There’s something appealing about a place you can’t technically drive to. Although you can have a car on Ocracoke Island, it necessitates loading your car onto a 60 minute ferry then driving about half an hour into the only town on the island. The alternative is a new passenger ferry that is 70 minutes but takes you directly to the town. But, now that I’ve told you how to get there, what is Ocracoke and why visit?
My family vacations in the Outer Banks of North Carolina just about every year along with many other families from the East Coast of the US. However, because of its separation from the rest of the islands and the mainland, Ocracoke has a smaller population and considerably fewer tourists. Most come for a day trip, though there are a few B&Bs on the island as well as a campground.
Ocracoke is home to the second oldest lighthouse in the US (Ocracoke Light Station), which is currently the oldest functioning lighthouse. Because the Outer Banks are adjacent to “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the lighthouses are very important here. Ocracoke is also part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, meaning that it also has park rangers and ranger programs. The National Park Service Visitor Center is a good resource for information about the island in addition to being a bookstore, although I personally prefer the small independent bookstore – Books to be Red. Stores on the island are locally owned; there are no chains on the island at all. Many stores include local crafts as well – photography, paintings, carvings, jewelry, and more.
However, Ocracoke is most famous for two things: pirates and ponies. Ocracoke was temporarily the home of Blackbeard, who is still celebrated in local lore. Because of the Diamond Shoals, which caused the many shipwrecks off the Outer Banks, shipwrecks were easy prey for pirates. Blackbeard, né Edward Teach, got his start by privateering in Queen Anne’s War and, when he became a pirate, he named his famous ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Ultimately, Blackbeard only terrorized the coast for about 18 months before being beheaded in November 1718, but he remains one of the world’s most famous pirates and probably the most famous pirate on the Outer Banks.
Going further back in history, one finds a Spanish shipwreck which stranded several mustangs on the island. Ocracoke, being remote from the other islands, was a good haven for these horses. They ran wild until 1959 when the Parks Service penned them in a 188-acre area to protect them from Highway 12 traffic. Today, they are cared for by the NPS, though the area is open to visitors who want to see them, and this is really a must-see when you visit the island.
Ocracoke is a fun little place, somewhat removed from the rest of the beach towns and tourists. It has an exciting history but ultimately is a peaceful place to visit or stay. It has several little shops and cafés, which are all relatively close – but there’s also a free shuttle – and it’s a nice place to go to get away from it all. The trip, whether you’re going for a day or longer, is necessarily bookended with ferry rides, which, yes, are a little slow, but also, I think, remind you to slow down just a bit.