Topping the list of exciting things to do on an Outer Banks vacation is the ferry ride to Ocracoke Island. After all, who has never fantasized about just leaving it all behind and taking off on a boat to an enchanted island paradise?
If you follow N.C. 12 South across the magnificent Bonner Bridge above Oregon Inlet, all the way down to the south end of Hatteras Island, you'll find yourself at the Hatteras Inlet ferry terminal where a modern fleet of state-owned car ferries are standing by. They'll take you on an exhilarating 5-mile cruise across the reef-strewn shallows of Hatteras Inlet to the historic island of Ocracoke. And the cost? Not a single cent!
For more than half a century, the trip across the inlet took 35 minutes. But recent hurricanes have made it necessary for the state to do extensive dredging to keep the channel open. And while this is going on, an alternate route has been charted farther out into Pamlico Sound adding another 20 minutes to the trip. No one complains.
You see, for most of us, residents and visitors alike, the ferry ride provides a wonderful, nearly spiritual transition. Coming southwestward to the island, the trip is an opportunity to slow down and relax. Decompress. Smell the salt air. Look for the dolphins that often frolic in the wake. Watch the birds. Adjust your addled brain to the more relaxed pace of the island lifestyle. What's your hurry? Enjoy the moment! Pose with your sweetheart standing in the bow, arms outstretched like Rose and Jack in Titanic. Get into a chat with one of the friendly uniformed crew members. Chances are, you'll be challenged to understand their island brogue (a.k.a., the "Hoi Toide" accent).
All too soon you'll be advised to return to your vehicle as the ferry docks up at the Ocracoke terminal. A scenic 20-minute drive will bring you down the pristine National Seashore, with wild, undeveloped beaches to your left and wild, undeveloped salt marshes to your right. Past the wild pony pasture, the N.P.S. campground, the Hammock Hills nature trail and all the ocean beach access ramps (some for pedestrians and some for ORVs), you'll arrive at the quaint, laid-back village of Ocracoke. Whether you're here for a week or just for the day, you're likely to run into visitors who will tell you they vacationed farther up the banks for many years before discovering the charms of Ocracoke. Now they're loyal regulars.
At just a little over a square mile, and surrounded, of course, by water, everything within the Village of Ocracoke is conveniently located for walking or biking. You can park your car, get out and stretch your legs as you venture along the tree-lined streets and enjoy shopping opportunities in Ocracoke's little boutiques. Golf cart, scooter, and bicycle rentals are available to make getting around the village even more fun. The island's restaurants and carry-outs are locally owned and operated and proudly serve fresh seafood caught by Ocracoke working watermen.
Ocracoke Village is on the National Register of Historic Places. Under live oaks and cedars, among old family cemeteries and picket fences, you'll find the historic homes tucked in among newer cottages and businesses. More than 90 family cemeteries are scattered throughout the village.
With a year-round population of just less than a thousand, Ocracoke Village is a small, close-knit town served by a PreK-12 public school, a childcare center, a health center, two churches, one gas station, one grocery store and a fish house. More than 25 local non-profits, from the Volunteer Fire Department to the Ocracoke Youth Center, work to preserve the island way of life and plan for the future.
Learn more about the history and culture of Ocracoke by visiting one of the free exhibits. The Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum and the Ocracoke Working Watermen's Exhibit both provide glimpses into the past and present of life on a barrier island. The NPS Visitors Center is located at the south end of the village and has information about local flora and fauna as well as interpretive programs for all ages. You might even try to find Blackbeard's treasure - Ocracoke was the site of his last battle in 1718, and rumor has it the fearsome pirate is still searching for his lost head along the sandy shores.
If the ferry ride whetted your appetite for the high seas, Ocracoke offers a variety of water-based recreation. You can take a kayak tour, rent a skiff, learn to paddleboard, go for a sail, glide in the sky on a parasail, take a trip back in time to Portsmouth Island or hop on a charter boat for inshore or offshore fishing. And there's always fishing, swimming, surfing and boogie-boarding at the beach!
Every trip to Ocracoke should include a visit to the picturesque little lighthouse. Located on Lighthouse Road (of course), the c. 1823 beacon is one of the oldest lighthouses still in active service in the U.S., and it provides the perfect backdrop for your favorite vacation pictures. During the summer season, the Park Service opens the base for viewing, and you can go inside, hear stories of Ocracokers riding out hurricanes safe in the lighthouse and see for yourself the sturdiness of four-foot-thick brick walls.
While the lighthouse may be the most recognized symbol of Ocracoke, you'll never forget seeing the sun set over Silver Lake Harbor and Pamlico Sound. Watch the sky glow with gold, pink and red as it fades to dusky blues. And then the stars! You've never seen so many stars! The night sky over Ocracoke is truly amazing.
On the return crossing to Hatteras, the ferry trip helps you readjust to what a lot of folks refer to as the "real world." Waken a bit from the dream that has been your time on our island. It's a good bet that you'll be back!
Ferry tips to know before you come
1) Save up your stale bread & crackers for feeding the gulls from the STERN of the ferry. When you get the knack, they'll take it right out of your fingers!
2) Bring your camera!
3) Even if you're not a birder, bring binoculars and a bird book. There'll usually be some folks aboard who'll help you identify the birds.
4) The ferry is a great venue for a picnic lunch.
5) In the peak season, there may be a wait before you get onto a ferry. It will be less crowded on early morning and late evening departures.
6) The Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry departs from both sides on the hour, 5 a.m.-midnight from April 1-May 12. After May 12, it will depart on the hour and half hour. For more information about the ferry routes and schedules, please visit: ncdot.gov/ferry
OCRACOKE ISLAND: Come for the ferry ride and stay for the sunset!