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.)
If you’re headed to Jacksonville to visit loved ones or if you’re getting stationed there, there are a few things you’ve got to do.
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 customizeable. 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 milspouse-owned businesses
It should come as no surprise that a military community has military-owned businesses. Jacksonville is no different. I had the opportunity to check out two while I was there: She Swank Too and S.A.L.T.
She Swank Too is owned by Lakesha, a military spouse who says she sleeps eight hours a night (but I’m not so sure I believe her). She’s a business coach, a retailer, owns a subscription box, is a figure of leadership in the national military spouse community, is an author, just launched a military spouse planner, and … I’m sure I’m missing about 25 other things. You get it, though. She is a mover and a shaker. And her clothing and accessories shop for little girls is one of the most precious things. Many of the items are made by military spouses– some of them local. The fashion is funky, fun, and affordable.
S.A.L.T. is owned by Donna, the spouse of a veteran, who first got her idea for handmade soap and bath products from her time in Hawaii. Donna has a passion for what she does– and it’s apparent in everything she does and what she produces. When you step into her shop, you’ll see the attention to detail that she’s put into the soaps that look like cupcakes or slices of cake, the shea butters and lotions, and the other products like scrubs and salts. You can even take a peek into her laboratory– there’s a window into her back window from the showroom where you can watch her do her thing.
3. Get a bite at the Osprey Grill
After all of that shopping, you’ll want to grab a bite to eat. You’re pretty close to the beach, so check out the Osprey Grill which is owned by a veteran. I’d suggest the fried pickles (c’mon, it’s the south… you have to eat fried pickles) and literally any seafood grilled. John and I both got mahi-mahi grilled. Mine had mango salsa, his had Cajun cream sauce. We have zero regrets. And then top it off with their creme brulee. You won’t be disappointed.
4. See the 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 people through the area– which I thought was a lovely touch. There are four different areas for meditation and contemplation of the sacrifices many have made for freedom: the Montfort Point Marines monument, the Beirut Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and the future location of a Marine musuem.
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 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 treehuggers!) and, Brewed Awakenings, and Muddy’s, which is owned and run by a retired military family.
6. Take a cruise
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 Freedom Fountain
The symbol of the city, the Freedom Fountain is beautiful and a great place for a photo. 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 can reach 90 decibels. At night, the fountain is lit red, white, and blue– fitting for a patriotic landmark.
8. Paddle the New River
If you enjoy the water, 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.
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 places that will put a zing in your taste buds. 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. Have a home base
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 your’e 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.