More barrier island beach resorts line Bogue Banks, which runs south of Morehead City in a nearly east-west orientation for some 21 miles. The half-dozen family-oriented resort towns have freely accessible—but quite often crowded—beaches. The largest, Atlantic Beach, across a bridge from Morehead City, has a boardwalk backed by a mini-golf course and skateboard park. The enjoyable North Carolina Aquarium (daily, $13 adults), five miles west of town on Hwy-58 at Pine Knoll Shores, features extensive displays on the local loggerhead sea turtles as well as sharks and river otters.
Fort Macon State Park
At the northeast end of Bogue Banks stands Fort Macon State Park (daily, free), which centers on a massive pre-Civil War fortress overlooking the harbor entrance. The pentagon-shaped masonry fort, completed in 1834, was captured early in the Civil War by the Confederacy. In April 1862, Union forces retook Fort Mason after a bombardment and controlled Beaufort for the rest of the war.
Camp Lejeune and Jacksonville
Midway between Beaufort and Wilmington, much of the coastline is taken over by the 100,000-acre U.S. Marine Corps base of Camp Lejeune, established during World War II and now home to the Weapons Training Battalion.
At the northwest corner of Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville (pop. 70,145) is little more than a civilian adjunct to the base, with all the gas stations, fast-food franchises, and tattoo parlors Lejeune’s 45,000-plus Marines and their dependents could want. One sobering sight is on the edge of town, just off Hwy-24 opposite a Sonic Drive-In: the 50-foot-long granite wall of the Beirut Memorial remembers the more than 220 Camp Lejeune Marines killed in Beirut in 1983 by a suicide bomber. Alongside a list of their names are the words “They Came in Peace.”
South of Camp Lejeune, US-17 runs through the lushly forested lowlands around Holly Ridge, while Hwy-210 cuts across a series of narrow barrier islands. The waterfront is mostly private, backed by beach house after beach house (rentals aplenty, if you can manage to stay for a full week), but with a few parking areas for passing travelers. The clean strands and clear blue waters continue through sleepy Surf City, home to a homespun hospital for injured loggerhead turtles, cared for by volunteers at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center (302 Tortuga Lane, 910/329-0222).
Most of this stretch of coastline is dedicated to low-key, by-the-week family vacation rentals, but the town of Wrightsville Beach has a bit more going on. Located about five miles east of US-17 via US-74 or US-76, it’s not all that different from dozens of other coastal vacation communities, but proximity to the lively city of Wilmington makes it a great place to stop. Places to stay along the beach include the comfortable Blockade Runner Beach Resort (275 Waynick Blvd., 910/256-2251, $110 and up), which has a good restaurant, two bars, yoga classes, fishing trips, surf lessons, and various boat rentals. Nearby, located on the mainland overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, the Dockside Restaurant (1308 Airlie Rd., 910/256-2752) serves thoughtfully prepared shrimp and Southern favorites like succotash in a relaxed waterside setting.