As I drove north on Highway 12, the scenery along the two-lane paved road transitioned from a tidal red cedar forest with patches of tall pine trees to salt marsh and towering sand dunes. My fascination with the remote corners of the world had taken me to Mongolia, the Himalayas and now to Ocracoke on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Exploring Ocracoke, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Accessible only by ferry or private plane, the 16-mile-long barrier island has one main highway and a single village, Ocracoke, with a population of 797, according to the 2020 Census. Because my two previous attempts to visit as a day trip from Hatteras Island were foiled by timing and ferry queues, I was determined to make Ocracoke my only stop on this five-day trip in early April.
While the Atlantic Ocean lines the island’s eastern side, the small village is tucked in the southwestern corner encircling a harbor that opens into the Pamlico Sound, a shallow body of water that separates the mainland from the barrier islands. The town’s quiet demeanor is deceptive; the island’s history is a page turner. A colonial trade route stopover in the 1700s, it became a pirate hideout and later a top-secret training base for the U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers, often considered the precursor to the Navy SEALs.
When I arrived, the town was waking up from its winter hibernation, and restaurants and the lone museum were opening for the season. Golf carts often outnumbered cars on the streets, and there was a refreshing absence of chain restaurants and stores. At the end of the village, the speed limit increased from 20 to 55 mph to signify the beginning of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which encompasses the entire island outside of town. The tallest structures on the beach were the dunes, and the only oceanfront accommodation was a National Park Service campground.
My first stop was to visit the island’s favorite residents: the Banker ponies, a group of wild horses that are descendants of Spanish mustangs thought to have arrived with shipwrecked explorers in the 16th or 17th century. When traffic increased in 1959, the horses were penned by the National Park Service, and two viewing platforms were built. Oops and Lindeza, the oldest of the 14 horses, were munching hay when I arrived.
I checked into an adorable white-walled cottage at the Crews Inn, a bed-and-breakfast housed in a 1908 home with a wraparound porch shaded by towering live oak trees. Near the cottage’s doorway, I noticed a line with the words “9/6/19 Dorian” written in pencil, denoting the waterline of the 2019 hurricane that flooded the island with a roughly seven-foot storm surge. The owner, Alton Ballance, reopened the inn last summer after spending 22 months rebuilding the inn and his own home.
On my first afternoon in town, Ballance offered to drive me along the beach to the southern point of the island to photograph birds, because my car lacked four-wheel-drive. (Driving is allowed on designated areas of the beach with a permit.) When we turned onto the beach, the wind whipped through my hair as I stared in awe at the seemingly endless stretch of sand littered with shell confetti and overlooked by enormous dunes. We passed a handful of cars on our search for the oystercatcher, a black-and-white bird with a bright orange beak, and instead we found dozens of gulls and terns racing along the water’s edge or soaring overhead.
He suggested I visit Howard Street, one of the oldest on the island. Picket fences lined the narrow oyster-shell, sand and gravel road that twisted past some of the town’s oldest homes, small family cemeteries — a common scene across the village — and vacation rentals. The bumpy street was named by the Howard family, who lived along it and nailed a street sign on a tree.
The fickle spring weather presented a significant challenge. A gale warning was issued, followed by a tornado warning two days later. The storms passed quickly, and blue skies appeared, but strong winds thwarted my plans to paddleboard in the harbor and visit nearby Portsmouth Island.
While I waited for the weather to improve, I visited the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum, a historic 1900s home with a variety of exhibits on topics such as the history of the U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers and the Ocracoke brogue, an English dialect with Irish and Scottish influences that’s spoken only on the island. At the British Cemetery, a white picket fence surrounded the graves of the only four soldiers recovered from the HMT Bedfordshire, which a torpedo fired by a German U-boat sank off the coast in 1942.
I photographed the 75-foot-tall Ocracoke Lighthouse, the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the country, and walked to the 123-acre Springer’s Point Preserve, the highest point of land on the island and believed to be the site of the first European settlement on Ocracoke. The stretch of land was a famous hangout spot for Edward Teach, the notorious pirate Blackbeard. The preserve’s nature trail snaked through evergreen maritime forest and wet grasslands, ending at a sandy beach on the Pamlico Sound overlooking Blackbeard’s favorite deepwater anchorage, Teach’s Hole, where he died at the hands of the British Navy in November 1718. According to local legend, the headless pirate swam seven laps around his ship before vanishing into the depths of the sound.
After my walk, I discovered that the island’s food was just as savory as its history. The grilled fish tacos at Eduardo’s taco stand were tasty, but the colorful food truck’s cheesy fusion taco was the best taco I’ve eaten in my life: pineapple mango salsa, lettuce and avocado piled on top of marinated jerk chicken wrapped in two homemade corn tortillas fused with melted cheese. I sampled a few of the hazy IPAs on tap at the island’s only craft brewery, 1718 Brewing Ocracoke, which has the best patio in town. Other favorites included Dajio’s homemade candied jalapeño pimento cheese appetizer and the grilled banana bread dessert topped with vanilla ice cream, candied pecans and salted caramel sauce.
On the last day of my trip, the winds calmed, and I joined a small-group boat tour for the approximately five-mile trip to Portsmouth Island. Our boat captain, Donald, grew up on Ocracoke Island and had an accent I instantly recognized as the Ocracoke brogue. At Portsmouth Village, dirt roads connected dilapidated and restored buildings, including a post office, Methodist church and the 1894 Life-Saving Station. For more than a century, the village was a major port along the Carolina coast before a change in shipping routes and a dwindling economy led to a population decline. The last two residents left in the early 1970s.
After we explored the town, the boat dropped us on a remote beach nearby. The recent storms had transformed it into a shelling paradise, and it seemed as if every inch of sand was covered in shells. Although my original plan was to take photos, my childhood enthusiasm for beachcombing spontaneously returned, and I used my backpack’s rain cover to make a makeshift bag for my shell collection. I befriended a shell enthusiast from Virginia named Amy, who helped identify the ones I’d collected: scallops, clams, a large black spiral whelk, two complete olive shells and an intact Scotch bonnet, the state shell of North Carolina, known for its characteristically short spire and orange-square pattern.
As I inhaled the salty air and watched a group of pelicans fly overhead, I was grateful for the storms that had washed the shells onto the sand — and thankful that my previous trips were derailed. Now I wouldn’t have to rush back because I had a ferry to catch. I meandered down the beach behind the other beachcombers. When they turned around, I kept walking until their footprints disappeared.
Where to stay
503 Back Rd.
This charming bed-and-breakfast is housed in a 1908 home with a wraparound porch lined with rocking chairs and porch swings. Owner Alton Ballance cooks a delicious breakfast, including homemade granola, blueberry pancakes or fresh egg scrambles. Rooms from $80 per night in-season (April to October).
Where to eat
10 Lawton Lane
This food truck serves up a tasty variety of tacos and burritos with fillings such as grilled shrimp and chicken. Try the homemade habanero salsa, made fresh daily. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday to Monday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tacos from $6.99.
1718 Brewing Ocracoke
1129 Irvin Garrish Hwy.
Sip on a hazy IPA while relaxing on the patio of the island’s only craft brewery. The on-site restaurant, Plum Pointe Kitchen, serves up delicious bites, such as burgers and jumbo soft pretzels with beer cheese. Open daily, noon to 9 p.m. Mains from $13, beers from $7.
305 Irvin Garrish Hwy.
The menu at this Southern fusion restaurant focuses heavily on seafood, with entrees such as oyster platters and shrimp po’ boys. Save room for the grilled banana bread dessert. Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; bar open until 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. Entrees from $11.
What to do
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Operated by the National Park Service, this area is the country’s first national seashore and extends from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island. On Ocracoke, this encompasses the island outside the village, including the beaches, Banker pony pen and campground. Don’t miss the ¾-mile Hammock Hills Nature Trail across from the campground. There are a handful of free, paved parking areas at beach access points. To drive on the beach, off-road vehicle permits must be purchased online, $50 for 10 days. Free admission to seashore.
Portsmouth Island Boat Tours
138 Loop Rd.
Brothers Rudy and Donald Austin are former ferry captions who run boat tours to nearby Portsmouth Island, part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore and only accessible by boat. Visitors can explore the village, beach or both. Tours are weather-dependent and typically run daily 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Entry to the Cape Lookout National Seashore is free, and National Park Service volunteers staff the island seasonally. Boat tours $25 per person, four-person minimum.
Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum
49 Water Plant Rd.
This small museum includes exhibits and artifacts related to Ocracoke’s history, along with a small gift shop. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed December to early spring. Free.
Springer’s Point Preserve
104 Loop Rd.
A nearly one-mile nature trail winds through this 123-acre nature preserve and covers a variety of habitats, including maritime forest and salt marsh. The trail ends at a beach along the Pamlico Sound overlooking Teach’s Hole, where the pirate Blackbeard was killed. No parking at trailhead; closest lot is nearby Ocracoke Lighthouse. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.