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Aug. 22, 2019
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Take a beach break in North Carolina’s Onslow County

By Pamela A. Keene 
 
Fried shrimp for breakfast, dozens of whole sand dollars on the beach, wildlife and outdoor adventures, a strong sense of Americana and patriotism, the country’s longest-operating USO, and the largest U.S. Marine training base east of the Mississippi are just a few of the reasons to make a trip to eastern North Carolina, Jacksonville and Onslow County.
 
A direct hit from last October’s Hurricane Florence devastated the area, so our scheduled trip there was postponed until last month. Three journalists, two from Atlanta and one from Daytona Beach, spent four days exploring all there is to do in this treasure trove of adventures, history and culture in this laid-back part of North Carolina. 
 
OnlyInOnslow Tourism manager Donna Hammonds knows this area well, not only because she has lived here for a good while, but also because her husband is a retired U.S. Marine Captain who trained recruits at Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune, until he retired a couple of years ago. 
 
She made sure that we visited a balance of historic sites and memorials, great places to eat local seafood and specialties like fried fruit fritters, African-American heritage sites, parks, waterways and attractions for the whole family.
 
Jacksonville, as the largest town in the area, is home to Camp LeJeune, a 246-square-mile active training facility. The beaches are perfect for amphibious training and the deep woods provide plenty of space for land-based training. Access is limited to the public, but Jacksonville and surrounding area is filled with memorials, museums and other tributes to the service of the Marines. 
 
We toured the Camp LeJeune Memorial Gardens, with its assemblage of memorials, fountains and a proposed Museum of the Marine. The garden’s Beirut Memorial honors the 273 Marines and other personnel from Camp LeJeune and the area who lost their lives in the 1983 bombing. The white marble walls are engraved with the names of those 273 and the words, “They Came in Peace,” reminding us that they were there for a peace-keeping mission.
 
Montford Point Marine Memorial to African-American Marines is punctuated by a statue of an African-American Marine and the artillery they used during World War II. The new Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial lists the names of all the men and women from all branches of the military who died in Vietnam.
 
The longest continuously operating USO, located in Jacksonville in a white-frame building, still serves all members of the military as their home away from home.
 
Nature and wildlife
The steady drizzle kept us from experiencing Bayonet Cruise with Captain Lance Ledoux and his wife Marilyn who regularly host marriage proposals, sunset cruises, team-building trips and wildlife tours on the New River. However, we visited their waterside home on the New River for a chance to learn about their love of the area and to tour their cruising yacht.
 
We toured North Topsail Beach and Hammock’s Beach State Park, both of which are still rebuilding from Hurricane Michael. The progress was impressive, with lodging, touring and restaurants already open or preparing to open sometime this summer. 
 
We were also treated to a boat ride with Marsh Cruises in the backwaters of Swansboro and Emerald Isle and several barrier islands to see wildlife and go shelling. Bear Island, across from Hammock’s Beach State Park, is a sheller’s paradise. In less than 15 minutes, I had collected more than four dozen whole sand dollars.
 
Great eats, fresh seafood
From sea to kitchen and farm to table, Onslow County offers an array of cuisines, even for the pickiest of palates. The Kettle Diner in Jacksonville is known for its fried shrimp, and even though we had breakfast there, we also sampled a basket of hand-breaded golden-brown shrimp. That day, following the theme, we also ate fried shrimp at our lunch stop. 
 
Mike’s Farm, an agritourism destination in Beulaville, serves home-cooked fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, melt-in-your-mouth country ham biscuits and mashed potatoes family style. Only open Thursdays to Saturdays for dinner, get there early. On major holidays, there’s a long wait. Checkout the soon-to-open on-site store featuring North Carolina grown and made products from local honeys to arts and crafts.
 
Swansboro, called “the Boro” by locals, is a quaint waterfront village with excellent restaurants, such as Riverside Steak & Seafood and Saltwater Grill, recently reopened after Hurricane Florence. Yana’s Restaurant just down the street boasts an amazing collection of Elvis memorabilia and is known for its daily assortment of deep-fried in-season fruit fritters.
 
Swansboro offers nighttime entertainment on the weekends and serves as home base for waterway excursions and fishing trips. 
 
Onslow County and this part of the North Carolina Coast proved its resilience from natural disasters. Although the wrath of Hurricane Florence was still evident, communities had pulled together, picked themselves up and were actively rebuilding. 
 
No matter where you choose to start your journey in Onslow County, you’ll find diversity, activities for all ages, history and a welcoming smile form the people who live there.
 
For more information about events, activities and treasure of Onslow County, North Carolina, visit www.onlyinonslow.com.

Posted online 5/28/19
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