I didn’t grow up in a military family, but my father was very proud of his service in the Marine corps. He spent time at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, so a visit to Lejeune Memorial Gardens was especially moving to me as was meeting all the retired military who make their home and have started businesses in Onslow County, North Carolina.
A visit to the gardens was just one of the things to do in Onslow County, which includes part of the North Carolina coast, the city of Jacksonville and Swansboro, Surf City and North Topsail Beach.
While I’ve traveled fairly extensively in other parts of North Carolina, I’d never made it to this part of the state where the food is delicious, the landscapes and parks are gorgeous and the people are warm. As one visitor wrote on Facebook, “The best thing about Onslow is its incredible natural beauty and the friendliness of its citizens and military members.”
Here are my choices of things to do in Onslow County.
Get out on the water
There are few things I enjoy more than getting out on the water. Our group headed out for a two-hour lunch cruise along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and the New River with Bayonet Cruises. Sadly, Mother Nature was not our friend that day. A rain shower kept us from venturing out and our cruise was cancelled.
But we did get the tour the boat and meet the delightful owners, Marilyn and Lance Ledoux. Like many business owners I met in Onslow County, Lance is retired military. He and his family did three tours at Camp Lejeune with the Marines. Although they had lived in California and Hawaii, Jacksonville was Marilyn’s favorite place so they settled there and started the boat charter business. Marilyn serves as first mate.
Bayonet Cruises offers lunch tours, dinner cruises, sunset wine and cheese tours, family picnics and overnight getaways.
We were blessed with excellent weather, however, for our shelling excursion with Marsh Cruises, which left from downtown Swansboro.
I’ve been picking up shells on beaches since I could walk, but long ago gave up keeping them. What am I going to do with them? For years I took them home only to throw them out later. Better to let the sea keep them.
I broke this policy, big time, on this excursion.
Our small group set off with Dwayne Marsh on his 23-foot Bay Rider Skiff. Apparently it’s the perfect boat for navigating the shallow waters of Swansboro and Emerald Isle. As the tides shift, giant areas of sand are exposed, enough that we could hop out of the boat and wonder around them.
Because they had just been uncovered by water, they were filled with shells everywhere I looked. And these weren’t just any shells – they were huge, gorgeous, colorful shells like none I’d ever seen.
I quickly abandoned my no-shelling policy to scoop up several of my favorites along with intact sea dollars with no consideration of how I’d be getting these into a suitcase to take home.
At one point I wandered back behind some large sand dunes. The swirls of sand and seagrass were gorgeous and I reveled in being the only person within sight. It was a delightful afternoon as we made a few stops, then cruised along the backwaters.
When I was packing to leave I decided on a new policy – no shell left behind. I grabbed dozens of tissues from my hotel room and carefully wrapped up my shells and sand dollars. I’m happy to report they made it back safely and are on display in my living room.
Go shopping in downtown Swansboro
Front Street in downtown Swansboro may not be very long, but it’s packed with really cute shops. We strolled around the boutiques and galleries, popping in to check out the merchandise. There’s Beaufort Olive Oil Company and By the Sea, a consignment shop. Anyone with a sweet tooth will want to visit Candy Edventure where you’ll find sugar in hundreds of colorful forms.
You’ll find a few gift shops, like Poor Man’s Hole, Gray Dolphin and Glory Bee. Clothing stores include Light House Boutique, Lovely’s Boutique and Merrow Boutique.
My favorite shop is Salt Marsh Cottage, which carries beautiful home goods and accessories, so elegantly and enticingly displayed. I wanted to hire them to come pretty up my house.[See related story: From Fritters to Filets: 5 Amazing Swansboro Restaurants]
Sip some moonshine at Walton’s Distillery
When your hobby is touring distilleries, it’s not too surprising when you decide to open your own. Jacksonville, North Carolina, native Don Walton went to law school in Kentucky where he developed an interest in the industry.
After moving back to Jacksonville he eventually started Walton’s Distillery, constructing a building near the banks of Black Creek – a fitting location as several illegal stills operated here back in the day.
North Carolina has a rich history when it comes to illegal alcohol production, dating back to the Whisky Rebellion of 1791 when George Washington wanted to tax alcohol. Many rural farmers had little access to alcohol and when faced with excess grain on their farms, well, making it themselves seemed like a win-win. That began a lengthy battle between home stillers and the guvment when it came to home production.
Don’s small batch distillery is entirely legal, producing flavored moonshines like Kitty Walton’s Apple Pie Moonshine, Junior Walton’s Pine Shine Colada and Mag Walton’s Peach Shine. Lucky for Don, his mother’s family comes from a line of moonshine producers and Donald was able to use some old family recipes. The most popular flavor is the salted caramel.
The distillery also produces E.M. Walton’s straight bourbon whiskey and barrel-aged moonshine, which produces the award-winning Junior Walton’s Premium Select.
He uses corn from Onslow County, which he grounds and dries to create his magical moonshine flavors. “It comes in in a sack and leaves in a glass,” Donald told us during our tour.
The distillery is open Monday through Saturday with free tours every 30 minutes. Walton’s Distillery also hosts around six free open houses that feature live music and free lunch. You should be so lucky to be visiting then. Sometimes, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Our last stop was the gift shop, of course, which has a large selection of fun items, like bar signs, bumper stickers, mugs, candles, clothing items and glassware. Yes, you can order online.
One of the most moving things to do in Onslow County: Visit the memorials at Lejeune Memorial Gardens
It was a rainy day when we visited Lejeune Memorial Gardens, but it was a pleasure to see the monuments and reflect on the people who have served our country. My father was technically too young to join the Marines in the 1940s, just after the war. But he lied about his age and joined when he was 16.
Like many men of his generation he rarely talked about his service in the military. I had known about his time at Parris Island in South Carolina, but had not known he also served at Camp Lejeune. My father died in 2015 and I wish I had asked him more about his service. Two Marines attended his funeral to perform the Military Funeral Honors available for any member of the service.
My son presented me with a gift for Christmas that had copies and transcripts of letters my dad wrote to my grandmother during his military training. Written on his United States Marine Corps letterhead, the letters date from March 1946 to June 1947.
I fought back tears as I hugged my son, unable to fully express how much this meant to me. I had never known these letters existed and now I could read about his training, his monthly pay of $70, his time at Camp Pendleton, Parris Island, Quantico and Camp Lejeune.
Camp Lejeune is on 246 square miles and is the home of the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast. The gardens are set on 27 acres with several memorials, all within walking distance of each other.
• The Onslow Vietnam Veterans Memorial is second in size to the national memorial in Washington and like that famous memorial, lists the names of the all the men and women who died during the war. It’s dedicated to all who served there from all five branches of the Armed Forces. It’s really powerful to tour the circular monument and see all the names of the service people.
• The Beirut Memorial honors the 273 Marines who died during the bombings of the barracks in Beirut in 1983. Many of the victims were residents of Jacksonville, North Carolina, serving with the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit and stationed at Camp Lejeune.
It was the largest loss of life for Marines not engaged in a war and was a devastating loss for Jacksonville. The memorial is a gift from the citizens of Onslow County. A remembrance ceremony is held every year on October 23.
• The Montford Point Marine Memorial includes a wall of around 20,000 stars to represent the Montford Point Marines who served during World War II. These African-Americans had to “fight for the right to fight” during a time of segregation.
While not as well known as the Tuskegee Airmen, they did receive the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012.
• The 9/11 Memorial Beam from the World Trade Center includes a beam from the Twin Towers.
Hit the trails and the water at Hammocks Beach State Park
I’m on a mission to visit more state and national parks and was happy to discover this gem. Hammocks Beach State Park is just the kind of place I’d love to spend the day, kayaking through the marshes, hiking on the trails and taking the (seasonal) ferry to visit Bear Island, a four-mile long barrier island accessible only by water. There’s a covered shelter for picnicking and a concession stand during the summer.
For more things to do in Onslow County, please visit Only in Onslow.
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– Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief