mike’s, if you ask me, is the restaurant. Thursday – Saturday, when the dinner bell rings, you’ll find the locals lining up for a table inside.
It’s all-you-can-muster good ole country cooking. The fried chicken is out of this world, plus biscuits, mac n cheese, creamed style corn, green beans and more. Oh, that mac and cheese! Eat your filling, but save a little room for dessert – it’s included, too.
Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium in Pine Knoll, NC
At the Pine Knoll Shoes NC Aquarium you can feel the spray of a mountain waterfall. Watch river otters play. Touch a stingray. Look a shark in the eye. Explore shipwrecks — without getting wet. See a rare white sea turtle. Thousands of aquatic animals take you on a journey from the state’s grand peaks to the open Atlantic, much as a raindrop makes its way to the ocean.
North Topsail Beach, NC
If you’re looking for a wide beach, with beautiful surf, few people, and great rental options…let me introduce you to North Topsail Beach in the same county as Jacksonville, and not too far. It is gorgeous – without the crowds of other beaches in the area! Pack your beach gear – let’s go!
The south part of the island is Topsail Beach. In the middle is Surf City, and the northern half of the island is North Topsail Beach – that’s whaat we’re talking about here…
The locals pronounce it /TOP-sul/ Beach — not /Top SAIL/ Beach to be clear.
Wide open beaches with great surf. Do you see the photo above? The beach is so wide and great for lounging, playing frisbee with kids, building sandcastles, and playing in the water. When we visited, we saw a lab chasing balls along the shoreline, having a blast!
Few people. This part of the island is the least commercialized. There are vacation rentals here for you to enjoy, but the beach isn’t built up and you’ll find the least crowding here. To me, that is heaven sent!
It fact, it kind of reminded me of what most of the Outer Banks used to be. A place where you can unplug and enjoy a beach vacation without all of the hoopla.
The pier for fishing and photography. This is Seaview Fishing Pier, and it is a stellar place for fishing. You’ll see that we found a dad fishing with his boys when we visited last. You’ll find spots, flounder, blues, Spanish mackerel and mullets along the edge here.
Before hurricane Florence it was over 1,000 feet long and was one of the longest piers on the North Carolina coast. Unfortunately, Flo took off a bit of the end. They are working to rebuild that part, but it is still open and still very, very long.
Pay $1 pp to head out and take photos like we did, or a little more for a daily fishing pass. The store is fully stocked with any equipment you might need, and there is a restaurant on the top floor when your belly starts to rumble.
The owner’s son also offers half- and full-day fishing trips on his 35ft multi-purpose boat, so be sure to ask about that!
Rentals right on the water. Villa Capriani is a gorgeous rental option, where every villa faces the water. If you tire of the beach, try one of the three pools, hot tub or soaker tub. There is a restaurant onsite, tennis courts, and more. 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom units are available with full kitchens and plenty of space to stretch out.
House rentals in the area are another comparison I draw with Outer Banks. Some of the North Topsail Beach houses are huge, accommodating three to four families. This makes for a very economical vacation when you split the cost, and you get to spend much more time together than you would in a hotel or separate smaller rentals.
You can drive on the beach. If you have a 4×4, you can drive in the areas permitted at the northern-most part of the island. You’ll just need a pass (info here.) I love this! Pull up the truck and unpack for a day of beach play, shore fishing, or picnicking! No headaches!
Lots More Fun in Swansboro, NC
You might know Onslow County for Jacksonville or North Topsail Beach…but Swansboro was my favorite town in the area, and it is where we recommend you stay (more on that below.)
For now – here are a few of our favorite things in Swansboro.
Our family was thrilled to spend an afternoon with Marsh Cruises. Marsh offers a variety of affordable options to take you and your friends/family on a guided tour like none other around the beautiful coastal waters of Swansboro and the Emerald Isles. We opted for the Eco Adventure & Shelling tour which is fantastic for kids.
About The Boat and It’s Captain
The boat is a 23-foot Bayrider Skiff that will accommodate six people plus the captain. This boat is perfect for the marsh and tidal waters in the area due to its flat hull, allowing you to reach locations normally inaccessible by other power boats (and other tours). We wouldn’t have been able to get as close to all of the areas mentioned below without this boat and its skilled captain.
Our captain, owner/operator Darryl Marsh, appeared to be doing what he was born to do. Let’s face it, spending three to four hours in a small boat with a captain devoid of personality, or worse, could really take away from the experience.
Darryl, on the other hand, is a warm, friendly and interesting guy who really knows his stuff. He was a pleasure to be around, but also gave us plenty of non-rushed family time at the different destinations. Coastal conditions vary, but rest assured Darryl will do his best to get you to those optimal locations.
Find a Sandbar with Hidden Treasure
Our first stop was at a sandbar not too far from where we embarked in Swansboro. I’ve been to a few sandbars before, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Most sort of gradually peak above the water at low tide, with the depth gradually getting shallower as you approach.
This one was surrounded by a 5-6 foot almost vertical sea wall of sand beneath the water. It looked like an underwater plateau, and it was fascinating, at least to this Jersey boy. What a great geological lesson for all of us about strong tides!
The sandbar itself must have been at least five or six acres, varying between zero and 12 inch-deep water. The real draw for the kiddos was the thousands of sand dollars that covered the exposed areas. They weren’t just sitting on top, that would have been too easy. Usually just a small sliver was visible above the sand, and our boys relished the thrill of the hunt.
Tours may vary based on conditions and the tide, so check with Marsh Cruises ahead of time on what’s available.
See the Ocean Like You’ve Never Seen it Before
Next we took off towards Bear Island, and got to view the whole length of it from the marsh side. The tide was low, and this part of the voyage would have never been possible without Darryl’s trusty skiff. The kids held on tight with big smiles on their faces as we twisted through the narrow marsh trails at a pretty good clip.
We wound up just short of Bear Inlet where the river meets the ocean and the hunt was again on! This time the big draw was Whelk shells of all sizes. The beauty of this beach lies in the contrast between the mostly calm inland waters and the relentless surge of the ocean.
Bear Inlet is extremely wide, making for a dramatic view of the churning incoming or outgoing tide adjacent to a seemingly endless beach. It was gorgeous and all in all unforgettable. By the way, to get to this same location by foot would require a 4+ mile round trip hike from the Bear Island Ferry.
Our last stop was highly anticipated by our boys throughout the day. We were about to hunt some shark teeth. Cpt Darryl took us to a small beach right next to the inland waterway.
Why is this important?
We’re told it’s the frequent dredging and large ships that pass through, churning up sea bottom that hasn’t been exposed in millions of years. And with this comes hundreds of thousands of ancient shark teeth.
It’s takes a keen eye, but look hard enough and you’re bound to find a handful by the end of the trip.
Ironically, Easter Sunday was one day after our tour. We’ll take shell and teeth hunting with Marsh Cruises over Easter eggs any time.
Marsh Cruises offers a number of other options, from a sunset tour, to photography centered excursions, and have even been known to show the ropes to other boaters new to the area. If you don’t see something on the website that you like, give them a call – they also offer customized adventures.
Hammocks Beach State Park
Hammocks Beach State Park showcases some of the most beautiful coastal terrain that North Carolina has to offer. At the heart of this gorgeous landscape is Bear Island, a remote, non-inhabited beach that is accessible only by boat. Spend the day, or overnight in one of their primitive campsites.
We were curious as to where this interesting island got its name. Is it inhabited by a sleuth of bears? Hardly. We’re told hundreds of years ago it was called Barrier Island, which morphed into Bare, or Bear Island. We’re also told the occasional bear does find his way across, but it’s been a while.
Board the Ferry for a Day at the Beach
For a small per-person fee you can take a brief ferry ride to Bear Island and spend the day. Bear Island is fairly wide, which accentuates the geological differences between the marsh-facing Western edge, and the ocean-facing eastern edge. If you’re a fan of remote beaches, this one is for you.
From the ferry dock, a roughly 2-mile hike down the beach will take you to Bear Inlet, the South-Western tip of the island and amazing ocean and tidal views. 1.5 miles in the other direction will take you by 11 of the 14 campsites, and eventually Bogue Inlet. Or just bring your towels and swim trunks and enjoy this remote Atlantic beach.
Lifeguards are present in the designated swimming areas in summer months.
Take the Ferry for an Overnight Camping Adventure
If you’re adventurous like we are, once you visit the unique Bear Island shores you’re going to want to spend a night or two. We didn’t get a chance to do this yet, but we’re really looking forward to it.
You don’t need to be a “remote backpacking” family like we are to take advantage of the islands campsites – that said, this is a little different than the car camping most families are accustomed to. You’ll need to lug your gear a minimum of a half-mile to the closest campsite.
The farthest site accessible by foot is more than a mile. So pack accordingly and don’t overdo it. If you do it right you can lug it in. But as the camp ranger confirmed, good old backpacks are your best bet.
Restrooms, showers, and potable water are available. Campfires and alcohol are prohibited.
Kayak to a Remote Campsite
For the REALLY adventurous among you take a kayak or canoe to one of three remote campsites on the northeast end of Bear Island. These campsites are special because they are not easily accessible by foot due to dense vegetation. Which also means the bathrooms and drinking water are not accessible to you. You’ll need to carry in all of the water you need.
This is probably a great time to mention that Hammocks Beach State Park is a great place for kayaking in general. You can paddle around multiple “trails”, or openings in the marsh to explore Bear, or the nearby Huggins Island.
It’s extremely important to pay attention to the tides in deciding when to cross over the intracoastal waterway to the access the multiple trails. If you’re fighting the tide in or out, “you’re gonna have a bad time”. Contact the Visitors Center at 910-326-4881 for precise planning.
The kayak launch and camping via boat is currently allowed prior to ferry opening, with the reminder the facilities on the island are closed. The trails markers are also hurting from the storm, so check with the rangers when you visit for any snafus to look out for.
Where to Eat in Swansboro
My very favorite restaurant of our entire trip is pictured above, Boro Restaurant. They offer lunch and dinner, but we showed for weekend Brunch. The spicy Bloody Mary was terrific, and I loved the chicken-fried steak. They offer burgers, shrimp-and-grits, and more. Eat inside or grab a patio table at night when the string lights are shining.
Church Street Deli is a fun place to grab a sandwich and beer before heading out on the water. They serve several dozen varieties of sandwiches – I loved the Reuben! And don’t miss their Irish coffee.
Riverside Steak and Seafood is a more formal restaurant (though still great for kids.) Shrimp and grits, seafood and pasta are their specialties. And don’t miss starting your meal with an appy – we recommend scallop nachos!
Swansboro Food & Beverage Co sits on the corner of the main street, and was the first place we ate when in town. Coloring pages for the kids, and creative drinks for mom and dad made this a winner. Sandwiches, burgers, seafood and salads make it easy to please everyone. Start with the pimento cheese and don’t skip dessert!
Yana’s Ye Olde Drug Store Restaurant is where you need to get breakfast. The boys ate chocolate chip pancakes – I loved the omelette…but we all adored the retro decor. Breakfast convo included stories about the people we saw in photos on the walls – Marilyn Monroe, the Lone Ranger, and more!
Sharing the same parking lot as the must-stay apartment we mention below is Saltwater Grill. It is newly refurbished from Hurricane Florence, with gorgeous modern decor, views of the water from their 2nd story deck, and delicious food. Loved the crab stuffed flounder, and hubs gave the short ribs two thumbs up.
We love that many of these restaurants (and more) offer live music on the weekends. Locals and visitors alike gather to decompress from the week, share a pitcher of beer, listen to live tunes, and relax on the water.
Where (else) to Play in Swansboro
Bake, Bottle & Brew is another place to find live music. Enjoy a glass of wine, beer, coffee or ice cream with gorgeous views of the Intracoastal. We love the shop here, with lots of fun finds.
Candy Edventure is a super fun candy store with chocolate, traditional candies, bulk bins and more. They also have the coolest sodas…like pickle flavored soda!! We stopped in several times for treats for the boat.
Pogies is an outfitter right on the water. Rent kayaks, set up a fishing charter, get your fishing equipment and more.
The Mercantile, Poor Man’s Hole, Salt Marsh Cottage…I could go on and on…there are so many adorable shops on the main thoroughfare. Don’t miss this!!
Swansboro Paddle Boarding is where to go for paddle board and kayak rentals, and great guided tours around the islands, looking for shark’s teeth and shells.
Sweet Edventures maybe should be in the where to eat, but we escaped the kids for a moment and enjoyed a cocktail here, which felt more like “play!” My lemon drop martini was delish, and I loved the prohibition theme.
Where To Stay: Hook, Wine And Sinker in Swansboro
We ADORED this space at Hook, Wine and Sinker, and it was the perfect way to enjoy this coastal town. Here are 4 reasons to rent this awesome space on your next family vacay. Take a look at our video below.
Space to Spread Out
Your space is the top floor of the house, with 2 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, a HUGE kitchen, living area, sunroom and porch.
My favorite space was the sunporch, with tall windows that looked out onto the “river” and opened to welcome us with salt smells and a gentle breeze. There is a fold out couch and trundle bed in here too…for watching the passing boats or sleeping 2-3 more people.
The living room includes room for plenty of people to sit and play games or watch TV (Who wants to do that??) There is also a breakfast table for 6 (plus 2 more can eat on the sunporch.)
The kitchen is fit for a chef, welcoming you with all the cooking utensils you need (plus coffee – because that’s important, right??)
The Master bedroom included a great closet, and shares a HUGE jack-and-jill bathroom with the second room. It includes a full bed and a futon that converts into another full-sized bed, plus plenty of storage. The bathroom includes storage, a shower, plus a Jacuzzi tub.
If you can’t make it to the 3rd floor – no worries! There is also an elevator that brings you into the kitchen/laundry area. In fact, we visited over Easter, and the elevator is where the bunny hid their baskets!
I hate hospital-like decor that makes my vacation-space feel cold…and I abhor a space with so much junk that dust has been collecting for 22 years and my allergies take on a life of their own. Hook, Wine and Sinker was perfect. I am not kidding – this is a big thing for me. It felt very much like home…so relaxing and inviting. But not overwhelming. Joanna Gaines herself could not have done a better job.
You will not find better views in all of Onslow County than at this overnight space! Every morning, we sat on the porch and watched the sun rise in one direction…and then spent the evenings watching the sun set in the other direction.
We watched boats drive by from White Oak River, under the bridge…and watched fishermen catching their dinner in the water in front of us.
One evening, the rains came in. We sat on the covered porch with a glass of wine from the shop below, and listened to the beating rain. It was so peaceful, so…sacred a space. Then the clouds parted and the full moon reflected on the water.
This is the reason that we will never, ever stay anywhere else next time we are in town!
Hook, Wine & Sinker sits atop Bake, Bottle & Brew, a wine and beer enthusiast’s dream store where you’ll find a great selection of vino, gifts, and wine/beer making supplies. They offer tastings, and a small bar downstairs where locals and tourists gather to sip the night away.
We were really into the live music offered on Thursdays and Saturdays from 6 to 9PM. About a minute into our video is a shot of local artist Justin Castellano. The first clip was taken from our very own balcony! You’ve got that right – sit out on a private balcony and enjoy up close live music with your drink of choice.
If you have small children, like things on the quieter side, or both, don’t be deterred from booking this location. Bake, Bottle and Brew is not at all a loud establishment, and the live music was finished by 9PM. The three-tiered deck also provides good separation between you and the guests downstairs, and our privacy was never an issue.
Location, Location, Location
What else makes this a great Airbnb location? How about great food for breakfast, lunch or dinner all within walking distance? You’ll want to visit Yana’s Ye Olde Drug Store Restaurant at least once for breakfast. Featuring simple down-home Southern cooking with breakfast and burgers served all day, the walls at Yana are adorned with a ton of movie, TV and music memorabilia.
For lunch head to BORO Café & Bakery. If you don’t try the chicken fried steak at BORO I may need to find you and shame you publicly. Chicken Fried Steak is a favorite of mine and this was hands down the best I ever had.
Walk across a parking lot for dinner to find yourself at the Saltwater Grill for a great view of the water. The Saltwater is classy but casual, and great for a special night out. We tried the Crab Encrusted Grouper…and the Beef Shortribs were perfection!
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Disclosure: Thank you to Onslow County for hosting us. Opinions here are all our own, as always!