01 April 2010

Ocracoke Village

Ocracoke, population 750, is surely the most remote town in North Carolina, and maybe one of the most remote towns in America. How many other American towns are accessible only by boat or airplane?

The ferry ride from Hatteras Island takes 45 minutes. The ferry rides from the mainland points where ferries depart for Ocracoke — the villages of Cedar Island and Swan Quarter, N.C. — both take 2½ to 3 hours. You really have to want to go to Ocracoke [OH-kruh-coak] to get there. It's not a place you just stumble upon.

The harbor and the old lighthouse at Ocracoke

The old core of Ocracoke Village is still intact, even though it is surrounded now by subdivisions full of big vacation houses built up on pilings. The older houses are more modest, low frame structures, many with screened-in front porches. In the summertime, even when the arrival of "summer people" doubles or triples the population of the village, I'm sure that mosquitoes outnumber humans. Luckily, constant winds keep them down.

The lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper's house in Ocracoke Village

The old village is built back from the ocean, on the sound side of the island. In the middle of it there is a natural harbor that is so round and calm that it is called Silver Lake. I don't know if it ever was a fresh-water lake. Today, at least, it is a body of salt water that is linked to the waters of Pamilico sound by a narrow channel.

The "streets" of Ocracoke Village

At Ocracoke, many of the streets are not paved. They are sand tracks through stands of live oak trees, and the trees are shaped by the prevailing southwesterly winds. In summertime, the children of Ocracoke go barefoot. Until the last few decades, the houses weren't air-conditioned and people lived outdoors as much as they lived indoors.

A typical old house in the village

The village was settled late by the Europeans. In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh sailed into Ocracoke Inlet, but his ship was damaged when it ran aground on the constantly shifting sandbars here. He came ashore at Ocracoke and repairs were completed before the ship sailed on north to Roanoke Island. Raleigh left a group of settlers there and sailed back to England for supplies.

Coastal winds twist and shape old live oak trees.

When he returned to the area months later, the Roanoke Island colony had vanished. The next English attempt at colonization, at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, was more successful. Early plans to establish settlements on the inhospitable outer coast of what is now North Carolina were abandoned.

The town's water tower

As a result, Ocracoke wasn't settled until nearly 150 years later. Meanwhile, the island was a haven for pirates that raided ships moving up and down the coast between Virginia and New England to the north and Charleston and the Caribbean to the south. The most famous pirate operating out of Ocracoke was Edward Teach, who was better known as Blackbeard.

It probably would be a good idea to stop your car at this point...

When it was settled, Ocracoke was home to pilots who knew the local waters and were paid to guide ships through the inlet and into the sounds. Towns had been established along what is now called North Carolina's "inner coast" in the early 1700s — Bath was the first, New Bern [NYOO-burn] the second, and Beaufort [BOH-furt] the third.

Ocracoke grew in importance as a port. Larger ocean-going ships landed there to be unloaded. The cargo was then loaded onto smaller schooners that were better adapted to navigation on the shallow waters of the sounds and transported to the towns on the mainland.

The harbor is called Silver Lake.

Another town on the Banks, located just across the inlet from Ocracoke, was at some point an even bigger port and was named Portsmouth. It declined, however, over the 19th century and was abandoned fairly early in the 20th century. The last people ever born at Portsmouth, N.C., have all died by now. Today, Portsmouth is a ghost town.

Ocracoke is definitely not a ghost town. It has several hotels and motels, many restaurants, numerous gift and souvenir shops, and a couple of general stores where you can buy groceries. There's no supermarket, though — you have to take the ferry over to Hatteras Island for that kind of shopping.

Key West has its roaming chickens, and Ocracoke
has these ducks to greet visitors at the lighthouse.

What Ocracoke Island has is about 12 miles of pristine beaches and dunes, acres and acres of salt marshes, and plenty of sand bars and mud flats where you can pick up live clams, oysters, and blue crabs for your dinner. The local people speak English with an old-fashioned brogue that sounds British to American ears.

The Island Inn at Ocracoke

Walt and I spent a night or two at Ocracoke back in the 1980s. We had a comfortable room in place called the Island Inn, and we enjoyed seafood dinners in the hotel's restaurant. It was a weekend in mid-July, and we swam in the ocean at beaches where there was not another person in sight. One warm and muggy night, we were sitting out on the porch (or balcony) off our room when a big thunderstorm blew in off the sound.

We were entertained by spectacular bolts and fingers of lightning, deafening claps of thunder, and wind-driven sheets of heavy rain. Then the electricity went off. We were in the dark — and there was nearly total silence. All we could hear was the sound of the surf pounding the beach a couple of miles distant. It was like being at the end of the earth. That moment said "Ocracoke" to me.


  1. glad to see what it looks like...have heard a lot about Okracoke over the yrs......have a safe trip back

  2. I was sorry when I came to the end of this post, it was such a good read and history lesson. I enjoyed it all, but I liked the storm at the end the best.

    Bonne route!

  3. Wonderful post. I've never been to this region, so most informative. Love the ducks!

  4. That time in Okracoke is one of my favorite memories. Ken and I have gone back since, but that first time, being alone on a 15 mile long beach, seeing dolphins out in the surf, eating amazing seafood, and having the lights go out during a magnificent storm, was most amazing. I'll always think of Okracoke that way.

  5. Looks like a great place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.

  6. Walt and Ken, it's nice to hear of your shared experiences (as we usually mostly read of your individual experiences and thoughts), especially of something as memorable as this must have been. I enjoyed reading about all of thes NC posts :)

    Ken, wishing you a safe trip home, and a lovely Easter to both of you!


  7. Your comments about the Island Inn and the storm brought back fond memories of my own. I have a friend who is related to the owners or perhaps former owners of the Island Inn on Ocracoke. Her Grandmother was born and raised on the island and her father was a member of the Life Saving Service, a surfman, before or rather at the time they changed over to what is now the U.S. Coast Guard. The Grandmother said that during the Second World War she, thanks to the town being blacked out, frequently saw fires and explosions blossom on the horizon and on at least one occassion found the body of a seaman on the beach. Back then it was NOT a tourist destination and no formal ferry boats came and went. You either owned a boat or knew someone or... stayed on the island. As a child my parents took me there. A calico cat pestered us and since our cat, a home, had recently died I asked if I could have the cat! The hotel manager, where we stayed and not the Inn, said yes. Only later did I realize that the gift of a cat on an isolated island that was then mainly a fishing town was a truly great gift as the cat was going to eventually be a "working" cat... fish, boats, isolation = mice and rats.

  8. Thanks for posting this. Ocracoke is my favorite place to go to escape. I too have experienced the natural quiet you encountered that stormy night without power.


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