By Caroline Eubanks
Sometimes overlooked by other coastal destinations like the Outer Banks and Wilmington, the beach community of Swansboro, North Carolina, might be one of the state’s best kept secrets. The charming coastal town’s historic buildings and dockside restaurants look like what you might find in the fishing villages of Maine or Massachusetts, but without venturing far from home. It’s also a gateway to secluded barrier islands where visitors can connect with nature, away from the crowds and high rise condos.
This region was inhabited by Native Americans that traveled the waterways by dugout canoe. European colonists arrived in the 1700s and the towns they established became a favorite haunt of pirates like Blackbeard. Swansboro was founded in 1783, named for North Carolina politician Samuel Swann.
Rich in History
On your way into Swansboro, stop at the Onslow County Museum in Richlands for a primer on the area’s history. Exhibits focus on the Native American period, with a rare dugout canoe, the military presence in nearby Jacksonville, and the ecosystem, a habitat for the famed Venus flytraps.
Jacksonville is also home to Camp Lejeune, the home base for the Marines. Lejeune Memorial Gardens welcomes members of the public as a place to honor the sacrifice of our soldiers. It has a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a 9/11 Memorial, and the Montford Point Marines Memorial, which highlights the African American soldiers that served during Segregation. There’s also a connected greenway and trail.
Swansboro is close to a number of barrier islands that can be explored by visitors. Hammocks Beach State Park includes four-mile long Bear Island. The nature preserve is only accessible by ferry and offers primitive campsites nestled in the dunes. The park also has fishing for trout and flounder.
From downtown Swansboro, you can also rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from a local outfitter to paddle to the sandbars where sharks teeth, shells and other treasures wash up on the shore. Guided tours are also available.
Eat and Drink
Despite its small size, Swansboro has a diverse dining scene for all palates. For breakfast, there’s nowhere better than Yana’s Ye Olde Drugstore Restaurant, a 50s-inspired diner covered in Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. The menu features dinosaur-shaped pancakes, omelets and burgers.
Church Street Irish Pub and Deli is perhaps Swansboro’s most beloved gathering place, operating as a restaurant and bar in an 1887 home. The menu includes artisan sandwiches like the grilled Reuben, coffee and English pints.
Swansboro’s location on the Bogue Sound also means it has access to incredible seafood. Saltwater Grill is an upscale eatery with steaks, crab stuffed grouper and pasta. The restaurant also offers live music and an extensive cocktail lineup.
A few blocks down, The Boro Restaurant and Bar has a large patio for sunset dining and live music near the water. Menu favorites include dishes with Southern and international influences like the crab tostadas, shrimp and grits, and burgers.
Where to Stay
Convenient to downtown is the Hampton Inn & Suites Swansboro. The hotel offers amenities like free Wi-Fi, daily breakfast, in-room coffee makers and free parking. Families can spread out in the large suites.
Or stay in the heart of downtown Swansboro, which has rental homes including an apartment above a waterfront shop, a charming cottage on the marsh and glamping in a colorful tiny house.
Hammocks Beach State Park’s campsites are all on Bear Island and permits are required. Water is available but travelers must bring everything else they need with them. The sites are remote, without a nearby bathhouse, but provide unrivaled access to wildlife.