By Geary Yelton, special to ATO at the Communities
NORTH CAROLINA, August 28, 2011—A usually tranquil island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks has been receiving an unusual amount of attention as Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast. Despite its reputation as an occasional magnet for hurricanes and tropical storms, Ocracoke Island is one of the most charming destinations you’ll find.
Ocracoke is unlike anywhere else in the coastal Carolinas. To maintain their idyllic island existence, its 800 or so year-round inhabitants endure hordes of summer visitors, violent storms, frequent power surges and blackouts, and — thanks to the desirability and scarcity of its real estate — some of the highest property taxes in the state.
A few miles beyond the south end of the road in the Outer Banks, Ocracoke Island is almost entirely occupied by Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Access is only by small aircraft, private boat, or state-run ferry. NC 12, running most of the 16-mile length of the island, is its only highway. The tiny village of Ocracoke is a quaint tourist and fishing community with a rare and undeniable charm.
Village People For Ocracokers, the rewards of living on the island greatly outnumber the inconveniences. Life on Ocracoke is highlighted by clean ocean breezes, pristine beaches, and the unhurried pace of life in a small town set apart from the rest of the world.
The village’s roots run deep; most of its families have lived there for generations, some of them since the early 1700s. Names like Howard, Jackson, Wahab, Garrish, and Gaskins have been part of Ocracoke’s history since the first Colonial sailors set foot on the island, as evidenced by the many family cemeteries.
Consequently, everyone in town not only knows everyone else, but they also know their parents, grandparents, children, and coworkers. Ocracoke’s small but modern public school graduates just five students in a typical year.
The village of Ocracoke is compact enough that foot travel and bicycles are the preferred means of transportation. With reduced dependence on automotive transport, the sound of cicadas and wind chimes fills the air on a summer day.
The village is centered around a small scenic harbor called Silver Lake. (Old-timers call it the Creek, but it’s neither a lake nor a creek.) The town brims with charming shops, art galleries, charter boat docks, an old general store, and even a day spa.
Set back a couple blocks from the water is the picturesque Ocracoke Lighthouse, the second oldest lighthouse on the East Coast still in operation. On the opposite side of town, houses built on canals allow residents and renters to tie up their boats for easy access to Pamlico Sound.
Don’t expect to find a McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, or any other retail franchise on Ocracoke. All of the stores and restaurants are locally owned. Although you won’t find bowling alleys, movie theaters, water slides, or miniature golf courses, you can rent bikes and kayaks, hire a fishing vessel, take a sunset sail, or get a full body massage.
Thanks to a thriving community of fishermen determined to keep their traditions, fresh-caught seafood is the specialty at mealtime. Restaurants offer everything from fine dining to casual outdoor tables overlooking the docks. Abundant seafood and a tourist economy attract first-rate chefs, making Ocracoke a diner’s delight.
The casual, eclectic, down-home atmosphere of the Flying Melon is always a good choice for eggs with grits or biscuits until early afternoon, oyster po-boys for lunch, or the catch of the day for dinner. (Ask if the “blues” are running.) Many prefer the more upscale Southern charm of the Back Porch Restaurant, serving up creative dishes made with local ingredients and offering the most extensive wine list on the island.
The busy nightlife of Howard’s Pub begins before dinnertime, attracting a diverse crowd with burgers, sandwiches, and mostly fried seafood. But for those in the know, Café Atlantic is the place to go. Get there early for generous salads, fresh-baked bread, and homemade ice cream.
Just about the only businesses owned by mainlanders are rental properties that serve as vacation cottages for nonresident Ocracoke lovers. Fewer than 300 such properties are found in the little village. The National Park Service protects the remainder of the island from development.
Cottages run the gamut from old-fashioned bungalows on historic, unpaved Howard Street to four-story mini-mansions with their own docks on Pamlico Sound. Numerous hotels and motels such as the waterfront Anchorage Inn and popular Blackbeard’s Lodge, a few efficiencies and guesthouses (I often stay at the Lightkeepers Guest House), and some well-established bed-and-breakfasts such as the elegant Castle on Silver Lake provide lodging for the thousands of tourists who visit Ocracoke every year.
The majority of visitors, though, are day-trippers who catch the free 40-minute ferry from Hatteras Island.
Outside of Ocracoke Village, Cape Hatteras National Seashore takes in the Atlantic Ocean beaches and everything else on the island. North of Ocracoke Island, the Seashore stretches about 70 miles and encompasses everything south of U.S. 64 except a handful of seaside communities on the narrow strip of land that makes up the Outer Banks.
The best camping on Ocracoke is available at the National Park Service campground, which provides unshaded campsites in the dunes, flush toilets, and cold-water showers. The only other camping on the island is at two popular, private campgrounds within the village.
The park offers beach access at a handful of locations along NC 12, including parking lots with boardwalks over the dunes and access roads that permit driving on the beach if you have a suitable vehicle. Across the road from the NPS campground is Hammock Hills Nature Trail, which follows a three-quarter mile loop through the maritime forest to the expansive marsh on the island’s sound side.
The trail features native flora and fauna and takes you through a pine forest growing on sand dunes. Another popular attraction is the Pony Pens, where the NPS maintains a small herd descended from the horses that once roamed free on the island. A viewing platform lets you snap their photos without disrupting their pastoral tranquility.
Ocracoke isn’t for everyone, but if you’re looking for peace and quiet and you don’t mind leaving a few modern conveniences behind, Ocracoke Island is calling to you.
Geary Yelton is a full-time freelance author writing about travel, cuisine, and music technology. He lives in Asheville, N.C.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.