Island Life: Ocracoke, North Carolina

ocracoke lighthouse

From our adventures on Hatteras Island, we continued on to Ocracoke Island, home to fewer than 1,000 residents and in a world all its own, replete with a unique “hoi toid” (e.g. “high tide”) dialect.Shaped like a sewing needle with a thin strip of land—all of it protected by the National Park Service—leading some 12 miles along Highway 12 to a quaint fishing village.

Slow down to “island time” and take in the tiny town charm, tall tales, natural beauty, and a whole lot of seafood.

On your way into town, stop off at the “pony pen,” a pasture right off Highway 12. Outside the Banker horses’ pen, a plaque tells the story (or at least one version of it) of the horses’ feral ancestors.

ocracoke activitiesGrab a pick-me-up

at Ocracoke Coffee Co., where wooden lawn chairs beckon you to settle in and sip your Lightkeeper’s Blend on the porch or under a pine tree. If you’re after something heartier than a pastry, a New Orleans-infused brunch at Flying Melon Cafe should do the trick.

Wander around town

and pop into craft and gift shops like the eclectic Over the Moon. A quick stroll off the highway and down sandy Howard Street takes you back in time, and to the Village Craftsmen. There, you’ll find regional art and local goods like seaweed soap and fig preserves—plus tickets for a chilling walking tour. Village Craftsmen owner Philip Howard is a local storyteller whose great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was William Howard, Blackbeard’s quartermaster who purchased the island in 1759. Howard and a couple of colleagues lead Ghost & History tours sharing local lore of shipwrecks, pirates, preachers, and creepy ladies who hang out in graveyards.

Find some treasure

at Teach’s Hole Blackbeard Exhibit and Private Specialty Shop. This one-stop-shop for all your pirate needs (really, they have over 1,000 different pirate items) doubles as a museum on all things Pirate Blackbeard. Keep your eye out for the small family cemetery plots throughout town (including several on Howard St.), and pay your respects at the British Cemetery. Four British sailors, killed in an attack by German U-boats during World War II, rest in the quiet cemetery. An annual memorial service takes place at the plot in May.

Take a walk to Springer’s Point

where a short path leads you to the shore by Teach’s Hole. Edward Teach, better known as Pirate Blackbeard, is an essential figure in Ocracoke’s pirate-besieged history. Blackbeard frequented the island, and perished at Teach’s Hole in 1718 after a rum-soaked night with his crew. Follow the path into a tunnel of oak trees to visit an old cistern and the tombstone of Ocracoke’s former real estate mogul, Samuel Jones.

Visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse

Completed in 1823, after the area’s first lighthouse on Shell Castle Island was destroyed by lightning, the solid white, 75-foot structure narrows from 25 feet at its base to two feet at top (sorry; no climbing). Check out the old keeper’s quarters behind a cluster of live oaks, then venture a couple blocks past the lighthouse to Pamlico Gifts. Elizabeth Parsons, Pamlico Gifts where she sells nautical souvenirs and a variety of arts and crafts, including her own shell wreaths and folk art.

ocracoke adventureGet out on the water.

Rent a kayak, paddle board, or surfboard—and buy some swim and surfwear if you’ve come unprepared—at Ride the Wind. The shop also offers surf lessons and surf camp. Or simply lose yourself along the 13 miles of open beach. You might even pick up a kite on your way.

This town knows how to eat.

At Daijo, shiitakes and leeks make a chowder too good for any New Englander to deny, and specialties like the crab cakes are flavorful and fresh. Those looking for something more casual can take refuge at Howard’s Pub, where a great roster of local brews and solid fish sandwiches come at a price that leaves room for just one more beer

If you’re in Ocracoke for a night or two,

take a day trip with the Austins to Portsmouth Island. Once a thriving village based around the life-saving station, and the shipping (or rather, “lightening”) and fishing industries, Portsmouth is now a virtual ghost town. Civil War occupation and hurricanes brought about the village’s decline, and its two dwindling residents left the island in 1971. Buildings like a church, a post office, homes and a one-room school remain in tact, preserved as part of the Portsmouth Village Historic District. Those looking for a truly rustic camping experience can plant their stakes anywhere along the 13 miles of lovely, lonely shoreline outside the village. Be sure to bring your own food and drinking water, and a 4WD vehicle to get around (two small vehicle ferries leave from Morris Marina, 10 miles from the Cedar Island ferry docks).

You can find a helpful village map on the island’s official travel and tourism site, but you won’t really need it. Ocracoke’s the kind of place where you’re likely to stumble upon whatever you’re looking for. If you don’t, just ask—any O’cocker will be able to point you in the right direction.

Photos: LarryOle Bendik, Jaclyn Einis, Wendy