Hatteras Island is a remote barrier island that, over the years, has been made less and less remote due to the bridges and highways (albeit a two lane one…but they still call it Highway 12) that have been built over the years to connect it to the rest of North Carolina and to the world. At the southern tip of Hatteras Island, however, exists a ferry that can take you to an island that remains disconnected except by water transportation. This island is Ocracoke.
948 people call Ocracoke home. Many of the families that reside here have been islanders for as far back as their family can be traced. Despite having the most remote of any location in the northern Outer Banks (other than its uninhabited neighbor to the south, Portsmouth Island), Ocracoke has a tiny, yet vibrant, cultural community. It was known as a sanctuary for pirates, including the infamous Blackbeard, who was killed there. Today, Ocracoke’s economy is based mainly on tourism, with fishing a distant second. You can reach Ocracoke on the free ferry from Hatteras Island, or via paid ferry from the (relative) mainland – Cedar Island and Swan Quarter.
We picked the most beautiful (and chilly) day of our visit to Ocracoke.
Once there, it’s about a 15 minute drive from the ferry into town, but along the way, there are some beautiful beaches. In fact, Ocracoke was rated as having America’s best beach in 2007 by a gentleman named “Dr. Beach,” who, presumably, knows a thing or two about beaches. While we usually stop at the beach, on this chilly day, we headed straight into town. It was a beautiful day to admire the blues of the water and sky.
A short walk from our parking spot by the visitor’s center on the far side of town is British Cemetery Road. If you have paid attention to Jeopardy! champ and geography enthusiast Ken Jennings’ column for Conde Nast Traveler, you may have recently read that there is actually a tiny piece of British soil on the island of Ocracoke. During World War II, German submarines stationed themselves off the Outer Banks, since the shape of the barrier islands made it a natural choke point for ships to go through on their way down the coast. These U-boats ended up sinking more than 400 ships in this manner during wartime. The British Royal Navy intervened and sent ships over to protect the coastline, and one, the HMS Bedfordshire, was struck by a torpedo. Five British bodies washed ashore on Ocracoke and were buried there. The burial plots are leased indefinitely to Britain, making 0.052 acres on Ocracoke British soil – complete with a white picket fence border and a Union Jack flying overhead.
Next to the British cemetery is the regular ol’ Ocracoke cemetery, which contains local history of Ocracokers from centuries past – locals whose descendants still live on the island today.
Walking around Ocracoke is a serene experience, especially in winter. There are many locals who live on these quiet back streets, but summer’s tourist rush is missing – which makes it ideal for roaming in solitude.
On the western part of town is the Ocracoke Lighthouse. The Outer Banks’ smallest lighthouse at 65 feet tall, the lighthouse makes up for its small size with its personality. The five-foot thick walls provide a formidable barrier, and its simple white paint makes it stand out among the trees and tin-roofed keepers’ quarters that sit next to the lighthouse.
If you want to go to Ocracoke for the day, we recommend visiting the lighthouse, stroll around town, and spread out on its beautiful beach. When you get hungry, stop at Eduardo’s Taco Stand for a casual meal and Back Porch for a sit-down dinner. And, of course, don’t forget to visit Wee Britain while you’re in the Outer Banks.