When it comes to gorgeous beaches and laid-back charm, Ocracoke Island is often considered the gem of the Outer Banks. Accessible only by boat, this small island has been separated from the rest of the world for centuries, and as a result, has one of the most unique beach atmospheres found anywhere along the coastline.
The four-square mile village is buffered by approximately 15 miles of undeveloped and rarely visited beaches, making the occasional visitor feel like they have their own private island to explore. Fishing, shelling and surfing are all exceptional here, and the town itself is a remarkable mixture of a touristy-beach town, a historic local community, and a laid-back coastal fishing village.
Essentially, to get a feel of Ocracoke Island, you really have to see the island for yourself, and Outer Banks visitors are encouraged to scoot across Hatteras Inlet on the free Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry to see what all the fuss is about. After a refreshing swim in the ocean, a little shelling on a deserted beach, and a cool cocktail at a waterfront bar, you'll join the masses of long-time visitors who have discovered that Ocracoke Island is one of the best and most distinctive destinations on the Outer Banks.
Geography of Ocracoke Island
At 16 miles long, and hugging the southern coast of North Carolina, Ocracoke Island is certainly a sizable portion of the Outer Banks, and yet is it easily the OBX's most remote destination. To access this island, visitors have to either bring their own boat and set sail across the Pamlico Sound, or hop on board one of the three North Carolina state ferries that make daily runs to and from the island. The free Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry is the most used, and is just a quick 40-45 minute cruise across Hatteras Inlet to the northern section of the island. On the southern end of Ocracoke, adjacent to the village, two larger and longer ferry routes ferries carry passengers to mainland North Carolina, either to the small towns of Swan Quarter or Cedar Island. Both of these ferries run approximately 2.5 hours long, and are available to the public for a small fee per trip.
While Ocracoke Island has quite the following and national reputation as one of the iconic villages of the Outer Banks, many newcomers are surprised to discover that the village itself is incredibly small. At just 4 square miles, (and a town-wide speed limit of 25 miles per hour), the village is nonetheless filled with local attractions, shops, restaurants, accommodations and vacation and year-round homes. Small roads that are hidden and shaded by live oaks and cedar trees belie its small appearance, and most visitors find that the easiest way to navigate this town is to find a public parking area, step out of the car, and start wandering. There are very few road signs in Ocracoke Village, but really with a town this size and this scenic, the lack of sings doesn't seem to matter for most visitors.
The town itself is located on the widest section of the island on the soundside, bordering Silver Lake - a large, lagoon-like bay that serves as a harbor for both the two mainland ferries and the vast volume of maritime traffic that flows through in the summer season.
Outside of the town limits, the landscape turns into a wildly barren stretch of shoreline, with 2 lane NC Highway 12 running the length of the island from Hatteras Inlet all the way to Ocracoke Inlet. North of town, travelers will find only miles of space, with sea oat covered ocean dunes on one side of the highway, and thick patches of maritime forest and marshlands on the other. Along the way, the scenery is briefly interrupted with public parking areas, a National Park Service campground, a small air strip, and even off-road vehicle ramps, but these small outposts are the extent of this stretch of shoreline's development. Ocracoke Island is a part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and as such, the expanse of the shoreline remains natural and wild, with no threats of commercialization or development in sight. It is for this reason that Ocracoke Island recently earned the #1 spot on acclaimed Dr. Beach's "America's Best Beaches" List.
The beaches in this area are some of the best on the 'Banks, as with a gently sloping ocean floor, vacationers can typically walk out into the ocean for yards before it gets to be too deep, and with a limited population, it's entirely possible to find a stretch of beach al to yourself, even in the peak of summer. These two conditions combined have made Ocracoke Island a popular destination for beachcombers and fishermen alike, and with inlet bookends on both sides of the island, (that are especially popular with anglers and shell enthusiasts), the area has become a must-stop for beach lovers.
Naturally, the best way to explore the scene is to hop in the car and drive the length of the island in person. Dedicate a vacation day to take a trip to Ocracoke, or simply plan a unique and out-of-the-way route home that rambles through the island and across the ferry. With a landscape this diverse and scenic, Ocracoke Island is one Outer Banks destination that is not to be missed.
History of Ocracoke Island
Like many regions of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke's story officially begins with the European explorations of the 16th century. Up until then, the area was sporadically visited or inhabited by the Wokokkon Native Americans, who many researchers believe were a more transient branch of the neighboring Hatterask Native Americans on Hatteras Island. These Native Americans used Ocracoke mainly as hunting and fishing grounds, and not necessarily as a permanent settlement. It might seem like a stretch, but the name "Ocracoke" was actually derived from the Wokokkons, as the spelling of their tribe was skewed by passing and infrequent explorers to "Woccocock," "Okercock," and eventually Ocracoke.
The island was first noted and described in 1524 by Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer who had a difficult time navigating through the shoals offshore, and through the Pamlico Sound past the island. He may have been the first mariner to encounter trouble off of Ocracoke, but he certainly wouldn't be the last. Just 60 years later, an English colony sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to Roanoke Island would become stranded off the coast of Ocracoke Island, and be detoured for several days while they made repairs to the ship in order to continue north to the new settlement grounds in present day Manteo.
Some historians believe that this early set-back, and the dangerous sailing conditions that had derailed or destroyed many passing travelers, kept Ocracoke Island from being part of the early English settlements that were rapidly popping up all over the Eastern Coastline, and in fact, it wasn't until the late 1600s that settlers were finally shuttled into the area to open up a port and build a village. The port, which bordered Ocracoke Inlet and provided transport across the Pamlico Sound to the larger mainland communities of Bath, New Bern, and Elizabeth City, was an instant success and soon the area was a thriving community of farmers, tradesmen, and sailors. Unfortunately, the port's activity soon earned the attention of a number of regional pirates, including the most famous pirate of all, Blackbeard himself. Blackbeard, or Edward Teach, took to Ocracoke Island like a fish takes to water, and by the 1710s, considered the region his favorite stomping grounds. The narrow barrier island served as an ideal trap for passing mariners as Blackbeard could hide his entire vessel and crew on one side of the island, skirt across the inlet for a surprise attack, and disappear back into the sound or ocean waters, hidden by the protective maritime forest and high dune lines.
Blackbeard spend most of his working hours plundering the North Carolina coastline, especially off the coast of Ocracoke Island, and spent his downtime close by in the small town of Bath, which was located just a quick sail across the Pamlico Sound from Ocracoke Island.
Blackbeard's reign came to an abrupt end in 1718 when his ship was cornered by two British sloops, who were sent to capture or kill the pirate off the coast of Ocracoke Island. In the subsequent battle, Blackbeard's ship was captured and Blackbeard was killed, but his legacy still haunts the shores of Ocracoke Island. His official flag, a white skeleton spearing a red heart on a black background, can be spotted all over the island, and the place where his reign came to a watery end , a small parcel of sound that lies off of Springer Point Nature's Preserve, is still known today as "Teach's Hole."
After the piracy scourge had dissipated, the island settled back into being a busy port, however as larger and easier to navigate ports were instilled in other North Carolina coastal regions, like Wilmington and other areas by the Cape Fear River, Ocracoke became more and more obsolete, and the village was transformed into a small population of sustenance farmers and fishermen, a few lifesaving station employees, and not much else.
This changed when wealthy adventurers started to commandeer trips to the island in the early 1900s for the fantastic local hunting and fishing, and gradually, the tourism began to trickle in over the next 100 years. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore was established in 1953, and by the early 1960s, the state of North Carolina began their first ferry runs to and from the island. By the 1970s, Ocracoke Island had garnered a cult following of loyal vacationers who frequented the island for its remote locale and fantastic beaches, and this band of loyal vacationers has simply grown in the decades since.
While today Ocracoke Island is a relatively popular tourist destination, it still holds true to its early English roots, which only strengthened after centuries of isolation from the rest of the country. In the late 1990s, a linguistics research team from the North Carolina State University studied the locals and their accents and found that the famous "Ocracoke Brogue" local dialect was one of the closest accents in existence to typical 1600s and 1700s English speech.
Clearly, with such a detachment from the rest of the world, it's no wonder that Ocracoke Island has been able to preserve and prize its history, and visitors will find Ocracoke's past everywhere they go, from the sandy nature trails along Springer's Point where Blackbeard's treasure is supposedly buried to the conversations with locals whose southern accents have a hint of a British background. Ocracoke today is, after all, a compilation of its past, and vacationers are encouraged to soak it all in, and relish this small island that has never forgotten its roots.
Things to See on Ocracoke Island
Though the population may be small, Ocracoke Island has a surprisingly wide variety of attractions that perfectly capture the history, culture, and wildly natural setting of this small coastal community.
The most prominent of these attractions is the Ocracoke Island lighthouse. Though it is easily the shortest of the four lighthouses on the Outer Banks at a modest 75' feet tall, it can nonetheless be spotted in the distance from virtually point in Ocracoke Village. The white brick tapered structure is distinguished as one of the oldest lighthouses in the country, dating back to 1823, and while it is not open for climbers, the lighthouse with its neighboring keeper's quarters and white picket fence present some gorgeous photo opts and is a fun stop along any Ocracoke Island walking tour.
Not too far from the Ocracoke Lighthouse, visitors will find the Springer's Point Nature Preserve, a gorgeous parcel of maritime forest, marshlands and soundfront that features an educational and relaxing nature trail that is wide open to visitors. Wander down the sandy path through towering pine trees, cedars, and live oaks, as you make your way to the Pamlico Sound beach that overlooks Teach's Hole. Open year-round and free to the public, Springer's Point is an ideal spot to take a walk on Ocracoke's Wild Side.
For a little bit of local lore and history, stop by the Ocracoke Preservation Society located in the heart of the village by Silver Lake Harbor. This small museum is managed by local volunteers and staff, and with a top floor that's filled with first-person accounts, legal records, deeds and maps, researches and budding historians will find tons of material to dig through in order to paint an accurate portrait of Ocracoke Island's centuries of history.
Close to the Ocracoke Preservation Society and adjacent to the Ocracoke ferry docks, visitors will find the Ocracoke Island Visitors' Center. This center features a series of exhibits on local history, tons of information on area attractions, and National Park Service staff and local volunteers who are happy to answer area questions.
One of Ocracoke's oldest attractions is also its liveliest: the wild mustangs of the Ocracoke Pony Pen. The "pen" is actually a large enclosure that takes up a large portion of Ocracoke Island's northern soundside region, and a parking area bordering the enclosure's feeding stations and shelters, just a few miles south of the Hatteras Ferry Docks, is the prime location to view these wild horses up close. The ponies are thought to be descendants of 16th century Spanish shipwrecks, making them Ocracoke's oldest residents. Though small, these hardy horses have thrived on the island, and visitors are charmed by their short stature, long wild manes, and colorful patterns that make them distinctive, and uniquely Ocracoke Island.
Pirate lovers may want to pay a visit to the privately run Teach's Hole Blackbeard Exhibit and Pirate Store, located along NC Highway 12 close to the iconic Howard's Pub. The pirate lovers in your family will love exploring this small museum and gift shop, which is loaded with hundreds of pirate items both on display and for sale. For an inside look into the local pirate culture, or to just let the family get decked out in captain hats and eye patches, a stop by this local attraction will be a fun adventure that will please all the young adventurers in your family.
When it comes to attractions, Ocracoke Island clearly has a little something for everyone. Pirates, ponies, nature and history can all be found here, and visitors are encouraged to take a walking or driving tour to explore all the sites and unique attractions that make Ocracoke Island one of a kind.
Things to Do on Ocracoke Island
When it comes to activities, Ocracoke Island has an assortment of options that will keep everyone in the family entertained. Don't let the small size of the island and the general remoteness fool you - visitors of all varieties will find a vacation's worth of things to do, both on and off the beach.
Fishermen love Ocracoke Island, as its miles of undeveloped beaches and two inlets provide some of the best surf fishing conditions on the Outer Banks. Head over to the seasonally open inlet beaches which are accessible by a 4WD vehicle for a chance to reel in some larger species more commonly found offshore, or just pick a stretch of sand, and cast out your lines for blues, drum, croaker, spot, mullet and a number of other tasty species that make seasonal appearances. With plenty of shoreline to go around, and a number of local tackle stores to keep anglers well supplied, a day of fishing on Ocracoke Island is truly a day at the beach.
Ocracoke Island is also renowned as one of the best shelling destinations on the East Coast, a designation that has been noted in a number of regional and national "Best Shelling Beaches" lists, like the one featured in Coastal Living Magazine. With that in mind, beachcombers are encouraged to hit the sand and start exploring, as on these beaches, you never know what's going to wash up at your feet. Sand dollars, whelks, olive shells, moon snails and even Scotch Bonnets all make regular appearances here, throughout all seasons and beach conditions. Scope out the inlets for smaller, more delicate finds, or just take a long stroll with a bag for treasures that just washed ashore. On Ocracoke Island, virtually any area and any beach day can easily turn into a fruitful shelling expedition.
Water lovers will want to stroll the Silver Lake Harbor docks for an opportunity to book a charter fishing trip, a guided waterfront tour, or a dolphin cruise, all of which are readily available to seasonal vacationers. For a day trip back in time and some exceptional shelling, book a tour to neighboring Portsmouth Island, or to really get your feet wet in the fishing scene, reserve an inshore or offshore fishing trip to land some big catches. Considering that life on the Outer Banks is all about the water, a boat tour, fishing trip, or a day of island hopping will give any vacationer a new perspective of this fragile barrier island.
For more fun on the open water, consider renting a kayak or stand-up paddle board and explore the sound beaches that border Ocracoke village. Both are enjoyable sports that can be easily picked up within minutes, and visitors will find all sorts of kiosks and local shops that rent out rides by the hour, day, or even for an entire week. Up for a bigger challenge? Consider booking a windsurfing, kiteboarding, or surfing lesson during your stay, and pick up a new sport that is distinctively Outer Banks. Ocracoke Island has a handful of fantastic surfing beaches, as well as miles of open Pamlico Sound waters that are perfect for windsurfers and kiteboarders. Rentals and lessons are available via a number of watersports companies seasonally, and with views and water conditions like these, it's a safe bet that after mastering the art of riding the waves, you'll surely be hooked.
Nature lovers will want to spend a bit of time off the beaten path, either at the Springer's Point Nature Preserve, or along the collection of nature trails that are located outside the town's limits. Keep your eyes peeled for the brown National Park Service signs that point the way to public parking areas and shaded sandy trails leading out to the Pamlico Sound. Ideal for bird watchers, these quiet locales are a relaxing excursion into Ocracoke's natural wildlife scene.
Of course, the cornerstone to any great vacation is good eats, and Ocracoke Island has a surprisingly wide variety of incredible restaurants that range from cool cafes and burger shacks to exquisite fine dining restaurants. Pop into a harbor front restaurant for a cold beer overlooking the docks, or plan a romantic evening at one of the island's eclectic and critically acclaimed eateries tucked away in the village under the live oaks. You'll want to be sure to bring your appetites along, as these restaurants have consistently appeared on regional "Best of the Beach" lists, and feature decadent menus that are as delectable and unique as the island itself.
Visitors will also want to devout ample time to explore the shopping scene on Ocracoke Island, which is one of the most unique and charming selection of shops on the Outer Banks. In the village, visitors will find an assortment of stores including casual boutiques, book stores, gift shops, and plenty of art galleries, showcasing the talents of Ocracoke's famous local artists. Pick up a few gifts and souvenirs that are completely one-of-a-kind, and enjoy an eclectic shopping experience that is relaxing, indulgent, and always surprising.
Many newcomers worry that there might not be enough to do on such a small and remote island, but after an afternoon in Ocracoke, visitors often start to wonder how they'll possibly fit everything in. With miles of entertaining options both on and off the seashore, visitors to Ocracoke Island will find their vacation days filled with sunny days at the beach, evenings at the area's fantastic restaurants, and all the hours in between just having a blast exploring new and unique things to do.
Accommodations on Ocracoke Island
Ocracoke Village has achieved the challenge of any vacation destination of providing ample accommodations for a variety of different types of vacationing parties. This is quite the feat for a village that's only 4 square miles in area, but nevertheless, visitors will find that they have a wide range of choices when it comes to the question of where to stay.
For extended vacations of a week or more, visitors are advised to rent a vacation cottage, home, or condo. The island has several hundreds of these weekly accommodations which are scattered throughout the village and are managed by both private owners and local vacation rental companies. Ranging from 1 bedroom retreats to multiple bedroom estates with pools, hot tub, and soundfront or harbor views, visitors will find that the sheer variety allows them to pick a rental house or condo that's just the right fit for their family.
For a shorter trip, or for a romantic excursion, visitors may want to review the number of charming bed and breakfasts that are scattered throughout the village. Often featuring a world of on-site amenities, including beach gear, bikes, and even golf carts, these accommodations are exclusive retreats that are often converted historic homes or inns, adding to their allure and appeal. Plan a long romantic weekend, and inquire about special packages to surprise a loved one with a dreamy getaway.
Ocracoke Island also features a half dozen motels and hotels of varying sizes that offer an assortment of resort quality amenities. Enjoy wide open views of Silver Lake Harbor from a hotel room with a water-facing balcony, or reserve a room at a hotel with an on-site restaurant and expansive swimming pool. For a fun family vacation or just a quick weekend getaway, the hotels and motels on Ocracoke Island are filled with friendly staff who are more than happy to make their guests feel completely at home.
One of the most popular forms of spending some extended time on Ocracoke Island is camping, and the area features several privately run campgrounds in the village to choose from. All of these sites are within walking distance of the town's major attractions, and feature on-site amenities including water and electric hook-ups for RVs, and local shops and convenience stores for easy supply runs. Several miles outside the town's limits, visitors can also stay at the seasonally operational campground run by the National Park Service. Bordered only by beaches and sand dunes, this campground is an ideal retreat for vacationers who just want to get back to nature.
From large family get-togethers to quick overnight stays, rest assured that Ocracoke Island has ample accommodations for parties of all sizes and styles. Review your choices online, and be sure to book well in advance. While there are generally plenty of accommodations to go around, they tend to fill up fast in the popular summer months, so visitors will want to be sure they have their favorite spot reserved on beautiful Ocracoke Island.
Tips and Tricks for Visiting Ocracoke Island
- Be sure and check out the local calendar of events during your stay to enjoy the very best of Ocracoke Island's culture. The village often has weekly bluegrass concerts at the Deep Water Theater in the summertime, and special holiday events, like the annual 4th of July Parade, are time-tested and beloved annual traditions that everyone in the family can enjoy. From pig pickins' to outdoor concerts, you never know what the Ocracoke community is cooking up, so be sure keep your eyes peeled for special events that are happening during your stay.
- Ocracoke Island has a seasonally lifeguarded beach that is perfect for families who want to make sure that their ocean swimming adventures are always safe. Located just a couple miles outside of town, this public beach also features a wide parking area, bathrooms, and even showers to wash off after a long day of playing on the sand. Bring the kids, and let them loose in the ocean waves, knowing that they're under a watchful eye while you can simply recline, open a good book, and relax.
- To explore the entirety of the seashore, visitors with a 4WD vehicle may want to pick up a beach driving permit. Ocracoke Island has a number of 4WD accessible ramps that lead out to some of Ocracoke's best and most secluded beaches, including Hatteras and Ocracoke Inlets. To obtain a permit, simply stop by the National Park Service station, watch a ten minute video on beach driving safety, and pay an annual or weekly fee. Just be sure to air down your tires before hitting the shore - the sand along Ocracoke Island can be notoriously soft, and can prove challenging to even the most experienced beach drivers.
- Planning a day trip via the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry? Watch out for the "busy crossing times" during the prime summer months. Generally weekday ferries from around 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. are the most crowded, and day trippers may have to wait in line for up to an hour to board a ferry. (Thankfully, there are plenty of shops and amenities located adjacent to the ferry docks, so the wait time flies by.) If you're in a hurry, or just want to get ahead of the crowds, plan a weekend day trip to Ocracoke Island, or be an early bird or a night owl traveler. Just be sure to make it back to the ferry on time to head home - the last ferry run from either side is at 12:00 a.m. sharp.
- If your vacation time is flexible, consider planning an Ocracoke getaway in the fall. During the shoulder seasons, the already-quiet beaches become virtually deserted, and yet the majority of restaurants, shops and attractions stay open in the village until Thanksgiving. Even a day-trip to Ocracoke Island in the fall can be an exceptional treat, as NC Highway 12 becomes covered in bright yellow and red wildflowers that bloom for a few brief weeks from mid-September until October. For miles of breathtaking scenery and all the attractions and amenities that summer visitors get to enjoy, be sure to plan a fall escape to Ocracoke Island.
Ocracoke Island is a fascinating destination that's unlike any other beach on the Outer Banks, or on the East Coast for that matter. Filled with history and quirky charm, the village is a laid-back refuge for visitors who want to sit back, relax, and set their clocks to island time. In town, vacationers have access to a phenomenal variety of galleries, restaurants and shops, and outside of town, the view keeps getting better with miles of uninterrupted and undeveloped shoreline to explore.
Bring the fishing poles, kayaks, shelling bags, and a laid-back attitude, and plan a visit to one of the Outer Banks' favorite and most remote parcels of shorelines. Only accessible by boat and surrounded by water, on Ocracoke Island, you'll truly feel like you have successfully escaped from the rest of the world.