This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Visit NC. The opinions and text are all mine.
We’re back from our weekend in Jacksonville, NC, and let me tell you, it truly lived up to and exceeded our expectations. While I had been there 20 years ago as a child, I truly didn’t know what to expect as we began our weekend. To put it mildly, Jacksonville surprised us. A. Lot.
(And in a good way, too.)
But first, get to know Jacksonville, NC.
Jacksonville, NC in Onslow County is an old Southern city as it was founded in 1731. Despite predating the founding of the United States, it’s teeming with youth and vitality. Not only is it one of the fastest growing cities in the country, it is also the youngest, with a population age average of just over 22 years old.
More famously, it’s home to Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps training facility that was built at the beginning of the US’ involvement in World War II. It’s home of the famous and exceptionally brave Montford Marines, African American Marines who were abysmally discriminated against during training and their careers in the Corps, yet whose feats of daring during WWII are now being celebrated and more widely known.
Camp Lejeune also has six satellite facilities in addition to the main base: Marine Corps Air Station New River, Camp Geiger, Stone Bay, Courthouse Bay, Camp Johnson, and the latest addition to the facility, the Greater Sandy Run Training Area.
You can check out the Onslow County Visitor Center and the Visit Jacksonville, NC Visitor Center both in Jacksonville.
If you’re headed to Jacksonville to visit loved ones or if you’re getting stationed there, there are quite a few attractions to enjoy and explore in Jacksonville, NC. Try these things to do in Jacksonville, NC:
1. Visit Jeff’s Burgers, Dogs & Shakes
It may look like your standard diner on the outside and inside, but bite into a burger, and you’ll realize that Jeff’s is no ordinary fast food joint. The burgers are flavorful and are fully customizable. You may even find yourself ordering a not-so-ordinary sandwich from their specials– like a mahi-mahi sandwich. Definitely get the fries– which you can watch being made on-demand (no frozen potatoes here)– and treat yourself to a shake. John swears by the chocolate one, but I gulped my Oreo shake down in what is probably a very embarrassing amount of time. The hype is real. Don’t pass this one by.
2. Check out Jacksonville, NC’s milspouse-owned and veteran-owned eateries
It should come as no surprise that a military community has military-owned businesses. Jacksonville is no different. One of the lovely things about Jacksonville, NC, is that many Marine families come back and retire in the area, using the town and surrounding county as a launching pad for their after-the-military dreams. Make sure that you check out:
- BAKED is a veteran spouse-run mobile bakery based in Jacksonville, NC. Owner and head kitchen magician Sherryl whips up cupcakes, cookies, cupcake jars, and cakes that are absolutely mouthwatering and stunning. And yes, she ships.
- Run by a veteran couple, Southern Harvest Soul Food is a sit-down restaurant offering up deep South favorites. Terrance and Tameka are originally from Mississippi and decided to settle down in Jacksonville, NC. Lucky for us, they brought their impossibly delicious menu with them. (And you should check out their Instagram to see their drool-worthy brunch!)
3. Check out Jacksonville’s shops
If you’re in a mood to shop, Jacksonville offers a variety of national brands and local boutiques, either in and around town or very close by. I had a lot of fun shopping boutiques that infused the natural beauty of North Carolina’s shore and low country into their vibe.
4. See Jacksonville, NC’s Lejeune Memorial Gardens
I will be really honest: When I saw we were going to visit the gardens, I was skeptical. We had lived next to a Civil War battlefield for three years and within a stone’s throw of D.C. These “gardens” were probably going to be lame. Right?
The Lejeune Memorial Gardens were absolutely breath-taking and riveting. Not only is it a beautifully manicured area that has clearly been planned carefully, it also hosts a running/biking trail that moves visitors through the area– which I thought was a lovely touch and beautiful tribute. There are different areas for meditation and contemplation of the sacrifices many have made for freedom: the Montford Point Marine Memorial, the Beirut Memorial, 9/11 Memorial (which includes a memorial beam from the World Trade Center), the Onslow Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the location of a future Museum of the Marine.
5. Grab a cup of joe
Jacksonville runs on caffeine, which makes sense since there are a lot of tired Marines and Marine spouses in the area. Treat yourself to baked treat and a coffee or tea at one of the local spots. The Milk Road’s specialty is liege waffles (a waffle made with a raised dough and covered in pearl-sugar) that one of the partners tasted in Germany when he was stationed there and brought back home. Then there’s Brewed Downtown, an NC Certified Green restaurant (yay for tree-huggers!) and, Brewed Awakenings, and Muddy’s, which is owned and run by a retired military family.
6. Take a cruise on Jacksonville’s New River
John and I set sail on a lunch cruise with Lance and Marilyn– a retired military couple– who own their own yacht cruise company. It didn’t hurt that we had a perfect day and couldn’t want for a more beautiful sky, pleasant sun, or comfy temperature, but I’m pretty sure that no matter the weather, it would have been a delight to cruise the New River with the captain and his first mate.
Bayonet Cruises has a bunch of different packages, including wine cruises, overnight cruises, and special ones for birthdays and other events. (They’ve even had proposals on their yacht and have a perfect “yes” score.) We enjoyed snacking on veggies, fruit, and crackers and cheese as an appetizer. Marilyn was a gracious host and chef, serving us chicken salad sandwiches on croissants, chips, and a salad with a delectable brownie for dessert. (She even sent one home with us!)
What makes the cruise on the New River even more impressive is its history. Just a dozen years ago or so, the water was so contaminated that marine life was all but dead. The community came together and, in a huge effort, worked to clean it up. Today, the water is healthy and life is returning to its banks. It’s an immensely moving story that should be repeated.
7. Take a picture at the Jacksonville Freedom Fountain
The symbol of the city, the Freedom Fountain is beautiful and a great place for a photo. Located in Downtown Jacksonville, the fountain has 54 jets (50 for each state, three for the three branches of government, and one large one for freedom) and means business– when you stand next to it, the sound of the falling water from the fountain jets can reach 90 decibels. At night, the fountain is lit red, white, and blue– fitting for a patriotic landmark.
8. Paddle Jacksonville’s New River
Grab a kayak rental from Paddle NC and go exploring on the New River. They launch from Jacksonville and have singles and tandems available. We had the opportunity to go on a guided sunset tour, but you can enjoy nature on your own, too, if you’d like.
If you love the outdoors, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the river, tributaries, ocean, and greenways by paddleboards, bike, boat, ferry, and foot. (While Jacksonville is not a beach town, it’s just a short drive to great beaches like North Topsail Beach, Bear Island and Hammock Beach State Park, and Emerald Isle.)
9. Get a taste of the world
While many bases have Japanese and Chinese restaurants (and believe me, I am not discounting how awesome sushi or egg rolls are), Jacksonville has a few other notable eateries featuring authentic foods from other cultures that can sometimes be more difficult to find:
- Check out Marrakesh for Mediterranean cuisine. You can try the more standard fare of falafel and baklava or dive into dishes that you usually can’t find easily.
- Liliana’s Columbian Restaurant and Bakery features the distinctive cuisine of Columbia… but if you can’t have a sit-down dinner, you can always grab some arepas to go from the bakery portion of the operation.
10. Take the road less traveled to surprise destinations
If you’re staying in Jacksonville a little longer, use it as your base of operations. Drive a half hour east and you’ll hit the beach and towns like Topsail and Surf City. Go a little north and there’s the cute town of Swansboro and the quiet beaches of Hammocks Beach State Park. Go south, and you can be in Wilmington in an hour.
11. Eat a hearty breakfast
Finally, you know you’re going to want at least one down home, Southern breakfast while you’re visiting North Carolina. (And if you’re stationed here, well then, that’s a bonus for you!) The Kettle Diner will not disappoint; its the local watering hole and it’s easy to see (and taste) why. Delicious food. That’s why.