Experienced Outer Banks travelers attest that a local ferry ride either to or from the barrier island shorelines is a huge part of the fun, and a relaxing 2.25 hour cruise across the Pamlico Sound is certainly a welcome diversion for many road-weary travelers.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation's (NCDOT) ferry operations had humble roots, dating back to the first privately run ferry which was owned by Capt. Tillet, and made runs across Oregon Inlet for Hatteras Island visitors who were coming from the Northern Outer Banks beaches.
This set-up consisted of a tug-boat and barge that could shuttle a small handful of cars to the other side of the inlet, and noticing its usefulness to both locals and visitors, the NCDOT stepped in and began subsidizing the business from 1934 - 1950. Capt. Tillet's ferry service was eventually sold to the state in 1950, and had made an impression in the process. The NCDOT soon realized that a more advanced ferry service would be a blessing to a number of coastal areas, including hard-to-get-to North Carolina locales, like Hatteras or Ocracoke Islands.
Today, the NCDOT has seven different routes spanning the coastline, 24 ferries in operation, and over 400 workers. Of those seven routes, three are concentrated on the southern Outer Banks, including the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry, the Swan Quarter ferry, and the Cedar Island ferry.
Along with the Swan Quarter ferry, the Cedar Island ferry arrives and departs from Ocracoke Island. Located 20 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, it's no surprise that these two ferries are also the longest ferries in the NCDOT's routes, (at 2.25 and 2.5 hours respectively.)
The Outer Banks terminal on Ocracoke for both the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferries is pretty hard to miss. To access it, travelers simply have to drive along NC Highway 12 until they run out of road. At the very end of Highway 12, and located at the eastern corner of Ocracoke Harbor, lies the large ferry terminal with 6 lanes to stack vehicles, a check-in station, a Visitors Center, and even a nearby soundside beach.
All visitors to Ocracoke Harbor will notice the ferries churning in and out of the Ocracoke Harbor, as the ferries that service both the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter routes are among the largest in NCDOT's fleet.
Essentially, the NCDOT operates three classes of ferries: the Hatteras Class, which is the smallest and is generally used for short runs like the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry route, the River Class which is slightly larger, and the Sound Class. The Sound Class ferries weigh around 300 tons and can accommodate 50 vehicles and 300 passengers, and all of the ferries that service the Cedar Island / Ocracoke route are of the Sound Class variety.
This makes them an impressive site just sitting on the docks, but after boarding, visitors will be even more enthralled when they step out of the vehicle and take a look around.
The majority of ferries that service the Cedar Island / Ocracoke route have two outdoor decks. One on the "second" level, above the parked vehicles, and a smaller one on the very top level, which features incredible Pamlico Sound views. Visitors are also welcome to stroll around the first level, and head to both to the front and back of the boat, to watch the water churn underneath as the ferry makes its' slow progress across the sound.
On rainy or humid days, the ferries feature extensive air-conditioned interior lounges, also located on the second level, that have a combination of bus-like bench seating and tables which are ideal for playing cards or board games. Some of the newer ferries even have flat screen TVs throughout the lounge, and all ferries have vending machines with snacks and drinks, hot coffee available for purchase, and restrooms located within the lounge and / or on the first level.
As mentioned, the trip is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, (although this is subject to change in rough weather conditions), and is basically a straight, 22 mile shot across the sound. Travelers will be able to get a distant look at both Ocracoke Village and Cedar Island, but for the rest of the trip, the only scenery is open water and the occasional passing trawler or shrimping boat. Despite the supposed lack of scenery, many vacationers find the trip simply enthralling, with crabs and small fish visible just under the waters' surface on a clear day, and cormorants, pelicans, and plenty of seagulls flocking around the boat virtually any time of year. The best time to travel, however, is in the evening around sunset, as the ferries offer an other-worldly view of the sun dipping into the Pamlico Sound.
The Cedar Island site of this route is similar to Ocracoke's ferry terminal in that it has lanes for cars to park, a check-in station, and a Visitors Center with vending machines, restrooms, area information and even a small gift shop.
However, the Cedar Island area is completely unique, and has a handful of other amenities that visitors should consider exploring while waiting for their ship to come in.
Behind the Visitors Center, and on either side of the ferry traffic lanes, guests will find a small handful of rustic trails that lead out to the Pamlico Sound. This stretch of mainland shoreline has remarkably wide beaches and larger, almost ocean-like waves, in addition to small handfuls of shells and ghost crabs that patrol the beach. For visitors who have a few extra minutes to spare, a quick walk along the Cedar Island beaches is well worth the time, as it gives vacationers a chance to admire the Pamlico Sound from an entirely new perspective.
There are a handful of convenience stores and tackle shops in the 20 mile stretch between Cedar Island and the next largest city, Beaufort, (which is worth a visit itself), but not much else, so travelers are advised to stock up on any necessary supplies well before they head onto NC Highway 12 towards the ferry docks.
Reservations, rates, and departure times
The Cedar Island Ferry has set departure times from both Ocracoke and Cedar Island that change with the season. In the winter months, the Cedar Island ferry generally has 3-4 runs from both terminals, and in the summertime, this increases to 6 to account for the increased traffic to and from the Outer Banks.
Though times may vary annually, generally the first ferry to leave Cedar Island departs at 7:00 a.m. with the last ferry departing at 4:00 p.m. On Ocracoke, the first ferry departs at 7:30 a.m., and the last ferry leaves at 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. The ferries run every day of the year, including holidays, and only deviate from their schedules for extreme weather conditions or other emergency conditions, (such as road closures on Ocracoke or Hatteras Islands.) For a current ferry schedule for all routes, click here.
Due to the limited space and the average 2 hour interval between departure times, advanced reservations are highly recommended. Thankfully, ferry reservations are easy to make, and travelers can simply reserve online, or by calling 1-800-BY-FERRY.
Rates are consistent throughout the season, but vary depending on the type of vehicle. For example, a cyclist will pay much less than a truck with an extended camper or a vehicle towing a boat. Larger vehicles should definitely reserve well in advance, however walkers or cyclists generally have no problem hopping on and catching a ride.
Once you're made your reservation, be sure and be at the ferry terminal at least 30 minutes before your departure time to check-in, or else your reservation will be cancelled. This is a necessary NCDOT rule, as due to the capacity and size of the ferries, it generally take about 20 minutes to load all the vehicles on board.
If you have not made a reservation, the ferries usually have a "waiting list" line, and if any spots become available, these vehicles can drive on board on a first come, first serve basis. Though usually at least a spot or two opens up for virtually every ride, travelers are still encouraged not to take their chances, and simply arrive with a reservation in hand. Once you've arrived, the check-in attendant will provide you with a boarding ticket. Hold on to this, as you'll need to present it to a second attendant before driving on board.
In addition, you'll need a valid driver's license to check-in, and motorists should be prepared for random inspections performed by the US Department of Homeland Security. Though very rare, these inspections or inquiries are occasionally performed to ensure travelers' safety, and ferry users should simply be aware of the possibility.
Tips and tricks for travelling aboard the Cedar Island ferry
- If at all possible, try to catch an afternoon or evening crossing for one of the best sunsets you'll see on your Outer Banks vacation. With miles of open water in every direction, travelers will find themselves canopied with pink and purples skies, and incredible front-row sunset views, especially from the ferry's scenic top deck.
- Bring along some board games and catch up on family time. The ferry lounge has tables and booths set up so that travelers can break out a board game or deck of cards and enjoy a little entertainment with the sound views in the background.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. The NCDOT staff are trained to deal with common vacationer questions and are happy to assist in any way they can.
- Be sure and bring extra drinks and snacks along, or pick some up at the Visitors Center at either terminal. Travelers are advised, however, that alcoholic beverages are not allowed on the ferry, and smoking is also not allowed on any section of the ferry, including inside your vehicle.
- Vacationers who are staying south of Ocracoke will need to catch a second ferry, the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry, to access Hatteras Island and the northern Outer Banks beaches. Happily, this ferry is free, lasts just 40 minutes, and departs every half hour or hour (depending on the season) from 5:00 a.m. until midnight.
For a fun start to an Outer Banks adventure, consider making a grand arrival via the Cedar Island ferry. This gentle, 2.25 hour ride is often just the thing vacationers need to get them out of travelling mode, and into vacation mode. It's also a fantastic way to discover secretive and smaller parts of the southern Outer Banks shoreline, as well as a gas-saver for vacationers travelling from the southern or western parts of the county.
Regardless of your reasons, however, you're sure to find a slow, lazy ride aboard the Cedar Island ferry well worth the trip. A fantastic vantage point for gorgeous sunsets, and one of Ocracoke's only lifelines to the mainland, the Cedar Island ferry is an Outer Banks institution that's fun, relaxing, and offers a world of incredible views.