Though not too many Eastern NC visitors will encounter Swansboro unless they are en route to the Emerald Isle shoreline, this small coastal town is most certainly worth a second look. One of the oldest towns along the Crystal Coast, and easily one of the most diverse, Swansboro is a surprising paradise for any visitor who loves shopping, dining, kayaking, beaching, and ample waterfront views around virtually every city block. Gradually growing a reputation as one of Coastal Carolina's best long weekend destinations, new visitors to Emerald Island or the Crystal Coast should definitely pull up anchor in historic Swansboro for a day or two, and see for themselves what all the fuss is about.
Swansboro is known in local circles as the "The Friendly City by the Sea," although "The Scenic City" or "The Historic City" would be equally apt nicknames as well. The town was originally a farming community, an offshoot settlement that bordered the plantation of Theophilus Weeks, and was populated as early as 1730. After the Revolutionary War, the up-and-coming port town was officially incorporated as "Swansboro," an honor to Samuel Swann, a Speaker in the North Carolina House of Commons at the time and a resident of Onslow County.
The town thrived, with shipbuilding becoming the community's biggest industry. In fact, it was a local shipbuilder, Captain Otway Burns, who put Swansboro on the national map when he built the Prometheus in his shipyard along the banks of the White Oak River in 1818. This vessel won the honor of being the first steamboat in North Carolina, and enjoyed years of service navigating through the Cape Fear River. A statue is erected in his honor at the beautiful Bicentennial Park, located next to the White Oak River Bridge and the historic Downtown area.
The shipbuilding business that kept Swansboro thriving was hit hard during the Great Depression, and by the 1930s, the locals turned to another lucrative coastal Carolina business to stay afloat, commercial fishing. Local economic growth also expanded with the new military bases at Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune, and before long, visitors began arriving in Swansboro for the excellent fishing, and easy access to Hammocks Beach State Park, a 1,145 acre "park" that includes an isolated but stunning barrier island, known as Bear Island.
Today, tourism is thriving in Downtown Swansboro, thanks in no small part to a careful preservation of its downtown and harbor front buildings that have been transformed into popular shops, restaurants, and local attractions. Strolling around the town, shoppers will find book stores, boutiques, art galleries, and even classic "drug stores" loaded with 1950s memorabilia.
The dining options in Swansboro have also caused a lot of return visits from vacationers, as the region is home to a wide variety of eateries that range from small delis and ice cream shops to fine dining options that specialize in locally caught seafood. With a large percentage of restaurants and bistros located directly on the waterfront, visitors from mainland cities such as Jacksonville and Havelock, as well as the neighboring Bogue Banks, tend to make frequent trips to Swansboro to take advantage of the extensive and unique dining scene.
The biggest draw for many visitors, however, is the sheer beauty of the region. Located just across the Bogue Sound from Hammocks Beach State Park and Emerald Isle, (via a network of small marshy islands), and surrounded on three sides by water, Swansboro is effectively a water lover's dream. The town and the surrounding areas are home to a half dozen marinas which are always popular destinations, as well as a number of charter fishing and eco-tour businesses.
Many locals attest that the best way to see this region is via the waters of Queen Creek, Parrot Swamp, and the Swansboro Harbor, and local rental companies and tour companies can be found throughout the area. As a result of the seemingly endless terrain to explore, kayaking is especially popular in this region, and active vacationers are advised to rent a kayak for an afternoon or two for an in-depth look at Swansboro's watery wild side.
Hammocks Beach and Bear Island, located just a short ferry ride away, is also a popular adventure for Swansboro vacationers, as it allows shore lovers to spend a full day at a completely undeveloped and pristine stretch of barrier island shoreline. Managed by the Hammocks Beach State Park, this island, located just west of the developed Crystal Coast Beaches, is rapidly becoming one of coastal North Carolina's worst-kept secrets when it comes to deserted, uncrowded, and altogether inviting beaches.
For accommodations, visitors will find several well-appointed chain hotels located both in town, and across the White Oak River Bridge on Highway 24, a few locally run inns, B&Bs and motels, and a handful of waterfront vacation rentals, managed by local property management companies or individual owners. In addition, campgrounds are located in Swansboro's outlaying natural areas, as well as within Hammocks Beach State Park itself on Bear Island.
Swansboro is also ahead of the curve when it comes to fairs and festivals, and is home to one of North Carolina's first seafood festival, the Mullet Festival, which is held every year in October and has been going strong for over 60 years. Additional annual town festivals include the Arts by the Sea festival, the Christmas Flotilla, and the annual 4th of July Celebration with a harbor front fireworks display.
The small town charms of Swansboro is evident to any visitor who takes a stroll through Downtown or stops by the Bicentennial Park to snap a few photos of the passing maritime traffic. A friendly coastal community with a big reputation, Swansboro has been impressing North Carolina visitors for decades, and is slowly becoming just as popular as its Crystal Coast neighbors. (In fact, world-renowned North Carolina writer Nicholas Sparks chose Swansboro as the backdrop for his recent novel "The Guardian.")
No matter how popular this small town becomes, however, new visitors are always welcomed with a smile, and the community retains its slow-as-molasses coastal pace. Whether a traveler is en route to the busier Crystal Coast beaches, or simply looking for a waterfront getaway that's big on charisma, Swansboro is sure to delight any North Carolina coastal lover.