We are having a little love affair with North Carolina right now, yes. Spotlighting little-known pockets of the state is one of my greatest joys as a wayfarer, writer, and native North Carolinian myself. As I began to dive deeper into Swansboro and Burnsville — two small NC towns that are seemingly opposites in every way — I uncovered that their histories are actually tightly connected. From coastal charm to rural arts, get to know these two under-the-radar North Carolina stops and learn how they’re connected.
Swansboro, NC: Small-town charm on the NC Coast
Swansboro sits on the Intracoastal Waterway at the mouth of the White Oak River, plopped between Wilmington and New Bern on NC’s Atlantic coast. This quaint, laid-back town has earned the moniker the “Friendly City By the Sea” for reasons you’ll quickly discover. Incorporated in 1783, the port town’s early prosperity came from shipbuilding and its most celebrated shipbuilder and famous maritime commander, Otway Burns. Today, colorful shops and nautical docks evoke a Nicholas Sparks novel vibe (one was actually set here), while pristine nature and water adventures of all kinds will enliven your inner child.
While Emerald Isle Beach is close to Swansboro, opt for a beach day at Hammocks Beach State Park. After learning about the area’s history and wildlife at the visitors’ center, take the seasonal ferry or hitch a ride with a friendly captain on Marsh Cruises to Bear Island. This four-mile-long, undeveloped barrier island has fabulous shelling, shark teeth hunting, primitive camping, and tidal marshes for paddling. Fishing is big in Swansboro and Jacksonville year-round. Just Got Reel Inshore Charters is a favorite guided trip out of Jacksonville for families, pros, and beginners alike. The friendly guides end the excursion at Marina Bay Cafe — a local dive that you can’t see any other way — so you can cook your catch right there for supper.
If you didn’t have any luck on your fishing excursion, Swansboro’s culinary scene has you covered for dinner. Fresh seafood abounds at Boro Low Country Kitchen, Riverside Steak and Seafood, and Saltwater Grill. Breakfast and lunch lines get long at Yana’s, a retro 1950s diner. Window shoppers and eager buyers will delight in Swansboro’s shops like Poor Man’s Hole, Bake, Bottle & Brew, Salty 8, The Mercantile, and so many more.
Nearby Jacksonville (30 minutes away) sits on the beautiful New River and is home to Camp Lejeune, one of the U.S. Marine Corps’ largest bases. The town’s veteran influence has created a seriously tasty range of cuisines and some nationally recognized historical sites. Lejeune Memorial Gardens is a must for history buffs and their sidekicks alike. The second-largest Vietnam memorial in the country, the grounds offer a beautiful place to pay homage.
Keep driving a little further inland from Jacksonville and you’ll hit Mike’s Farm, home to the NC Product Barn (the largest collection of NC-made merchandise in the state), Mike’s Farm Restaurant (country-style cooking and a beloved mac ‘n’ cheese recipe), and an extensive bakery (try the fudge!).
Once you’ve seen Swansboro’s lively downtown blocks of cute shops, cafes, and boat docks, you’ll see why the national travel site Matador Network named Swansboro one of the “25 Coolest Towns in America To Visit in 2021.”
Burnsville, NC: Eclectic art and high peaks in Western NC
All the way on the western side of the state is Burnsville, a tiny-but-lively town in the Blue Ridge Mountains encircled by the highest peaks in eastern America. Its warm, artistic vibe seeps into a smattering of local businesses, from art galleries to coffee shops to breweries. In the green, historic Town Square you’ll meet a statue commemorating Captain Otway Burns for whom the town was named when it was established in 1834.
If that name rings a bell, it’s because he is the naval hero born in Swansboro! Burns captained the Snap Dragon as a privateer (which means, I just learned, “legal pirate”) during the War of 1812. After seizing multiple British ships, he later became a senator and served in the House of Representatives. Burns and Bartlett Yancey (as in Yancey County, where Burnsville is located) were instrumental in creating more county trade lines to the West.
A packed day in Burnsville is best after a quiet night’s rest at the Terrell House Bed and Breakfast or the 1952 motel-turned-hotel Carolina Country Inn. The historic NuWray Hotel is undergoing a full-scale renovation, and many are anticipating this boutique property’s reopening. For two days every August, the Mount Mitchell Crafts Fair welcomes 200+ juried artisans and their one-of-a-kind wares to the Town Square. Even if you’re not there for the fair, pop into Toe River Arts and OOAK (One Of A Kind) Gallery for thousands of handmade local wares.
Burnsville is famously home to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River (6,684 feet) and part of the Black Mountain Range, which claims six of the 10 highest peaks in the eastern United States. Mount Mitchell State Park has an observation deck, museum, and many hiking trails. Brave ramblers who complete the strenuous, all-day hike to the summit will be met with unmatched expansive views.
Another quirky thing about Burnsville is its importance within the region’s Quilt Block Trails, the highest concentration of quilt blocks anywhere in the country. Nine different driving trails lead you to vividly painted quilt squares displayed on barns and buildings of participating communities. This photo-worthy, drivable scavenger hunt will take you to some great corners of Western NC. As you spot Yancey County’s 150+ quilt blocks, stop into the shops and studios and meet the artists and locals.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Homeplace Beer Company for creative, farm-to-pint brews and its indoor neighbor Hog Hollow Wood Fired Pizza for scratch-made ‘za. Snap Dragon bar and the adjacent Garden Deli Restaurant offer a cozy, quiet indoor-outdoor atmosphere that is perfect for enjoying a cocktail or glass of wine. If you are lucky enough to be planning your next day over said cocktail, consider Roaring Fork Falls, Little Switzerland, and Penland School of Crafts.
I guess we owe Otway Burns a nod here for connecting these two towns and tying this article up with a perfect sailor’s knot. North Carolina, we’ll likely never be over you! Do you have a favorite NC town? Let us know on Instagram!
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