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.