Escape to NC’s Onslow County

by Janean Flowe
two kayakers in the ocean in Onslow County, NN

This under-the-radar destination combines the best of beaches, outdoor recreation and small-town charm.

By Karon Warren

Home of Camp Lejeune—one of the U.S. Marines’ largest bases, Onslow County contains some of North Carolina’s best beaches and outdoor recreation. However, unlike many other beach destinations, Onslow County offers a quieter, more relaxed experience, one that allows you to really soak in all it has to offer.

On the Water

If you love being on the water, one of the best starting points is a shelling adventure cruise with Marsh Cruises. During this three- to four-hour tour on a 25-foot BayRyder Skiff, you’ll visit the area’s best shelling spots including Bear Island at Bear Inlet. Think sand dollars, lightning whelks, coquina clams and more. If that’s not enough for souvenirs, you’ll also make a stop at Sharks Tooth Island, where you can gather not only shells, but also—you guessed it—sharks’ teeth. Along the way, you can search for wildlife in the backwaters as you bask in the breeze and sunshine. And while Capt. Darryl Marsh provides complimentary water, you are welcome to bring a cooler stocked with your favorite snacks and drinks to enjoy during the trip.

Aerial view of boating around islands on the Crystal Coast in Onslow County, North Carolina.

Boating around islands on the Crystal Coast in Onslow County, North Carolina.

Another fun way to explore the area is by kayaking to Jones Island just off the shores of Swansboro. If you don’t want to bring your own, you can rent kayaks at Pogie’s in Swansboro, and set sail right behind the shop. If you are a beginner or just want to let someone direct your journey, you can even arrange for a guided tour with one of their expert guides.

For anyone who’s ever dreamed of catching their own shrimp, you can have your chance with Reel Livin’ Fishing Charters in Sneads Ferry. Head out to the bay, where Capt. Tommie Jarman will drop the nets and start to sweep the waters for crustaceans. Once the nets are emptied on board, you can collect all the shrimp in your handy bucket. Just watch your fingers so those pesky crabs don’t latch on. When your trip is over, you’ll have fresh shrimp ready to fry or grill up for dinner!

To wrap up your day on the water, set sail with The Lady Swan on a sunset cruise in Swansboro. This is a glorious way to start the evening, watching the sky change with a kaleidoscope of colors as the breeze blows across your face. You even are welcome to bring along your favorite bottle of wine or beer and hors d’oeuvres to savor during the tour.

walking path of Hammock's Beach State Park

Hammocks Beach State Park

On the Shore

A very popular landlocked activity in Onslow County includes hiking the trails at Hammocks Beach State Park. On the mainland in the park, there are three trails ranging from easy to moderate, and all less than 1 mile in length. You also can take the ferry over to Bear Island, a 4-mile-long, undeveloped barrier island, where you can walk along the beach.

If you like geocaching, you can search for hidden caches at Hammocks Beach State Park or head to Swansboro, where you’ll find caches stashed around town. In fact, this is a fun addition to any exploration in Swansboro, which is filled with a variety of shops and boutiques filled with great souvenirs. This small town is entirely walkable or accessible for wheelchair-users and slow walkers, and it’s a great way to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

On the Menu

When it comes to eating in Onslow County, the local offerings more than measure up to restaurants found in larger cities. Obviously, if you are going to be on the coast, you’ll find plenty of fresh seafood. For instance, at Riverview Café in Sneads Ferry, you can choose from flounder, shrimp, soft shell crab, sea scallops and so much more. It’ll all be served up with such sides as cole slaw, fries and fried okra.

Likewise, in Swansboro, you can indulge in grilled shrimp and scallops, lobster-stuffed grouper, or three-cheese oysters at Saltwater Grill. This restaurant also often features specialty cocktails like cucumber and mint martinis plus live music, so you can make it quite the night out. Nearby at Riverside Steak & Seafood, you can choose from such tasty bites as scallop nachos or hot crab dip before moving on to salmon Florentine or shrimp and grits.

Not to be outdone for breakfast, Swansboro delivers big for the “most important meal of the day.” Try the chicken and waffles at Ye Olde Riverwalk Grill, or dig into a stack of pancakes and an omelet at Yana’s Ye Olde Drug Store Restaurant. If you aren’t too stuffed from breakfast, step into the Church Street Irish Pub & Deli for one of the specialty sandwiches like Grandma Zachery’s Hot Pastrami or the Fabulous French Dip.

The best part is, if you choose to stay in Swansboro, almost all of these offerings are within walking distance of your accommodations. And walking this charming small town will be one of the greatest pleasures of your visit.

(Go Magazine Online Exclusive October 2021)

(Photos: Karon Warren & stock)

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