An All-American Vacation in Jacksonville, NC
My trip to Jacksonville, NC was hosted by Visit Jacksonville, North Carolina. All opinions expressed in this post are my own.
The sun is setting over the New River. Not the wild mountain waterway that was a big part of my life when I lived in Virginia, but instead, a New River that is wide and tranquil as it makes its way through Onslow County and the city of Jacksonville, North Carolina. A small downtown park along the river provides a place to catch the brilliant orange, purple and black hues of a sunset behind the “new” bridge along the Marine Highway (U.S. 17).
Across the parking lot sits a relatively plain looking military style building with large windows and concrete steps. If only its walls could talk. This is the local U.S.O. chapter and is the longest used U.S.O. building in the country. Many Jacksonville stories started here, and after a few days in Jacksonville, you’ll have plenty of stories to tell too.
The Jacksonville of today promises visitors, “a hero’s welcome.” Whether you’re here because of nearby Camp Lejuene, visiting nearby beaches, the waters of the New River or other attractions nearby, Jacksonville is a great base for all your plans. When a road trip brings you to this part of Eastern North Carolina here a few things to do on your “All-American” vacation.
Lejeune Memorial Gardens
A bronze statue of a U.S. Marine stands in the break of a granite wall a few yards from one of Jacksonville’s busiest highways. Etched into the granite are the names of more than 270 marines who died in a 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. In much larger letters are the words, “They came in peace.” This is the largest military memorial built with private funds in the United States and is one of many you’ll find in the Lejeune Memorial Gardens.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial sits toward the back of the gardens. A picturesque bridge of French design leads you toward “The Dome” which sits in the center of the memorial. Underneath the structure a fountain with jets representing each of the armed services flows. The names of the more than 58,000 American service men and women who died in Vietnam are etched into glass panels that form a circle around the entire memorial. All the names are in alphabetical order and include the names of Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action.
Many monuments list names of the fallen, but a unique memorial at the Lejeune Memorial Gardens uses 20,000 stars instead of names. The Montford Point Marine Memorial stands as a testament to the pioneering efforts and sacrifices of a special group of Marines. When President Franklin Roosevelt issued an order allowing African-Americans the opportunity to become Marines, they had to do so at a specially built camp at Montford Point at Camp Lejeune. During its time, 20,000 men trained at the camp, always having to abide by the segregation laws of the time. The names of many of those Marines are still not known and that’s where the Montford Point Association comes in. This group works to find Montford Point Marines and their descendants to keep this important story alive.
If your road trip brings you into Jacksonville from the East, you’ll likely encounter the Freedom Fountain which serves as a grand gateway to the city. Located near City Hall, this majestic water feature is surrounded by reminders of the city’s ties to the U.S. military and is located along a route known as “Freedom Way” which runs from Jacksonville to Morehead City.
The creation of Camp Lejeune at the onset of World War II transformed this small town near the coast into a thriving commercial center. It is definitely a city with military influence, but this All-American City has a little something for all visitors.
Are you hungry yet?
Whether it’s mouthwatering BBQ or a Mediterranean feast you won’t have any problems finding it in Jacksonville. As soon as I pulled into town I headed to Mission BBQ. And although it’s part of a chain, the restaurant’s ode to the Armed Services made it feel like it was local. I had the pulled pork BBQ sandwich, Carolina style (with slaw) and it definitely hit the spot.
Jeff’s Burgers, Dogs and Shakes is one of those places you would expect to see Guy Fieri to pull up to with a camera crew. A classic burger joint, Jeff’s has been around for a couple of decades and after you’ve tasted the food, you’ll know why. The signature sandwich is the Paul Parker, which is what I ordered. It’s a roasted pork tenderloin served up on a bun with grilled cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato. Certainly, a flavor I could savor again and again.
Marrakesh Mediterranean is just one example of Jacksonville’s many ethnic choices when it comes to dining. As soon as you walk in the décor transports you to a place far away, even though on the outside, everything looks like a typical American strip center. After glancing over the menu, I knew I had to start awith the hummus which was simply mouthwatering. The iced tea with a hint of mint proved to be just the right drink for quenching my thirst and the gyro and rice entrée exceeded my expectations. I definitely will be going back on my next visit.
These are just a few examples of the food scene in the Jacksonville area. Stay tuned for more on the culinary and beverage scene in Jacksonville in another post.
Standing on the boardwalk at Sturgeon City Park, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago, most of the aquatic and plant life in Wilson Bay was non-existent. Decades of pollution from the wastewater treatment facility had taken a sever toll on the environment. Now, the very site of the plant responsible for that damage stands as a beacon of hope in the comeback of this part of the New River. Sturgeon City is a work in progress. Hundreds of kids each year participate in environmental learning camps here and the park at the site allows visitors to get up close to the water and watch the wildlife and enjoy the vibrant colors of the marsh.
If you’re looking for a relaxing afternoon cruise or an overnight getaway on the water, Bayonet Cruises should be on your list. During my visit to Jacksonville, I immediately felt at home when I arrived at the home of Captain Lance, a retired marine, and his wife Marilyn. While we weren’t able to go on a cruise, it was clearly evident why Bayonet Cruises has been around for seven years. You can certainly expect a high level of hospitality from this lovely couple as well as amazing scenery while on the water.
One of the area’s best kept secrets is Hammock’s Beach State Park. And while it does have beach in the name, the beach is only accessible by a trip out on the water. Hurricane Florence wiped out the dock at the park, so when I was there the ferry was not yet operating. Paddle North Carolina operates kayak rentals at the park and I did go out on one (my first time doing so). And while I didn’t make it out to the beach the kayaking did provide a unique way to enjoy the marshy landscape.
Lady Swan Tours in nearby Swansboro takes you much closer to Bear Island and the beach with plenty of incredible views along the way.
Jacksonville is situated between two big beach resort areas. North Topsail Beach is about 30 minutes from Downtown Jacksonville. While filled with beachfront homes and condos, there were plenty of public beach access points. For the restaurants and shops, check out Snead’s Ferry before you get onto the island, or drive on down Topsail Island to Surf City.
To the north of Jacksonville is Emerald Isle just past the historic and charming town of Swansboro. The beaches at Emerald Isle are equally nice, but I did find public access to them to be harder to find.
If you are planning a road trip to Jacksonville be sure and check out VisitJacksonvilleNC website which covers the top spots to see and the top things to do in the area. Only in Onslow covers Jacksonville and the surrounding county.
Be sure and let me know what you thought of these things to do in Jacksonville in the comments below and check out more pictures on social media @knoxroadtripper on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.