In 2003, the world turned its attention to North Carolina’s Outer Banks to celebrate a century since the birth of flight at Kitty Hawk. While Kitty Hawk lays claim to an integral part of aviation history, a tiny island farther down the coast has influenced history as well. Native Americans, colonists, pirates, fishermen, and shipwreck victims have all left their mark on Ocracoke Island.
This island on the southern tip of the barrier islands that comprise North Carolina’s Outer Banks is so narrow that, at one point, you can see the Pamlico Sound on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The majority of the island is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with the exception of Ocracoke Village, the small town on the west end. Largely underdeveloped, the 16 miles of unspoiled beaches and sand dunes are accessible only by ferryboat or airplane.
The small town of Ocracoke Village, a picturesque fishing village surrounding Silver Lake Harbor, is home to residents numbering only in the hundreds. Tourism and fishing keep the idyllic town alive. Largely uncommercialized, the island has back roads not yet named that wind through oak trees, sea oats, and marshland grasses. Most visitors flock to the island to rejuvenate in a simplistic, pristine environment. Bird watching is high entertainment, with migrating songbirds and waterfowl as common as pigeons and doves in a city. Walking along seashore trails and riding bikes are the popular pastimes. Bumper to bumper traffic is unheard of, as are McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. Residents often comment on their isolation: “If the world would end tomorrow, we wouldn’t find out for three days!”
A flight into Ocracoke Island Airport (W95), just one mile east of Ocracoke Village, quickly brings you into the heart of the community. The airstrip is within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, providing excellent views but hazards, as well. If you arrive from the west, an over-water flight of at least 15 nm is necessary. If you’re nervous flying over that much open water, you can first fly to Manteo (MQI), 51 nm north, or Smith Field (MRH) in Beaufort, 41 nm south, and then island-hop along the Outer Banks to Ocracoke. A minimum altitude of 2,000 feet is requested over the national seashores en route to the airport. Make sure to avoid the numerous restricted areas along the coast. You can get current status from Cherry Point Approach on 124.1 MHz south of Ocracoke or Giant Killer Approach on 118.125 MHz north of the airport.
Operated by the National Park Service, the unattended airstrip has no control tower, fuel, or lighting, and the runway is closed from 30 minutes after sunset until 30 minutes before sunrise. Announce your position and intentions on CTAF, 122.9 MHz. The runway runs parallel to the coast, with trees on both sides of the runway, so expect wind shear in crosswind conditions, as the trees will block the wind. Despite the remote location, you can contact Raleigh Flight Service on 122.3 MHz at relatively low altitude through the remote communications outlet at Cape Hatteras, 19 nm northeast. Fuel can be found at nearby Manteo (MQI), Warren (OCW), Coastal Carolina Regional (EWN), and Elizabeth City (ECG) airports.
Tiny Ocracoke Island played an important role in Colonial American development. Its economy was based upon the maritime industry, which is still integral to its landscape. Ocracoke Inlet was a principal port of entry along the hazardous North Carolina coast for ships accessing inland ports such as Elizabeth City, New Bern, and Edenton. Hundreds of ships passed through the inlet in the 1700s, making Ocracoke Inlet one of the busiest on the East Coast. In the 1730s, the pilots who were hired to guide ships through the shallow sound waters to the mainland ports settled the village, and named it Pilot Town. Now known as Ocracoke Village, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
The island has witnessed maritime history through the warships and sailing vessels that passed its shores. The infamous pirate Blackbeard was just one of many who plundered ships in the waters off the North Carolina coast in the early 1700s. Edward “Blackbeard” Teach bribed North Carolina’s Governor Eden to allow him to terrorize ships, unobstructed, along the coast for 18 months. Carolinians asked Virginia’s Governor Spotswood for assistance and Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard was sent to help. On November 22, 1718, after a fierce battle in the Ocracoke Inlet, Maynard was victorious. Amazingly, Blackbeard endured 25 stab wounds and five bullets before dying. He was beheaded and his body was thrown into the Inlet; his head was placed on the bow of Maynard’s ship as it sailed back to Virginia.
Ocracoke Island remained relatively isolated until the 1930s when the harbor was dredged and the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed dunes along the beach. During World War II, the U.S. Navy established a base on the island, the remnants of which can still be seen along the walking tour today.
In 1953, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the first national seashore in the country, was created. The 75-mile stretch extends along North Carolina’s Outer Banks from Nags Head south to Ocracoke Inlet and covers more than 30,000 acres. With the creation of the National Seashore, an influx of outsiders came to the island, along with its first paved roads. In 2007, the Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife sued the National Park Service (NPS) for failing to protect nesting seabirds by not regulating the use of off-road vehicles (ORVs) on the island. NPS was found not to be in compliance with an executive order requiring the establishment of policies and procedures regarding ORV use and failing to implement management plans to protect nesting turtles and seabirds. In 2012, NPS issued its final ORV plan. Of the seashore’s 68 miles, 28 miles are set aside for year-round ORV use, and 26 miles are designated as ORV-free year round. The remaining miles are open for seasonal use. The plan also proposed new parking facilities and shuttles to increase visitor access to beaches.
Ocracoke Island is 16 miles long, with the Hatteras Inlet at the northernmost tip and Silver Lake Harbor on the southwest edge. Ocracoke Village encircles the harbor with the airport across from town on the eastern shore. Just a few yards beyond the airport stretch miles of glorious sand. Due to Ocracoke’s remoteness and climate, mosquito repellent is highly recommended.
At the heart of the village is the National Park Service Visitor Center. Get your bearings and enjoy the view of Silver Lake Harbor, the focal point of the town. As Ocracoke’s main channel, fish and shrimp trawlers, yachts, and even the occasional military ship can often be found navigating the passage. At the Visitor Center, you can get information about which areas are open or closed at any given time. During or immediately after a storm, visitors may encounter ORV access ramps, interdunal roads, or beaches that are temporarily closed due to flooding. Always use caution if traveling in the park during or after a storm, and be aware of tidal changes. To check on possible closures, contact the park. Free educational programs about the history and ecology of the island, including campfires, bird walks, beach walks, and learning about shipwrecks and pirates are conducted by the National Park Service. Programs run Memorial Day–Labor Day, visitor center open year round 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Hwy 12, 252-928-4531.
Down the boardwalk and across the street is the Ocracoke Village Visitor Center and Museum. Located in a house built circa 1900 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this museum introduces you to the intriguing history of the island. Managed by the Ocracoke Preservation Society, the museum contains photos and artifacts of island lifestyles and history, as well as a research library and back porch history talks, free admission, late Mar–late Nov, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., closed Sun, Hwy 12, 252-928-7375.
The history lesson continues at the British Cemetery, where you can set foot on an authentic piece of England without needing a passport. In World War II, German U-boats preyed on ships off the Outer Banks in an area known then as “Torpedo Alley.” In a six-month period in 1942, the submarines killed more than 5,000 people. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent ships to guard and protect both American lives and supplies bound for England. One of those ships, the H.M.S. Bedfordshire, was destroyed when it was torpedoed on May 11, 1942, killing all crewmembers. Four of the bodies washed ashore on Ocracoke. One resident donated land for the sailors' burial, while others donated their services to create the British Cemetery. The tiny plot, with a high white picket fence protecting crosses emblazoned with bronze plaques, was ceded to England, but is maintained by the Ocracoke Coast Guard. Each May, the Coast Guard holds a ceremony with full military regalia to honor the sailors and raise a new British flag sent by Queen Elizabeth. The men of the Royal Navy are also honored with a plaque recounting the words of sailor Robert Brooke: “If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some forever corner of a foreign field that is forever England,” British Cemetery Rd., 252-928-6711.
At the south end of the harbor is the Ocracoke Lighthouse, the second oldest operating lighthouse in the nation. The original 1803 wooden structure was destroyed by lightning in 1818, and the current lighthouse was built in 1823. Constructed on some of the highest ground on the island and able to withstand hurricanes and other torrential weather, the keeper’s house was a refuge for residents fleeing storms. At 75 feet tall, it is the shortest lighthouse on the North Carolina coast, yet its beacon can be seen for 14 miles. The sentinel is currently owned by the National Park Service, while the U. S. Coast Guard maintains its navigational aids. The grounds are open during daylight hours, although the lighthouse itself is not open to the public, Lighthouse Rd., 252-928-6711.
Among the best attractions on Ocracoke is the unspoiled environment. In 2002, Stephen P. Leatherman, an environmental studies professor known as “Dr. Beach,” awarded Ocracoke the distinction of having one of America’s top ten beaches. Leatherman evaluates more than 50 elements of the water, sand, and surrounding environment to pick his annual top ten.
Sunbathing and building sandcastles is a fine way to spend a day at the beach, but if you’re looking for a more active way to enjoy the waters, catch a wave with surfboard rentals through Ride the Wind Surf & Kayak shop. Beginners can take one-on-one lessons to learn the essential techniques of surfing, including reading and catching waves. Lessons are held every morning, $85 per hour, surfboard rentals $2 per day or $75 per week. The surf shop also leads sunrise, sunset, and full moon Kayaking Eco-Tours, $39–$40. Journey into the heart of this island’s tranquil paradise where wildlife outnumbers humans. Or take a yoga class while you float on a stand-up paddle board, $39. Kayak rentals are also available by the hour or week for independent explorers, $12–$19 per hour, Hwy 12, 252-928-6311.
Perhaps the island’s most famous residents are the once wild “Banker Ponies.” The origin of the Banker Ponies is uncertain. One story credits Spanish explorers as having brought them; others believe they are descendants of shipwrecked horses or that they were transported here with the Sir Walter Raleigh expeditions. However they arrived, for centuries hundreds of untamed horses ran free on the island. When the Cape Hatteras National Seashore took over Ocracoke Island, the National Park Service wanted to remove the horses to protect the native wildlife. Ocracoke residents, not wanting to lose a piece of their heritage, petitioned to keep the horses by enclosing them in a large pasture. This compromise allowed the National Park Service to protect other animals, while the wild ponies remain a part of the island. The Park Service now manages about 30 Banker Ponies. An observation platform overlooks the pony pen, Hwy 12, 252-473-2111.
If you’re ready for an adventure, don’t miss an excursion to the deserted village of Portsmouth, on the northern tip of Portsmouth Island, just southwest of Ocracoke. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Portsmouth and Ocracoke were both thriving ports. The Ocracoke inlet began to shallow, and, after a storm in 1846, created a more maneuverable inlet up north, the commerce center shifted to Hatteras. Portsmouth dwindled to a ghost town and the last two residents left in 1971. Four years later, Portsmouth was incorporated into the Cape Lookout National Seashore, and its only current inhabitants are two volunteer rangers.
The old abandoned village, with its church, U.S. Life Saving Station, and general store, is now the stomping ground of shorebirds and sea turtles while the remote beach is excellent for dolphin watching and shelling. The only way to reach Portsmouth Island is by a private tour company. One tour company, Portsmouth Island ATV Excursions, offers two tours to the ghost town that depart from the Jolly Roger Marina. Island tours utilize all-terrain vehicles to explore the deserted town and vacant beaches, while birding tours are available to see such marvels as curlew sandpipers and bar-tailed godwits. A four-hour tour costs $85, minimum age 6 years old, ATV drivers must be 16 years old, Apr–Nov (weather permitting), 8 a.m.–12 p.m. & 1–5 p.m., Silver Lake Rd., 252-928-4484. More information on the history of Portsmouth is available online.
Fishermen will be happy to know that salt-water fishing at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is possible without a license. You can fish right from the shore, or take a fishing charter for deep-sea fishing. Spring is a good time for yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and mahi mahi; later in the season, white and blue marlin fishing begins.
One of the best places to enjoy sunsets from the comfort of your own room is at the Anchorage Inn. The 35-room hotel overlooks the island’s scenic harbor. The fourth floor rooms boast balconies, while the Penthouse Suites offer a full kitchen, large living room, and panoramic views. A swimming pool; dockside cafe; grills and picnic tables; bike, scooter, and small boat rentals; airport pick-up; and continental breakfast round out the amenities. The Anchorage Marina, connected to the inn, offers fishing charters and boat rentals, as well as sMacnally’s Raw Bar, just about the freshest seafood you can find, open Mar–Nov, rooms $89–$149, penthouse $189–$275, Silver Lake Rd., 252-928-1101.
One of the owners of Pam’s Pelican Bed & Breakfast, Marcello, is a pilot who offers sightseeing flights and charter service to and from Ocracoke. Four cheerful, pet-friendly rooms each provide a small refrigerator, microwave, and coffee pot. A full breakfast is served every day. Bicycles, beach chairs, coolers, and ice are available at no charge to guests, as well as free airport or marina transportation, open Mar–Oct, $119–$139, 1021 Irvin Garrish Hwy., 252-928-1661.
Edwards of Ocracoke offers basic accommodations at a reasonable price. They have eight motel-style rooms, three efficiency rooms, six cottage apartments, and two private cottages. The majority of the 19 rooms open onto a private porch; the remaining rooms open onto a covered porch banked with rockers, perfect for relaxing while overlooking a quiet, less traveled street in the heart of the village. Most rooms have at least basic kitchen facilities; the larger rooms have full kitchen and living areas. Bike, grill, VCR, and harbor boat dock rentals are available as well as on-site laundry facilities. Rooms can be rented nightly, $60–$90. Cabins are rented weekly (Sun to Sun) $599–$2,100, Mar 15–Jan 1, Back Rd., 252-928-4801 or 800-254-1359.
The Island Inn, with its quaint white, three-tiered porch and Adirondack chairs in the front yard, is a welcome retreat year-round. Built in 1901 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure has served as a meeting lodge, school, residence, and naval officers’ quarters before becoming a private inn. The main building houses nine rooms, each uniquely decorated with antiques and quilts. In the newer building across the street, families can find more modern accommodations, with amenities such as a refrigerator and deck. These luxurious villas have a kitchen, living and dining area, washer and dryer, and whirlpool tub. A swimming pool is available and transportation from the airport is provided, $69–$199, villas require a three-night minimum stay, Lighthouse Rd., 252-928-4351.
Hidden in a shady grove of trees, the 24 accommodations of the Boyette Condos, rented by the week and available through Okracoke Island Realty, are tranquil spots to relax after a day of sunbathing and shelling on Ocracoke’s shores. One- and two-bedroom units include dishwasher, microwave, washer/dryer, TV, DVD, central air/heat, and fully equipped kitchens. Shared amenities include a swimming pool, outdoor grill, pet-friendly units available. A fitness center is available, as well as airport transportation, weekly rates $760–$2,060, Highway 12, 252-928-6261 or 877-646-2822.
Don’t let the sight of waist-high cacti dissuade you from journeying inside the relaxed Back Porch Restaurant. The secluded eatery offers creative, upscale dinners. Whether you eat on the namesake screened-in porch or inside, be sure to try their fabulously fresh seafood, such as crab cakes with red pepper sauce or crab beignets, entrées $13–$30, Easter–Dec, 5–9:30 p.m., 110 Back Rd., 252-928-6401.
Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar Restaurant is not only a fun place to eat, it also serves up good food. A pool table, big screen TVs, dance floor, and live music make Howard’s Pub one of the best nightlife spots on the island, even for kids who can enjoy their own games and coloring books. Nearly 200 bottled domestic, imported, and microbrewed beers, plus 24 drafts, can be enjoyed while you rest in a rocking chair on the outdoor deck with ocean and sound views. Typical pub food of sandwiches and hamburgers combines with more upscale dishes such as live Maine lobster to produce an eclectic atmosphere, entrées $8–$26, open mid-Mar–early Nov, 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Hwy 12, 252-928-4441.
If you’re not loaded down with luggage, you can walk from the airstrip to town. Roughly half a mile down Highway 12 you will encounter the edge of town with some shops, restaurants, and hotels. From the airstrip to Silver Lake Harbor, the trip is about a mile.
After flying into Ocracoke, the only transportation from the airport, other than motel shuttles, is on bicycles that you can rent through Ocracoke Island Realty. Call ahead and they will chain bikes to the fence at the airport. When you’re done, just chain them back to the fence, $15 per day plus small delivery charge, 252-928-6261 or 877-646-2822.
With little vehicular transportation, the town has developed into an easy walking village with most accommodations and attractions close together. Bicycles can be rented throughout the village, as well.
One of the greatest pleasures of being a private pilot is the ability to access remote areas like Ocracoke Island. A flight across just a few miles of beautiful, blue water will take you to this easygoing island where you can discover a simpler way of living.