Discover Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. The cure for the common beach.
Sketched into the southern tip of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke has a raw, untamed pirate spirit, but it's so beautiful it can easily lull you with its sun-soaked charms. The feeling starts from the sea and rolls inward. The island, though relatively small, initially looks expansive due to its miles and miles of pristine beaches, all owned by the National Park Service. Ocracoke twinkles like a bright lure for a summer trip, and it glides lazily and romantically along for couples looking for a sail, a sea kayak excursion or a walk to the Ocracoke Lighthouse.
Ocracoke Island's Beach – #1 in the Nation!
Ocracoke's undeveloped beaches are so beautiful and clean that they are frequently recognized by Dr. Beach (actually Dr. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research) as among the best in the nation. In fact, in 2022 Dr. Beach ranked Ocracoke Island's Lifeguard Beach as #1 on his 10 Best Beaches in the USA list. Ocracoke ranked higher than beaches in Florida, California and even Hawaii. Dr. Beach reviews and evaluates beaches in categories such as beach width, sand softness, water temperature, cleanliness, access, amenities, presence of lifeguards and many more factors, so it's quite the honor for Ocracoke to take home the top prize.
Get to Know Ocracoke Island
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.
Ocracoke is admittedly a strange name. 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 a combination of the vegetable and the soft drink.
Ocracoke is an island that's almost entirely a national park. The National Park Service has an enormous presence on the island because most of Ocracoke Island is federally protected, undeveloped land within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Thus, the National Park Service maintains the island’s pristine beaches and a long stretch of land along with a primitive campground, the lighthouse and the island’s population of formerly wild horses.
Ocracoke Village is a magical place that surrounds a beautiful harbor. It's filled with shops, restaurants, accommodations and attractions. 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 above-mentioned #1 ranking by Dr. Beach confirms 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 Pamlico Sound, Ocracoke 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 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.
The National Park Service offers a wide variety of seasonal interpretive programs, guided walks and ranger-led programs, which are great ways to explore the island’s culture, nature and history. The NPS Ocracoke Discovery Center is a place to learn more about the island through exhibits and also to ask questions and pick up brochures and information.
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.
Ocracoke's Off Season
Ocracoke Island in the spring and the fall is in some ways even better than in the summer months. With fewer tourists and plenty of opportunities for fun and reserving beautiful accommodations, why wait til summer? All the Ocracoke activities you expect to enjoy during the summer are also available in the spring and fall. Vacation rental and hotel rates are generally much less expensive during these months, with the Ocracoke restaurants, grocery stores and gift stores less busy and generally (with a few exceptions) open to visitors. It’s the best time to get to know a few locals and really get into that Ocracoke Island vibe. Traditionally, you’ll find the waters still warm enough for wading, surfing and swimming, with a cool breeze while you ride your bike or golf cart through the picturesque streets of Ocracoke village.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
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.
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