Exotic, remote, laid-back, a quaint fishing village, the stuff of pirate legends, pristine beaches -- just a few ways to describe Ocracoke Island. Part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Ocracoke is one of the most remote islands on the North Carolina Outer Banks. It can only be reached by private boat, private plane, or public ferry.
The quaint, picturesque village of Ocracoke sits at the southwest end of the island. The entire island is only 16 miles long, but it is packed with tons of fun. Rent bicycles or golf carts for putting around town. Enjoy boundless outdoor adventure, shopping, dining, drinking, exploring -- the list is endless. Ocracoke also offers some of the most magnificent sunsets on the coast.
Ocracoke Island Ferry
There are no bridges from the mainland. Ferries offer the only public transportation to Ocracoke Island. Having grown up in the Southern California desert, there wasn't a lot of need for ferry boats. It wasn't until last year that I experienced my first ferry boat ride. I'm sure for some it's routine, but for me … what a great adventure. It makes what “they” say about traveling true, that getting there is half the fun.
From Cedar Island and Swan Quarter, the ferry boat ride takes about 2.5 hours. From Hatteras Island, it's about an hour. They allow passengers as well as vehicles. The two mainland ferries dock in the Ocracoke harbor near the village. Arriving from Hatteras, it's 16 miles to the village of Ocracoke. Schedules vary depending on the day and the season and are subject to change depending on the weather. Prices vary depending on size of vehicle. Check times and prices here.
Pro Tip: The busiest day-tripping days from Hatteras are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, especially in the summer. You can avoid long lines by arriving early for the first morning ferry or visiting on less busy days.
Things To Do On Ocracoke Island
Newcomers to the Ocracoke Island will want to stop by the visitors center, located adjacent to the ferry docks. There, you can get information on area attractions and activities, visit the small museum, and pick up souvenirs.
No matter which direction you head into town, the first thing visitors notice is the all-white Ocracoke Lighthouse situated at one end of the three-mile-wide village. Not as big as some -- actually kind of small, at only 67 feet tall -- but it is a grand and photo-worthy sentinel. The light was first lit in 1823 and still operates today, making it the oldest operating light station in North Carolina. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pro Tip: Unfortunately, the lighthouse is not open for climbing, but in summer months there may be a state park ranger onsite allowing visitors into the base section, where the six-foot thick walls are visible.
Play In And On The Water
Being an island, Ocracoke is obviously surrounded by water. The Atlantic Ocean, with its fantastic white-sand beaches, runs the length of one side of the island while the calmer waters of the Pamlico Sound lie on the other. Ocracoke’s sheltered harbor is where many water activities await visitors.
Whether you surf, kayak, sail, or fish, there is plenty of ocean adventure. The pounding surf and temperate waters are perfect from May to October for parasailing, kiteboarding, surfing, paddle boarding, and windsurfing. Offshore adventure awaits with fishing charters.
Ocracoke Island is world-renowned for excellent surf fishing. The spring and fall months are considered the best time to fish from the beach.
With the Gulf Stream just 12 miles offshore, visitors will have easy access to a wide variety of big game and prize fish. Several fishing charters operate out of Ocracoke, offering half-day or full-day trips.
Pro Tip: Because of the popularity of fishing on Ocracoke Island, and the limited number of charters available, anglers are advised to book as far in advance as possible.
The David Williams House Museum is an unassuming white home that dates back to the late 1800s. The small home belonged to Williams, the first chief of the U.S. Coast Guard station on Ocracoke. It is filled with original items, furnishings, and decor from the 1800s. The museum also features a gift shop with books, trinkets, and treasures pertaining to Ocracoke Island history. Open seasonally.
The Ocracoke Working Waterman’s Exhibit is located on the waterfront in the former Will Willis Store and Fish House. Visitors will learn how Ocracoke Island’s fishing heritage is still alive and how it plays an important role in the community and local economy, both yesterday and still today.
Learn about Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the pirate, at Teach's Hole Pirate Museum. The exhibit features a life-size “statue” of Blackbeard, a weapons display, original art, and pirate flag displays. There is also a two-part documentary about Blackbeard's life and death on Ocracoke Island. Open seasonally.
Honor The Fallen
A small, well-maintained little cemetery lies on a quiet side street on the outskirts of the village. During World War II, German submarines sank several British ships defending the North Carolina coast, including the HMS Bedfordshire. Bodies of British sailors washed ashore and were buried on the island. A small plot, just over 2,000 square feet, where a British flag flies at all times, is an official British cemetery, maintained by the United States Coast Guard station on Ocracoke Island. A memorial ceremony is held each year in May.
Meet Wild Ponies
A visit to the Pony Pens is a must for any traveler to Ocracoke. These wild ponies have 180 acres of sound-side beach and marsh to explore, but they often prefer to hang around the paddocks, especially near feeding time, making them easy to see up close.
Halfway between the Ocracoke and the north end of the island on Highway 12, you will see the sign for the Pony Pens. There’s plenty of parking and an elevated viewing platform for a better view.
Pro Tip: Right across the highway from the pens is public beach access. A great spot for shelling.
Relax On The Beach
Whether your plans call for sunbathing, shell hunting, surf fishing, or just sitting under an umbrella with a good book, the 16 miles of white-sand beaches are heaven. Ocracoke's beaches are less crowded, more serene, and perfect for a quiet weekend getaway.
Visitors can access the beach at several locations—near the airport (lifeguard on duty here) or near the campground (a bit of a walk). The best public access is across from the Pony Pens where a boardwalk extends from the parking lot to the beach.
Take A Hike
Hammock Hills Nature Trail is a three-quarter mile trail that loops through the island's maritime forest and salt marsh. There are informative signs along the trail and an observation deck offering great views of Pamlico Sound. The trailhead is across from the NPS campground.
Springer’s Point Nature Preserve is 120 acres of maritime forest, salt marsh, wetlands, and sound-front beach. The short (0.25 miles one-way) trail winds through ancient live oak groves that are believed to have been one of Blackbeard's favorite hide-outs. The trail ends up at an isolated, sandy beach at Teach’s Hole, where the infamous pirate is said to have met his fate in 1718.
Pro Tip: Plan to walk or bike to the preserve, as there is no parking at the trailhead. A nearby church offers parking (donations accepted).
Shop For Unique Island Treasures
The island’s shops are sprinkled throughout the tree-lined streets of the village. You'll find local art galleries, handcrafted pottery, and jewelry as well as nautical gift items, shells, books, and clothing. Some unique shops include Village Craftsmen and Harborside Shop. One must-stop is Pirate’s Chest Gift Shop (it's right on the highway and hard to miss), with so much “booty” that even Blackbeard would be jealous.
Ocracoke Island Restaurants
The village of Ocracoke has many fantastic eateries. Something for every taste, from the most sophisticated pallet to the just-give-me-a-burger-and-beer guy. Enjoy a fresh seafood dinner harbor-side in an open-air waterfront restaurant, or relax with a glass of wine, listen to live music by local performers, and watch the sunset.
Other options are hidden all along Highway 12. On our first ferry ride over, an Outer Banks local told us, “Whatever you do, ya gotta eat at Howard’s Pub.” So we did. I enjoyed the freshest bluefish I'd ever tasted (and my very first oyster shooter).
Many eateries are within walking or riding distance from inns and hotels. Most all have indoor and outdoor seating, as well as eclectic local menus. And most will pack to-go meals for you to enjoy at the beach or waterfront.
Pro Tip: Some restaurants have seasonal hours and may not be open during the off-season. Be sure to check restaurant websites before planning your trip.
Ocracoke Island Hotels
Ocracoke Island offers a variety of lodging. Whether vacationing with the family or on a romantic weekend getaway, Ocracoke offers a great selection of inns, bed and breakfasts, small hotels, and vacation rentals. There is also a well-maintained, 136-site National Parks Service campground less than four miles from the village. It’s open from early April through late November.
A few favorite places to stay are Anchorage Inn Motel, where we watched the sunset over the harbor from our balcony on our first trip to the island. The Ocracoke Harbor Inn offers very nice waterfront lodging, and The Berkley Manor is a historic lodge with upscale accommodations.
Although there are no chain hotels, restaurants, or stores on Ocracoke Island, the quaint village and pristine beach draws visitors back time after time … or maybe it's because there are no chain hotels, restaurants, or stores that Ocracoke is a perfect getaway.