3 Days of Coastal Adventure on a Budget in Jacksonville

Jacksonville’s story starts more than 300 years ago, when it was a humble but productive port at the mouth of the New River. Through the years, this Eastern North Carolina city has been shaped by a growing military population that now includes nearly 50,000 Marines at Camp Lejeune. Patriotism is part of the fabric of Jacksonville, and its natural beauty and proximity to beaches make it an all-around welcoming place for families to visit.

Day 1: Explore Sights, Sounds & Flavors

Awaken your senses at veteran-owned The Milk Road, where local art covers the walls and coffee beans roast. Order a favorite or try something different such as the Shakerado – it’s slightly sweet and served in an ice-filled Boston shaker. Don’t pass on its liège waffles, whose yeast-risen dough is studded with pearl sugar. It caramelizes during cooking, creating a sweet crunch that makes syrup unnecessary.

While it’s easy to dawdle on The Milk Road’s patio, get exploring Jacksonville’s nearly 20 miles of paved trails and greenways that connect downtown parks and city sights. Download a map and put on your walking shoes or hop on your bike. The trails are safe, free and pet-friendly.

Bike trail in Sturgeon City Park

One pet with a citywide reputation is Jo Jack the parrot, Marina Cafe’s mascot. Meet him while enjoying a fried seafood lunch riverside at this local dive. A fun option: Book a trip with local fishing guide Just Got Reel Inshore Charters, catch and clean your haul, and Marina Cafe will cook up your fresh meal for you.

You’ll need to drive (or catch an Uber) to family-owned Walton’s Distillery. With free tours and sampling in the gift shop, you’ll spend about two hours at this stop. The oak-aged E.M. Walton’s Corn Whiskey, named after the owner’s great-grandfather, is smooth, but there’s a kick to its moonshine, made from a bootlegging cousin’s recipe. If the original is too strong, try the apple pie, peach or other flavored varieties.

Sample other liquors, wine and beer distilled in North Carolina at Duck’s Grille and Bar, where daily specials include beer flights, all-you-can-eat wings and fries, and free barside hors d'oeuvres. Entertainment – bands, karaoke and comedy – changes nightly.

In addition to many free and inexpensive activities, Jacksonville offers several lodging options, from campsites to AirBnBs to new, nationally respected chain hotels for less than $150 per night.

Day 2: Delve Into History on Land and Sea

Begin the day with breakfast at the veteran- and Black-owned Southern Harvest Soul Food. Hungry visitors line up for meals made straight from the heart such as shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, and biscuits and gravy. 

Head to Lejeune Memorial Gardens a few miles away and walk among touching memorials that honor Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice. Its Vietnam Memorial, for example, is the nation’s second largest and lists those missing, taken prisoner or killed in the war. The Beirut Memorial honors the 273 Marines who gave the last full measure of devotion in Lebanon and Grenada in 1983. And the 9/11 Memorial is built around a World Trade Center girder that was delivered by a New York City fire engine.

Stop for lunch at Jeff’s Burgers, Dogs and Shakes, which serves hot dogs on toasted rolls and forms its burgers by hand. Its Paul Parker sandwich – roasted pork loin, bacon, Cheddar crisped on the flattop, lettuce, tomato and mayo – is legendary. Add hand-cut fries or onion rings and a handmade milkshake, and you’ll know why Southern Living magazine called it a must visit.

You also must visit the beach, with two great options only a 30-minute drive from Jacksonville. Head north for an afternoon in the historic fishing village of Swansboro and Hammocks Beach State Park, one of our state’s best spots to search for seashells. From April through October, a short ferry ride will take you from the mainland section of the park in Swansboro to Bear Island. (Please note: Bear Island's campsites and ferry service are closed through summer 2024 for a major construction project.) Or travel south from Jacksonville to North Topsail Beach for soft sand and quiet waters.

Hammocks Beach State Park

Return to Jacksonville in time for dinner at Marrakesh. From stuffed grape leaves to lamb chops and moussaka, you’ll find an authentic Mediterranean experience, complete with belly dancers on select evenings.

Day 3: Fun for the Family is Calling

Looking for the hometown favorite where locals go for breakfast? Head uptown to Kettle Diner, just one place where you can enjoy a hearty meal for a reasonable price. Its menu includes omelets, breakfast burritos and French toast, and breakfast starts at 6 a.m. An early start to your day is important (okay, sleep in until 8 a.m.).

Built in the early 1940s, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune uses much of the coastline in Jacksonville to train and practice amphibious landings. But the ocean, rivers, and creeks also welcome kayakers and canoeists, especially early in the day when the air is cool and boat traffic is light.

Launch your kayak from the beach at Jacksonville Landing, which has three boat ramps and a fishing pier. If you don’t own one, take Paddle NC’s eco-tour. Patient guides teach the basics and explain the historical and environmental wonders of the ecosystem. Watch for wildlife. You’ll likely see ospreys, both the large fish-eating feathered raptors and the tilt-rotor aircraft from Marine Corps Air Station New River. Or book one of our fishing guides year-round.

Fishing on the New River

Mission BBQ is standing room only at noon, when the national anthem is played as a daily salute to country, military and first responders. It’s serious about barbecue too. While its brisket sandwich is a popular lunch choice, you can order smoked chicken, pork or turkey. If you can’t decide, ask your server for the sampler and create your own combos with sauces from around the country.

The family can’t leave Jacksonville without some souvenirs. Choose from plenty at shops inside Jacksonville Mall and along Western Boulevard. Save time for Saigon Sam’s Military Surplus, where you’ll find outdoor gear and clothing.

Visit Mike’s Farm for country cookin’ served family-style. The mac 'n' cheese and fried chicken invite an extra helping. Kids can pet and feed farm animals at no charge, and a seasonal gift shop and bakery (yes, they have fudge) tempt the most disciplined guests. The North Carolina Products Barn, beside the restaurant, offers a robust collection of locally made goods. Pro tip: Call ahead for reservations.

Mike's Farm

This trip idea was produced in partnership with, and photos are courtesy of, Visit Jacksonville NC.

Updated December 1, 2021
About the Author
Pete M. Anderson

Pete M. Anderson

Pete M. Anderson is a Gastonia-based writer whose work also has appeared in Business North Carolina, Carolina Sportsman and Thousand Islands Life. He enjoys exploring North Carolina, especially its diverse fishing holes, local race tracks and world-renowned barbecue joints.

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