Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Ocracoke's remote beaches have lured visitors for centuries; in the 1500s it first appeared on maps, after Sir Walter Raleigh and his crew set foot upon the island's sands. To state the obvious, modern conveniences like phones and the Internet have infiltrated the island, but still a certain mystique lurks around every corner here, reminiscent of a time long past, evidenced by the seclusion and quietude found walking the dunes of a deserted beach, wandering the village's tranquil streets, or watching the sun glide into the Pamlico Sound at sunset.
The 16-mile-long island can only be reached by boat, private plane or ferry, and perhaps it is the slight difficulty in arriving that has kept away the throngs of tourists that so blithely infiltrate other Outer Banks towns. Ocracoke is thankfully left as a slow-paced fishing village, with some 800 residents.
The island's history is a fascinating one, starting with the interest it held for Blackbeard. In the 1700s, the infamous pirate terrorized ships in the area and eventually was killed here by British naval troops. Ocracoke's inlet played an enormous role in expanding the growth of colonial America's seafaring expeditions. The inlet served as a point of entry along North Carolina's notoriously dangerous coast. Experienced Ocracoke sailors helped guide cargo ships to safety past sandbars and shoals.
The island remained mainly isolated from visitors until World War II, when a U.S. Naval Base was built on the island. Soon after the National Park Service gave protection to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which sparked the interest of the tourist trade, allowing others to share in Ocracoke's many charms.
The Cove Bed & Breakfast
Web site: www.thecovebb.com
Ocracoke's casual Outer Banks island vibe infuses The Cove B&B, where guests enjoy comfortably decorated rooms, private furnished balconies and a delicious daily breakfast. All guest rooms feature ceiling fans and private baths, while others, like the spacious Pamilco and Portsmouth suites, boast 4-poster beds and a 2-person Jacuzzi tub. When not in their bedrooms, guests often congregate in the Adirondack chairs lining the inn's screened-in front porch, or catch some rest on the wicker couches in the TV room.
Best Luxury Accommodations
The Captain's Landing
Web site: www.thecaptainslanding.com
Perched on the edge of Silver Lake, Captain's Landing offers guests unique accommodations; the inn shares its property with smaller buildings and cottages that house little shops, creating a small, upscale community. Owners George and Betty Chamberlin both have a history of "captains" in their past: George was an airline captain, and Betty is a descendant of an Ocracoke boating legend. To pay homage, they named their hotel aptly, and each suite bears the name of a local Ocracoke sailor from the 1800s. As one of the island's newest lodgings, Captain's Landing features modern, well-appointed rooms with private decks, queen-sized beds, living areas, sleeper sofas and fully equipped kitchens.
Best Waterfront Accommodations
Anchorage Inn and Marina
Web site: www.theanchorageinn.com
Location, location, location. The Anchorage Inn is a seafarer's dream. The 35-room hotel looks out over the harbor, and its position facing southwest grants visitors some of the island's best views of sunset over the Pamlico Sound. The non-smoking or smoking rooms feature double-, queen- or king-size beds and balconies. Guests itching to hit the open water with their rods will appreciate the on-site marina, charter fishing and boat rentals. There's also a pool, cafe and raw bar, as well as a barbecue area for those who want to cook up their day's catch on their own.
Best Family Accommodations
Web site: www.blackbeardslodge.com
With Ocracoke's laid-back atmosphere, many of the island's accommodations welcome families. However, Blackbeard's makes it a point to be portrayed as a child-friendly business and will even offer to help plan guests' Ocracoke family vacation. Some of the lodge's 37 rooms and apartments feature kitchenettes, and it claims to be the only hotel on the island to feature a game room complete with a pool table, foosball table, video and board games. The on-site pool and picnic area can also help occupy the little ones, and bike rentals are available.
Food & Drink
Best Waterfront Atmosphere
sMacNally's Raw Bar
Web site: www.ocracokeisland.com/smacnally's.htm
sMacNally's sits perched on the dock overlooking the harbor, where the scent of saltwater wafts through the air and a steady influx of boats breezes past. This is a down-and-dirty raw bar - expect no pretenses here. A cold beer and a bucket of crawfish are de riguer; and it's delicious! Dive into the catch of the day: oysters, clams and shrimp baskets, and top it off with an order of hush puppies. Have no fear if you're on the run to go fishing - box lunches and seafood buckets are sold "to go."
Best Local Seafood
Web site: www.ocracokeguide.com/lp/backporch
Indisputably the island's top pick for a fine dining experience, the Back Porch has gained notoriety for its consistently great meals. The popular restaurant occupies a refurbished building tucked behind waist-high shrubs just off the island's main road. Plan to sit on the porch and enjoy the hushed atmosphere, as well as the freshly caught seafood and homegrown produce. The menu changes seasonally, but the quality remains steadfast. Dishes include a smoked blue fish appetizer and crab cakes with red pepper sauce, when available.
Best Island Breakfast
Pony Island Restaurant
Where: Highway 12, Ocracoke, NC 27960
The Pony Island Restaurant has been an island favorite since it opened its doors in the 1960s. Today it's a proven early-morning staple, thanks to its spectacularly large breakfast offerings of omelets, pancakes, bacon, sausage, biscuits, hash browns and famous Pony Potatoes: a divine artery-clogging combination of hash browns covered with cheese, sour cream and salsa.
Howard's Pub & Raw Bar Restaurant
Web site: www.howardspub.com
When the sun sets on the Pamlico Sound, island folks flock to Howard's, the island's hottest nightspot and only oceanview pub. Once you've decided on one of the bar's 200 beers, spend some time wandering the establishment: check out the outdoor oceanfront deck and screened-in porch complete with rocking chairs, indoor wrap-around bar, game room and main dining area, before settling in to listen to the live music that rocks out the 17-speaker sound system most nights of the week. An extensive menu of yummy bar food includes barbecued ribs, bacon and blue cheese burgers, and even snow crab legs. When it's time to get your drink on and you're feeling adventurous, throw back an Ocracoke Oyster Shooter - an intense raw oyster, hot sauce, pepper and draft beer combo.
Best Outdoor Adventure Activity
Web site: www.surfocracoke.com
There's hardly a better way to explore offshore than via a leisurely kayak tour around Ocracoke's waters. Ride the Wind offers a variety of tours exploring the marsh and the sound, with informative and entertaining instruction on the wildlife that call these different ecosystems home, like the egret and the ibis. You'll also learn the history of the island and can even kayak through the waters where Blackbeard's last battle took place. An exciting spin on the trip is to schedule the Full Moon tour, if in town during the full moon cycle. The trip departs just before sunset two nights out of the month, allowing paddlers to enjoy the moon while also looking for flounder or shellfish in the shallow tidal marsh.
Best Side Trip
Portsmouth Island ATV Excursions
Web site: www.portsmouthislandatvs.com
Just south of Ocracoke lies the intriguing island of Portsmouth, now part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, and considered the only ghost town on the Eastern Seaboard. Once you've arrived on Portsmouth via a 20-minute boat ride, Portsmouth Island ATV Excursions offers a unique means of exploring this mysterious island with its all-terrain vehicle tours. The 23-mile-long, 1.5-mile-wide island housed a bustling port town from the late 1700s through the late 1800s, but today it remains abandoned, though visitors have access to some of the historic building, like the U.S. Lifesaving Station and the General Store. Visitors can even peek into the abandoned homes and still see remnants of the past - unmade beds, china, furniture. Beyond the confines of the towns lies one of the most secluded and pristine beaches in America. There you can hop off your ATV, relax on the windswept beaches and enjoy the dolphin sightings, shell gathering, hiking or fishing available on the sands.
Best Wildlife Excursion
Ocracoke Pony Pens
Web site: www.ocracokeisland.com/pony_pasture.htm
Sometimes called Pony Island, Ocracoke once was home to some 500 wild ponies. No one is entirely certain where these horses came from, though folklore claims they came ashore from Spanish shipwrecks off the coast. The ponies were once used by the islanders for work and recreation purposes. However, as they continued to eat the vegetation of the dunes, beach erosion became a problem. As a result, the ponies were penned by the National Park Service in 1960. Today the Pony Pen, a 180-acre pasture, is one of the island's most visited attractions. Fun fact: The Ocracoke ponies are unlike other horses; they have five lumbar vertebrae instead of six, and 17 ribs instead of the usual 18.
Best Island Exploration
Ocracoke Village Walking Tour
Where: Ocracoke Island Visitor Center, Highway 12, Ocracoke, NC 27960
Ocracoke is small enough to explore by foot, a fantastic means to slow down and see the island's major sights as well as its more charming details. Walking tour maps are available at the Visitor's Center, and you can expect to spend about 2 hours strolling. After leaving the center, you'll have the chance to explore the charming village's waterfront, craft shops, local artisans' galleries, original homes, the Methodist Church, the British Cemetery, the Fire Hall and even the picturesque Island lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina.