I Rode the Ocracoke Passenger Ferry So You Don't Have To (But Why You Absolutely Should)

By Hannah Lee Leidy | Tuesday, June 18, 2019

In every conversation I had about Ocracoke Island this past winter and spring, news of the Ocracoke passenger ferry always inched its way in somehow: At first the ferry was happening … then it wasn’t. But then there was a solution … that needed additional tweaks. A flurry of excitement and questions circulated around this newest way to travel on the Outer Banks. Finally, though, on May 20, the much-anticipated Ocracoke Express passenger ferry carried its first passengers across the Pamlico Sound and into Ocracoke.

After hearing all this talk about the ferry, I decided that I needed to experience the newest form of travel on the Outer Banks for myself. The Ocracoke Express (the temporary name for the borrowed M/V Martha’s Vineyard Express) makes three trips per day, seven days a week out of the Hatteras Ferry Terminal and Ocracoke Silver Lake Terminal. Passengers coming from Hatteras park their cars at the terminal, board the ferry and then kick back for the crossing.

First-floor seating is air-conditioned with aisle seats and a snack bar.

Trips leave from Hatteras at 9:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. From Ocracoke, departure times are 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

When it was introduced, the ferry struck me as a revolutionary way to experience Ocracoke Island. What would it be like to go there without waiting in line for the car ferry? And what would the island itself be like without having a car in tow? (After all, beyond driving the 12 miles from the car ferry terminal to Ocracoke’s village, there’s no reason to have a car.)

I took the Ocracoke Express at the first chance I had. I needed to see if it lived up to its potential. One round-trip later and I’m convinced that the passenger ferry is the best way to travel to and from Ocracoke.

A major selling point is its convenience. Reserve your spot on the ferry on the NCDOT website, or you can purchase your tickets from the reservations office at the Hatteras Ferry Terminal ($2 for a round trip). After picking up your ticket, simply walk onto the ferry, stow your bag or bike inside and get comfy.

The ferry holds up to 149 passengers between the indoor seating on the first floor and combination of open-air and indoor seating on the upper deck. No matter where you sit, though, panoramic views of the sound surround you. Outside on the second level, the views combined with the steady breeze make the trip feel more like a leisurely ride in a motorboat (which, essentially, it kind of is). Once it gets underway, the ferry travels at about 28 knots or 32 miles per hour, and the trip only takes about an hour and 10 minutes to dock in Silver Lake.

The passenger ferry presents a roomy, fun way of traveling between Hatteras and Ocracoke. 

Once you arrive, walk off the ferry and you’re in the heart of Ocracoke village – no waiting in a line of other cars required! Since the ferry only allows small carry-on items, you don’t have to wrestle with lots of luggage. From there the island is yours to explore.

Set off on foot or by bike, rent a golf cart or take the new tram, which makes eight stops around the village on a half-hour circuit. On this small island, getting to almost any destination is a breeze except for the beach access or the Hatteras car ferry terminal on the other end of the island; for those you may want a car.

The passenger ferry revolutionizes the experience of taking a daytrip to Ocracoke. While the car ferry makes trips every hour, limited room for other cars can make getting your desired departure time difficult, and it’s easy to spend a portion of your time waiting in line to get on the car ferry. Yes, the passenger ferry runs less frequently, but guaranteed transportation at your chosen time makes it possible to keep a schedule.  

Users of the passenger ferry leave cars at the Hatteras Ferry Terminal, which has 142 parking spaces and 10 overnight spaces. On Ocracoke Island, there really is no need for a car. Frankly, not worrying about parking at every shop, restaurant or attraction and not contending with cyclists and pedestrians on the road were my favorite parts of being car-free.

View of Ocracoke Lighthouse from the Ocracoke Express.

If you’re curious about the new passenger ferry or simply want an easy daytrip or overnight stay in Ocracoke, here are a few things to know before you go:

The Ocracoke Express runs every day, three times each way, from May 20 through September 5, 2019.

Through June 30, 2019, the rate for the ferry is $2 round trip. Beginning July 1, the rate is $4 round trip. Children ages 3 and younger ride for free.

You can bring small carry-on items, bikes, strollers, walkers, surfboards and well-behaved dogs.

Book your reservation online, though reservations are not required.

Plan your visit to Ocracoke with our Ocracoke Guide. If you want to learn more about what else is going on around the Outer Banks, including Daytime Events and Nightlife, our calendars direct to the whos, whats and wheres for each of the Outer Banks towns.

Top photo from NCDOT; other photos by Hannah Lee Leidy

About the Author Hannah Lee Leidy
Hannah Lee is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer living on the Outer Banks. She graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. Traveling is her passion, but nowhere ever feels as much like home as the Outer Banks. When not planning her next trip or adventure, Hannah Lee loves aimless drives down the Beach Road, spending copious amounts of time in coffee shops and reading every short story collection she gets her hands on.