I'm sure the first question is, "Where the heck is Swansboro?" That's not very hard to answer.
This Google map link will give you a quick look at Swansboro.
It's pretty obvious that the town is on the coast. With some typing you can quickly figure out that Swansboro is nearly 71 miles east and somewhat north of Wilmington. It's also 135 miles from Raleigh or 254 miles from Richmond.
Most likely you have to want to be going to Swansboro or possibly Emerald Isle to end up there. Visiting Swansboro or Emerald Isle means you're headed to the beach, going boating, maybe fishing, or just looking to relax and enjoy some great food and a little slower pace. Maybe you just want to wander all the old shops in Swansboro, but if you're a guy that's probably not on the list.
This part of the NC Coast, often known as the Crystal Coast is definitely not Myrtle Beach or Kitty Hawk, but that's a great thing in my book. I enjoy roadside produce stands and fish markets more than I do golf courses, traffic, and crowds. The smaller crowds, fewer golf courses, and more manageable traffic are more to my liking in the Swansboro area than a number of spots we've visited.
I also like the fact that the area has a stable year round population and is fast becoming a desirable retirement area. Since its fame hasn't spread as widely as North Carolina's more famous beach areas, there are not as many giant beach houses. It's known as a family beach area which is fine with me. You can also make a left turn which is increasingly hard to do in places like Duck, and you don't have to spend three hours in traffic waiting to get started on your way home.
It takes us between five and six hours to drive from Roanoke, Va. to Swansboro. The time has a lot to do with how long we stop for meals or other things. This Google map will give you a general idea of how to reach Swansboro.
Depending on how you get to Interstate 40 it's a little over three hundred miles. Since I enjoy driving on two lane roads, I often take Route 220 South to Route 58 East all the way to the Danville bypass and then catch 86 South to Hillsborough and finally Interstate 40 East. If you live a little further west in Southwest Virginia, it actually could be quicker to take I81 South to I77 south, then I74 South to Highway 52 South to the Interstate 40 East bypass at Winston-Salem.
Whatever your favorite route to Interstate 40 East, once you get on it, stay on it until you arrive at exit 373 which allows you to pick up Route 24 East. Follow the signs to Jacksonville, and eventually Morehead City and Swansboro.
There are lots of reasons why you might want to visit Swansboro, a town which has managed to survive and thrive since 1783 despite numerous challenges. First of all it is a trip back in time. The people are very friendly and no one seems to be in rush except maybe the people who have just gotten there.
Many of the people headed to the area, zoom right past Swansboro and head over to Emerald Isle to a beach house they have rented. You can find a big castle sized one it you want it, but there are plenty of reasonable size ones that evoke memories of a simpler time. Renting a beach house is a great thing to do, but this being North Carolina you don't have to have a house on the beach to enjoy the beach.
There are dozens of public beach access points including a very nice one just after you come over the Highway 58 bridge to Emerald Isle. It is one of our favorities and is just off Islander Drive. You just have to watch carefully for the signs. It has lots of parking, a nice boardwalk to the beach, changing rooms, picnic tables, and bathrooms, along with beach volley ball courts. On the way to it you get to take a time trip through some old amusement park rides. There are lots of other beach access points, you can find them listed at the Crystalcoast.org site or the official Emerald Isle Town site.
If you are a little more adventurous you might might want to go over the Hammocks Beach State Park and take the small pontoon boat ferry over and experience a beach with lots of room. It's just a couple of miles from Swansboro. I haven't made it over to the island beach yet, but I'm told the trip takes fifteen minutes, and there is a packed gravel trail of about one half mile to the beach. It was too for a hike the last time I was down. The ferry runs either every half hour or hour depending on the day of the week and the time of the year. Hammocks Beach State park has a great kayak or canoe launch point and the waters look perfect for kayaking.
If you get bored with all the beaches in the Swansboro area, you can take an hour or so trip up to Harkers Island which is a great access point to Cape Lookout. You can read a review of one of my trips there in "The Best Twenty Dollars You'll Ever Spend."
On the way to Harkers Island, you face the obstacle of Morehead City. There is a trick to getting around Morehead without going down the main drag. When you take Highway 24 towards Morehead, you eventually run into Route 70 by the malls on the outskirts of Morehead City. Instead of turning right on Route 70, you should just go straight across and you'll be on Bridges which isn't on some of the maps, but it you stay on it until you are forced to turn right and then left back onto route 70, you'll save about 10-15 minutes getting through all the stoplights and traffic of Morehead.
Once you get back on Route 70 just before the bridges to Beaufort, you're not far from Harker's Island especially by boat. Just stay on Route 70 until you see the signs to Harkers Island. There are actually plenty of boat rides from Beaufort to Cape Lookout, but I enjoy the drive to "Down East". This site has some pictures of the trip through the area. On your way back you might want to stop and eat in one of the many fine restaurants in Beaufort, or visit the historical site and the great NC Maritime Museum. More details are available in my Beaufort Travel Guide. You can also swing by Fort Macon State Park.
I would also highly recommend the NC Aquarium as a break from the beaches. From Emerald Isle it is probably nine miles or so up to the aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores. It could take fifteen to twenty minutes for the drive during beach season.
Of course going to beach requires eating out unless you want the ladies of the house to go on strike. My advice for avoiding the crowds is to either eat early or eat on the shore side. There are a number of really good restaurants in Swansboro. I have reviewed and highly recommend, "The Icehouse Waterfront," "Riverside Steak & Seafood," and for a more expensive but special meal beach side there is, "Kathryn's Bistro and Martini Bar." The Gourmet Cafe in Swansboro is also very good. We've enjoyed breakfast (Shrimp Omelet) at Yana's Ye Olde Drug Store & Restaurant right on Front Street in Swansboro. My favorite breakfasts (Ham & Cheese Omelet or Gyro Omelet) have come from Mike's Place on Emerald Isle. We've also enjoyed meals at the Fairway Restaurant (very reasonably priced wine) a little west on Route 58 after it crosses Route 24 on the mainland. Flipperz on Emerald Isle is also good for a sandwich. There's a good list of restaurants at Crystalcoast.org. Breakfast is the biggest challenge, but worst case, you can get a biscuit at Hardee's where Routes 24 and 58 intersect, or you can sleep in and skip breakfast.
If you're looking for a grocery store, I've been very impressed with the Lowe's Food Center at the same Highway 24 and 58 intersection. If you need a place to stay and haven't gotten a beach house, I can recommend the Best Western at Silver Creek. The rooms are very clean, they have a great pool, free continental breakfast, and very reasonable rates. It's five minutes to the beaches. Though we haven't tried it, I've been told that the Waterway Inn is also very nice and right on the water, but I've never seen a vacancy there, so I would book well ahead.
I'm not much into lying on the beach these days. I'd rather be fishing at least in the fall or spring when it's not too hot. I do really love walking on the beach. North Carolina is one of the greatest places in the world to do that simply because all the land between low tide and mean high tide is public beach. The beach is a great resource for everyone. The one thing I really like about the beaches of the Southern Outer Banks or SOBX is that people of all ages from almost anywhere seem to have a great time.
Once you're done with your beach walk, you can enjoy a cone of custard ice cream at the new stand which is located in the small strip mall on the right at the intersection of Route 58 and Coast Guard Road. It's the first right at the stoplight after coming across the bridge. The gas station just across Route 58 from there often seems to have lower gas prices but that's hard to predict these days.