The island history's ... and that name!
The character of an island community 24 miles offshore can differ dramatically from that of a mainland town, and the observation has been made that no one feels ambivalent about Ocracoke. You either feel this place is just too remote or you find it enchanting. Did we really just use the word “enchanting”? Yes, and it fits. There is an enchantment to Ocracoke – almost as if time has found a way to stop and we, the lucky people who find our way here, get to exist in that anti-9 to 5 world.
The only way to reach Ocracoke is by ferry, private boat or plane. It wasn’t always thus. For a period of about 82 years, Ocracoke Island was joined to Hatteras Island. Before 1764 the two islands had been separated by Old Hatteras Inlet, which was located midway between Ocracoke Village and the location of the present inlet. When Old Hatteras Inlet closed for good in 1764, Hatteras and Ocracoke were one island and it was possible to travel by land between the settlements. That was all changed September 7, 1846, when a storm blew open a deep and wide inlet that became known as Hatteras Inlet. Today, the lack of a bridge lends the Ocracoke a remote feel, even though it’s only a few miles from Hatteras. People come to Ocracoke to get away from the world, and the island supports that experience perfectly.
A common question from first-time visitors is, “How do you pronounce the name of this place?” It seems people have been asking that for years. The earliest record of the island’s name, on a map made by English explorer John White in 1585, designates the inlet as Wokokon. Subsequent spellings include Woccocock, Oakacock and Okercock. The name derives from the Woccon tribe of Native Americans, who lived in the mainland tidewater and came to the island for seafood feasts in fair weather. The inlet, the island and the village now all carry the name Ocracoke, which, incidentally, is pronounced like the vegetable and the soft drink.
Most of the Ocracoke is undeveloped Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The National Park Service maintains the islands’ beautiful beaches and maritime forest areas, which form the center of Ocracoke, NC, recreation, and a primitive campground and the island’s population of formerly wild horses. Ocracoke Village is a magical place that surrounds a beautiful harbor.
Most people ride bikes or golf carts or walk around the village, since to go from end to end only takes you about 30 minutes on foot.
The #1 Ocracoke attraction is undoubtedly The Beach, and the rankings by Dr. Beach confirm this fact. Wide open, undeveloped and a playground for anything you can do under the sun or in/on/around the water, most people to Ocracoke spend lots of their time here. But other Ocracoke attractions include the lighthouse, the British Cemetery, the Ocracoke ponies, Springer's Point nature preserve, live music, nature trails and more. Visiting these places is easy to do with during a leisurely stroll or bike ride around the village. (The ponies are a few miles from the village, so you might want to drive there.)
Ocracoke Things to Do
Some of the things to do on Ocracoke center around the water that surrounds and buffers this island and on the unfiltered natural world. Local outfitters can get you into a kayak or onto a surfboard (and with lessons and camps to help you learn if need be), parasailing high above the water, SUPing, Waverunning or sailing. Have you ever been clam digging or flounder gigging? Here's your chance. If you'd rather stay dry, you have tons of options. Hike on nature trails, visit local cemeteries, listen to music or take a guided town or ghost tour, ride horses along the beach, learn about pirates, head to deserted Portsmouth Island, tool around the island on a bike or golf cart (there's a safe and wide bike path that extends from the village all the way to the National Park Service campground), attend a porch talk on the history and culture of Ocracoke, join in on a class that will teach you about the local environment and wildlife, get a massage or spa treatment, rent a 4WD (and get a permit!) and go exploring or hit the local gym for a good workout. And, if you're an angler, the fishing on Ocracoke island is one of the biggest draws year round. You’ll be as entertained and active on Ocracoke Island as you want to be.
As far as Ocracoke shopping goes, the entire island puts out the welcome mat. A charming aspect of Ocracoke Island is that the shops are located along most of the meandering streets, not in shopping centers. You get to hop on a bike, a golf cart or walk around the island on what is surely the most relaxed shopping experience/exploration you've had. Gifts, clothes, great art, wonderful books, outdoor gear, kites, beach supplies, home decorations, jewelry – it’s all here, and nothing is superstore copied.
You might think that an island such as this would offer fewer options for dining, but that’s not the case. Again, in keeping with the magic that is Ocracoke, you’ll find absolutely no chains among Ocracoke restaurants. Not a single one. How many towns can boast that anymore?! You will, however, find restaurants that offer incredibly well-prepared, imaginative food. The variety is surprising — Thai, Mexican, crepes, hot dogs, pizza, Italian, gourmet, seafood, raw bars. Any of the Ocracoke restaurants are easily reached on foot or bike or via your jounty golf cart (low noise, low emissions ), which is a good thing; you’ll need a stroll after eating at most of them because you have a hard time putting your fork down they’re so good. There are waterfront, outdoor establishments, casual sandwich-type spots and more than a few places whose food rivals any great restaurant you’ve ever been to. Honest. It’s all island casual in dress and atmosphere. There might be a bit of a wait during the summer, but just relax with a drink and be happy you're here.
Finding a place to stay on Ocracoke is easy (well, unless it’s the middle of summer … plan ahead, people!). Ocracoke hotels and other accommodations are found all over the island – except, thankfully, oceanfront – and range from down-home Mom and Pop motels that are well-maintained but basic to B&Bs to restored island homes to upscale condos. Thankfully, you’ll find no mega-mansions here – that's just not Ocracoke's style. Picture this: You’re standing on your accommodation's deck, which overlooks the lighthouse with its flashing light, which is reflected in the nearby marsh water, which is under a blanket of stars that are so bright they tease the lightening bugs into trying to outshine them. Ahhh, that’s just Ocracoke.
If you're staying a week or more and need more space than an Ocracoke hotel or B&B can give you, there are several Ocracoke vacation rental companies with very helpful staff people who will assist you in finding what you want. These same few companies also offer Ocracoke real estate if you become so smitten you don’t want to leave.
Not surprisingly, getting married on Ocracoke is a choice that many couples make to link into the enchantment. Ocracoke weddings take some planning, but there are professionals here who have helped with many a nuptial who know how to help you pull it off. Note that Ocracoke is in Hyde County, not Dare, so your license has to be obtained from the Hyde County Register of Deeds office in Swansboro on the mainland. Click on the weddings link for all the info you need.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's the difference between Ocracoke and the rest of the Outer Banks?
What makes Ocracoke so different? It’s clear that there are businesses, cars, people and stuff here just like anywhere else. And even though it's an island, there are other islands that are part of the Outer Banks. Yes, all true. Yet there’s a slowness, a connectedness, a shrugging off of convention that opens up space on Ocracoke Island. You just have to come see for yourself.
Can we drive to Ocracoke?
Nope, and that's part of the appeal of this place. You have to determine to come here, not just happen upon us. The vast majority of visitors drive down through Hatteras Island and take the free ferry to Ocracoke from Hatteras Village (at the southern tip of the island). This is a free ferry that runs about every 30 minutes in the summer, so don't be too discouraged if you are at the end of a long line of cars waiting; the wait won't be too long. And in the meantime you can grab a snack, lounge on the hood of your car in the sun and just relax and get ready for the unhurried mood of Ocracoke. Note that there is a lane that's reserved for businesses and/or locals who have passes that allow them to priority board, as in before the long line of cars that are waiting. Some of these vehicles might be bringing in supplies you need while you're visiting, so you definitely want them to get on the ferry. The trip to the northern tip of Ocracoke takes about 30 minutes, then once you're back on land it's about a 15-minutes drive into the village. Along the way, you are mostly driving along totally undeveloped shoreline on one side and marsh on the other – it's wild and beautiful! But between the ferry and the village you also pass the Ocracoke pony pen, nature trailheads, the National Park Service campground, lifeguard beach and the airport.
A walk-on passenger ferry also runs between Hatteras Village and the Silver Lake Terminal Ocracoke Village, three round trips per day, between late May through early September. The trip takes just over an hour, and passengers can spend it riding comfortably in the spacious cabin or on the open-air deck and let the wind whip through their hair. There's a small fee for the ferry, and passengers can also bring their bikes on board.
Would you mind if we make a suggestion? While feeding the gulls off the back of the ferry might seem like a fun idea, when a bunch of these things are hovering over your head, squawking for tidbits, their wet missives can find their way directly onto you. Not pretty. We're just sayin'.
There are two other ferries that come from the mainland, from Swan Quarter or Cedar Island. These ferries only make a few trips a day, charge a fee and take about 2.5 hours for the crossing. It's absolutely necessary that you make reservations in advance in the summer especially (but we'd advise it other times of the year too).
If you own your own boat, you can dock in spaces at the marina in the village, and if you own your own plane, you can land at the airstrip. The runway can handle private planes, but the facility is unstaffed, and you must take off and land during the daylight.
Are there public beach accesses on Ocracoke, and is there a lifeguard?
There are six beach access points on the island, but only one has a lifeguard so that's where most locals and visitors go to swim. It's located about a mile north of the village and has a bathhouse with restrooms and showers. There's ample parking, which is a good thing because this is a popular place, and there's a handicapped-accessible boardwalk that goes all the way to the beach. You can ride your bike here since there's a good path from the village, but note that you are not allowed to take your golf cart past the northern boundary at Howard's Pub. Lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day through Labor Day from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
The other accesses have parking but, as we said, no showers or restrooms. Still, if you want privacy, these are good options. There's even a rumor that there's a nude beach on Ocracoke Island, but we're not talking.
What makes the beach at Ocracoke so different?
For one thing, it's been named the #1 beach in the country by Dr. Beach. But people who know this place didn't need that stamp of approval to know that we had it made with our little strip of paradise. The beach is wide, the sand is soft and it's the perfect playground for a day spent by Mother Ocean. But the most remarkable difference in our beach and the others on the Outer Banks is that there is zero development! No houses or other structures are located on the oceanfront here, so for as far as the eye can see and the legs can walk in either direction, it's just untarnished and natural. Think about this: The beach looks exactly the same to you today as it did to the Woccon tribe who lived here part of the year hundreds of years ago. There aren't too many places you can say that about anymore.
Are we allowed to drive on the beach at Ocracoke?
Yes, if you obtain a permit from the National Park Service Visitor Center (across from the ferry dock in the village), you may access the beach at specific designated outlets. You'll also be given a map that shows where, specifically, you can drive since some areas are closed at various times due to turtle or bird nestings. Make sure you're an experienced sand driver because the soft, deep sand here has been known to give even experienced off-roaders fits.
Why is Blackbeard associated with Ocracoke?
Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Teach, terrorized the waters around Ocracoke with his pirating from 1716-1718. His appearance was fear-inducing, with a long black beard to which he would often attach flaming sticks to heighten the scary effect he had on the poor men on his target ships. Though his reign wasn't long, the accounts of his attacks told of a man who was particularly brutal. Why did he choose this area for his plundering? The inlets and sand banks around Ocracoke made for good hiding places from which to attack merchant ships that used Ocracoke and Hatteras inlets. Plus, the North Carolina governor tended to turn a blind eye to Blackbeard's illegal acts, making the pirate even bolder. In fact, the governor and Blackbeard owned houses close to each other in the small town of Bath, across the sound from Ocracoke and were reported to be good friends. When Blackbeard and his crew needed time on land when not at Bath, one of their other favorite spots was today's Springer's Point, a nature preserve on Ocracoke island. Ghost stories abound about how eerie noises can still be heard coming from the area of their camp. Eventually, the governor of Virginia stepped in to try to stop the greedy pirate. On November 22, 1718, Blackbeard and his ship of marauders were defeated by Virginia's Captain Maynard. To herald the pirate's defeat, Maynard displayed the bearded head on his bowsprit all the way back to his home port.
What's the weather like year round in Ocracoke?
Ocracoke's weather is a little milder than on the northern Outer Banks, but only by a degree or two. Still, that difference is often enough to keep snow from falling here (though it has happened!), and locals are apt to jump in the ocean earlier here than in Nags Head or Corolla. The fact that Ocracoke's beach is southern facing also creates warmer water temps. The rainiest month (with an average of nine days with rain) is August, but this doesn't mean nine days where it rains all day. Frequently, the rain is in the form of afternoon thunderstorms that pop up, bring some cooling rain and winds then blow over. The average annual rainfall is 58 inches.
January – High 53 Low 39
February – High 54 Low 39
March – High 60 Low 45
April – High 68 Low 54
May – High 76 Low 62
June – High 83 Low 70
July – High 86 Low 74
August – High 85 Low 73
September – High 81 Low 69
October – High 73 Low 61
November – High 64 Low 50
December – High 57 Low 43