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 Topsail Beach, home to a homespun hospital for injured loggerhead turtles, cared for by volunteers at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center (302 Tortuga Ln.).
Most of this stretch of coastline is dedicated to low-key, by-the-week family vacations, but the town of Wrightsville Beach has a bit more going on. Located 10 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, and bicycle, boat, and kayak 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 delicacies like hoppin’ john (black-eyed peas with rice) in a relaxed waterside setting.