Last month I passed through the Outer Banks island of Ocracoke, North Carolina for about eight hours. A 7:00am Cedar Island ferry ride to the village of Ocracoke where I stayed several hours, followed by a fourteen-mile long island road drive to reach the other seaport ferry for transportation to Hatteras Island and the continuation of North Carolina Highway 12 through the Outer Banks. During that time I saw a whale skull, an 1823 lighthouse, an island museum, a National Parks visitor center, attended an international military memorial to British and Canadian sailors who died and washed up on Ocracoke beaches in WWII, ate lunch with townsfolk at the Ocracoke Community Hall, visited Banker ponies and talked American social culture with a young German couple on their six-week USA road trip from Ohio to Florida while packing beach gear along the boardwalk with two toddlers to the remote and isolated sands of an Ocracoke beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a series of islands and peninsulas with about 150 miles of road and 30 miles of ferry passage linking the North Carolina mainland roads to Ocracoke Island and Highway 12 linking the other Outer Banks islands with bridges from Hatteras to Corolla.
Cedar Island, NC ferry to Ocracoke
Beaufort, North Carolina on the mainland is where NC Highway 12 begins in the south at US 70. After 12 miles Highway 12 reaches the Cedar Island-Ocracoke ferry terminal for the next leg over 18 miles of Pamlico Sound intracoastal waterway passage. After 14 miles across Ocracoke Island, NC along Highway 12, another ferry is required for the sea passage from Ocracoke to Hatteras Island. From the Hatteras ferry port driving north, NC Highway 12 goes another 100 miles, mostly through Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with only a couple of small towns until reaching Nags Head some 60 miles north when development takes over along the Outer Banks beaches in the north through Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, until the road ends in Corolla, NC. Highway 12 bridges connect the primary Outer Banks islands except for Ocracoke. NC Highway 12 terminates in the north at Corolla where the paved highway ends and 4-WD access is needed for trekking further north into beach dunes where about 120 feral ‘Banker’ horses roam free. The Banker horses are descendants of Spanish horses from the 1600s.
North Carolina Highway 12 Outer Banks Wikipedia map showing two ferry connections from Ocracoke Island.
Cedar Island – Ocracoke Ferry
Cedar Island ferry is a 2 hours 15 minutes ride over 18 miles of Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke. The ferry requires reservations to be certain of passage when you arrive. I had stayed the night at the DoubleTree hotel in Atlantic Beach about 60 miles from the ferry port. I left at 5:35 am, made a wrong detour that wasted nearly 30 minutes and barely caught the 7:00am ferry without a reservation. I was last in line to board the ferry and fortunately it was only half full.
Cedar Island Visitors Center at Cedar Island ferry port.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation Ferry Division operates the services between Ocracoke and Cedar Island and Swan Quarter. The two ferry services to Ocracoke are the only ferry services that allow advance online reservations. The cost was $15 one-way with my rental car between Cedar Island and Ocracoke.
Dad past on last wk. Need gas to Tenn. Thankyou. God Bless.
The loaded-down open-bed pickup truck in front of my car on the ferry had me thinking about the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas the week before to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 1939 publication of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. There were five passengers and four dogs on this truck. A modern-day version of the Joad Family.
Golf-tanned passengers on the upper deck stared down below and cracked jokes about how they were heading the wrong direction for Tennessee. The traveler I spoke with said they wanted to see the Outer Banks since nobody in the family had been to that part of North Carolina before. A woman riding the ferry approached the family about an hour into the crossing and purchased a cross made from beach wood and decorated with beads from one of the truck occupants. I was sitting inside at a window beside the truck as he demonstrated to the buyer how the crosses were made.
I, for one, can’t question someone’s road trip routing. Going one hundred miles out of the way to experience a new place is standard operating procedure for my road trips.
My rental car was the last car on the Cedar Island ferry to Ocracoke Island.
The ferry had an indoor area with vending machines and tables. I spent my time mostly in the open air with the refreshing breeze on my face.
Carteret is the name of the Hyannis Harbor NC ferry vessel I rode from Cedar Island to Ocracoke Island.
After two hours sighting a few types of birds, Ocracoke Island came into view. I had hoped to see dolphins or some kind of marine mammal in the water. For most of the 20-mile ferry ride, sand banks were visible in the distance. Ocracoke lighthouse was one of the first sights seen from the ferry on the approach to the island.
Ocracoke Lighthouse (1823)
Last on, last off the ferry. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore visitor center of the National Park Service is across the street from the ferry port with a parking lot for Ocracoke Village at the ferry port entrance.
Within minutes a visitor to Ocracoke village will notice golf carts are a major form of transportation around the village. A couple driving a golf cart into the village are seen here near the Ocracoke ferry port.
Ocracoke Visitor Center has a small gift shop and some displays on island history and Blackbeard the Pirate who was killed near Ocracoke Island in 1718.
Being from Monterey, California with our own whaling history, the sight of a Northern Right Whale skull in front of the Ocracoke Visitor Center was a rare treat. This skull came from a 60-ft. Northern Right whale washed up on an Ocracoke Island beach in 1988. Right whales were so named due to the high amount of oil in their blubber causing them to float when dead. Before petroleum products and electricity, burning whale oil was one of the primary sources for light. The result was the decimation of whale populations globally and the right whale was one of the first whale species to be hunted nearly to extirpation. Although protected from hunting since the 1930s, there are estimated to be only about 300 northern right whales remaining today and their population is not recovering.
Ocracoke village with a population of under 1,000 full-time residents is the southern portion of the 16-mile long island. Most of the island is protected as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. In the village there is a small Ocracoke museum, the British Cemetery, the lighthouse and a few B&Bs, cafes, golf cart rental shops and fishing boat excursion businesses.
Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum in David Williams House c. 1900 has a few rooms with furniture, period clothing, fishing boats, military and coast guard information.
Having lived on and around islands in Downeast Maine in the mid-90s, I am familiar with off-season on an island community. Ocracoke tourism was mostly still a town of locals with the beginning of summer tourism season another two weekends away.
Community Store Ocracoke opens May 24, 2014. I was in Ocracoke on May 9.
The village is the place with rental homes and tourist lodging. There were not too many businesses around in the mile or so around the village. Kelley had given me the task of buying her a necklace and Ocracoke seemed like as good a place as any to visit an island jewelry boutique shop recommended by the National Parks woman staffing the Ocracoke visitor center.
Secret Garden Gallery, Ocracoke, NC.
I ended up spending about five hours on Ocracoke since the day I arrived was the annual British Cemetery memorial service. British seamen died from a German U-boat torpedo that sunk the HMT Bedfordshire in May 1942 when it was patrolling the OuterBanks in support of American forces and merchant marine ships at the outbreak of WWII for the USA. Four bodies washed up on the beaches of Ocracoke following the sinking of HMT Bedfordshire. Hundreds of merchant marine ships were sunk by Germans during the war in the Outer Banks shipping lanes.
British Cemetery, Ocracoke, NC.
Two other articles I have written since my trip to Ocracoke last month are about the British Cemetery memorial service and Ocracoke Lighthouse.
Three lighthouses of Cape Hatteras National Seashore (June 5, 2014)
Ocracoke Village reminded of my two years living in coastal Maine. The Ocracoke Outer Banks setting is beautiful and tranquil in the shoulder season. I imagine the place could be a traffic nightmare in peak summer with only one 14-mile road over most of the island connecting the two ferry terminals.
View of Ocracoke lighthouse across Silver Lake Harbor.
The main lodging options for the village include the Anchorage Inn, four-story with 35 rooms and views of Silver Lake Harbor in Ocracoke Village. There are several other smaller lodging options for an island where the off-season population is under 1,000 residents and the summer season brings several thousand visitors to the island.
Anchorage Inn Ocracoke looked to me like the largest structure in the village within a few hundred yards of ferry terminal. From this location, five minute walks will get you to the British Cemetery, Ocracoke Visitor Center run by the National Park Service, Ocracoke Museum run locally by the Preservation Society and the ferry terminal run by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Welcome to Ocracoke ferry dock arrival view, village of Ocracoke ferry terminal to Cedar Island and Swans Quarter.
Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum exhibit
Ocracoke Lighthouse is basically a photo opportunity. The old structure has limited access and the interior stairway is not open to public. I simply hiked the walkway, snapped some morning light photos of a cat and lighthouse and left.
Ocracoke Lighthouse built in 1823.
Ocracoke cat sleeping in the shade of the Ocracoke Lighthouse walkway.
My thanks to the giving Ocracoke Community
Driving out of the village of Ocracoke my eyes were looking for the bar Howards Pub. Some 80 miles back on the mainland by ferry and road and likely a far shorter distance by water, two waitresses at the Atlantic Beach, North Carolina diner the night before told me about Howards Pub as a great place for beer and food before driving out of Ocracoke village. There was no food or drink past the village that caught my attention driving across the island to the Hatteras ferry terminal on Ocracoke.
Before I found Howards Pub, I saw the Ocracoke Community Center where the attendees of the British Memorial were invited for a lunch gathering after the service. Hearkening back to the invitation, I was reminded of my Maine experience living in fishing villages about the size of Ocracoke where community gatherings for meals were part of the social context of small town life.
Plus, free is free.
Homemade cooking and a dessert fueled my body again after I had left the DoubleTree hotel in Atlantic Beach seven hours earlier, too early for breakfast.
I can’t tell you about Howards Pub on Ocracoke. I can tell you, having lived on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, that I know I was blessed as a day tourist on Ocracoke to have two authentic island community experiences with the British Cemetery Memorial Service and a meal with villagers and visitors in the Ocracoke Community Center. I was touched by the experience that all happened by chance of the circumstances of my arrival and decision to hang out for much of the day in Ocracoke. My thanks go out to the people of Ocracoke for your hospitality to this traveler.
The feral horses of Ocracoke are not so wild since they are penned and raised in captivity. When the National Park Service took over administration of most of Ocracoke Island as part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the early 1960s, free-roaming horses of Ocracoke needed to be kept off Highway 12 running the length of the narrow sand bar island.
Corolla, another 100 miles north along the Outer Banks is where the paved road ends at the northern terminus of Highway 12. The sand dunes beyond Corolla are where around 120 feral horses roam free. Four wheel drive tours to see the feral Bankers is a popular tourist attraction in the Corolla area.
Ocracoke Bankers horses in the pony pen.
One of the great charms of Ocracoke is finding miles of undeveloped beaches along the island’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore lands.
Ocracoke Island beach on Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Once again leaving Ocracoke, I was the last car in line to catch the ferry. Cars arriving minutes after me had to wait for the next ferry. The ferry is free of charge between Ocracoke and Hatteras.
I had a great day on Ocracoke.
Leaving Ocracoke, North Carolina for the Hatteras Island port and the northern trek on North Carolina Highway 12 along the Outer Banks to my hotel in Kill Devil Hills.
Ric Garrido of Monterey, California is writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler.
Loyalty Traveler shares news and views on hotels, hotel loyalty programs and vacation destinations for frequent guests. Check out current hotel loyalty program offers across all the major chains in Loyalty Traveler’s monthly hotel promotions guide.